Love is often described as an emotion, a warm feeling toward another person. Webster’s Dictionary defines love as a “strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties…warm attachment, enthusiasm.” This works in some ways, when the object of our affection appeals to us. But when the natural affinity is gone, or the object becomes unattractive, indifferent, or hostile, emotional love fails.
There is a higher form of love that supersedes emotion. A love that derives from the individual and has little or no regard for the appeal or worth of the object. It is a love that is born out of the bounty of one’s own goodness and is marked by stability and commitment. This love always seeks the best interests of others at one’s own expense, and is not often understood or appreciated. It is this higher form of love that is described and promoted in the Bible. The Bible reveals God loves us, and we are to love Him and others.
God revealed His attribute of love to Moses, saying, “The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness [חֶסֶד chesed] and truth; who keeps lovingkindness [חֶסֶד chesed] for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin” (Exo 34:6-7a). According to HALOT, the Hebrew word חֶסֶד chesed denotes “lasting loyalty, faithfulness…to show loyalty.” Here, God’s loyalty means He keeps His covenant promises to His people. God is faithful to His Word (see Psa 89:1-4; cf. Tit 1:2; Heb 6:18).
Another word for love in the OT is the Hebrew verb אָהַב ahav. An example is found in Deuteronomy 6:5 where Moses wrote, “You shall love [אָהֵב aheb] the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deut 6:5). Here, love is an act of the will in which Israelites were to commit themselves to the Lord wholeheartedly. Concerning the word love in this passage, Daniel Block writes:
Speaking biblically “love” is not merely an emotion, a pleasant disposition toward another person, but covenant commitment demonstrated in actions that seek the interest of the next person…Just as in marriage true love is demonstrated not merely or even primarily by roses and verbal utterances of “I love you,” but in actions that seek the well-being and delight of one’s spouse.
Warren Wiersbe adds:
In the life of the believer, love is an act of the will: we choose to relate to God and to other persons in a loving way no matter how we may feel. Christian love simply means that we treat others the way God treats us. In His love, God is kind and forgiving toward us, so we seek to be kind and forgiving toward others (Eph. 4:32). God wills the very best for us, so we desire the very best for others, even if it demands sacrifice on our part.
The idea of commitment-love carries into the New Testament where Jesus tells His disciples, “If you love [ἀγαπάω agapao] Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15). Love for Jesus means we are committed to Him above all else, and this commitment is manifest in a life of obedience to Him and service to others. Biblical love for others is not primarily an emotion; rather, it’s a choice to commit ourselves to them and to seek God’s best in their lives.
As Christians, God wants us to walk with Him and enjoy His love and blessings. Our obedience is motivated by His love for us. The apostle John set the order when he wrote, “we love [ἀγαπάω agapao], because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). And God loved us when we were helpless, ungodly, sinners and enemies (Rom 5:6-10). The apostle Paul wrote, “God demonstrates His own love [ἀγάπη agape] toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). Jesus tells us to love our enemies.
You have heard that it was said, ‘you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love [ἀγαπάω agapao] your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matt 5:43-45)
But love [ἀγαπάω agapao] your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:35-36)
This command cannot be obeyed if love is an emotion, for one cannot conjure up a warm affection for the one who hates us and causes injury. Emotions are part of what it means to be human. I like my emotions very much, although there are times they get in the way of good judgment and right decisions. The truth is, emotions are unintelligent. They never operate on their own, but are always tied to thoughts or actions. Emotion follows thought like a trailer follows a truck. The trailer goes where the truck goes.
Being unintelligent, emotion does not differentiate between reality or fiction. I can watch a TV show, or read a book, and have an emotional response that is triggered by fictional characters and events. I can even produce a story in my own mind that is completely fictional and have an emotional response. If I want to change my emotions, I need to change my thoughts or actions.
Emotional love is not in view when Jesus commands us to love our enemies. Rather, it is commitment love, in which we seek God’s best in the lives of others. Warren Wiersbe states:
Jesus defined our enemies as those who curse us, hate us, and exploit us selfishly. Since Christian love is an act of the will, and not simply an emotion, He has the right to command us to love our enemies. After all, He loved us when we were His enemies (Rom 5:10). We may show this love by blessing those who curse us, doing good to them, and praying for them. When we pray for our enemies, we find it easier to love them. It takes the “poison” out of our attitudes.
William MacDonald adds:
Jesus announces that we are to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. The fact that love is commanded shows that it is a matter of the will and not primarily of the emotions. It is not the same as natural affection because it is not natural to love those who hate and harm you.
Now, let me be careful here. Loving our enemies does not necessarily mean we expose ourselves to their hostilities. There are clear examples in Scripture where God’s people hid themselves from their enemies. For example, Rahab protected the two spies that came to her house, for “she had brought them up to the roof and hidden them in the stalks of flax which she had laid in order on the roof” (Josh 2:6; cf. Heb 11:31). Obadiah hid one hundred prophets of the Lord and provided food and water for them (1 Ki 18:1-4). These were true prophets, for a false prophet would not have been afraid of the public hostility of Ahab and Jezebel. There were at least two occasions when Jesus “hid Himself” from an attack by the Jewish leadership (John 8:59; John 12:36). Certainly, there was no sin in Jesus’ action.
Furthermore, it’s valid to warn others of enemies who may attack and cause unnecessary harm. When writing to his friend Timothy, the apostle Paul warned him about a dangerous man who hurt him. Paul wrote, “Alexander the coppersmith did me much harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. Be on guard against him yourself, for he vigorously opposed our teaching” (2 Tim 4:14-15). Paul did not state what the specific harm was, but clearly he’d been marked by his encounter with Alexander and carried the memory of the hurt. As a Christian, Paul did not seek revenge against Alexander, but rather, put the matter in the Lord’s hands, saying, “the Lord will repay with him according to his deeds” (2 Tim 4:14b). Because God is the one who dispenses justice, we are commanded, “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom 12:19). Paul knew God would deal with Alexander in His own time and way and that the punishment would be equitable payment for the harm done to him. There should be no hatred in the heart of the Christian. As Christians, we are never called to seek revenge upon those who have hurt us, but rather, to put the matter in the Lord’s hands. Scripture teaches that God repays people according to their actions, as Paul wrote, “it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you” (2 Th 1:6).
In summary, biblical love for others is not primarily an emotion; rather, it’s a choice to commit ourselves to them and to seek God’s best in their lives. Love is manifest by prayer, sharing the Gospel with the lost, sharing biblical truth to edify believers, open handed giving to the needy, and supporting Christian ministries that do God’s work, just to name a few.
Dr. Steven R. Cook
- The Gospel Message
- Mature Christian Love
- Treating Other with Dignity
- Helping the Poor
- How to Deal with Jealousy
 Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 1996).
 Ludwig Koehler et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994–2000), 336.
 Daniel I. Block, The NIV Application Commentary: Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 189–190.
 Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Equipped, “Be” Commentary Series (Colorado Springs, CO: Chariot Victor Pub., 1999), 46.
 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 24.
 William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments, ed. Arthur Farstad (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995), 1223.