In the Bible the people of God are commanded to love Him (Deut 6:5, 11:13, 30:6, Mt 22:37) and love their neighbors (Lev 19:34, Mt 22:39-40), whether those neighbors are love-able or not. But what is Biblical love? And how do we get it, and give it away[i]?
Biblical love is God’s love – the author of love (1 John 4:8,16). The ability to extend biblical love is God’s work of the Holy Spirit living within, and day-by-day transforming, the Christ-follower (2 Cor 3:18). We are totally incapable of loving (agapē) either God or others — a condition that must be corrected by God before we can love. The Bible’s ways of describing this process of correction are numerous: ‘”circumcision of the heart” ( Deut 30:6 ); God’s “writing his laws” on our hearts ( Jer 31:33 ); God’s substituting a “heart of flesh” for a “heart of stone” ( Eze 11:19 ); being “born again” by the Spirit ( John 3:3 ; 1 John 5:1-2 ); removing old clothing and replacing it with new ( Col 3:12-14 ); dying to a sinful life and resurrecting to a new one ( Col 3:1-4 ); moving out of darkness into light ( 1 John 2:9 ). Until that happens, we cannot love[ii].
It is listed by Paul as the preeminent “fruit” of God’s indwelt Spirit in Gal 5:22. Becoming equipped to express this biblical love is the purpose of this transformation (3339. μεταμορφόω metamórfóō). It is not something available to or even conceivable by the natural man.
Further, I would make the claim (supported by Jesus Christ — Mt. 22:40, and Paul – Gal 5:14) that the expression of this biblical love (agapē or agapaō) is, in fact, the essential core of the Bible’s entire message. My thesis is that the Biblical narrative is precisely the story of God working to teach and impart to us His divine, redemptive love by which He will be glorified (Is 43:7). It is the purpose of His Creation, and us as His followers.
Is this too grand a conclusion? I’ll let you be the judge as we survey some of the Biblical evidence.
What Is Biblical Love?
Perhaps we should start with an easier question and identify what Biblical love is not. It is not a feeling or a human emotion. God never commands us to feel something. Why? God doesn’t command us to do something we can’t do by making a choice. I can’t choose to feel love or hate or sympathy or any other emotion about someone. I just feel what I feel for them. We are all constrained naturally to be, and react, naturally – according to our nature. Where are the Biblical verses in which God commands someone to feel an emotion? They don’t exist [iii].
In trying to comprehend Biblical (divine — ἀγάπη, agapē) love, we’ve given ourselves the tremendous handicap of this single word to capture everything from our taste for our favorite food to our affection for our pets, to our desire for our mate, to our reverence for God. Biblical love has nothing whatsoever to do with our preference, affection or our desire. It’s motivation is not to acquire something for us (happiness, etc.), but to be the vehicle through which we give ourselves away to others. Biblical love doesn’t want. It gives.
But this handicap is no impediment to what God wants for us since what He wants us to do is “do” – make a choice to be obedient to Him, not feel. The evidence for this conclusion fills both testaments. Let’s look at some verses that draw out this point.
In Matthew 7:12 Jesus says:
 “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.“
This admonition clearly isn’t about developing some affection for the “others” mentioned. It’s about doing for them what you would wish they would do to/for you.
God told us early on He wanted us to love Him (see above). So does He want us to feel something for Him? Or do something for Him? If He wants us to do something for Him, what? Well, He certainly doesn’t want some expression of our religiosity or rote sacrifice for Him. In Hosea 6 He says:
 For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
He wants us to know Him and to do for Him. To express His own love to Him via others as action. And how are we to do this? To see this we will fast forward to Jesus and one of His disputes with the Pharisees. We have two parallel passages in the New Testament where Jesus provides some revelation: Luke 11:42
But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.
This is the same statement as recorded in its parallel in Matthew 23:23
 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.
So “justice and the love of God” is equated with “justice and mercy and faithfulness”. Somehow, mercy and faithfulness = the love of God (agape).
Let’s start with the common term – justice. Justice in the Bible means more than “not unjustness”. It means the upholding of the rights of others and not denying those rights. We are commanded in the last 6 of the Ten Commandments to uphold the rights of our neighbors:
5) Honor your father and your mother. Your father and mother created you and by this act retain the right of your honor. It’s something you give to them. It need not be something you feel for them. But you are to honor them in that you give them respect and deference and care. And you do this independent of your own desires and priorities.
6) You shall not murder. You shall not deprive a neighbor of his life.
7) You shall not commit adultery. This command is directed at persisting in love to your spouse. You’re not to dishonor and violate her faith in you by being unfaithful to her. She has a right to expect your faithfulness. It’s just that simple.
8) You shall not steal. You do not express love for a neighbor by taking his stuff and thereby violating his rights to it.
9) You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You’re not expressing love to your neighbor by falsely accusing him, thereby impugning his right to an honorable name. If he’s in the right and you’re in the wrong you don’t protest.
10) You shall not covet. Coveting your neighbor’s stuff is akin to wishing to deny him his right to it and possessing it for yourself.
The overarching theme in these commands is to uphold and not deny to others their rights.
Mercy in the Bible is foregoing my rights for the benefit of someone else. That is giving mercy. This too is an ancient teaching found in the Old Testament. In Proverbs 19:11 we read: “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.” Peter tells us (1 Peter 4:8) “Above all, love one another deeply, because love covers a multitude of sins.” This was the model lived out by Jesus. In 1 Peter 2:22-23 Peter says Jesus, though He was reviled and suffered, didn’t resist and insist on His right, but just entrusted himself to His Father. He, as we all do, had a right to fair treatment. But His clear example for us was to forebear His rights in deference to His neighbor’s. This was His conscious choice that He consistently made and that we, as His followers, are expected to make also.
Mercy can also involve forbearing not just our rights, but also our time and treasure. Proverbs 14:21 says “Whoever despises his neighbor is a sinner, but blessed is he who is generous to the poor.” Proverbs 19:17 says: “Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will repay him for his deed.” When we study Jesus we see just this type of expression of mercy. For example, in Mt 14:14 when Jesus saw the needs in the crowds that had followed him after he had withdrawn in a boat, it says “he had compassion on them and healed their sick.” This scene immediately precedes His feeding of those crowds – the 5000.
We started this study by claiming that Biblical love is action – that it is not feeling or emotion. And this is true. However, in this scene with the crowds clamoring to be near Jesus, we’re told He “had compassion on them.” I think we can all agree that compassion is a type of feeling or emotion. In this scene, the presence of that emotion no doubt interacted with Jesus’ commitment to His Father to express love on the crowd through his actions of healing and feeding them. But He didn’t just compassionately pray “Father, I sure hope you’ll heal these folks and get them some food. Amen” and then tell them some parables. He took action.
A classic example of extending love/mercy through self-sacrifice (of rights, time and treasure) is the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:30-37). I’m sure we all know the story. And it is easy to see all of the ways in which its hero sacrificed of himself to benefit the victim. First of all, he stopped in what was obviously a bad neighborhood, and so risked his own safety and well-being – both being his right. Next, we see that he used his own possessions — cloth, wine, and oil — to bandage the victim’s wounds. Then he puts him on his own donkey and takes him to an inn where he “takes care of him”. All of these actions cost the Samaritan his right to his own time. Then he pays the innkeeper in advance to keep and care for the man until he returned to check on him. In other words, he took responsibility for the victim’s well-being.
In telling this story Jesus asks the lawyer who had been challenging Him, “Which of these three (a Priest passersby, a Levite passerby or the Samaritan) do you think proved to be a neighbor (responding to the lawyer’s question: ‘Who is my neighbor?’) to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?” The lawyer answers Him: “the one who showed mercy[iv] toward him.” Like Jesus with the 5000, the Samaritan initially felt compassion toward the victim. And like Jesus, his response was self-sacrificial action. Jesus wraps up his conversation with the lawyer with the command “Go and do likewise.” These words, of course, are for us too.
Now, returning to the feeling/emotion issue briefly, I am not saying that Biblical love and some feeling of an emotion are incompatible – that if you feel some emotion in extending care to another that means it’s not Biblical love you’re performing. In both the stories above, merciful action was taken in association with a feeling of compassion. I’m simply saying that Biblical love does not require or depend on some emotion in us to be expected of us by God. Again, He doesn’t command us to feel something. He commands us to do something, irrespective of how we may “feel” about it. Perhaps triggering an emotion of compassion in us is God’s way of leading us to the loving action He wants us to perform.
There may, however, be emotional baggage you need to rid yourself of in order to effectively express Biblical love/mercy. If your neighbor has wronged you in some way and yet you are being called to minister to him, you will need to first forgive him in order to effectively represent God’s love to him. Col 3:13 says: “if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” Apparently, God is not interested in having his representatives running around holding grudges while bearing His name. Similarly, Eph 4:32 says: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” And then we have the bedrock of Christ’s model of prayer in Luke 11:4: “and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.” From these few samples it is quite clear that God expects those who aspire to act on His behalf to be free of unforgiveness, perhaps completely, but at the very least as regards the one in need of His love.
The word translated faithfulness (or faith) in Mt 23:23 is the Greek 4102. πίστις pistis, and it has the meaning of conviction, constancy or reliance/reliability. It speaks of being or expressing trust in one’s loyalty, integrity and reliability. It’s speaking about character on the part of the one in whom my faith or trust is placed. Or, switching roles, it’s speaking about my character in interaction with those who look to me for reliability and constancy of right-doing. We know that love consists of these things because we look for them in the ones we naturally love. These are characteristics we expect of them.
We expect the one we love to be trustworthy. Proverbs 11:13 says “Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets, but he who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a thing covered.” Here’s a wonderful opportunity for a word study on “covered” to see how the Bible “thinks” of this term. The Old Testament is full of images of bringing shame on someone by “uncovering” them or seeing them uncovered (e.g. the “nakedness” of Noah [Gen 9:23], Judah concerned about “concealing” Joseph’s blood [Gen 37:26], etc.) So to expose that which is personal to somebody else is a violation of that person’s right to privacy, and thereby constitutes unfaithfulness to him.
The one who is trustworthy honors his relationship with the other and does not seek to discredit him through gossip and slander. He is faithful to his neighbor because he loves his neighbor. Proverbs 14:5 is a character commentary on the ninth commandment: “A faithful witness does not lie, but a false witness breathes out lies”.
Psalm 15:3-4 says, in so many words, that the one who lives with God doesn’t slander or harm his neighbor, despises the reprobate, but honors others who fear the LORD. In these attitudes of the heart “He swears to his own hurt and does not change.” In other words, he’ll sacrifice things of himself unwaveringly in order to uphold his fellow in the Lord. In this he can be counted on to be steadfast because when he was called to follow God he first gave it thoughtful consideration and understood that there would be challenges and costs, so those aren’t now going to deter him (Luke 14:28).
These behaviors – justice, mercy, and faithfulness – act as a kind of shorthand of Divine Love as portrayed in the Bible.
Loving Like Jesus Loved
Our example in trying to adopt and apply these principles comes from Jesus. In fact, if we are ever to be successful in living out these principles in our lives it will be because of Him doing our living within us. But we can study Him to know what to expect and anticipate the kind of life we are to have.
Christ consistently lived as if others and their needs were more important than Him and His needs. This is humility. Micah 6:8 says: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” This is such practical guidance from the Lord. You can’t love another if you consistently place your own needs and wants above his. If you prioritize your own needs, you build in an excuse to neglect the other’s. You can’t prioritize the needs of the other until you deprioritize your own and take up your position in God’s Kingdom with humility.
Paul tells us this in Philippians 2:
 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,  who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,  but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
It’s basically impossible for us to understand how profound the expression of humility was that Christ demonstrated by willingly becoming human, to live a life of being scorned and taunted and rejected, and then of being mutilated in an agonizing physical death. And He did all of it to serve us. There exists no finer example of self-sacrificial humility.
Paul tells the Romans (in 12:10) to “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.” This pictures sincere brethren trying to serve one another steeped in humility and looking for the next opportunity to express honor and related kindnesses to their fellows.
Then, of course, there is Jesus’ famous scene in which He washes his disciples’ feet (John 13:12-17). It may help you to see how profound this gesture was to His disciples to realize that the household servant assigned this job was typically the lowest of the low in terms of status. It’s not hard to imagine why this was. Ancient roads and pathways where people walked were also those where animals walked. And their owners felt no obligation to clean up their waste after them. So ancient dirt streets were depositories of dung and urine. People there wore sandals or no shoes at all. So you can imagine the state of one’s feet after even a short walk, let alone treks of miles.
Jesus concludes this exercise with a teaching for His disciples that He had done this as an example that they would follow, and that if they did follow it they would be rewarded: If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.
So how do we, not being Christ, love His way? We allow the Holy Spirit in us to give us the fruit to love that way. Paul lays out in Gal 5:22-23 just what this fruit is: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” In other words, we can love as God loves if we don’t stop His Spirit in us (by prioritizing ourselves) from expressing His fruit to those around us as we go about our daily lives.
You may say “I understand” or “I know all this stuff, and I want to love others as God has said to. But I find I just can’t get past their unloveliness or ungodliness or deceit or profanity or anger or hatred” or a million other things. What do I do?
There are some perspectives and some disciplines that can aid our transformation from a believer into an active Spirit-led Christ-follower, and I have written a bit about these elsewhere. But a little review, especially on this subject, probably can’t hurt.
In Ephesians 5 Paul exhorts his readers to “be filled with the Spirit,
 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart,  giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,  submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
The proximity within these verses of the activities of worshipping together in song, constantly giving thanks to God and submitting to each other, implies a tie-in between these activities we are to pursue, and the goal of “be filled with the Spirit”. At the very least we might conclude that these activities are some of those that create a habitat for His Spirit conducive to His life within us. If one’s heart is continuously worshipful, thankful and submitted to others, it is in a state of preparation for being led to, and used in, the Spirit’s work with those around us.
Another suggestion posed by Steve Gregg is to endeavor to see people as God sees them. How is that? One glimpse is provided in Psalm 103:
 For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust.
 As for man, his days are like grass;
he flourishes like a flower of the field;
 for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more.
 But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him,
and his righteousness to children’s children,
Here God speaking though the Psalmist says we’re “dust”; like grass or a flower that springs up and then withers and is gone. But the one faithful to God is not transient but everlasting. So, when we’re dealing with other people, especially those who are deceitful or contemptuous or fill-in your own personality defect, we should see dust – something impermanent that the wind blows away. Or a growing plant that may need some care or nourishment on its journey to either withering and dying, or itself becoming eternal. But in all cases we should see someone that God saw fit to create, and to place in our presence in whatever his state of need or despair or anger or rebellion, to be extended God’s care through us. This is God’s desire for, and the vocation of, the one who lives in His Kingdom.
Steve Gregg also has suggested this: Try seeing them as your own child. Despite the fact they may be your senior, picture them in your mind as a child and one who your Father loves. What would you do for your own child? In the previous Psalm God says: Psalms 103:13 “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him.” How would you handle your own child in the situation this person presents to you? First, you would be honest with them. If they’re wrong, you would lead them to understand that they are wrong and why. Many of us have or have had rebellious kids who encountered consequences they weren’t prepared for. We didn’t disown them because they ended up in trouble. We showed mercy and did our best to correct their behaviors that led to their trouble – seeking the best for them. The same treatment is due our neighbor.
If they’re in need, of course you would act to meet that need as best you could. If they’re hurting, you would provide them comfort – be it in words or medicine or shelter or whatever remedy would best salve their hurt. This, Jesus says, is His love.
We are not equipped by our nature to express God’s love. Only God is equipped to express His love. If we are to express it, therefore, it has to be God in the form of His Spirit in us that accomplishes it. Our job is to get ourselves and our priorities out of His way.
Love is action, not feeling. When you perform an action of love to another, God is not just glorified, but He is glorified because you are loving Him through that action. (John 14:21) God doesn’t demand we “feel” love for the one to whom He expects us to show His love. Our human emotion is absolutely irrelevant to what God is trying to do for the one in need.
Love has nothing to do with religious ritual.
God’s love (agapē) is commanded of us toward our neighbor and our enemy.
Biblical (God’s) love is seen through its components — justice, mercy and faithfulness.
There are some “aids” that can help us break out of our own comfort zone and be obedient in expressing God’s love, such as seeing the object of that love action as God sees him, or as our own child.
Perhaps the best motivator, however, is simply to meditate on Christ and His loving sacrifice for us. NT Wright[v] tells the following story highlighting the power of dwelling on Christ:
“There is a famous story (I wish I knew which archbishop it was that it concerned) that concerns a Roman Catholic archbishop who told the story of three naughty young lads who one day for a laugh went into a Catholic Church and went into the confessional one by one and confessed to all sorts of outrageous sins that they claimed they had committed. The priest being an experienced guide saw through them quite quickly. And the first two lads ran out of the church laughing but the priest hung on to the third one and said, ‘Okay, you have confessed these sins. I want you to do a penance. I want you to walk up to the far end of the church and I want you to look at the picture of Jesus hanging on the cross, and I want you to look at his face and say, “You did all that for me and I don’t care that much.” And I want you to do that three times’.
And so the boy went up to the front, looked at the picture of Jesus and said, ‘You did all that for me and I don’t care that much’. And then he said it again, but then he couldn’t say it the third time because he broke down in tears. And the archbishop telling the story said, the reason I know that story is that I was that young man. There is something about the cross. Something about Jesus dying there for us which leaps over all the theoretical discussions, all the possibilities of how we explain it this way or that way and it grasps us. And when we are grasped by it, somehow we have a sense that what is grasping us is the love of God.”
[i] I am indebted to Steve Gregg for not just the inspiration for this piece, but much of its content as found in his teaching “Genuinely Following Jesus – 07 The Disciples Character on his website at www.thenarrowpath.com. I would strongly encourage you to make the time to listen to this entire series.
[iii] Some might claim that God implores us to “fear” him, and, to them, fear is a feeling – an emotion. In the OT, where this phrase is more prominent the word “fear” is typically a translation of the Hebrew 3373. יָרֵא yārḗ, yaw-ray’, whose meaning is to be morally reverent of. In other words, to stand in awe of the moral perfection of God. This is not an emotion. This is a cognitive conclusion.
[iv] It is interesting that the word rendered in English “mercy” here is the Greek 1656. ἔλεος eleós, whose definition is “compassion”. However, the word translated “compassion”, both in describing the Samaritan’s reaction and Jesus’ before the crowds, is the Greek 4697. σπλαγχνίζομαι splagxnizómai, whose definition is “to have the bowels yearn”. So this later term clearly describes an emotion of concern or sympathy, while the term rendered mercy, whatever its definition, describes a response of action. To see the sense of this term rendered “mercy” I suggest you do a word search on G1656 and see all of its usages. The vast majority are actions of God.