“And he said to him, ”You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)
Some disparage reciprocal love, calling it “need-love” or even “swap-love.” They say it is unworthy to expect or even to desire a return on one’s investment of love in another. But it is easy to become more “spiritual” than the Bible. C. S. Lewis speaks to this:
We must be cautious about calling Need-love “mere selfishness.” Mere is always a dangerous word. No doubt Need-love, like all our impulses, can be selfishly indulged. A tyrannous and gluttonous demand for affection can be a horrible thing. But in ordinary life no one calls a child selfish because it turns for comfort to its mother. Every Christian would agree that a man’s spiritual health is exactly proportional to his love for God. But man’s love for God, from the very nature of the case, must always be very largely, and most often be entirely, a Need-love. This is obvious when we implore forgiveness for our sins or support in our tribulations. . . . It would be a bold and silly creature that came before its Creator with the boast, “I’m no beggar. I love you disinterestedly.”
Indeed, God himself expects a “return on his investment.” He longs and desires to be loved. But the difference is this: He does not demand it. He does not make a loving response the condition for giving love (Rom. 5:6-8). And, humanly, we always do. Eros to the ancient Greek, and to the modern man as well, is passionate love that desires the other for itself. We continue to give only so long as we receive — or so long as we hope to receive. But God’s kind of love is not preoccupied with the question, How well am I loved? but rather, How well do I love?
Thus the focus of biblical love is on the quality of the subject, the loving character of the one loving, not on the quality of the object, its worthiness of love, its desirability, its lovableness. Jesus spells this out in great detail with many examples (Luke 6:27-35). He teaches that to love those who love us is nothing great. It is when we choose deliberately to love those who do not deserve it that we have reflected divine love.
Yet the ideal is reciprocal love, each finding in the other abundant reason to appreciate, to feel drawn to, to be overwhelmed by the desire to give. We give because we want to, not because we have to — we delight in the loved one. Then we rejoice in receiving from the one loved. When the object is not lovable, or the emotion is not present, it is then that the character of the giving lover shines in greatest splendor.
Biblical love, then, is an affectionate disposition that motivates the lover to consistently act for the welfare of another, whether or not the other deserves it or reciprocates.
We have tried to define love. But the length and breadth and depth and height of it (Eph. 3:18-19) stretch far beyond our reach. What shall we do? Often, to understand an abstract idea or a large concept it is necessary to define by description or demonstration. How good that God has given us both.
Love is defined by its description. The most well-known description of love was penned by Paul (1 Cor. 13). Notice that he gives examples of the internal but also the external, love’s attitude and disposition, but also love’s activity. On the one hand love does not boast, is not proud or self-seeking, keeps no record of wrongs, does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth, always trusts and hopes. On the other hand, love takes action: It is patient and kind, is not rude and quick-tempered, always protects, and always perseveres.
Scripture is filled with many other descriptions of love. Love is without hypocrisy works no ill for others, will lay down its life for another, takes the servant’s role, is brotherly.
Though direct descriptions of love are plentiful enough to challenge for a lifetime, the indirect descriptions seem all but exhaustless. Consider the teachings on what have been called the “reciprocal verbs” of the New Testament.
Not only are we told to love one another thirteen times, we are commanded to have the same care one for another, to receive one another, to be affectionate to one another, to greet one another with a holy kiss, to wait for one another, to be kind one to another, to prefer one another, to forbear one another in love, to forgive one another. Furthermore, we are not to judge one another, speak evil of one another, lie to one another, “bite” one another, provoke one another, or complain against one another. Incredible as this listing may be, it is only one of any number of teachings in Scripture that describe the attitudes and behavior of love.
Let us agree that the commands of Scripture reveal God’s will for those to whom they are addressed and that his ultimate will is that we be like him in moral character. Since “God is love” it should come as no surprise that the entire Old Testament revelation of God’s will for man hangs on the law of love (Matt. 22:37-40). After stating the Golden Rule, Jesus concluded, For this is [the essence of] the law and the prophets. Paul repeats the thought: “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal. 5:14). Again he says that this law of love sums up the Ten Commandments (Rom. 13:8-9). This basic fact about the relationship of love to the commandments of Scripture means that every command applicable to Christians is a description of how love will behave. In other words, the instructions for life in Scripture give substance and definition to the basic law of love.
Yet a description can be a lifeless code of ethics, an intimidating statement that lays a heavy hand of condemnation on me, confuses by its complexity, numbs by its impossible demands, blurs my perception by its distance from my own experience. God knows we need an example. We need to have love demonstrated, and this task he took upon himself at infinite cost.
 C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (London: Collins-Fontana, 1960), 8–9.