As February ushers in spring, you’re about to hear a lot about what love is. The Valentine’s deals have already started and you’re likely seeing a litany of social media ads about “the best gift” you can get your significant other. (Side note, some of them have almost got me!)
But as I started thinking about this time, my head went somewhere a little different. Sure, a lot of people talk about what love “is,” but not a lot of people talk about what love “isn’t.” It’s not as romantic to approach it that way, to be honest. But sometimes the best way to fully understand and appreciate what something “is” is to understand what it “isn’t.” Especially in a world where you’re constantly being fed messages and marketing to get you to spend your money on whatever version some company deems love to be.
So if you’ll bear with me for just a moment, I want to focus on the opposites of what love is. In each instance, I will talk about what love is, but only after talking about what it isn’t. Here’s my list. And let me know if you agree.
My 6-year-old daughter is starting to awaken to the fact that “love” isn’t just something between her and her family or between mommy and daddy. She mentioned the other day that a friend at school told her that having a crush meant you “loved” that person.
So she asked me, “Daddy, does that mean I love Alex?”
Now of course my first inclination was to immediately and emphatically shout, “No!” After all, if she doesn’t have a boyfriend until she’s out of the house I won’t be mad. But instead I gathered my thoughts and explained that there’s a difference between feeling that you like someone and actually loving them.
I told her that true love is about a choice. It’s about choosing someone even when you don’t feel like it. It’s deep, and especially much deeper than any fleeting feelings that could change the moment someone on the playground chooses someone over you.
There’s a pastor named Matt Chandler who I think said it best: “Love says, ‘I’ve seen the ugly parts of you, and I’m staying.’” There’s that idea of choice. It isn’t based on lust, or looks, or feelings. Sure, love can start as a feeling. But that’s not the whole of love. That’s like saying a bonfire and a spark are the same thing. Even a fool knows they’re very different. They may share the same core, but one is much grander and hotter than the other.
I’m not going to pretend that my daughter understood that explanation completely, but at least I started laying the foundation. And maybe it can be the first block of the foundation for you.
I can’t remember when exactly, but in the last few years I’ve been introduced to a new term. It’s a term that’s especially prevalent in relationships. It’s called “gaslighting.”
Here’s the dictionary definition: “to manipulate (someone) by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.”
The key word there is “manipulate.” In other words, it’s when someone intentionally and cunningly makes you question what you know to be true. It looks like shifting the blame from them to you (or from you to them, if you’re the gaslighter). It’s lying. It’s purposeful. And I think it’s more prevalent in relationships than we want to admit.
For example, maybe you’re in a relationship and your significant other is caught texting another person romantically. If they were to gaslight you, they would lie and manipulate to make you question what you saw, or maybe they would lie and manipulate to get you to believe that it was actually YOUR fault any of it happened. You leave the conversation questioning yourself completely.
Friend, that’s not love. Love takes responsibility. It is contrite. It is humble. I once interviewed someone on a podcast about relationships and he said, “Love is owning 100% of your 1%.” In other words, even if you are only 1% to blame for an issue, love says that you’re going to own every bit of that 1%. That’s what a loving partner does. (Again, though, that’s not to be used by the other person as a means to shift blame or manipulate).
The person you love should be owning 100% of their 1%, not gaslighting. Don’t settle for it.
I don’t usually like to start a point with a caveat, but here I go. Friend, when you open yourself up to loving someone, you’re going to get hurt. Why? Because the person you’re loving isn’t perfect. Heaven knows I’m not, and that means I’ve caused my wife pain.
My favorite author, C.S. Lewis, once wrote: “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal.”
Ok, so why did I list “hurtful” as something that love isn’t, then? Because I’m talking about something very specific. I’m talking about abuse. And I mean abuse in all senses, physical, sexual, and emotional.
Love is not abusive. Let me say it again: Love is not abusive. If your partner is abusive, they do not understand love. They are not loving you. They are using you.
I’ve had friends and family members who have gotten into abusive relationships and then been gaslighted into believing that the hurt caused from abuse is either normal or their fault. It’s neither. That’s a lie.
If you are experiencing abuse of any kind in a relationship, you need to hear it again: that is not love.
Love is kind and gentle. Love is caring. Love has boundaries and limits that it won’t cross. And abuse is one of those limits. Don’t believe or be convinced otherwise.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in almost 13 years of marriage, it’s that love isn’t selfish. Now before you go thinking that I’m patting myself on the back, that’s not the case. No, instead it’s my wife who has shown that to me. She is the most selfless person I know. She sacrifices. She puts herself second. I’m constantly convicted by her actions.
And yet our society has trained us to believe that relationships are all about what we can get. We’re fed pictures of love that are based on our own wants and desires. And the moment we don’t get what we want, the moment we don’t feel something or have use for someone, we’re taught to just throw it away.
Remember when I said love was a choice? Most of the time that choice involves putting ourselves second. But here’s the irony: If you’re in a relationship where each person is putting the other first, then there’s a beautiful synergy. You both get to be first! But when you’re in a relationship where you’re both putting yourselves first, it’s like trekking through mud. It’s tough. It’s dirty. And no one wins.
That’s not to say there won’t be times in every relationship where selfishness rears its ugly head. But we shouldn't let the exception take the place of the ideal. We should always be striving to be selfless. To be second.
So what is all this based on? How do I know what love is and isn’t? I think those are good questions. It’s not me just pulling this out of nowhere. As someone who follows Jesus, the best description of love is found in a collection of Bible verses in the book of 1 Corinthians. And in a beautiful way, it sums up both what love is and what it isn’t. Here’s what it says:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
Friend, that is love. And it was perfectly embodied and lived out by the person of Jesus. He didn’t base his love on feelings, but rather chose to go through pain for us. He wasn’t manipulative, but rather humble. He wasn’t hurtful, but instead took on all of our hurt. And he wasn’t selfish, choosing instead to give his life for us and die for us.
Listen, I’m not going to pretend that I am all those things all the time. But I strive to be. And the more I study Jesus and his love, the better I become at loving others as well as picking out what is NOT love.
And in the end, that’s the key. Maybe you haven’t had the best examples of love in your life. Maybe you have been hurt, manipulated, gaslighted. It may be time to fully and completely come to understand the standard of real, true love. The kind of love that says, “I’ve seen the ugly parts of you, and I’m staying.”
That’s the love of Jesus. That’s true love. And that’s a love worth emulating.