What Love Is and Why It Scares Us to Death

All You Need is Love

You probably can’t even read these words without thinking of the Beatles’ song, “All You Need Is Love.” It is a classic. It is enduring because everyone deeply feels its message. In a world that seems to be filled with terrible events in the daily news, we need much more love in our lives. There is something fundamentally right about this, something about love that fills our deepest longings and desires. We see that love is an overflowing response to life that breathes life into others. 

And yet, in practice, unconditional love is the hardest thing to believe or put into practice. In a culture where "sex is easy but love is hard," unconditional love seems absurd. Why is that? Well, to begin with, we really don't understand what love is. We have separated love from commitment, from its sacred bond.

Love is something greater than a feeling. It is greater than infatuation or lust. Love is an unfailing commitment to someone completely different than yourself, regardless of the outcome. Love is a verb. Love is specifically a commitment to be vulnerable which, quite frankly, scares the heck out of us. To commit yourself to love and be loved is to commit to dying to yourself by being completely vulnerable and open. 

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. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable (C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves)

Love is this radical commitment to never allow the brokenness of others (or ourselves!) undermine our desire and act of self-giving sacrifice. Love never fails. It gives what is lacking in others, not from need or duty but from delight. Love dies to self out of a desire to see others live. This is inherently what love does, even when it is not reciprocated. 

Love Can’t Be Bought

In our consumer society, it is hard not to see others in terms of contracts—of how to make a profit. Even something as wonderful as marriage and sex is seen as a contract that is based on personal interest, and therefore can be broken when those feelings, lusts, or interest dry up. Thus, unconditional love does not make sense, or cents to us. It would undermine what I'm getting out of the deal.

Many religions and spiritualities (and even that Beatles’ song) don't really get love or God for that matter. As Martin Luther wrote in his Heidelberg Disputation, "The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it."

Love is not that we have done anything to make God look favorably upon us by any secret knowledge, technique, or experience. God loved us because he loved us! God sent his Son into the world to take away our sins and turn all displeasure from us. Love is God coming in the fullness of time while we hated him, while we were enemies, and dying for us (Rom. 5:8, Gal. 4:4). Christians for centuries have said that this is the most basic reality in the universe. Why? Because God is love.

God Is Love

God is the origin and cause of all love because he is love (1 John 4:18). God has the quality of love that permeates all that he does. All of God’s activity is a loving activity. Love is not some abstract principle or virtue. Love is personal. God is three persons who are full of love, delight, and beauty. God is the basis for our love and life. His love relentlessly pursues us and gives life to us, even when we don’t deserve it.

God’s love is typified by a dogged determination to pursue us, even when we do not return it. Unconditional love seems illogical and ridiculous, and in a certain sense, it is. God is like a farmer who bets the farm—who leaves everything on the table—to pursue a lost child who has spurned him.

God’s love gives the life of his own Son so that we might be with him forever. That is what a promise is. His promise is him saying he has chosen to not be God without us. His promise is to attach himself to us in eternal faithfulness. Since God’s love has no need, it can, therefore, give what is lacking in us unendingly. To quote C. S. Lewis, 

God, who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that He may love and perfect them. He creates the universe, already foreseeing–or should we say 'seeing'? there are no tenses in God–the buzzing cloud of flies about the cross, the flayed back pressed against the uneven stake, the nails driven through the mesial nerves, the repeated incipient suffocation as the body droops, the repeated torture of back and arms as it is time after time, for breath's sake, hitched up. If I may dare the biological image, God is a 'host' who deliberately creates His own parasites; causes us to be that we may exploit and 'take advantage of' Him. Herein is love. This is the diagram of Love Himself, the inventor of all loves (The Four Loves).

To Be Known and Yet Still Loved

While humans don’t always respond with this love or kindness, God is never less than true to himself. We fear this vulnerability but God doesn't. He is in his very being love. In his delight, grief, wrath, and jealousy, God acts in his perfect, untainted love. 

God’s affections and responses are always in accord with his holy, loving character. They are perfect expressions of his faithfulness and his wondrous love. The trouble arises when we do not love others in the presence of a loving God. That is when things become uncomfortable for us. And yet, unconditional love does not get thrown off course by our selfishness.

Our Creator God took on human flesh, clothing humanity in love. He became the most vulnerable human who ever lived and broke our selfishness and pride by his utter humiliation. This is what love really does. It dies. It goes all the way. This is what love is and it scares us to death. In his wounds, we see how unloving we are and the depths of God's unconditional love for us. God melts our hardened hearts so we can start living.

Christ united himself to us, dwelling among us as the perfect embodiment of God’s love and promise. He became “obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). In this way, the triune God “reconciled us to himself through Christ” (2 Cor. 5:18). Knowing that we are accepted by this God changes everything. In his vulnerability, we are healed. We are saved from this selfish body of death.

We are brought back into the flow and dance of the triune God's unconditional love. This unconditional love of God in Christ is what everyone needs ― what our hearts cry out for. It is the only safe place in this world As Timothy Keller reminds us,

To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us (Keller, The Meaning of Marriage, p. 101).

Now and forever, unloving people like you and me may ceaselessly approach God without despair. We are made into vulnerable people because it means life. Love is what we need more than anything and that unconditional love is what we find in Jesus ―  to be fully known and yet still loved. 

In the end, we can only love the unlovable and unlovely around us when we have been unconditionally loved by God. His love frees us to love others for the first time. We can forgive the incessant nagging of family. We can forgive the father who hurt us without apologizing. We can forgive our spouse for their annoying habits. We can forgive our children for their daily provocations. We can love without remorse, even when it is not returned. We can love because God first loved us (1 John 4:19). 

If all we need is love, then all we need is God. For if we have God, we have everything and we have nothing to fear.

Photo of Timothy W. Massaro

Timothy W. Massaro

Timothy Massaro has written for Core Christianity, Modern Reformation, and other publications. He oversees the Christian Education ministry at Resurrection PCA in San Diego and serves as a hospice chaplain. He has an affinity for all things J.R.R. Tolkien (except the movies) and has interests in the intersections of philosophy and theology. His biggest prayer is that the gospel in all its beauty might re-kindle a wonder and joy of God’s goodness in our hearts and that our lives might adorn the gospel. Connect with Timothy on Twitter @word_water_wine.​

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