“Herein is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:10)

“Love is love” is a slogan with a silent, unanswered question. It does not actually tell us what love is. It does not answer the question, “But what is love?”

In today’s world, that is really the issue.

But it is not only left unanswered in that slogan. Too often we leave it unanswered in other contexts.

In Christian circles we speak constantly of showing love, or of loving people, whilst seldom defining what that actually means. We might as well be saying “love is love” from our pulpits, in our small groups, or in our conversations. The word is presented like an empty shell, as if we all know what it means.

But do we know?

One answer to the question can be found in Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon at the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in May of this year.

Curry spoke passionately, to wide acclaim, about the “power of love,” and that “love is the way.”

Everybody seemed to lap it up.

The celebrity audience loved it. The royals loved it. Churchgoing Christians loved it.

That is because the sermon meant whatever the hearer wanted it to mean.

“Love” was conspicuously undefined. It was presented as an empty shell – something – whatever you want it to be – with power, with romance, with peace, with happiness. He spoke specifically of the form and shape of love and how love makes us feel, but he never said what love is.

Each person who listened to that sermon defined love for themselves – they made it comply with their understanding of things. Predictably, they thought that was fabulous.

The way Bishop Curry spoke about love was carefully tailored the way modern men and women think about love.

It is a word that provokes sentimentality. It is a word that speaks of positivity, good feelings, and affirmation. It is a word that makes us feel warm.

To be “loving” has become another description for being winsome. To love someone is to make someone feel positive, no matter what.

This is the vacuous situation we find ourselves in today.

It is one of the reasons why we are so obsessed with positivity, as if it were the supreme virtue. We do not measure things by their truth value, but by whether they are positive or negative. We want positive messages, a positive image, positive vibes… We want a positive God, positive scriptures, and to be “loved” by others – ie to have others bring “positivity” into our lives.

But when God gave love a definition in Jesus Christ, it looked very different.

In Scripture, the Greek word Agape defines true love, as God made it.

It is tragic that we know little about love’s actual definition because it forms the basis of the greatest commandments, to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind… [and] love your neighbour as yourself.”

Without knowing what love really is, we cannot even begin to fulfil God’s purposes in this world.

The first counter-cultural feature of true love is that it always speaks of action. It is never just about sentiment or feeling. It is always about doing. To love is to act.

In truth, love is the attribute of God by which He is eternally moved to communicate His goodness to others through what He does.

Agape is impossible apart from action.

The command to love is the command to model our actions on God’s actions.

God’s actions are actions of service. The example of Christ again looms large, “not to be served but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matt 20:28).

Repeatedly, Christ’s ultimate self-sacrifice is held up as the example of love par excellence. In an act of total self-denial, He esteemed the highest and best interests of the human race far greater than His own and He did all to serve them (Philippians 2:4-8).

He did not grasp onto His own equality with God; His own interests were set aside.

No – rather, He gave His life for many. He did all for others, for our best interests, at ultimate cost to Himself.

This is love.

But the great lesson from the example of Christ is that people do not necessarily welcome action that is in their own best interests. Such actions can come at tremendous cost to those who model the Lord Jesus in this way. They can even invoke hostility, hatred and resentment.

Jesus Himself was “hated without a cause” and “persecuted.” There was a plot to kill Him. The people bayed for His blood like a hungry mob, crying “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!”

At the end of His life, there was a small gathering of just 120 faithful followers. That was the fruit of a ministry utterly sold out to agape on a level we can never fathom. From incarnation to crucifixion, the eternal Son of God “so loved the world” that He was given for us.

God’s goodness, in action, to serve our highest and best interests, at cost to Himself.

This is love.

It shatters our sentimentality to consider this. It puts hard content into the word “love” which is far beyond us.

Little has changed in modern times. The responses people make to agape are still varied.

People are still ignorant of their own highest and best interests. As Adam and Eve in the garden, we look on God’s purposes for us and ignorantly believe that they are anything but loving. We feel deprived, controlled, and shackled.

But to serve someone, I need to know to what end I am serving them. Am I serving them in their own interests and desires? Is it agape to affirm a person in feeling good about themselves?

Or, is there some other standard? Are their highest and best interests in fact something a little harder to achieve, which place a harder burden on my shoulders, but with an altogether more sublime outcome?

Jesus never shrank back from the hard business of agape. To Nicodemus – the man whose entire life was noble, pedigreed, and righteous – he said, “you must start all over again.” To the Samaritan woman, he placed his finger right on her shame within moments, “go and call your husband.” To the rich young ruler – the keenest potential convert I’ve ever seen – he said, “sell everything that you have.”

He had to free them from themselves to love them. He had to open their eyes to need. He had to point them to truth.

To serve someone’s highest and best interests, at cost to ourselves, is not always easy. It requires an understanding of God’s agape and His demonstration of it in Jesus.

But the call still goes out, and rests on our shoulders. To model Christ’s agape.

“…not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son…”