In the early '90s, I was in high school, searching to connect my Christian beliefs with my interest in music. DC Talk was one group that some of my Christian friends found interesting. I bought their new CD, "Free At Last," and began listening to it. Although known for a couple of songs that became, at the time, fairly large hits, the CD began with an important song that reminded us that "luv is a verb."
This was an important realization for me. As a high school student, it seemed like "love was in the air" as I began to meet girls and sort out my feelings for some of them. Of course, relationships can be up and down, and any feelings of "love" were sentimental and emotional. And they were just that--feelings.
But "love," as taught in church, wasn't much better. As I remember, it was rarely taught. Instead, we were taught rules. First, rules of conduct about what not to do on dates or around people of the opposite gender. Second, rules of conduct about what to do to ensure that we did not fall under God's wrath. (Later, I would learn how opposite this was for many of us who had already been baptized and thus rescued from the wrath of God.)
If God's love was addressed, it was always secondary to the atonement--God sent Jesus to die for your sins because a death was necessary to atone for sin. It was God's transaction to bring me home. It was almost as if, in creating humanity, there had been a subtle flaw that, once exposed by sin, now needed to be corrected, and Jesus was simply the correction. Love took a backseat to all of this.
Imagine my surprise when, through listening to the "Free At Least" CD for a couple of the hit songs, I was captured by the catchiness of the song, "Luv is a Verb." In this song, love is described as an action. The notion that love is just a feeling is dismissed by the sacrifice of Jesus, sung about as an act of love. It was because of Jesus' love for us that he died for us. It was because of God's love for us that he worked out this plan with his son to redeem us.
Yet, for someone like myself who was so accustomed to thinking about God, the gospel, and the sacrifice of Jesus in terms of God’s solving of a problem, it still didn’t occur to me that such an act of sacrifice had anything to do with love, or even that it was love. I understood the song to be about our response as Christians, who have received eternal life because of Jesus’ sacrifice. We share that message by loving others.
After all, I was the one who was processing my high school years through feelings, learning love by how I treated others, or how they treated me. I was the one who understood my relationship with God very transactionally. I had obligations to God. He created the plan of salvation, Jesus died for me, I believed this and was baptized into Jesus, and now I had to live up to the standards God called me to. It was still very much about me, my efforts, and what I was able to do for God. I felt love for God when I obeyed him. If I didn’t obey, I didn’t love. My love for God was expressed by my obedience. My love was duty-bound, always needing to be proven. I took the idea that love was a verb and made a program out of it, a to-do list. Obedience, for me, continued to be based on fear and performance. Love was something for others.
Maybe some of you identify with this. Perhaps you have spent time in a strict, fear-based church, where the emphasis was on the wrath of God and the danger of hell. Lessons and sermons pushed you towards obedience not on the basis of a loving relationship with God but on the basis of an eternity in hell for disobedience. But you struggled, and, maybe, still struggle, with fear, questions and doubt. When praying, you question whether you have asked forgiveness for every sin. You attend every meeting of the church, lest Jesus return while you a meeting was going on and you were not there. This, despite the promised security for those who trust in God’s deliverance. This, despite John’s teaching that perfect love casts out fear.
Where is the love?
Others may have been raised in a performance-related church. The goodness and grace of God was taught more frequently, but in an effort to help people not get carried away personal performance was always emphasized. Daily habits of Bible reading and prayer produced guilt if you realized you had not accomplished them. Church meetings were placed as the highest priority, even over family gatherings and potential gatherings with non-Christians. The result: you became worn out, tired, and wondering what all the work was accomplishing.
Where is the love?
Maybe neither of these scenarios describe you, perhaps because you grew up in a non-religious family, not going to church but learning the same lessons. Perhaps you know what it is to fear, and to obey out of fear. Perhaps you were ashamed, and you hid your faults, putting only your best forward, because acceptance was based on not making mistakes and on doing the will of the father. Or maybe you grew up in a household where your best was never enough. There was always something greater to pursue, another athletic contest to win, another school team to be joined, a better grade to be had. It is draining to do your best but still feel that your best is not good enough!
Where is the love?
Despite listening to the song, love for me was very much a feeling. It was an emotion. It was disconnected from the gospel, from God’s plan of salvation. All that was a transaction, merely requiring my obedience as one gear in the machine. I learned my perception of love from my family and friends--that love was based my ability to please them. It was not unconditional. It was conditional, conditioned by their acceptance of me. So I would respond in one of two ways--out of fear, withholding who I really was so they would not reject me; or by performing even more, seeking to gain their approval by what I did. (Now, I do not mean that this is how it really was; only that is how I perceived it at the time.)
I identified with the emotional side of love, as found in a relational high when a particular girl said yes to a date, and found in a relational low when the same girl said no to a second date. I found the same emotional high towards teachers when I received an “A” on exam due to the hard work I had put in for prep, and the same emotional low when I received a “C,” because the teacher was out to trick us or out to get me specifically. There was no baseline to how I understood love.
Around this time I was really into new Bibles and different translations. I was reasonably set on being a preacher and I enjoyed reading in different translations. I heard about a new one called the New Living Translation, so I went and bought a copy. It was a nice hardcover, and I spent some time thinking about which book I would read first. I made the mistake of picking Romans, and on a day off from work in the summer, I sat down to read Romans. I went into it understanding all of this, that love was a feeling and the gospel was a transaction. I understood what Paul wrote in Romans 5 when he was discussing the death of Christ, where he made an analogy between human behavior and Christ’s behavior.
I identified with the concern for sin in chapters 1 and 2. After all, who doesn’t want to see the disobedient get what they deserve! Isn’t that why we scrupulously try to do everything right? I was a little uneasy with Paul’s condemnation of the Jews for thinking they could do enough. I found myself in that category too often, trying to please God. But I skipped past it pretty easily because his point in chapter 3 is that all sinned. We can’t earn God’s favor on our own because of that sin. All are wicked. All deserve death. I was okay with that. I knew from personal experience that I fit this category. And I knew what Paul taught in chapter 4 was the truth--it was the faith of Abraham that made him right with God.
All of this I knew. I knew that we could not save ourselves. That’s what the death of Jesus was for. That’s what baptism was about. That was grace. But it was still a transaction. Love was just a feeling. I really identified with what Paul said in chapter 5: “For one will scarcely die for a righteous person--though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die” (7). The thought of dying for a person, standing in for them, depended directly on their value to me. “A righteous person? I can’t top that. They’re better than I am. But a good person? I’m good...at times. I may be better than they are. That may be a substitution I could make.”
And it was all emotional. It was comparative. It was based on the moment. If I was “good enough” today, what about tomorrow? What about yesterday? Would such a substitution happen because of love?
But it was verse eight that really got me. It was verse eight that provided the breakthrough: “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” I already knew this, but I didn’t. I knew it in part. I knew it intellectually, but not emotionally. I didn’t know it spiritually. I knew that Christ died for me, a sinner. But the connection Paul makes is so much more than that--while I was a sinner, Christ died for me. For Paul, this death, on behalf of those who did not deserve it and could not possibly have earned it, is a sign of God’s love.
More than that, it’s a demonstration of God’s love. Love is a verb. It is an action. It is an action done perfectly by God to demonstrate what love really is--the all consuming, all encompassing, sacrificial love of God. For us. God shows his love for us. God shows his love for us. God shows his love for us.
Think about these things. God shows his love for us. Love is a verb. It is an action. It is something that God did. The death of Jesus for sin was not something that happened so we could transact our salvation with God. It was a physical demonstration of God’s love.
God shows his love for us. It was God’s love. God chose to act. It was his choice, his desire to bridge the gap between us and him. It was his plan of salvation.
God shows his love for us. It was for us. God’s love was for us. It wasn’t random. It wasn’t a love thrown out for whoever might pick it up. It was purposeful love, for his people, to redeem those who had been lost.
In Luke 15, Jesus told three stories about things that were lost--a sheep, a coin, and a boy. In each case, the one who had lost went to great lengths to find what had been lost. And when what was lost was found, there was great rejoicing! God showed his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
This demonstration of love goes deeper. Paul goes on. Since we have been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. This act of grace, this demonstration of love, means a greater hope for us! God rejoices in our salvation, he loves us despite of our sin, and he calls us to rejoice in Jesus.
We have received reconciliation. We are reconciled. Through Jesus. Because of God’s love. As a result of God’s love. As a result of God’s action. We no longer need to keep checking off our lists. We can let go of fear. We no longer need to wonder if we’ve done enough. We no longer need to keep trying and trying and trying. We can let go of doubt. In the gospel, we have the statement of God’s saving love for us. And that is enough. The love of God, free to all. Love is truly a verb.