The song “All You Need Is Love” was released in the summer of 1967 and quickly became one of the Beatles’ biggest hits. But for many people, it’s not just a great song — it’s a great philosophy. We see it on T-shirts, posters, and placards. In a world of competing creeds and beliefs, surely, they say, we can all get behind this. Let’s just love one another and not make it more complicated than that.
But the fact is, much of the time it is more complicated than that. “All you need is love” only works as an idea if we all have a shared understanding of what love is and should look like. Most of the time, we don’t.
When we stop and think about it, we’re actually quite confused about love. We know enough to know that it matters. We sense it is what life should be about, and that we can’t really live without it. But we find it surprisingly hard to pin down precisely what love is. We know we need it; we just struggle to articulate what “it” actually is.
How We Know Love
This matters profoundly. We base a lot of ideology, politics, and personal ethics on the assumption that a given course of action is loving. We use hashtags like #LoveIsLove and #LoveWins as though they settle the matter and we all know what we’re talking about. So if we don’t really know as much about love as we think we do, then some of our conclusions about love are not as firm as we think they are. Love is not as straightforward as we tend to think.
The New Testament assumes this when it tells us, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16 NIV).
Notice what is implied: apart from the coming of Christ, we can’t fully know what love is. Our grasp of it will be incomplete at best. It is the gospel of Jesus Christ that most clearly shows us what love is. John goes on to ground this, famously, in three monosyllables: not Love is love, but God is love (1 John 4:8, 16).
Unless our understanding of love is grounded in the person and work of God himself, whatever form of love we think will be left to guide us will turn out to be empty, hollow and –– ultimately –– counterfeit. C.S. Lewis once wrote that love “begins to be a demon the moment he begins to be a god.” He explains,
Every human love, at its height, has a tendency to claim for itself a divine authority. Its voice tends to sound as if it were the will of God himself. It tells us not to count the cost, it demands of us a total commitment, it attempts to over-ride all other claims and insinuates that any action which is sincerely done “for love’s sake” is thereby lawful and even meritorious. (The Four Loves, 7–8)
“God is love” doesn’t mean that God must approve of everything I think is love. It is very easy for us to mistake all sorts of intense and even harmful feelings for love. Instead, “God is love” means that God knows far more about love than we do, and that we must therefore listen to him if we are to love each other as we truly should and in the right way.
Love’s Different Faces
Most of us recognize that different contexts call for different types of love. Consider these statements:
- I love my mother.
- I love my spouse.
- I love my dog.
- I love burgers.
Each statement uses the same word, but we instinctively understand it in different ways appropriate to its object. Each is a love, but the loves are different. In fact, we would say they are necessarily different. Love for a spouse should look very different from love for a parent. And love for a parent should look very different from love for a pet. We know this. And people who don’t tend to grasp this end up being the subject of documentaries. There are different forms of love, and loving well in any given situation involves ordering those loves appropriately.
There are times this is obvious to us. We might sense that one form of love is straying into another, less appropriate form. What is meant only to be a friendship starts to cross over into something romantic. Or we sense that we are becoming too dependent on a parent in a way that’s unhealthy. Or we see someone trying to have “human” companionship with a pet. It’s why we need God’s help. He will show us what love should look like in each context.
Better Love Than Before
What God shows us will always be more loving than any alternative we might come up with. Obedience to him will never mean we end up loving people less. We might feel like that in some cases, but that is probably because we are wanting to love someone in the wrong kind of way, and God isn’t so much calling us to love them less than he is calling us to love them differently, which will really mean loving them better.
I recently met with two women who had been a lesbian couple before coming to Christ. They have an unusual story in that they both came to Christ and now are close Christian friends in the same church. A relationship that had been the occasion for, and expression of, rebellion against God has now, in an extraordinary turn, become a means by which both are being encouraged toward greater godliness. One of them told me, “Our friendship is far richer now that we’re sisters in Christ than it ever was when we were living in sin.”
The point is not that their story is typical or normative, but their testimony is revealing: turning from an unbiblical relationship to Christ is not turning from more love to less love, but from improper love to better love. We can never truly love someone more by disobeying the God who is love.
We can only say “All you need is love” when it is the love of God, shown in Christ, that we are talking about. Love is love may justify counterfeit love. God is love leads us into something far better.
Sam Allberry (@SamAllberry) is an apologist and writer for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries and a consulting editor for The Gospel Coalition, and is based in Nashville, TN. He is the author of Why Does God Care Who I Sleep With?