The qualities of love: 6 ways to better understand an overused word

The qualities of love: 6 ways to better understand an overused word
Carl Olson

Pop quiz: How many commandments did Jesus give? It’s a tricky question, since we know Jesus made clear he came to fulfil the law and that his teaching and actions were aimed at the completion – not the abolition – of the commandments (cf. Mt 5:17-20). But what commandments did he give?

What is love?

The gospels record just one such commandment: “This is my commandment: Love one another as I love you” (Jn 15:12). The centrality and necessity of that love is evident. But what, exactly, is that love? Is it an emotion? A passion? Or something more?

As Pope Benedict XVI noted in Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love), his first encyclical, “the term ‘love’ has become one of the most frequently used and misused of words, a word to which we attach quite different meanings”.

Love is of God

First, true love is “of God” and is therefore a divine gift. As such, it reflects the nature of God, being holy, selfless and oriented to the good of the other.

God is love

And that leads to the second fact, that God is love, as St John so famously writes in his first epistle. This love is bound up in the great mystery of the Trinity, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: “God’s very being is love. By sending his only Son and the Spirit of Love in the fullness of time, God has revealed his innermost secret: God himself is an eternal exchange of love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and he has destined us to share in that exchange” (CCC, No. 221). That is why St. John writes that “everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God,” for there is only one source of authentic love: the Triune God.

Love is a gift

Third, love is a free gift; it cannot be coerced, manipulated or commodified. The greatest example of this is found in the Incarnation. God sent his son into the world, says St. John, “so that we might have life through him.” Love is a gift, and so the lover initiates the life-giving relationship with the beloved: “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son as expiation for our sins.”

Love is selfless

And that highlights the fourth quality of love: It is selfless and sacrificial. Such is the love of Christ for his disciples: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” This is the sacrificial love of the Bridegroom for his Bride, the church: “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her” (Eph 5:25). Those who are united to Christ in love are not slaves but friends — even the very sons and daughters of God by grace: “See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are” (1 Jn 3:1).

Love is an act

A fifth characteristic of love is that it acts; it is not just an abstract concept, but a concrete action. If Jesus had merely spoken of love and not accepted the cross, what power would his words have? Real love is enfleshed, and that is why the two greatest acts of love in the world are found in the marital embrace and in the act of dying for someone else.

Love is for all

Finally, this love is for all people, not just for a tribe or a nation. The entrance of the Gentiles into the church demonstrated that the new covenant is universal, for “Jews and Greeks alike” as St Paul told the Corinthians (1 Cor 1:24).

“Love is the key to the mystery,” wrote Archbishop Fulton Sheen, noting also that “no love ever mounts to a higher level without a touch of the cross”.

Carl Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight.