What Is Love?

Usher, a popular American singer-songwriter, is famous for hit songs such as “Yeah!” and “DJ Got Us Falling in Love.” In September 2020 he dropped a new single, “Bad Habits,” which one article called “heartfelt.”¹

“Bad Habits” describes frustration with romantic relationships, repeated in the chorus:

I love love, I’m just bad at it…
I keep messin’ up my love life.

Surely this is a song many can easily relate to, just talk to any young adults dating—relationships are messy!

Haven’t heard the song yet? Watch the music video, which pictures Usher’s dance moves and his desperation to hold onto his fictional girlfriend:

Cultural View of Love
To better understand the bad habits and relationship challenges presented in the lyrics, let’s first explore the idea of love. Of course, we’re facing an English language predicament where this one word, love, has so many connotations. So, what is love really? Is it sex? One night stands? A committed, exclusive relationship? Marriage?

The song “Bad Habits” probably defines love to include sex, but mainly it refers to an intentional relationship—though one primarily focused on feelings and emotional and physical intimacy.

Let’s look beyond the song’s implied view of love. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary has some interesting definitions of the noun love—mainly related to “strong affection for another,” “attraction based on sexual desire,” and “affection based on admiration,” though it does also include the following definitions: “unselfish loyal and benevolent concern for the good of another” and “a person’s adoration of God.” For the verb love, Merriam-Webster’s has definitions such as “to hold dear,” “to feel a lover’s passion, devotion, or tenderness,” and “to like or desire actively.”²

So what is it? Is love “attraction based on sexual desire” or “unselfish loyal and benevolent concern”? Can love found in romantic relationships refer to both?

Biblical View of Love
Let’s consider love from a biblical perspective. Paul Tripp, author and pastor, defines love as “willing self-sacrifice for the good of another that does not require reciprocation or that the person being loved is deserving.”³ This idea of self-sacrificial love is then embodied and manifested in the entire life of Jesus Christ, and ultimately in his death on the cross.

Is that just love between God and his people? Does that sort of love have any bearing on friendships and romantic relationships? If marriage, the culmination of a dating relationship, is meant to point to Christ and his relationship to his people (the Church), then certainly Christ’s example of love is for romantic relationships, too.

Think about 1 Corinthians 13, the hallmark “love chapter” that is often read at wedding ceremonies. The chapter highlights many attributes of love; here is just a sampling: “Love is patient and kind…it does not insist on its own way…. Love bears all things, believe all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (verses 4–5, 7, ESV).

This sort of self-sacrificial love goes beyond mere emotion or attraction based simply on physical appearance and touch. Yet doesn’t most of our world—songs, television shows, advertisements, cultural goals and expectations—embrace Usher’s view of love?

What Ruins Love?
Back to the song, let’s look at the relationship challenges Usher is presenting. He talks about how his bad habits—”I slipped into the DM of your best friend” and “I told you a million lies”—are messing up his love life. These so-called “bad habits” and implied infidelity could be categorized as sin stemming from selfishness.

Usher sings about how he’s just bad at love, but infers over and over again that he really does love this fictional woman. Let’s look at this line from the lyrics: “When I say I love you, girl, I swear I really do.” This line makes sense if love is defined as attraction, admiration, and so on. But after all the implied unfaithfulness and pain caused, that profession of love is not believable from the lens of self-sacrificial love. So what do we make of this?

Is Usher’s love life continually getting ruined because he’s aiming for feelings and emotions and what he can get out of the relationship—rather than aiming for continual self-sacrifice for someone else? Is he focusing on himself and his feelings—rather than his girlfriend and her feelings?

What’s Your View of Love?
So, what about you? How do you really think about love? Even in Christian circles we sometimes think of love in terms of the culture’s definition: Sexual attraction, feelings, and physical intimacy. Certainly, people have physical and emotional desires—that’s part of being human, and when we love others, we feel these desires. But what are we most concerned about? In order to achieve true love, are we willing to give up ourselves for the sake of another?

As we approach love and relationships, let’s think about Christ’s example—his death on the cross—and let that be the foundational principle for our perspective on relationships. While we probably won’t be required to take a bullet for someone, we are called to love like Christ, daily taking up our crosses and dying to our own selfish desires for the sake of another person. That’s love, with no room for “bad habits.”

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Abby Debenedittis

Abby DeBenedittis is a freelance writer and the owner of Quandary Peak Editing. She likes to write about how faith in Jesus Christ influences ordinary life. She’s a fan of adventures in the Rocky Mountains, complicated board games, and lattes from local coffee shops.