Our desire to understand love is obvious when you consider the numerous books, articles, and talk shows dedicated to the topic. People around the world deem love as essential to happiness and look for it in many different places. Television and movies tell us what “real love” should look like — but somehow, something has been lost in the definition.

What is love?

This was a recurring question in my mind for many years. I had the privilege of being raised in a loving home. I can remember even at that time wondering, “What is love?” I concluded that it must be the warm feeling I got when my parents hugged and kissed me.

As a teenager, the word “love” was used so soon in a relationship that it became an inadequate expression when the relationship deepened. At this stage it's easy to confuse lust and love. Here's a helpful definition: lust can’t wait to get. Love can wait to give.

I began to understand the true essence of love when I met and began to date my husband, Glen. I was working as a secretary in a small film equipment company, and the receptionist was a real matchmaker. She called me over to introduce me to the fellow who had just repaired her accounting machine. Glen blushed from ear to ear, excused himself, and hurried out of the office. When he got to the corner store, he telephoned back to ask me on a date. Though he was bashful, he wasn't slow!

Up to this point, my ideas about love were very self-centered. I was out for a good time. I had never stopped to think about the effect my actions might have on others — especially my words. Glen was sensitive and honest enough to tell me that my sarcasm hurt. I began to make a conscious effort to build him up in private and in public because I cared about him. My feelings became secondary to pleasing Glen and making him happy.

Different kinds of love

In Greek, different words are used to describe different types of love. For example:

Marriage should include all three facets of love. My husband is my best friend and we share many experiences together. Eros love is, of course, an important part of marriage.

But agape is the deepest and most essential kind of love. God is our role model for this type of love. He loved us so much that he gave his only Son, Jesus Christ, as a provision for our sin that we might know his love and forgiveness. Glen and I, at different times, prayed and received Jesus Christ as our Savior to forgive us for the things we had done wrong, and as our Lord to make us the kind of people he created us to be. Knowing God personally enabled us to appropriate his agape love for us to one another and to those around us.

Love is a choice

Real love is a choice. It's an act of the will. It enables us to accept our differences within relationships and to choose to love the person when we want to lash out or withdraw instead.

At home or at work, there are many times that I find it annoying to adapt to someone else’s way of doing or looking at things. When I sense this happening, I talk it over with God. I admit that I have no natural love for them, ask God for his forgiveness and for his love for them. With God’s love, those irritating habits and opinions fade away and I begin to appreciate the person’s strengths again.

Taking the initiative to love others usually triggers a positive response. But when there is no visible response, I have to remind myself that I am only responsible for my actions and reactions, not those of other people.

The truth is, people and circumstances don’t cause our reactions, they merely reveal our inner condition.

The real thing

God gives a clear description of love in the Bible:

“Love never gives up. Love cares for others more than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, it isn’t always 'me first,' doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, doesn’t revel when others grovel, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end. Love never dies” (1 Corinthians 13, The Message ).

Jesus Christ is our only model of this love. And we are all still under construction.

For more on the joys and struggles of marriage, read the series, Life After "I Do".