The Well-Being of Love
We use “love” in our everyday speech to mean many things. I think love is best understood and defined in terms of promoting well-being.
I propose that we best define love in the following way:
To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic/empathetic response to God and others, to promote overall well-being.
To say this in another way, loving actions are influenced by prior acts of God, others, and one’s own actions. Actions we should regard as loving are those purposefully done hoping to encourage, create, or sustain something good.
One of the more important phrases in my definition is the last one: “to promote overall well-being.” This phrase is a more technical way of simply saying love does good.
Although biblical writers use the word “love” differently, the majority of time they equate love with doing good. To love is intentionally to do something beneficial, positive, or helpful.
Jesus understood love in this way when he said love means being a blessing. “Love your enemies,” says Jesus, by “doing good” to them (Lk. 6:35). He instructs his followers to love by doing good even to those who persecute (Mt. 5:44).
God loves by doing good: God sends rain to the righteous and unrighteous (Mt. 5:45). God gave Jesus so we might benefit and have eternal life (Jn. 3:16; 1 Jn. 4:9). Jesus’ Good Samaritan story points to the core meaning of love as doing good. Jesus explains the first and second commandments in terms of doing good.
The essence of love as purposely doing good or being a benefit prevails in both the Old and New Testaments. Old Testament writers testify that God’s love involves doing good by promoting overall well-being. “The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made” (Ps. 145:9). We should “give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, and his love endures forever” (136:1).
The Lord speaks with Moses and offers this self-description: ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex. 34:6).
The apostle Paul believes God intends the good of others when Paul prays “may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word” (2 Thess. 2:16-17).
Paul emphasizes the essential relationship between love and goodness saying love “repays evil with good” (Rm. 12:21). Love does good by building up rather than destroying (1 Cor. 8:1b). Love “hates evil and clings to that which is good” (Rm. 13:9).
In his instructions on love, Peter says Christians should “not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing” (1 Pt. 3:9).
The disciple John, who wrote often and well of love, identifies love with promoting well-being. John says we know best about love because of Jesus’ beneficial action, “We know love by this, that [Jesus] laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 Jn. 3:16).
The argument we ought to follow Jesus’ example comes in the context of John’s call to help those in need. He asks rhetorically, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” (1 Jn. 3:17) The implication is that love entails doing good, i.e., promoting well-being.
I use the phrase “promoting overall well-being” in my definition of love instead of a phrase like “doing good.” I use it to gather together a number of biblical terms pertaining to benefiting, helping, and being or doing positive things.
Biblical authors sometimes use the word “blessing” to talk about the well-being love promotes. Sometimes, biblical writers use the word “peace” to talk about well-being, in the sense full-bodied shalom.
Jesus refers to well-being when he says he came that we might have “abundant life” (Jn. 10:10). Jesus also expressed love and thereby promoted well-being when he healed the sick and cast out demons.
The phrase “well-being” has been equated in other literature and in the Bible with health, healing, happiness, wholeness, medicine, and flourishing.
Promoting overall well-being can mean acting in a wide variety of ways when doing good. It can mean meeting basic needs, such as providing food, water, air, and suitable living conditions. It can involve enhancing physical and mental dimensions of life.
Promoting well-being may mean caring for others or establishing a sense of community. It can mean promoting diverse life forms, opportunities, and cultural expressions. To do good by promoting well-being may mean securing in others a feeling of self-worth, providing medical soundness and physical fitness, fostering deep personal relationships, or cultivating social and political harmony.
Promoting well-being often includes encouraging the development of Christian virtues and practices. To promote well-being is to act intentionally to do good in at least one but often many ways.
We use the word “love” in many ways. I want to encourage us to reserve its use for those actions we think are intentionally done in the hope of doing good. We should follow the example of Jesus, who lovingly “went around doing good” (Acts 10:38).