What is love? Am I really in love? I love you, but I’m not sure I like you right now. Looking for love in all the wrong places. Agape. Phileo. There are many things we say and ask about love. Hopefully this post does not muddy already murky water.

I frequently have conversations with people whose definition of love is about to exhaust them (physically, emotionally, or financially), but they feel incredibly guilty if they “love less.” How could that be loving, Christ-like, or God-honoring?

Unless we answer this question many of us will become burned out and/or bitter by trying to do what we believe God calls us to do.

Let’s start with an image. Picture love as a basket and begin listing the actions, motives, and dispositions that belong in the basket. Service. Protection. Sacrifice. Joy. Pleasure. Forgiveness. Benefit of the doubt. Etc…

If we are not careful, we will end up saying that “love is everything.” But as with any word, when it means everything; it means nothing. Even the fact that love could require almost anything (moral) should not push us to say that “love is everything.”

So, how do we begin to take things out of the basket? We can start by recognizing that we are finite lovers. That means that my ability to love is limited by a 168 hour week. Nothing that requires more than the time I have to give can be placed in the basket. I also have a limited financial budget over which God has placed certain instructions (i.e., tithing, saving, avoiding debt). Nothing that love requires should cause me to live outside those instructions.

This begins to change the questions. Before, we might ask, how could I be loving and not do [blank] for my spouse? Or, how could I be loving and not give [blank] to my kids? I would have wanted those things, and I am called to love them as myself. They would be in a better position for life if given this opportunity.

These questions are rooted in guilt, because they are rooted in the assumption of an infinite resource. They could be applied to any good thing and with a little emotional tug result in everything going in the love basket.

The new question becomes, what is the best way(s) to love [name] with the blessings God has placed in my life? This recognizes that God blessed me in order that I might be a blessing (Gen 12:2). It also recognizes that to whom much is given, much is expected (Luke 12:48). So love is challenged to be sacrificial.

However, it also recognizes that there are limits to what we can put in love. The widow could only put in two copper coins (Luke 21:2). When we try to put more into love than God has given us to give, this is one way to define what is often called codependency.

When parents buy things for a child they cannot afford in the name of “sacrifice.” When a friend “protects” another from the consequences or revelation of substance abuse. When a spouse “forgives” physical abuse without contacting legal authorities or demanding counseling. In these cases, sacrifice, protection, and forgiveness do not belong in the basket of love (at least as defined in these examples).

But as long as we define love as everything nice, we will feel guilty when we “love less” by taking things out of the basket of love that were never ours to put in the basket.