On a moonlit night in a romantic setting, a man looks deeply into the eyes of his significant other and slowly and purposefully says, “I love you.” This scene has been repeated for millennia. The words are so powerful they cry out to be believed. But can they? How do you really know if someone truly loves you? And just as importantly, how do you know if you really love someone? Thankfully, God has not left us without an answer to that question. God has told us exactly what loves looks like.
Love expresses itself in action
Although genuine love usually involves a feeling, it always expresses itself in action. James succinctly wrote: “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26 KJV), and we could just as easily say, “love without action is dead.” Although a person may “feel” love, it is not actually love if it does not eventually express itself in action.
From Genesis to Revelation the Bible has example after example of love in action. The best known verse in the Bible, John 3:16, is about God’s love, and it shows God in action—He “gave.”
John 3:16 (REV)
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have life in the Age to come.
Jesus Christ loved us, so it is no surprise that he followed his Father’s example of giving.
Ephesians 5:2 (REV)
… Christ also loved us, and gave himself up for us as an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling fragrance.
Following the example of God and Jesus, Jesus told us that if we loved God we would obey His commands, which of course means acting on them and giving of ourselves (John 14:15, 21, 23).
Love and feeling good
Studying the examples of God’s love and Jesus’ love demolishes one popular myth about love. Nowhere does the Bible say that love “feels good.” Thankfully, much of the time the loving things we do are fun and feel good, but that is not always the case. It did not feel good for God to give up His Son to die for us, nor did it feel good for Christ to give his life on the cross. Furthermore, it does not always feel good to be the one receiving the love. I can remember as a kid being in the bathtub and having Mom wash behind my ears and how I hated being loved that way. Then many years later I sometimes helped wash my kid’s ears and they hated it and protested loudly. Recently I have heard my grandchildren continue the trend and fuss when they get their ears washed. Parents know that it is loving to make sure children are clean, and children somehow know it too, but that does not make “being loved” feel good. Of course, there are many more serious examples of being loved that are not fun, such as being corrected when we are wrong, but the point is a simple one: loving and being loved don’t necessarily feel good.
Love or “really like?”
Another myth about love is that true love is a feeling. Scientists still are not sure why we have a “loving feeling” toward one person and not another, or one thing and not another. Often, however, the “feeling” of love is not true biblical love, but is actually “like a lot.” The definition of “like” is: “to find pleasant or attractive; to enjoy.” Unlike love, which is “other centered” (focused on the other person), “like” is “me centered” (focused on “me”). To realize that more fully, all we have to do is think of the things we really like. Do we like chocolate? Ice cream? Vacations at the beach? We like things because of how they make us feel. Unfortunately, when we “really like” something, we say we “love” it, which then causes confusion when we read the Bible about “love” because the biblical definition of love is not our cultural definition of “love.”
Take, for example, some of the best-selling mainstream novels published in recent years. Several of them feature a man considered by the world’s standards to be “attractive,” and a girl who has never experienced “true love.” Circumstances bring them together and off they go on a whirlwind experience considered to be “true love.” But the truth is, most of these men display very ungodly qualities and behaviors toward others; they stalk, intimidate, threaten, and emotionally manipulate those around them, always intent on getting their own way even if it is at the expense of the girl they profess to “love”—they are “me centered.” By God’s standards this qualifies as abusive, selfish, and even evil. And unfortunately, these types of abusive relationships are not relegated to fiction; they abound in the world around us, and due in large part to the world’s distortion of the meaning of real love; men and women everywhere are being deceived into believing that as long as someone says the coveted “I love you,” it excuses every unloving thing they continue to do. But that is not how God sees love; He makes it very clear that love is expressed in loving actions, not just in words.
It is very important that we are not deceived by the world’s definition of love and instead focus on the love of God, which always looks out for the interest of the “other” rather than the interest of “self,” and we must guard our hearts against abuse which masquerades as “love.”
Love is a decision
Thankfully, most of the time when we act in a loving manner we also have a good feeling about it. But we do not have to feel “loving” to love someone. Sometimes biblical loving is just doing the right thing when we don’t feel like it. We can certainly understand that when it comes to obeying the commands of God. Jesus said, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word…Whoever does not love me does not keep my words” (John 14:23, 24), so we know we are loving God if we do what He says even when we do not feel like it. Jesus Christ modeled that for us, and gave up his life even though he did not “feel like it.”
Each of us has plenty of times when we should be loving even though we do not feel like it. A good example is forgiveness. God commands us to forgive those who wrong us, and it is in everyone’s best interest if we obey that command and forgive. We may not feel like forgiving, but true biblical love is giving of ourselves and being “other centered,” and sometimes that means doing what we don’t feel like doing for the benefit of the other. God also command us to love our enemies, something we rarely “feel” like doing, but obeying God is the loving thing to do. There are many examples in the Bible of people loving others without having good feelings toward them. A good example comes from the book of Exodus.
Exodus 23:4, 5 (NIV84)
4) If you come across your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to take it back to him.
5) If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it there; be sure you help him with it.
While it is loving to take the animal back to your enemy no matter how you feel, the most beneficial way to be loving is not to focus on how much you hate having to obey God and bring the animal back, but rather to reframe your thinking, work on changing your feelings, and focus on the honor it is to be able to obey God even though you do not feel like it. When we obey God it affects us and the world around us in many ways, many of which we cannot see or understand. Dropping a large rock into a still lake generates waves that affect the environment many minutes later and a long distance away. Similarly, obeying God even when we do not feel like it generates blessings in the spiritual world that we may never see or know about, but they are there.
Our lives will be truly blessed and peaceful if we can learn to obey God and do things we do not want to do, without “grumbling and disputing” (Phil. 2:14). This brings up an important point about acting in love when we do not feel like it. God has designed our brains so that often when we make up our minds to do something we did not initially want to do, and start doing it, our mind changes and we find ourselves being truly blessed doing what we originally did not want to do. That makes sense because God tells us we will be blessed if we obey Him.
The Love Test
A very accurate gauge of someone’s love is their actions over a period of time. We can tell if someone really loves us by the way they act toward us over a period of time, and we can tell if we love someone else by the way we act towards them over a period of time. Thankfully, God has not left us with a nebulous idea of loving actions, but has given us a very specific list to help us gauge the love we are giving and getting. That list is in 1 Corinthians 13.
1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (REV)
4) Love is long-suffering, and is kind; love does not envy; love does not brag, is not puffed up,
5) does not act improperly, is not self-seeking, is not provoked, does not keep a record of wrongs,
6) does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices in the truth;
7) bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 
Note that the Bible describes love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 in terms of action, not feelings.
We are now in a position to make the list into a personal checklist and test, determining, “Am I loving others,” or, “Is another person being loving towards me?” If we find that we are acting toward someone in a way that is contradictory to what is listed above, then we are failing the love test. No matter how much we say we “love” the person and have deep feelings for them, our actions betray us and reveal that we are not loving, we are focused on ourselves. What we are calling “love” is the selfish satisfaction of our personal need.
Of course there are times when people act a certain way just to get what they want. For example, a person may be nice to you just so they get their way. That is why the true test of love must occur over a period of time. Genuine love comes from the heart of a person and motivates what they say and do. Jesus taught us that the things people say come out of the overflow from their heart (Matt. 12:34; 15:18; Luke 6:45), so although people lie, eventually what is in the heart reveals itself. Therefore, when applying the “love test” it is just as important to pay attention to what people don’t do as what they do, and we must pay attention over a period of time. So just because a person is patient, kind, and gracious for a short time does not mean that those things come from his heart; he could be lying, but over time the truth will be revealed. If, on the other hand, a person rarely if ever does any of the things in God’s “love test” list, then we can say that that person does not love others.
On a similar note, if someone is acting toward me in a way that is contradictory to the love test, then the fact that they say they love me is a ruse, a lie. They say they love me (and they may be self-deceived and believe it), but they really only want to get something from me—which could fall into many different categories: my company, my money, my help, sex, or even just the need to control me.
A helpful way to take “the love test” is instead of answering “yes” or “no” to items on the list, rate each answer on a 1-10 scale. If you do this for yourself you will very quickly see the areas where you can improve and be more of a blessing to yourself and others. You might score a “9” in “does not act improperly,” an “8” on not envying others, but a “3” on being longsuffering towards others. Praise the Lord, now you have a clear idea of what to work on in your life! If you do that kind of test for someone who says they love you, you will quickly find out a lot about their love. They may really love you but just have some human faults that need some improvement (like we all do), or you may see that their saying they love you is just a lie or self-deception.
You will recognize them by their fruits
“The love test” is a wonderful thing that God did for us because He created us humans to be social beings. We hunger to love and be loved. We desire to be part of a family or group that gives us attention, support, and a feeling of our lives having meaning. That is why gangs are so successful in the inner cities where loving, cohesive families are often practically non-existent. Unfortunately, however, the desire to be loved can be so powerful we overlook obvious facts and allow ourselves to be hoodwinked by people who seem to sincerely say they love us even though their actions are screaming that they do not love us. We need to train ourselves to look at how people act, not just listen to what they say.
Jesus taught us to “Beware of false prophets” (Matt. 7:15). From the context, the false prophets he was speaking of were liars, not just simply mistaken in what they said. Those false prophets come in sheep’s clothing but inside are really wolves. Because Jesus was speaking of liars, what he taught can be applied to other liars as well, even if those liars are self-deceived. So how did Jesus tell us to recognize those people who lie to us, such as those people who say they love us when they don’t? Jesus said, “You will recognize them by their fruits…you will recognize them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:16, 20). It would be foolish of us to ignore these words of Jesus, which he repeated twice for emphasis. We must be mature enough that we do not want to be loved so badly that we ignore how people act towards us and simply believe what they say. We cannot afford to have our lives wasted by being the object that fulfills someone else’s selfish need.
God is love, and if we are going to imitate God, we have to be loving too, which means knowing when we are being loving and when we are not. Also, God has a life for us to live and work for us to do, and to do it well involves us knowing when others are loving us and when they are just using us. The “love test” God gave us helps us recognize true, biblical love. Most of us don’t like tests, but the “love test” is a test we should give and take with joy.
 When the text says, bears, believes, hopes and endures “all things,” the clear understanding from the scope of Scripture is that “all” is being used in its more restricted sense, not its inclusive sense. We bear, believe, hope for, and endure all things that God sanctions and/or that fits with His commands and character.