This is a question the world has been asking since Adam and Eve took a bite out of the apple. It is probably not surprising that modern society is very confused by this question. For instance, from the perspective of much of the entertainment industry, love has been pretty much reduced to a sexual act. The truth of the matter is that, in most cases, what is presented as love in our culture is not love at all but a counterfeit love.
In the English language, we have only one word for love. We use the word “love” for all kinds of situations from “I love ice cream” to “God loves me”. The Greeks had four words for love. They are “storge”, “philia”, “eros” and “agape”. The deepest level of love is “agape”, which is used to describe God’s love for us. God’s love is a sacrificial love, an unconditional love and a self-giving love, and this is how we are called to love one another. Self-giving love means we are called to look for what is best for our beloved, instead of looking for what appears to be best for our self. In our fallen world, this is difficult, but with God’s help, it is possible.
The Bible tells us that we are made in the image and likeness of God. In addition, the First Letter of John tells us that God is love. If you put these two revelations together, you can see that we are made for love and not any kind of love but unconditional and self-giving love. This makes sense when we consider all the happiness and aches and pains in our life as related to love and our search for love in our life. Even physically, we are made for love. By itself, our body does not make any sense. It is only when we look at our body in relation to the body of someone of the opposite sex that it makes any sense. We are made for love spiritually, emotionally and physically.
So, how are we supposed to distinguish between authentic love and counterfeit love? Let’s consider what true love looks like from the perspective of the woman. It may come as a surprise, but the Bible presents true love in an intimate love poem entitled the “Song of Songs”. In the Bible’s love story, the woman’s body is referred to by her lover as an enclosed garden: “You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride; you have ravished my heart with one glance of your eyes, with one bead of your necklace. How beautiful is your love, my sister, my bride, how much more delightful is your love than wine…. You are an enclosed garden, my sister, my bride, an enclosed garden, a fountain sealed” (Song 4:9 – 10, 12)
In this love story, the man recognizes the tremendous beauty of the woman, not just her outer beauty, but more importantly her inner beauty. He respects her dignity. She is a garden closed, a fountain sealed. He cannot breakdown or coerce his way into her garden. He must wait for her permission. He most likely is tempted to grasp at her beauty, but he knows God has prepared a beautiful banquet for them and this banquet is not ready until he makes a total gift of himself in a covenantal marriage. The question for all of us is whether we are willing to wait for the real banquet, or are we so starved for love that we are willing to pass up the great banquet to settle for just an appetizer which will ultimately be an unfulfilled love.
Another way of explaining the difference between authentic love and counterfeit love is as Saint John Paul II put it when he said, “Every man’s heart is a battlefield between love and lust.” If love at its deepest level is a self-sacrificial love, the opposite of love would be a selfish attitude towards the other person. Another way of understanding the opposite of love is self-love. The definition of lust is using another person for our own selfish gratification. Lust is selfishness, or more simply, lust is self-love. This is true for both single and married people. In fact, Christ says if you look at another person lustfully that you have already committed adultery in your heart. That is a tough statement, but there is no getting around the truth, and that is what Christ is: the Truth.
As children of God, we are called to overcome our lust and treat one another with dignity and respect. At some point or another, we have all lost the battle between love and lust in our hearts. This is especially true for those who have turned to pornography. The key is to continue to fight to overcome our selfish desires and to turn to Christ no matter how many times we fail. If we offer up our weakness to Christ and ask him to help us, he will help us. We can only find true love and happiness when we realizes the beauty of authentic love and choose to participate in the great banquet of love.
Our website is filled with more information on the beauty of authentic love and our struggles to find it. If you want to take this to a much deeper level, there are two references in our Resource section that particularly focus on love. One is the book Love and Responsibility by Karol Wojtyla (Saint John Paul II). This is an amazing book, although it can be a bit of a challenging read. The second book is Men, Women and the Mystery of Love by Dr. Edward Sri. Dr. Sri takes Love and Responsibility and explains it in a manner which is easier to understand.