The more I use words like “love,” I am forced to consider the reality that its definition is as subjective as it is confusing. The English language is kind of awkward with some of its words, and “love” is one of them. It has several definitions, any of which can apply.

“I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

“No, I love you like a brother.”

“Well, I love you like a mom.”

“I love you like a slice of pizza.”

“I love you like a puppy.”

“I love you like I love a good movie.”

“I LOVE you love you.”

“Huh?”

“I’m in love with you.”

“But I love tennis.”

“Oh, never mind.”

“Love” and its many meanings always seem to make sense to us except where our faith applies. When the word “love” becomes sanctified into the Christian faith, it takes on a rather nebulous nature that sometimes defies definition. It’s especially evident when we try to apply our common definitions to the word when used in Scripture.

When Jesus gave His simplified list of commandments as “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself,” we really can’t apply any of our traditional definitions. We certainly can’t love God like a slice of pizza, and loving our neighbor like a puppy seems even less practical. Surely, this isn’t what Christ taught.

When we try to bring the Greek words for love into the picture, it becomes even more complex. Koine (koin-AY) Greek is the language that is used in the New Testament, and there are three words for love in that language. Two of them are used in Scripture. The first, agape (uh-GAH-pay), is a kind of selfless devotion that illustrates the kind of love that God has for us. The second, phileo (PHI-li-oh) is more “affectionate” or “brotherly” love. The third, eros (ER-ohs), which is a romantic and sometimes sexual kind of love, is not used at all in the New Testament.

Okay, I don’t know about you, but I’m even more confused than I was when I started. With all of these definitions to “love,” just what was Jesus talking about when he said to love God and love our neighbor? Sure, it’s simple. The ethereal and pious kind of “love” that we sometimes picture in our minds just doesn’t seem to hit home for us. Well, it doesn’t hit home for me, anyway. In a word, it’s impractical.

What would happen if we did the unthinkable, and substituted a few—more practical—words for our lexicon of Christian-ese? Instead of “love God, love people,” let’s put in a couple of words that completely turn our understanding in its heels:

Passion for God, Compassion for People

I first heard this when attending a conference in Kansas City about prayer. It really stuck. The simplicity of these words and the clarity of their definition have given a new life to a dry and dusty religious expression.

When I think of “passion,” It’s as much romantic as it is a kind of devotion that is centered on a fiery love affair with the Creator of the universe. It is a mutual affair that in another context might even be scandalous! And that’s the kind of love that I believe Jesus was talking about. When we think of phrases like “the lover of my soul” and “the keeper of my heart,” it’s clear that many of the writers in the Bible had this kind of passion in mind.

Just consider the implication. It’s a relationship with the living God, our Creator, the One who loved us enough to send His one and only Son to die for us—a passionate love—a love that can only be described as like a honeymoon. It’s the kind of love where you want to explore, to learn about each other (or rather, learn about Him). There’s a fire burning in your spirit, butterflies in your stomach. What a wonderful picture of His love for us! And imagine if we could have that same love for the Lord.

Then there’s “compassion for people.” It’s a real, living, relational kind of love that embraces all people no matter where they are. It’s compassion for those who are downtrodden, hurting, wounded, sick, imprisoned, and just plain rejected. Jesus showed this kind of compassion all throughout his ministry, and his teachings reflected that.

But there’s another side to compassion that we don’t always think about. It’s a kind of compassion that allows us to even have a sense of love for those who have rejected US. We’re often most critical of those who have actually picked up the stones, ready to stone the poor sinners. But what if we had enough compassion—or love—to show the love of Christ to even those who have cast us aside?

That’s compassion. It’s not pity. It’s love in its truest sense. Remember, dear friends, Christians, even those who have been the most hateful toward the ‘misfits’ of society, are our brothers and sisters in Christ. They are part of the great family of God. They are, in short, our neighbors—the very people Christ commanded us to love. We, the ‘misfits’ really want to have people love US, but isn’t it a two-way street? I think it is.

Don’t you just love it?