What Does Real Love Look Like?
About the Guest
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Sean McDowellSean McDowell, PhD, is a bestselling author, coauthor, or editor of more than 18 books, including Evidence That Demands a Verdict (with his father, Josh McDowell). He is also an associate professor of apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University and blogs regularly at seanmcdowell.org. Sean speaks internationally on a variety of topics related to culture, students, and apologetics.
What does love look like? Author Sean McDowell looks at the difference between real love, sex, and our craving to be known.
What Does Real Love Look Like?
Dave: So if you want to know how to find out what love really is, where do you go? Where do you get a good explanation/definition?
Ann: Do you want my Jesus answer, like to the Bible? Or do you want what most people would say?
Dave: Most people; because I’m going to tell you what I would say.
Ann: Maybe the movies, music—oh, music.
Dave: I would say music.
Ann: He just pulled out his guitar.
Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: I don’t know if they’ll cut this out of the program or not. But I’m thinking I grew up in the ‘70s—the best music of all;—
Ann: But was it?
Dave: —you know, every song has something—but you’re thinking some of the lyrics that talk about love in the ‘70s. Remember this one? [Dave playing guitar and singing a segment of You Really Got Me Now]
Ann: I remember that one.
Dave: So that’s love; a girl gets you, so you don’t know what you’re doing.
Dave: How about/do you remember The Doors?
Dave: [Dave playing guitar; Dave and Ann singing a segment of Hello, I Love You] Now, so think about what that says. [Laughter] “Hello, I love you; I don’t even know your name. I’m just stunned by your beauty.” Or [Dave playing guitar and singing segment of Shallow]
Ann: You’ve always wanted to sing in front of a microphone. [Laughter]
Dave: I want you to sing. But here’s a song I think they’re all asking. They’re all asking Foreigner—1984—they’re asking this question. [Dave playing guitar and singing a clip of I Want to Know What Love Is]
Anyway, just a little fun. I mean, it’s crazy to think we go to love songs. The lyrics usually don’t lead us to what real love is.
Ann: But you’re right; every generation/every decade, we’re asking the same question.
Dave: Yes, and so we need help. We’ve got help in the studio with us today. We’ve got Dr. Sean McDowell, who wrote a book with the title of love in it, Chasing Love: Love, Sex and Relationships in a Confused Culture.
Ann: I was going to say that subtitle is really good because I think, as parents/as people, we’re asking those questions. They’re at the forefront of our mind in this culture for our kids, because it is confusing. We’re not really sure how to talk to our kids and what to say, and maybe it’s causing us to think, “What do I believe and think of this?”
Dave: Yes; and really, of all people to talk about this, and write about this, you have such credentials: you teach at Biola; doctorate in apologetics; I mean, you’ve traveled the world; you have a podcast about apologetics. You teach at a high school as well; right?
Sean: I do, part time; yes.
Dave: So you’re around young people all the time, and you’re hearing their questions and their concerns. Here we are, often talking to parents; and we, as parents, are like, “Okay, how do we help teach and guide our young children in our homes, as they become teenagers, in understanding love, sex, and relationships?” You’ve got all of those in your book; so we figured: “Let’s talk love today.”
Sean: Let’s do it.
Dave: Here’s the first question though: “Why this book? I mean, why now?”
Sean: I would say there’s a few answers to that—one of them is Scottie, Shauna, and Shane—which are my three kids. My oldest is 17; I actually use this as a textbook in a classroom with him, so we got to go chapter by chapter at my private school.
Ann: You used your book?
Dave: Oh, that’s awesome.
Sean: That’s partly why I wrote it, so I could talk with my kids about it in different ways. [Laughter]
Sean: My daughter is 14; she’ll be a high school freshman. She’s a volleyball player, surfer, blonde from Southern California; so I have all the concerns, especially as a dad. [Laughter] And then my son is eight, my youngest, and going into third grade next year.
Dave: So as you go through this with your son and daughter, did they make edits? Did they agree? Did they push back?
Sean: So with my daughter—what’s interesting: she was 12 when I first started to write it; she just turned 14—and I told her/I said, “Hey, if you’ll read this manuscript, and number one, give me feedback; number two, just go to coffee with me and just talk about it, I’ll buy you a pair of new shoes.” My family, as you know, Dave, we love shoes. [Laughter] She goes, “Dad, there’s an outlet down the street; I could get two for the price of one; is that okay?” I was like, “You could get three for the price of one.”
Ann: So bribing is okay at times.
Sean: You know what? It’s whatever it takes!
Sean: So she read the whole thing, took notes through it, and then we went out to a coffee shop. We sat down somewhere to an hour/an hour-and-a-half; and she’s like: “Here’s my favorite example,” “Here’s something I learned.” I was like, “What did you think about this chapter?” We just talked it through, father and daughter; there were no lectures. A big piece of this was just helping her feel comfortable, talking with her dad—
Sean: —and we’d done this kind of thing before. But we walked through the content; she gave me a little bit of feedback. I went and bought her a couple of pair of shoes.
Now, my son—this was in a classroom—the cool thing that I loved is by the time—so I teach at Biola, full time—grad program and under-grad, one class—
Ann: What do you teach?
Sean: I’ll teach theology; apologetics—kind of gospel-culture spiritual conversations/evangelism—stuff like that.
But I teach one high school class, part time, at a private school. My son is in that class—it’s juniors and seniors—so 16- to 18-year-olds. We were using this book, amongst others; and one of his feedback/he goes, “Dad, you and I have already talked about this stuff. There was not a ton new to me.” He kind of almost felt bad saying that. I was like, “That’s awesome—
Dave: That is good.
Sean: —“because that means we’ve been having these conversations for a while, and it just gave me a chance to reinforce it.”
Ann: Way to go!
Sean: It felt good. The question is always: “They know it in their head; are they going to live it out?” That’s step two, but—
Sean: —that’s really why I wrote it—to just give parents a tool to have these conversations with their kids.
Dave: Yes; and as we read it, it’s a great, great tool. I mean, just to—and you even have a small group/or a workbook to go with it, which you’ve got a nine-session Bible study for teens—we’ll have that on our website at FamilyLifeToday.com—but I mean, what a great discussion to start with a 12-, 13-,14-year-old; because they’re having discussion everywhere; and it’s confusing, what they’re hearing in your subtitles.
Where do you start when you get to the love question? Because the culture is saying, “Love is this…” Where do you start? And how would you define what real love is?
Sean: One of the things I tried to do in conversation with my kids is not unnecessarily demonize culture. One of the things I point out to my son/in our class, we talked about how, you know, the huge Marvel® movies that climaxed recently with Endgame. The final episode is Iron Man laying down his life, sacrificially, as an act of heroism and love. What does that remind us of? Jesus said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for a friend.” Sometimes, our culture gets love right; sometimes, our culture gets love wrong.
So for many in this generation, love basically equals affirmation: “Whatever you believe, however you choose to live and understand yourself, I’m only loving if I affirm that.” Well, that’s not a biblical view of love. A biblical view of love is that I am in favor of what’s objectively best for you—whether you realize it or not—to seek the emotional, spiritual, relational best and good for another, even if they don’t realize it. I mean, ironically, the people who put Jesus to death thought they were doing what was good; but they’re putting the only innocent man ever to death. So something’s not right just because we feel it or just because we choose it.
That’s where it gets difficult for this generation is they intuitively understand that love is being in favor of somebody’s best; but they have a hard time realizing: “You know what? Sometimes, that means someone might disagree with you; sometimes they might not like you—they might call you a bigot—but real love is being committed to another’s best and being willing to sacrifice for it.
Ann: I’m so interested in that—because even when you said, as parents, we can demonize the culture—and I think we do that; I remember, when my kids were in high school, I found myself doing that; because I was so fearful.
Ann: I wanted them to be fearful—like, “No, this is evil,”—thinking that will cause them to pull away.
I think it made them more curious, like, “Hmm, what do you mean by that?”; you know? As parents, I think we need to look at: “Why are we doing that?”
Dave: Yes; and I would just add that I think—even sitting with you at lunch and just watching your life—and pretty cool to see your YouTube channel blowing up [in views] and watching you interact with people with different viewpoints/different theology—there’s a gentleness in your spirit that communicates love, even when you are,—
Dave: —absolutely, on the other side of the issue.
Ann: You’re honoring everyone.
Dave: I don’t think we, in the church, have done a very good job of that; that’s loving.
Sean: I think you’re right about that. I mean, Jesus spoke truth; but He had a kindness/He had a gentleness about him. He turned the other cheek. Sometimes, Christians/we contribute just as much to the cancel culture as everybody else does. We name call. I mean, look on social media how quick we Christians just criticize, and say things to defend ourselves or win an argument, rather than ask the question: “What does it mean to love this person the way that Jesus did?”
Now, that’s hard for us, who are adults—and our identity; you know the three of us/we understand who we are and who God made us to be—but imagine being 12/imagine being 14, and they’re trying to figure out who they are. These messages from the surrounding culture are just powerful. A huge piece of this question—of like love is a part of a larger question: “Who am I?” “Who did God make me to be?” “What’s His design for my life?” “What does it really mean to love other people?”—those questions sometimes get lost when we just get into the nitty gritty of sex, love, and relationships.
I want to frame this in terms of: “What is love?” “How do we love God?” “How do we love other people?” Then some of the questions about sexuality start to fall in place.
Dave: Yes; and start there, because you do that early in the book. You take that question of love, and you go vertical with the: “Love God and love others.” Help a parent understand: “Okay, how would I teach this to my child?—to say, ‘This is a biblical godly understanding of what love is,’—and as you say, get into identity/who they are.”
Sean: Well, one of the best ways to teach something is by asking questions. I ask a ton more questions with my kids, and in my classroom, than I do just sitting my kids down and go, “Let me give you a definition about this.” [Laughter] So a song comes up on the radio; sometimes, I’ll talk with my kids. If something pops up in a movie/if it pops up in a song, I’ll just talk with my kids. I’ll say something like, “You know, that’s pretty interesting. What do you think about that view of relationships? Do you think that’s really loving?” And try to cultivate conversation more than saying “Hey, open this up; let me give you a definition.” Although, sometimes, I do that with my kids as well.
So defining love—my dad actually did this to me when I was a kid—took me to Ephesians, Chapter 5, where it says “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church.” Then it says, “Love your wives as you do your own bodies.” So if you want to know how to love your wife, the question is: “How do you love your own body?” It says: “nurture and cherish it.” Well, without getting into depth in that passage, essentially—and I go into all of this in the book—essentially, it means: to protect and to provide—is what love is.
I’ve said to my son: “If you’re in a relationship with a girl, the words that you say, your physical touch—the way you treat her—if you love her, you would act in a way that would protect her and provide for her best.” That comes from Ephesians, Chapter 5. So when I was 12 or 13, I remember my dad sharing that with me. It kind of stuck with me, so to speak, almost like a funnel. When I’d hear these songs about love, I’d be thinking, “Well, are they looking out for themselves and what feels good; or are they really protecting and providing for another?”
Dave: It’s interesting that you mentioned your dad because—you know, Josh McDowell—I was on a college campus in the ‘70s.
Dave: He came to Ball State University.
Dave: I picked him up at the airport. I was a part of Athletes in Action®, a branch of Cru®,—
Sean: Yes; I know it well.
Dave: —back in the day. It was before the “Why wait?”—I think, in the ‘70s—because “Why wait?” was more ‘80s.
Sean: That was ‘80s; that’s right.
Dave: But isn’t interesting that he’s sort of a focal point of: “Why wait?”—a campaign that helps young people stay pure, sexually, until marriage; and now, you’re writing a book. There’s a legacy/a connection there, and your dad teaching you about love. What did you get from your dad about love, even as you watched your mom and dad?
Ann: And did you question any of the things they were teaching you at the time?
Sean: Yes, on both of those. I appreciate that you observe that; because writing this was kind of coming full circle, going back and saying: “What did my parents teach me?” “What do I, maybe, disagree with?” and “How is this conversation changed?” and “What do I agree with?”
I would say, hands down, the most powerful lesson that my father gave me, along with that definition of love, is that sex is not bad—it’s good, and it’s beautiful—and God’s commandments are to protect and to provide for us; it’s a positive, not a negative. That’s why he started the “Why wait?” campaign is/he said, in the ‘80s, the culture—even the church—which is: “Sex is bad,” and “It’s wrong,”—and he’s like, “No, it’s good; it’s a blessing; it’s beautiful, but God has given us guidelines to protect us/to provide for us.” So that lens has been one of the biggest things I’ve taken away from growing up.
Probably an area where I differ a little bit is—if you go back to just the way sexuality was taught in the ‘80s and ‘90s—there was almost no discussion about singleness; there was none. I would argue, as a whole/as a church, I think we made an idol out of marriage.
Sean: Marriage is beautiful—the Bible starts with a marriage; it ends with a wedding—you know the ten commandments, mother and father are three of the ten commandments. Jesus taught on marriage; Paul taught on marriage. It’s huge; it’s the metaphor God chooses to demonstrate His love for the church.
But in view of 1 Corinthians 7 and Matthew 19, being married and being single are two equal, God-honoring ways of being in relationship. I think we downplayed singleness; and we’re reaping some of the consequences for that, now, that less people are getting married; and they’re getting married later—
Sean: —the church, in many circles, feels like, “Well, that’s just for married people not for singles,”—it’s kind of an add-on.
So in the middle section of the book, once I lay out the beginning—kind of clearing away some of the false ideas—I say: “Here’s God’s idea for sex; it’s design”; and then “singleness,”—I intentionally put it first—and then “God’s design for marriage.” That’s a piece that I think has been left out of teachings on sexuality in the church, as a whole, that is just frankly not balanced and biblical.
Ann: So as parents, how do we have that conversation? You’re right; we do that, as parents, like, “When you get married…” How would we shift that and talk to our kids at the age your kids are right now?
Sean: Yes; so when I tuck my son in at night, and I pray for him, we pray for a few things. I’ll just say something like—when I’m praying, I’ll say, “God, if Shane gets married someday, may You protect his future spouse and prepare him for that marriage.” I choose to qualify it that way, because Jesus was single; Paul was single. I think Jeremiah was; John the Baptist was. Even Paul, in 1 Corinthians 7, is like, “I wish you were like me.”
The other thing that does is—I talk to college students, and they feel like they’ve got to get married right away—that even if you get married someday, there’s a season of singleness that we shouldn’t look past. I just frame it with my kids a little bit differently.
Sometimes, if we have single people over—like in my classroom, I talked about/we had a conversation one day—like: “Hey, who are some of the single teachers on campus?” “What do you think are the challenges they’ve thought about?” “Have you ever gone to lunch with them and asked them about their life?” The students are like, “I’ve never thought about this.” I’m like, “Well, they’re a part of the church; you should be curious about their experience.” So it’s just/that’s one correction, among others, that I’ve tried to bring in the book.
Dave: I know one of the most beautiful moments of my life—and we’ve mentioned it here before, and you just mentioned praying with your son about his future spouse; you know your daughter, her future husband—I took Fridays, for the last 35 years; I know that because my oldest is 35.
Dave: When he was born, I decided: “Friday is my fast day, food wise, and I’m going to pray for his future spouse,” before she was even born. You can imagine, on wedding day for all three sons—I’m the dad, but I’m also the pastor—I’m looking at this young woman, who doesn’t know that I’ve been praying for her; I didn’t know her name, but I prayed.
Exactly, when you said that, I’m like, “I prayed the exact prayer: protect her, provide for her, a woman of God.” I’m telling you—I look at her with tears in my eyes, not just because she’s marrying my son—
Sean: Sure; sure.
Dave: —but it’s like, “Look at what God brought.”
Also, all through those years, not doing it perfectly but trying to teach our young. We had three sons, so I was trying to teach them what love looks like and how to protect and love a woman. So hearing you say that, it’s like: “What a great action step to do either one of those: you know, do what Sean does every night with his son and daughter; do what we’ve done—or figure out your own way to say, “I’m going to get on my knees for my children, not only to teach them about love/to show them what love looks like, but to pray that God would protect them and provide for them in a powerful, powerful way,”—I just think, “Man, if listeners/if that’s their action step as a result of today, wow! That could be pretty powerful.”
Ann: And Sean, what would your action step be, as we talk about love—as our listeners and parents are thinking: “Oh, yes; what can I do?”—what would you suggest with their kids?
Sean: I would say have specific conversations with your kids. I’m actually pretty convinced that most young people, even in the church, have imbibed far more secular ideas about love than biblical ideas. The best way to service this is just, in conversation, asking questions and listening can make a huge amount of headway with our kids. Worldview is largely passed on through intentional conversations and relationships. If you haven’t had this conversation, start it now. If you’ve had, be encouraged to go continue it; and do it even more.
Ann: That’s really good.
Dave: Figure out what your kids are listening to, and sit down and listen to it with them, and don’t judge it immediately—
Sean: That’s right.
Dave: —like: “I can’t believe you’re listening to this.”
Ann: I did that; I totally did that when our first was in high school. I’m like, “This is from Satan!”; you know? [Laughter] So I take this—it was a CD—I throw it in the trashcan.
Dave: She did; I remember this.
Ann: I’m so glad I’m married to Dave, because he takes it out of the trashcan. He’s like, “Hey, let’s just kind of listen to this.”
Ann: I was so overwhelmed and fearful, which caused me to react instead of respond; but I’m so glad that Dave was like that, because what you’re saying is: “Don’t demonize what they’re listening to, because it shuts down their hearts immediately.”
Sean: It does.
Ann: I think that’s really wise, just to ask questions. Oh, you may hate this song—you may think this is the raunchiest music or movie you’ve ever seen—but to say, “Tell me what you think about this.”
Sean: And you know that doesn’t mean there’s not a time to go: “You know what? This is out of bounds.” I’ve done that sometimes.
Dave: Right; right.
Sean: I’ve been like: “You know what? This is garbage. Listen to what they’re saying, buddy. Stop listening to this.” Sometimes, I’ve come back, like, “You know what? I overreacted. [Laughter] I’m sorry.”
Ann: That’s usually what I do.
Sean: It’s okay to make those mistakes; but erring on the side of not overreacting and shutting down conversation, and inviting it—more often than not—works better.
Ann: That’s good; good advice.
Dave: Listen first;—
Sean: Amen! [Laughter]
Dave: —and then, comment.
Sean: That’s biblical!
Dave: Yes, it is. Thanks, Sean. It’s been great.
Bob: Great advice today from Sean McDowell talking with Dave and Ann Wilson. Sean has written a book called Chasing Love: Sex, Love and Relationships in a Confused Culture. This would be a great book for parents to go through with teens, or for a youth group to go through together. But it’s not just a teenage book; Sean tackles questions like: “What do I do if I’m not happy in marriage?” “Can sexual sin be truly forgiven?”
We want to make this book available to you as our way of saying, “Thank you for your support of the work of FamilyLife; we are grateful for your partnership with us.” You can donate, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can call to donate. Our number is 1-800-FL-TODAY; that’s 1-800-358-6329; 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Now, I hope most of you are getting together regularly with other couples you know/other people—maybe it’s in a church small group or with folks in your neighborhood; I don’t know what the context is—but I hope you’re getting together with others to dig into God’s Word as it relates to marriage and family. You know, we’re convinced here, at FamilyLife, that the best way for us to grow in godliness is to do it in community.
We’ve put together resources designed to help small groups be able to engage with what God’s Word has to say about marriage and family. We’ve got video series like the Art of Marriage®, The Art of Parenting®, Dave and Ann Wilson’s, Vertical Marriage. I did a series called Love Like You Mean It from my book by the same name. If you’re looking for resources that your small group can use, related to marriage or parenting, go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com. Right now, between now and February 18, if you use the promo code, NEWYEAR2022, you’ll save 25 percent off any small group order. If you’re looking for some great small group resources, and you’d like to save a little money, go to FamilyLifeToday.com; and you can order from us there.
Have you ever stopped to ask yourself the question: “Would the world be a better place if everybody followed Jesus’ view of human sexuality?” and “Do we understand what Jesus’ view of human sexuality is? Does the Bible tell us?” Tomorrow, Dave and Ann Wilson will talk with Sean McDowell about that. Sean will be back with us; I hope you can be back with us as well.
On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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