Remember the time-worn nursery rhyme about the old woman in the shoe? There was an old woman who lived in a shoe. She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do.” In my childhood I thought that the shoehouse woman’s children went unloved and uncared for because she didn’t know what to do for them.

Even as a child I knew what people should do for those they loved. They should take care of them. They should look after them and take pleasure in them. And they should seek to provide them with happy experiences. I knew nothing about romantic love, or what we call “romantic love,” but I did know about parents loving their children.

I just knew that people who loved their children would take them to Elitch’s Gardens or Lakeside (our Denver equivalent of Disneyland before there ever was a Disneyland). Those places had all the fun things, like carousels and roller coasters and games where a lucky kid could win a giant stuffed animal, a plaster statue with glitter all over it and other wonderful junk—or not-so-wonderful junk—that he could give to his always appreciative mother.

For a child things are simple: when you love someone, you do things for them. But the child grows up. Feelings and ideas change. Somehow, somewhere, our concepts about true love shift from giving to getting. All too often when a man tells a woman he loves her, he does not mean that he wants to provide for her. He means that he wants to get something from her. In modern drama and literature we tout a romanticism we label “love,” but that is not love at all. It is mostly lust, the desire for something or someone because it pleases us.

As believers committed to following Christ, we partially grasp the concept of real love. We experience God’s great agape love, and we know that it is his will for us that we love as he loves. Yet we generally despair of ever living up to that ideal.

If we are to love as we ought to love—as God wants us to love—we must distinguish between love and lust. The difference involves direction. Love gives. Lust gets. The proper definition frees us to understand the nature of love as an action. Then we see that we can begin to follow God’s imperative by doing the loving thing.

At this point many become paralyzed. They fear that if they reach out and love another person, they may be rejected. If they give of their substance, they may not have enough for themselves. If they try to relate, they may be inadequate and fail; and if they try to serve God, they may not be “good enough” to please him.

The remedy for such inertia lies in remembering the source of the love God wants us to have. He is the fountainhead of that love, giving himself through us. As Scripture puts it, “…the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit…” (Romans 5:5). As believers, we generally understand that we have power to proclaim the gospel through the Holy Spirit who strengthens us. Yet all too often we forget that the Holy Spirit can also give us the strength to exercise the godly love that we need to love the unlovable.

In order to protect ourselves from the rigors of true, unselfish love, we build elaborate emotional defenses with intellectual mortar, and we use them to buttress ourselves against potential hurt. We fail to recognize that whenever we erect such a fortress and choose to defend ourselves within its walls, it becomes a prison.

A well-known song proclaims, “Love is a many-splendored thing.” I would not dispute the many-splendored aspect, but love is not a thing. Love cannot be accurately described. To be understood, it must be experienced. Taken down to the bare, unromantic essentials, love is an attitude in the sense of assuming a position. It is a posture in the sense of taking a seated position, assuming a certain stance, or sustaining an action, like swaying back and forth. Taking a posture always entails direction.

Just as a posture requires direction, the attitude of love must ultimately lead to deeds of love. A person who loves another will seek to do the loving thing for the object of that love. The test of truelove is action.

Love as an attitude is akin to faith. And just as faith without works is dead (see James 2:17 and 20), love without loving behavior is equally inert.

Real love is not an injury where we get wounded by one of Cupid’s darts and lose our senses. True love, the love that God commands us to have when he tells us to love one another, enhances the senses. By loving as God wants us to love, we become more sensitive than ever. We can discern the right and the wrong, the true and the false, the beautiful and the ugly.

Lust, on the otherhand, enhances our selfish attitudes. It is deceptive. It can make a twisted person with a disgusting attitude look beautiful to us when we want to use that person. It may even create an illusion of nobility when, in fact, our motivation stems from a mean-spirited desire to use someone or something for our own gratification.

Lust weakens the constitution so that we become weak and cowardly. Lust demands more and more and consumes what is gained.

Whereas lust opens us to self deception and presents an illusion of reality, love—true love—brings us to the brink of reality. Love continually satisfies. Love makes us strong and able to endure adversity. It makes us attempt heroic acts.

Do you have “heart trouble?” Are you unable to find within yourself the unselfish feelings of love for God and others that you wish you had? Are you hiding behind walls that have become a prison? Is your “heart trouble” complicated by spiritual headaches? Are you confused about whom and what you are to love? Are you afraid that you lack the right heart or head condition, or that you are too weak to do the work of love? Look to God for the remedy.

Jesus came to set us free. If we allow it, he can knock down those defensive walls. His Holy Spirit can help us to love unselfishly.

Jesus was and is the greatest lover in the world. He loved us enough to die for us, and he is still loving us. When we lay hold of the active love that is true love, it makes us more like Jesus. That was his intention in commanding us to love one another when he said, “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35).

As believers, we need not suffer from “heart trouble.” Jesus is the double remedy. With a “heart transplant” (Jeremiah 24:7; 31:33), he cures the wicked heart syndrome described in Jeremiah 17:9. Then through the Holy Spirit he helps us keep that new heart strong as we exercise it with active love.