Sunday, March 18, 2012
Those of you who know me well probably also know that I am somewhat fixated on the idea of Christian love. My focus on this subject is not, however, the result of some idle curiosity or even a particular intellectual interest. Nor is it born out of either a desire to carve out a niche ministry for myself or an attempt to become an expert in some particular facet of the Christian life.
The reason for my particular (and perhaps peculiar) interest in love is that Jesus made it plainly obvious that I must be interested in love -- and you, fellow believers, must be too. After all, what did Jesus say are the two most important commandments?
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Matthew 22:37-40 (NIV).
The Christian walk involves a process sometimes called "sanctification." It is the process by which the Holy Spirit both transforms us and sets us apart for the work of God. It involves being conformed in character and in the way we live our lives to the image of Christ.
It is not my purpose in writing today to do an in-depth study on the meaning of "sanctification." But, I do want to give you something very practical to think about. If the two greatest commands are that we love God and that we love one another, doesn't it follow that learning to love God and learning to love one another are at the very least vital components of the sanctification process (if not its very essence)?
As Jesus said, "All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." This thought is echoed in Paul's letter to the Romans: "8Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law." Romans 13:8
My point in raising all of this is to say that "love" is extremely important to God, and so must become extremely important to us. And, to pursue love we must understand what love is -- and perhaps what love is not.
When I was reading through my "Application Study Bible" the other day I was struck by a footnote that said: "Real love is an action, not a feeling." As I began to research what Bible scholars and pastors had to say on this subject, I found that some agreed with that statement, but that others did not. In fact, while I found these same scholars and pastors struggling to dissect and understand the exact meaning of the two Greek words for love commonly used in the Bible -- "agape" and "phileo" -- I found little consensus on an exact definition for Christian love.
At the end of the day, I am content to simply let the Bible speak for itself on this subject. And, what the Bible tells me is that true love is both a feeling and an action. For that matter, true love is an attitude.
I am not at all suggesting that Christian love is like romantic love or the stuff of Hollywood. And indeed there are times when we must love despite our feelings and emotions.
What I am suggesting is that the Holy Spirit seeks to instill in us an emotional desire -- a desire at the heart level -- to serve others; to see others succeed and grow even when there is no benefit to ourselves. How do I reach the conclusion that real Christian love is both feelings (or emotions) and actions? Because the Bible tells me so.
I could point to various places in the Bible to support this point, but for now let's just look at Romans 12. First, we are told that our love must be "sincere" or "genuine". And, to me, actions are actions -- they are neither sincere nor insincere. The same verses tell me that I am to rejoice with those who rejoice and to mourn with those who mourn. And, I just don't see how you can either rejoice with someone or mourn with them without feelings!
9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
Romans 12:9-16 (NIV)
Again, this is not to say that there are not times when we have to love despite our emotions or feelings, and not because of them. Let's face it, there are certain people who are just not that lovable. And, there are times and circumstances that make it hard to love people on a heart level.
But I do believe with all of my heart that God makes it possible for us to have a general love for people -- a heart level kind of love for others. I think that idea scares some pastors and scholars because emotional love is fickle and inconsistent. And that is certainly true.
I also think, though, that love is a lot like faith. Love is like faith first because both are fickle and inconsistent. For most of us, our faith is challenged on a regular basis. We have days when we feel like our faith can move mountains, and we have days when our faith is really tested. But, if we work at it, in time our faith gets stronger and stronger. I think our ability to love our neighbors as ourselves works the same way.
Second, you have heard it said that "faith without works is dead." Again, I think that love works the same way. Sometimes love starts with feelings or emotions. We may feel a sting in our heart when we encounter someone who is hurting, broken or in great need. The question is "what do we do from there?" Like faith, love does not mean very much if there is no action to go along with the feeling. Love without action is, indeed, dead.
There is so much more to be said about love. We are really just scratching the surface. But let me end with this.
I really think that love -- or more accurately the absence of love -- is at the heart of the decline in church attendance in the United States. I just don't think that buildings full of people who are just trying to do the right things, as noble as that might be, are very compelling. But sincere love -- real caring, a genuine desire to share both your joys and your heartaches ... well, I think that kind of love can move mountains.
Posted by Pastor John's Blog at 8:52 PM
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