For the last couple of months, I’ve been really thinking about the concept of love. A couple of months ago, a close family friend of ours passed away. She was a woman who loved God and loved others. It was so touching to hear so many stories of how her love touched the lives of so many. During the service, there was something that was said that in many ways made me contemplate more about love. She loved others even though at times, that love was not reciprocated. Yet, despite of this, she still continued to love. It was a reminder, yet again, to me of the unconditional aspect of love that Christ has called us to show to the world. When you see this kind of love, it really is an awesome thing to behold.
We live in a world where love is often over-sentimentalized or treated as this abstract concept that we should all try to attain. However, I think we often forget how true love is tangible and experiential. True love – the love that the Bible speaks of, the love that God exemplifies – is marked by words and deeds and not merely thoughts and good intentions. The Scriptures best captures this thought in this way: “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.” (1 John 4:9) The love of God was made manifest through a tangible act. It was not enough to have feelings of love towards humanity… it was made manifest by sending his only Son “to be the propitiation for our sins”. (1 John 4:10) And if it stopped there, that would have been amazing. But, it continues on to say that, “if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” (1 John 4:11) And that’s when things become difficult for me.
Thinking that God loves me and that this type of love is tangible and experiential is great. Who doesn’t want to be loved like that? Over the years, I have felt and experienced the love of God in my life for which I can say that I am so blessed and thankful for. But it doesn’t stop there. This love that God has shown me is the same type of love that I am called to show to others too. In fact, the Scriptures are quite insistent that we cannot say “I love God” without “I love others” in the same breath. If I don’t love my brothers and sisters in Christ whom I can see and experience in the flesh, how can I say that I love a God whom I cannot see?
It’s easy to love when the person you are dealing with is likable, charming, and non-confrontational all the time. But, let’s be real, those people never exist in real life. If you’re a human being and we have any form of interaction with one another, there is a high chance that prolonged exposures will lead to one party being offended by the other because of something the other person did or did not do. The people closest to me are the ones who actually hurt me the most. People say things and do things that can offend us. If they don’t, I truly wonder how much of that is because of a very strong people-pleasing attitude. Can we love someone who has hurt us deeply? Can we love someone who has not shown any sign of love towards us that we can perceive? Maybe. For a short time anyways. But an enduring love for others, that self-sacrificial love that God shows us and continues to show us on a daily basis even after we have offended him… probably not.
God is love. The love that I speak of can only come from God and because God is the source of true love, it cannot be truly experienced outside of God. We cannot will this kind of love from ourselves. We can try to replicate it, and for a time, it may even work… but it is not sustainable. That’s how you can discern whether it is real or it is fake. It is a humbling thing to recognize and realize. I think we all want to be known as loving people. But let’s be real, loving others in that unconditional, self-sacrificial way is frankly exhausting. The faster we realize that we can’t do it on our own and how badly we need help, the easier it is to show this type of love that will cost us everything. When you know that you’re in the right and the other person is in the wrong, and that other person hasn’t even recognized that they are wrong, let alone ask forgiveness from their wrong, true love says it doesn’t matter. You still have to love. Before someone completely misunderstands what I mean, I will say that there is a time and place for correction in love. Loving someone does not mean that you can’t tell them about how their actions are not the right options. However, the manner in which one approaches a sensitive issue matters.
Our current political and social climate has not been the best environment for love to be fostered and nourished. Instead, fear seems to be the primary motivator. Changes and transitions in our culture can often lead to feelings of tumult and mayhem. I have seen this us-vs-them mentality becoming stronger everyday. Even among evangelical Christians, I hear their fear in their voices when speaking of where we are as a society. No one is exempt. Yet, the Bible is clear that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” (1 John 4:18)
And so I am reminded yet again of Jesus’ words to his disciples, “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” I think about the true love that Jesus shows to the poor and marginalized and I am convicted that I do not do the same. I think about the true love that he showed even to those who would seek to do him harm and I am convicted that I do not do the same. It has often boggled my mind how easy it is for some of us to think the other as a heretic or misguided when that same inclination is also true of us. (Question: how many read that line and thought “uh oh, sounds like someone drank the poison of relativism lately”? Do not worry, dear reader. I will let you know that this has been addressed by the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords Himself in Matthew 7:3-5 “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”)
I think that’s why true love is so difficult to achieve apart from God. For true love to exist, we need to have an attitude of humility. However, we cannot have an attitude of humility without the acknowledgement of our position as a creature and God’s position as creator. Once that is firmly established in our hearts and minds, it will provide the proper soil for true love to live. The thought that I must “in humility count others more significant than myself” can be difficult. Pride reigns in this sinful heart of mine. More and more, I am compelled to remind myself of John the Baptist’s words: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30) Without God, this whole showing true love experiment is not going to work out. With God, the possibilities of how this true love can be shown through our lives is limitless.