Sunday, 18 March 2012
'A LOVE THAT IS COMPASSIONATE AND TOUGH'
(CFRA broadcast date: Sunday, March 18th, 2012)
‘A Love That Is Compassionate and Tough’
The Bible says: “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm: for love is as strong as death, jealousy as cruel as the grave. Its flames are flames of fire… Many waters cannot quench love” (Song of Solomon 8:6). “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another as I have loved you…” (John 13:34).
1. Love is the most popular word in the world, but the hardest to define. Most of us talk about love, while knowing very little about it. Without having thought much about it. We often define love, for example, as being kind to others. But what is being kind? Is it the willingness to oppose the questionable behaviour of friends, behaviour that we believe will diminish and perhaps destroy their humanity? Are we, out of love, willing to risk our friendship for the sake of genuine concern for truth and sound behaviour? C.SS. Lewis has said: “Love is something more stern and splendid than mere kindness.” The one thing we must not do is to make love ‘God’. The Bible does not say “love is God”. That is idolatry. It is to define love in our own terms, which because we are a fallen people, the locus of original sin, is a very silly if not dangerous thing to do. As sinners, we tend to get our definitions not quite right. Lots of people make love ‘God’. And by doing that engage in behaviour in love’s name that harms others as well as themselves. Indeed, we are discovering that certain behaviour undertaken in the name of love has potential to kill. The most virulent plague of the 20th century is due largely to certain kinds of sexual behaviour done in the name of love. No, love is not ‘God’. Rather, the Bible says “God is love” (1 John 4:8). That is something quite different, as we shall see. What is love? That is what we need to define.
2. Love is the most practical word in the world, but the hardest to live. We make a typical mistake in thinking that living love is easy. There are several television programmes and books on the market, all of a self-help variety, that urge us to love more. The purpose is usually self-oriented or self-focused. If you love others, you are likely to live a happier and healthier life! Well, we probably will live happier and healthier lives if we love people more. But not if we do it primarily for the improvement of our own lives. It is hard to love someone when you are thinking about yourself. The dominance of self ruins one’s love for others. That is why Jesus said: “You must be as perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). The context of that saying of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is focused on loving others. Jesus is obviously exhorting his disciples to do the impossible thing. He did that deliberately, to remind them that they should try to love others but not to expect that they would be able to come anywhere close to God’s love for people. Indeed, Jesus’ words command the impossible to get us to throw ourselves on the mercy of God for forgiveness. In other words, we talk a good line about loving others but are hopelessly inadequate. Apart, that is, from God’s grace! Moreover, there is the problem of consistency. Our ability to love one person on a given day slides into impotence on another day, given different circumstances and our own changing attitudes and strengths. No, love is often very difficult to live. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try. But we need help. And we need to be realistic.
3. Love is the most familiar word in the world, and yet a stranger in the hearts and lives of so many people. This is seen in the confusion of love and sex, today. It is seen in the fact that it is always so much easier for us to love humanity in general than it is for us to love particular people. People who talk about love often miss the experience of love.
I. THE WORD OF GOD AND LOVE
1. If God is love (1 John 9:8), then only God can define love. If God’s essential nature is love, that he loves not because he finds objects worthy of his love but because it is his nature to love, then he alone can set the standard for what genuine love is and must be. And not only has God set the specifications for love, but he has also demonstrated the nature of that love in Jesus Christ whom he sent into the world. “God is love. In this the love of God was manifested towards us, that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:8-10). This is love, then; God’s free act of love for the redemption of his world that had gone wrong. That had gone bad, when it had started out with so much potential. That had wilfully rebelled against God’s person and purposes. Love is defined in terms of a free act of redemption to those who don’t deserve it. This love can only be described as holy! It is love that is undeserved. It is love that doesn’t have to give itself to anyone, but does so because it makes a sovereign choice to do so. It wills to do so, freely. It is love that is offered out of the transcendent independence of God.
2. Not only is real love holy, it is also sacrificial. Jesus said: “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34). We are looking for the definition of love. Not any old definition will do. We need the best and most precise definition we can get. When God is allowed to define love, we learn that it is first of all holy. That is, it stands apart! Some say that love is necessarily erotic. It certainly may be, from time to time, erotic. But love isn’t necessarily erotic. It may be erotic, in the best Biblical sense, as defined in the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament, in the marriage relationship. Otherwise, erotic love tends to use people for one’s own purposes. At that point it is obviously not holy. Neither is it sacrificial. Others say that love is friendship. It is mutual respect and beneficent companionship. As in the case of David and Jonathan (2 Samuel 1:26). And this certainly can be a magnificent kind of love. Yet many bosom friendships are not redemptive. They fail to lead the persons involved to new moral and spiritual heights. Others think of love as affection. Such as that often expressed in families. I personally experienced that in my parents and grandparents. I was greatly blessed by family affection. Yet I did not know a higher love until I was met by Jesus Christ. What struck me about him was his self-sacrifice. “For God so loved the world, [that is to say “us”], that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him should have everlasting life” (John 3:16). Or as St. Paul puts it: “God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that while we are still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). It is this sacrificial element of Christ’s that should catch our attention. He says to us: “I want you to love one another, as I have loved you.” The Cross was not just an event at the end of Jesus’ life and ministry. It was his whole life and ministry. The mark of the Cross ran throughout the duration of his time on earth. He was forever giving himself for others! That is love. It is sacrificial!
3. We have seen something of the nature and character of love, as we are shown it in God and in Jesus Christ. But we can go farther in defining it. We are told something if its importance and dimensions in St. Paul’s great hymn of love, 1 Corinthians 13. First, the importance of love. “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angles, but have not love, I have become as sounding brass or a clanging cymbal… And though I have the gift of prophesy and understand all mysteries and all knowledge… And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor… but have not love it profits me nothing.” The gifts of eloquence, of knowledge and faith and of philanthropic work and martyrdom are nothing without the underlying attitude and motivation of love. Holy love. Grace. ‘Agape’ is the special Greek word. In other words, the entire Christian life and ministry is grounded in love. Second, the dimensions of love are given in this marvellous chapter. “Love is patient and kind, is not jealous or boastful, is not arrogant or rude…” We mustn’t assume that his is an exhaustive definition of love. The great apostle is presumably aiming at the major faults exhibited in the Corinthian church. Nevertheless, the list is full enough to give us the idea that real love gives rather than demands, thinks more of the other than oneself, focuses on the truth rather than rejoicing in other’s faults, and possesses a faith and optimism grounded in a passionate love of and for God. Ethics and faith belong together and are grounded in a relationship with God established not only on the basis of our knowledge and love of him, but also on the basis of his knowledge and love of us (1 Corinthians 13:12b, 13b).
4. Finally, the focus of love. Jesus is quite clear about this (Mark 12:31f): we are called to love God, ourselves, and others! Love is therefore three dimensional. This is the answer to the dilemma facing us in the current epidemic of narcissism and individualism. There is a place for love of self, but only in the larger framework of love for God and love for others.
II. THE HOLY SPIRIT AND LOVE
1. The inspiration of love, what inspires or initiates love, does not lie within us but within the Holy Spirit. St. Paul tells us that love is the first fruit of the Spirit of God at work in our lives. Not only are we incapable of defining love, we also are incapable of initiating authentic love in active terms in our lives and in our relationships with others. Just as we can know the things of God only when the Holy Spirit, who plumbs the depths of God, shows them to us (1 Corinthians 1:10ff), so we can put into practice the things of God only as the Holy Spirit kick-starts them within us. Love is not something we do automatically, nor easily. It needs to be generated within us. The Holy Spirit is the great teacher and the great regenerator who can get us going, as we read the Word of God and pray, asking for action.
2. The power of love does not lie within us, but is let loose within us and through us as the Holy Spirit operates and initiates the things of God in our lives. St. Paul says: “Now hope does not disappoint us, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:5). That is, the Holy Spirit makes God’s love effective in our hearts and fulfills our hopes for a satisfactory redemptive outcome. If that is true in terms of our relationship with God, it must also be true in terms of our ethic of love! “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2). That is, free to love and live and laugh! The intensity of our Christian love derives from the Holy Spirit,
3. The growth of love, that is the development of the habit of loving and the dimensions of love and the dynamic of love, does not rest with us. It is the Holy Spirit who augments and amplifies our love. We start out small and hesitant in these things of Christian love. We cannot expect to be adequate let alone competent or victorious in our Christian love at first. Indeed, all through our lives, there are bound to be weaknesses and failures, mixups, snarls and confusion. Jesus said: “The Spirit of truth… will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). That is not only intellectual truth, but also moral truth and spiritual truth! Love will grow within us as the Holy Spirit is allowed to move in our lives and implement the things of God within us.
II. THE ETHICS OF LOVE
1. Love shows itself in an attitude of responsibility. Love gives. “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Love takes its place in the community and does its fair share. Love is prepared to serve in the church’s work, when the congregation asks for assistance. Love goes beyond the call of duty. Love is responsibly intelligent, and sees the main points in an issue. Love goes beyond its own judgements and discernments, and sees the judgements and discernment of God. That is, love is responsible because it is teachable.
2. Love demonstrates holiness and righteousness, and therefore fights for what is just. Justice flows from a holy and gracious love, grounded in the nature and work of God. Love should never get bitter. But love certainly can, and in some cases must get angry. There is a legitimate anger that is born of love. In fact, only anger that is born of love is legitimate. Justice is love in action. When we see the innocent suffering, when we see the disadvantaged left without hope, when we see the dispossessed left with nothing, then love must act. Justice must be done. And sometimes love must, for the sake of justice, become angry. But always to redeem the issue at hand.
3. If love is responsible and concerned for justice, it will also be compassionate. Love cannot be callously indifferent. Compassion is the sign of a civilized society. Civilization and civility are based on love. Love puts oneself where the other person is and does something about it. That is compassion. In our day, compassion must be diverse. It will be concerned to provide bread for the body and the bread of life for the soul. It will not be a selective compassion, but meet every need as it appears.
IV THE NEED FOR LOVE
1. Love is not optional. There is a need for love. Others need love. People desperately need to know they are loved. Love is a human need. It is an emotional need. A psychological need. A relational need. A spiritual need. People need to know that God loves them and that we love them.
2. We need love. We need to experience love. We need, even more, to give love. Jean Vanier says: “We need the wounded people of the world more than they need us.” His point is, that we need to learn to love others for our own sakes, as well as theirs.
3. God needs our love. In one sense, God is complete within himself. He needs nothing and no one. On the other hand, love for God is a way of honouring God, of worshipping God, and of expressing our gratitude to God. God needs our love.
Love begins, continues and ends in God. We know we have been loved, in the coming of Jesus Christ and in his Cross. We are called to love others. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:8).
Will you pray with me? “Heavenly Father, help us to grasp the deepest meaning of love, that God alone can define love, help us to understand the toughness of legitimate love, and the wonder and sweetness of genuine love. Enable us to understand the sacrifice that love calls us to make. Help us to grasp the inspiration that opens up our hearts to the power and growth of love. Underscore the ethics of love; the interconnection of love and justice; and the need for love in all our hearts. Amen”
Dr. Allen Churchill
To listen to the above broadcast, click on the following link: