Loving Like God Loves

Galatians 5:22-23

I watched a TV interview the other day in which two panelists were discussing current cultural attitudes toward Christianity – and especially those of non-Christians.  When the co-author of the book under consideration was asked what terms are used by non-Christians to describe Christians he answered: 9 out of 10 said “anti-homosexual”, 87% - “judgmental”, 85% - “hypocritical”, 75% - “too political”.   Those are the things Christians are known for among non-Christians.  What they did not say was “loving,” which ought to be a wakeup call, because when Jesus named the one thing the world should know about his followers he said, “By this will all men know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

It was not an arbitrary flip of the coin that caused Paul to place love at the head of the list of those qualities he called “the fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:22.  Anyone who has even a superficial acquaintance with Christianity knows that love is the chief of all Christian virtues.  If a person knows only one verse of scripture it will be John 3:16, “For God so loved the world….”  And equally as memorable is 1 Jn 4:8, “God is love.” 

I’m not telling you anything you don’t know or haven’t already concluded.  Love is the very heart of God’s nature.  It is the single quality which seems to capture the essence of all of the vastness of God.  If there is one thing that is true about God it is that God is love.

But having said that, we have to admit that if we were hard-pressed we would have a difficult time defining exactly what that means.  If there is any word in the English language that is overused and under-defined, it is love.  We love ice cream, we love our children, we make love, we love God. 

Before we can talk about loving each other as God loves us, we’d better spend a few moments looking at what God’s love looks like.

If your picture of a loving God is a doting grandfather who can’t say no to his adorable grandkids, your definition needs a bit of an upgrade.  In fact, we often think of love as being the abandonment of reason and will and letting our hearts lead us.  And then we define God by our anemic definition of love by saying, “A loving God would never…,” putting God in a straight-jacket of how he must act to live up to our definition of love, or he can’t be a loving God.  And you know the kinds of things we fill in the blank with – let evil happen, let my child die, send someone to hell, etc.

Suppose one evening Jason notices that Caden is over by the wall playing with a paper clip – ready to stick it into an electrical outlet.  He jumps up and grabs the paper clip from him and tells him not to stick paper clips in electric outlets.  He begins to wail and cry, “But I want to stick paper clips in electric outlets – you just don’t love me.”  Would he be correct in assuming that his daddy doesn’t love him because he forbids him from doing something he wants to do?

So, love doesn’t always mean we let children do what they want to do.  In fact, we would probably agree that it would be unloving to let our children do things that will hurt them.  And in fact, a loving God will sometimes do things and forbid things that we think are unloving, when he knows things to be in our best interest that we could not understand, anymore than a child could understand the consequences of sticking a paper clip in an outlet.

The Hebrews writer makes the point that it is precisely because God loves us that he disciplines us – And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. (Heb. 12:5-11)

As we think about God’s love, there are certain qualities to it that define and distinguish his love from the vast number of feelings and dispositions that we have categorized as love:

First, God’s love is a gift – unmerited, undeserved, completely without our initiative.  It isn’t reciprocal – God’s love is never because of, but in spite of what we have done.  It is a gift, not a reward we earn.  Your ledger will never balance if you are trying to work off your sin with your good deeds.  God’s love for you is the kind of love a mother has for her newborn – long before that child ever realizes her need to be loved, that mother loves her – completely, unconditionally, without reserve. 

God’s love is enduring.  God loves you deeply and will never quit loving you.  It isn’t conditional – if you do this, and you obey that, and act this way, he will love you.  His love for you never quits, regardless of how far you run, how long you hide, how hard your heart – he will never quit pursuing you.  We can choose to spend eternity separated from God, but he will never quit loving us – any more than parents quit loving a child who rejects them and pushes them out of his life.  There is no more powerful description of this than in Paul’s words in the Roman letter:

What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.  (Rom. 8:31-39)

God’s love often chooses the hard way.  It would have been so much easier (from our point of view) for God just to have given up on us – considering our disobedience, rebellion, and outright betrayal.  Wash his hands and say, “To hell with you.” Wipe the slate clean and start over – that would have easier.  But Paul tells us in Romans 5:8, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this:  While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  He chose us over the easy way.  He let his own son go to the cross for us – he took our place, he bore our sins, he died our death – because of his incredible love for us.

That kind of love doesn’t have much in common with the selfish, non-committal, feeling-centered emotion that we call love.  Our love is anemic and fickle, it is finite and disposable.  When God loves, it always costs him something.  And that is the love that we are to imitate.  Paul writes, “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:1-2).

In Col. 3:12-14, Paul writes, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”

So, to say that the fruit of the Spirit is love is to say more than we bargained for.  If we are going to love in imitation of the love that God has for us, it will take a transformation.  This isn’t just a little face lift or a remodel, this is a total reconstruction from the ground up. 

There is something about love that makes it more than simply one virtue among many.  As Paul was summarizing the very essence of Christian behavior in 1 Cor. 13, he wrote, “faith, hope and love abide.  But the greatest of these is love.” 

Or, as Peter wrote in 2 Peter 1:5, “For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Love is the pinnacle, the goal of all spiritual growth and maturity.  And as we find those qualities growing in our lives, we will also find ourselves living more effective and productive lives in our relationship with Jesus Christ.

But in our passage in Galatians 5, as Paul describes the fruit of the Spirit, he begins, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”  One can look at this list as nine separate qualities that make up a Christ-like life.  But other biblical scholars suggest that it is in this first phrase that Paul gets to the heart of the matter:  “The fruit of the Spirit is love…”  Love is the fruit of the Spirit, and the following eight virtues are what love looks like – they are the essential elements which, when woven together define love.

Regardless of whether love is the summation or the pinnacle, it is without question the most important quality a Christian can possess and live.  It is the very heart of the nature of God.

But, we aren’t talking about simply a reciprocal love for God in response to God’s love for us.  “We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 Jn 4:19-21).

Now, that would be difficult enough, if we just had to love our friends and neighbors and relatives – because they aren’t always that loveable.  It is not just those who love us, but those who despise us and hate us, those who betray us and would seek to hurt us whom we must love – those who don’t look like us or talk like us or think like us.  Jesus said, “‘You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:43-48).

This call to love others like God loves us is much more difficult than we might think.  Love is much more than a detached tolerance – live and let live.  Love instead is a conscious, intentional act of will to desire and act to accomplish the very best for others.  It is not primarily an emotion – in fact, this love that we are talking about, “agape” love is not an emotion at all, but selfless action in which we bring a blessing to the life of the one we are “loving.”  John writes, “Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth” (1 Jn 3:18).

When Paul describes love as the fruit of the Spirit, he takes it out of our hands.  Love is a result of the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives – not because we finally willed ourself to be more loving and then did it – but because of the work of the Holy Spirit convicting and strengthening and planting and nurturing love in our lives, we start loving as we have never loved before.

That’s not to say you can’t or shouldn’t act more loving – you can and should.  As you look at the love God has for you, as you observe the loving actions of other Christians, you can begin to imitate that kind of love.  But love that comes purely from the well of human virtue will always be tainted with selfishness – always a little bit of “what’s in it for me” – never completely free of pride or jealousy or conditions. 

But this kind of love – this agape love – is a supernatural kind of love – it can only come from God as he changes your heart and renews your spirit from within.

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