The word “love” gets tossed around casually these days but it rarely conveys the kind of love Jesus exhibited. For example, contemplate the implications of what He taught in Matthew 5:43-45; “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor’ and ‘Hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be like your Father in heaven…” What Christ asks of us is as hard today as it was back then because that kind of love doesn’t occur naturally in humans. But Jesus repeatedly stressed that developing a loving spirit takes precedence over every other aspect of our faith. It’s our love, not our piety, which identifies us as Disciples of Christ. There’s no substitute. “…Let us love one another, because love is from God, and everyone who loves has been fathered by God and knows God. The person who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:7-8). When I gripe more than I love I figuratively paint myself into a corner of unhappiness and discontent. James S. Stewart wrote, “Every man comes ultimately to inhabit the kind of world he makes for himself, and it is only the man who lives by love who can taste the gladness of God.” Or, to borrow from the Beatles’ memorable coda, “…The love you take is equal to the love you make.”
Dallas Willard wrote, “We don’t attack people in the love of God. We don’t withdraw from them. We accept them. Loving our neighbor is part of what goes into loving God. You can’t love God and not love your neighbor. They don’t fit together because God actually does love your neighbor. It seems very unlikely to many as they look at their neighbor, but God loves them. He loves the neighbor who is your enemy, so He very naturally says, ‘Love your enemies.’ To love your enemies means to seek what’s good for them, in dependence on God. Of course, the best thing that could happen to your enemies is that they’d come to know God. To love our neighbors is not to help them do the bad things they want to do to us. It doesn’t mean to help them get their way, because very often the worst thing for human beings is to get their way. So we need to know how to stand in the world under God with our neighbor in an attitude of love.”
Obviously our Lord wasn’t talking about love in the sense of “I love coffee.” He never advocated adopting a shallow, “flowers-in-our-hair”, chemically-influenced countenance that’ll wear off by tomorrow morning. Nor did He ever advise us to benignly tolerate sin in others. In other words, the love Jesus advocated ain’t as simple as it sounds. It involves never holding a grudge or being resentful. It encourages us to always look for the diamond in everyone’s pig sty – even when it’s nearly impossible to locate. It means being profoundly forgiving and patient because at times we’ve been difficult to forgive and be patient with, too. By the same token, when Christ taught, “Do not judge so that you will not be judged” (Matthew 7:1) He wasn’t suggesting we toss our common sense and our Holy Spirit-guided reasoning faculty overboard. The Scriptures insist, “You who love the LORD, hate evil!” (Psalm 97:10). It’s a bit of a greased tightrope to navigate but I think Jesus was telling us if we’re going to do any judging down here it should first be directed inwardly. St. Augustine wryly commented, “To my God, a heart of flame; to my fellow man, a heart of love; to myself, a heart of steel.”
We live in a world starved for love. That’s what Christ found in His travels and nothing touched His compassionate heart as deeply. He saw it reflected in the face of the despised Zacchaeus in Luke 19, in the weary mien worn by the Samaritan woman in John 4 and in the defeated disposition He couldn’t help but notice in the crowds that came to hear Him preach. The reality was love had become as scarce as hope among God’s people. Lovelessness was epidemic. “Look out for #1” was the universal motto. Selfishness had become respectable but Christ said selfishness was not only deplorable but the root cause of all mankind’s problems. And “fake love” may be the worst sin folks can foist upon one another. That’s what Jesus accused the Pharisees of practicing. It didn’t even qualify to be called love at all because it was so insincere. Furthermore, it didn’t help anybody because the recipients of their “love” could see right through the charade. It would’ve been better if they’d ignored them altogether than to pretend to love them by doing “holy stuff” to impress them. Most of us know what it feels like when someone’s love for us isn’t real. It hurts. Christ never puts on airs and He’s never condescending. The Bible tells us “God is love.” Jesus is God. Therefore He loved all men and women because, for Him, to not love them was impossible. He’s the embodiment of love. Frederick Buechner wrote, “To say that God is love is either the last straw or the ultimate truth.”
We all acknowledge that “All you need is love” but, at the same time, we also know how hard it is to always be a “loving person.” We can all agree that love forms the bedrock of what Jesus identified as the two greatest commandments (Matthew 22:34-40) and that all Christians should endeavor to spread unconditional love wherever we go but to say it’s a struggle is a gross understatement. Loving our enemies isn’t tough to do – as long as they keep their distance. It’s a crow of a different color to love someone nearby who constantly disrespects us, calls us names, gossips about us, makes fun of our faith, etc. Heck, even the apostles who adored their Master had trouble loving one another consistently. What we fail to see is that we’re slaves to our human nature that insists we have a God-endowed right to “get even” with those who trespass against us. Christ says that mindset’s a sign of weakness because it shows we lack the spiritual confidence to rise above our animal instincts and reciprocate hatred with love. Yet we all struggle to follow our Savior’s advice because the secular world doesn’t give a flip about what Jesus said. They think loving everyone is too risky. Christ knew that for a fact. We figure out early on that showering a person with Christ-like love carries no guarantee they’ll respond in kind. Shoot, they may even despise us for it. Yet Jesus asks us to love them anyway, to risk their rejection at all cost. He never hesitated to love. “But God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Chew on that for a moment. Before we even heard the name of Jesus as toddlers He deemed us worth dying for. That’s love on a level I can’t comprehend but nevertheless I can testify it saved me from the hellishness of my own self-destructive habits. Thus shouldn’t Christians stop thinking of it as a risk and more of an adventure? A challenge to be met? I mean, what do we have to fear? Stewart wrote, “Love’s difficulty is love’s glory.”
How long we’re willing to continue to love when it’s not being returned in kind is the litmus test of its authenticity. Jesus loved us all the way to the cross. He refused to impose limits on love. “…Peter came to him and said, ‘Lord, how many times must I forgive my brother who sins against me? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, I tell you, but seventy-seven times!’” (Matthew 18:21-22). Look, if I strive to forgive someone 77 times there’s a good chance I’ll forget what their trespass was long before I reach that number. I think that’s what Christ was getting at in His answer. Forgive until you purge all your righteous indignation out of your system and then move on. Only love can heal emotional wounds – so be patient. Give it time. For those who hold the opinion that Jesus asks too much of us; that His brand of love is humanly unfeasible I must point out that Christ would probably agree. We can’t summon up a love bulletproof as that on our own. Only the indwelling Holy Spirit can provide the strength and the courage to love that way. Why will we need courage to love without reservation? Because it will most likely be painful, that’s why. Jesus told us all about that. “Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). Taking up one’s cross is no walk in the park, folks.
However, in Jesus we find good reasons to love. One is that He opens our eyes to see the fundamental dignity and loveableness of human beings. If we don’t take the time to peer through the disguises most people wear we’ll likely never see them as the potential adoptee of God they are. Stewart wrote, “It does most mightily inspire love toward your fellow men when you can see, as Jesus saw, upon every face that passes you in the street something of the image of God.” Christ’s willingness to sacrifice His life on behalf of every individual is another reason to love. Whenever I meet a stranger, no matter how rudely they may act towards me, I try to remind myself that Jesus died for them, too. If I call myself a Christian who am I to withhold my love from those who need it most? If I don’t even make an effort to love them as Christ loves me aren’t I saying to them, in essence, that my Savior died for nothing? Perish the thought! Another reason to love is because Jesus Himself literally drenched people with love. He didn’t just order us to love, He Himself loved like nobody’s business. Peter couldn’t forgive 77 times but in Christ he could. We all have somebody in our personal history we’d rather not love. Or even pardon, for that matter. But Christ already has and, because He lives in us, we can draw upon His love and do what we’re incapable of doing on our own. The Holy Spirit, in His stead, teaches us how to love.
It was none other than Jesus who proved looks can deceive. Love appears to be the most anemic of weaponry but in reality there’s nothing stronger on Earth. Revenge is sweet at first but it soon turns sour. Using one’s position to shame those who fall short of our expectations never yields positive results and the most powerful people are usually the most unsatisfied on the planet. The same dichotomy goes for the smug who think their position makes them better than most. Jesus spun a parable for them: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself like this: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: extortionists, unrighteous people, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.’ The tax collector, however, stood far off and would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, be merciful to me, sinner that I am!’” Christ added, “I tell you that this man went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:10-14). Fess up, y’all. There’s a little Pharisee in all of us. We can do everything right and still miss the mark if we leave love out of our motivation. As Paul eloquently expressed, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but I do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so that I can remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give over my body in order to boast, but do not have love, I receive no benefit” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). Love is the most dynamic force there is and Christ possesses more of it than Earth’s oceans can hold. It was His love that worked a miracle in me; that transformed my cold, cold heart into one filled with His light; that saved and redeemed my wicked soul.
But what, exactly, is the “benefit” Paul mentioned in the above verse? The Bible indicates that love, in its purest form, asks for no reward. All it desires is to be given away freely by those who, because of Christ, have learned what it is. Love’s its own reward. When Christians love we’re only doing what we’ve been instructed to do by our Master who told us, “…When you have done everything you were commanded to do …say, ‘We are slaves undeserving of special praise; we have only done what is our duty” (Luke 17:10). Nevertheless, the law of cause and effect rolls on unabated. Those who never love will likely come to view the world as loveless. And Jesus intimated in Matthew 6:15 that the unforgiving man or woman will themselves remain unforgiven because what they do is ultimately unforgivable. Stewart wrote, “The loveless spirit is not excluded, it excludes itself from reconciliation and fellowship with God.”
Conversely, love does return the favor. That’s part of what Jesus meant when he ended one of His parables with, “I tell you that everyone who has will be given more, but from the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken away”(Luke 19:26). Love begets more love, both in the giver and the receiver. When we Christians draw living water from our inner fountain of faith and extend forgiving love with no strings attached to others, we’re imitating, as closely as we can, our Heavenly Father. And our reward per se (it feels so inadequate to label the beautiful life God has in store for us a “reward”) will be the joy of spending eternity in the mind-blowing presence of Jesus Christ, the magnificent Son of God. I’ll quote the late, great Stewart yet again: “The man who loves is creating the atmosphere in which the Spirit of God can dwell, and the Spirit comes and tabernacles in that human life and makes that soul His home. So love is crowned. The Lord is there.”