Love in the Big Circle

In Matthew 22:35-40, Jesus identified the two great commandments – love God with all your heart, soul, and mind and love your neighbor as yourself – as the greatest commandments in the Old Testament.  Did I just say Old Testament?  I did, and I said it because Jesus said it.  Jesus listed these as the greatest commandments in “the Law” (understood to be the Old Testament) saying that “the whole Law and the Prophets” (again, the Old Testament) depended on them.

In the New Testament, Jesus introduced a new love emphasis.  “A new commandment I give to you, that you love on another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.  By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:34-35).  Three times in these two verses, Jesus repeats the new and radical command, “Love one another”.  And Jesus elevated loving one another as the gold standard by comparing its priority to His love for us.

When we view love’s priorities as competing circles, love God first and love others second, we may defend our lack of loving others in a particular situation with the reasoning that in this case my actions demonstrate that I am loving God more.  The message and model of the New Testament is that we are never to deny love to others on the basis of loving God first.  Our loves are not competing loves, but complementing loves.  Loving God is one big circle and loving our wives, loving our children, loving our fellow believers, and loving our neighbors are part and parcel of the big circle of loving God.  The apostle John, for example, equates loving God and loving others at the highest level in his epistle.  As to love’s priorities, John writes that we demonstrate our love for God who we cannot see by how we love our brothers and sisters who we can see.

Let me give you one example of how this works in practice.  In Ephesians chapter 5, Paul encourages husbands to, “Love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for it” (Eph 5:25).  When we add in, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13), we find that we are to love our wives with the greatest love possible.  Our wives do not take second place to loving God.

The challenge, for ministers and laymen alike, is to not put our love of ministry – whatever God has given us to do to serve His body – above our love for our wives and I believe by extension our families as well by some expectation that leaving them behind is putting God first.  Ministers gaining their congregation’s admiration while loosing their family’s is a well-worn tale.  It shouldn’t be that way.

Before I set up shop to prepare a Sunday School lesson or write a blog post, I often ask Rhonda, “Will you be lonely if I go off and …?”  It is my way of saying, “Do you need anything from me right now before I disappear into the study?”  It is, in a small way, an expression of my love.

In I Peter chapter 3, the apostle starts the chapter off with an admonition to wives on how to treat their husbands with respect.  Turning to the husbands in verse 7, Peter writes, “You husbands in the same way, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker since she is a woman; and show her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered” (I Pet 3:7).  Do you want to be a prayer warrior?  You can pray in Jesus’ name, stare down the devil, exercise great faith, or whatever you want, but the effectiveness of your prayers may come down to the simple question, “Are you treating your wife in an understanding way?”  Or put another way, “Are you loving your wife as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for it?”

When you are doing your seminary homework and you hear the dishes rattling around in the kitchen, the most spiritual thing you could do at that moment might be to go downstairs and help your wife with the dishes.  When you would like to start the day with focused prayer and see a lunch that still needs packed for your grade-schooler, the most spiritual exercise might be to pitch in and finish the job.  In the final analysis, loving your wife does not compete with your spirituality, loving your wife completes your spirituality.  Putting down your Bible and filling the dishwasher might be the clearest expression of your love for God today!

Motivated by Love

When we embrace the gospel message of Jesus Christ, one of the changes we experience, whether rapidly or gradually, is that we are no longer motivated by selfish ambition, by “what’s in it for me.”  We have a new motivation for our actions.

In the first chapter of I Peter, the apostle goes to great length to explain our inheritance in Christ.  “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to his great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you” (I Pet 1:3-4).

Peter continues in this chapter with two actions that should naturally follow when we recognize the spectactularness of our salvation.  Obedience and love.  “Therefore [based on what I just said about so great a salvation]…as obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior” (I Pet 1:14-15).  And, “Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart” (I Pet 1:22).  Obedience and love.

It is interesting that Peter follows verse 22 with the reason we are even able to love.  “For you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God” (I Pet 1:23).  God’s imperishable seed inside empowers us to love fervently.

If our goal for living the Christian life is to keep a set of rules or attain a certain level of character qualities, the road will grow stale and the motivation will fade away.  If, on the other hand, our goal is to love from a pure heart, our motivation and enthusiasm will grow as our love grows.

Think about this progression with me and the verses that go with it.

  • My ultimate goal, the greatest commandment in the New Testament, is to love one another.  (See Jn 13:34, Jn 15:12, Jn 15:17, Rom 12:10, Rom 13:8, I Thess 3:12, I Thess 4:9, II Thess 1:3, I Pet 1:22, I Pet 4:8, I Jn 3:11, I Jn 3:23, I Jn 4:7, I Jn 4:11, I Jn 4:12, II Jn 1:5.)
  • I love others by serving them.  “Through love, serve one another” (Gal 5:13).
  • A clean vessel is a vessel fit for service.  “Therefore if anyone cleanses himself from these things [the bad stuff], he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work” (II Tim 2:21).
  • I cleanse myself by obeying God’s commands, an obedience that comes from my love motivation.  “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love” (Jn 15:10).
  • Love is our motivation to do the right thing.

The apostle Paul adds an additional dimension to our love motivation in II Corinthians 5:14, “For the love of Christ controls us.”  The idea of being “controlled” or “constrained” (KJV) by love is more than just being motivated by it.  As my friend Greg Despres points out, the word picture in this verse is like a rushing river being controlled or constrained by its banks.  Its the idea of being controlled or constrained by a crowd as we all press into an arena for a sporting event.  Faced with this “control”, it only makes sense to go with the flow.  Our love is going with the flow of who Christ indwells us to be.  Let your pride and selfish ambition fall to the wayside and go with the flow of Christ’s love filling you and overflowing in service to others.  Go with the flow!

On the Road to Change

Without taking anything away from our last post, The End of Sin’s Power?, we do need to talk about how this works in practice.  The message of the New Testament – the indwelling resurrection power of Christ in our lives and the thousand new things that come with it – is all true, but experiencing this power is a process.

The path to all that happened at our new birth becoming our normal practice is hindered by at least two barriers.  The first is our group of enemies – the world, the flesh, and the devil – that seek to empower our moribund sin nature.  I will not elaborate here as we have discussed this challenge many times (see Galatians 5 and The War with the Flesh).

The second barrier is what I call the timeline of our lives.  We start off at birth with a sin nature, personality quirks, and all kinds of things that make us us (Nature).  As we grow, we are influenced by our family dynamic, our upbringing, our poor choices, etc. (Nurture).  Added together, Nature and Nurture become a volatile combination of selfishness, ambition, pride, laziness, lust, and the list goes on and on.

Somewhere  along the way, in the beauty of God’s grace, Christ breaks through this volatile combination with His salvation and we are delivered to a new life.  “If any man or woman be in Christ, they are a new person.  The old has passed away.  New things have come” (II Cor 5:17).  When Christ enters our life, we become a new person.  However, we still retain some of the parts and pieces of the old man, even though dead, that was our normal way of doing business.  So then, the normal Christian life is a life of constant change, renewal, and repentance.

And the prospect of change should excite us.  Who doesn’t want to be a better person?  Who doesn’t want a better marriage?  Who doesn’t want more family unity?  As a new person in Christ, we don’t want the volatile combination to continue.  Change is what we want.  When we fail to change or change moves too slowly, we become discouraged and are tempted to give up.  And the excitement of change grows dim.

What I have tried to say in a multitude of ways during these posts about our promised victory over sin’s power is that Christ has given us the promise of change and the power to change by the gift of the Holy Spirit who lives inside us.  This unseen change is instant and real, but the outward expression is not automatic.  The outward change is not overnight.  But the promise and power to change is available to every believer.

I have observed two accelerators that speed up our spiritual transformation; the outward practice of the change inside.  The first is the Word of God.  “Therefore putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:21).  To “save your souls” means to deliver you from your present enemies in your struggle with sin.  The “implanted Word of God” that we receive through reading and study delivers us and feeds our spiritual transformation.  One of the keys to change is to change our thinking – getting rid of our former grid that we interpreted the world through – and begin to interpret the world through the grid of God’s thought process.  Here is a simple question, “How long will it take for your thinking process to become like God’s thinking process if you are never reading God’s Word, where His thinking process is described and explained?”  The answer might be infinity.

The second accelerator is our community of believers.  Change does not happen in a personal vacuum.  It happens in a community.  Lasting change has the  most hope of success when we grow together, side-by-side.  Is there a place for working on personal transformation by ourselves?  Yes!  But personal change has the best chance of “sticking” if it happens in the context of community.  Growing in Christ together is the emphasis of the over fifty “one another” passages of the New Testament.  “Love, encourage, greet, build up, be devoted to, accept, admonish, care for, serve, be kind to, speak truth to, be subject to, forgive, comfort, and have fellowship with one another” are just a few.  We need each other to flesh out what life looks like on the new path God has for us.