To Love as God Loves

On more than one occasion in these posts, I have quoted Roberta Bondi from her book, To Love as God Loves.  This thin volume is billed as a conversation with the early church.  The conversation was a spiritual eye opener for me.  C.S. Lewis once observed that reading only modern books is like joining a conversation at eleven o’clock which began at eight, leaving us to wonder about the real bearing of what is being said.  To Love as God Loves is joining a conversation near its beginning.

Prior to the fourth century, the message of Christianity was clearly at odds with the pagan Roman Empire.  The dichotomy was so severe that many careers were closed to believers because they somehow entailed supporting, teaching, or depicting pagan mythology.  The distinction between being a Christian and being a good Roman citizen was striking and occurred at great cost to believers.  Their allegiance was to Christ alone.

When Christianity became the favored religion under Emperor Constantine, the blessing was mixed.  While persecution subsided, the result of a state religion was a loss of the Christian / citizen distinction and an influx of nominal Christians into the church.  Rather than seek reformation from within, many serious-minded believers responded to Christ’s discipleship call by forming monastic communities in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria.

One of the founders of this movement was Pachomius.  While a pagan and young conscript in the Roman army, Pachomius and his company were trapped in a tower without supplies when he first encountered Christianity.  A group of Christians reached the confined troops with food and drink, and Pachomius was so impressed that he inquired about the group’s identity.  He was told, “They are people who bear the name of Christ, the only begotten Son of God, and they do good to everyone, putting their hope on him who made heaven and earth and us.”¹  Pachomius became a believer and dedicated his life to expressing the Christian message in terms of how he first encountered it; by loving others and becoming their servant.  He went on to start a series of what became the first of the desert communities up the Nile in Egypt.

The focus of these early monastic communities was learning to love as God loves.  The idea that the goal of the Christian life is love; it is not to acquire a set of personal qualities was the eye opener for me and I believe is supported by the big picture message of the New Testament.  Our modern bias often misses this point.  We think the desert fathers and mothers were focused on the spiritual disciplines for the disciplines sake and we equate their asceticism with an unhealthy distaste for all things physical.  When understood in context, their serious desire to reign in “the passions” was simply a pathway to loving as God loves.  Professor Bradley Nassif summarized the journey from ascetic rigor to love in the May 2008 issue of Christianity Today magazine this way,

“When practiced in humility, ascetic rigor results in greater love.  The monks fasted because they were hungry to love God more; they prayed because they wanted closer communion with God and neighbor; they contemplated so they could better fix their gaze on their divine spouse; they practiced silence because they wanted to hear God so they could speak and act more wisely to the people around them.  The end goal of every spiritual practice employed by the monks was love.”

Our spiritual forefathers found that love and humility were powerful weapons against our self-centered and casual view of discipleship.  We think of monks as isolationists, but these attributes were forged and practiced in a community setting.  May we follow their example in our own communities – families, neighborhoods, and churches – by learning to love as God loves.

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¹ Pachomian Koinonia.  Vol. One:  The Life of Saint Pachomius and His Disciples.  Translation and introduction by Armand Veilleux.  Kalamazoo, Michigan:  Cistercian Publications, 1980.

Love Walked Among Us

I’ve written before about the nebulosity of love.  Love is easy to talk about in the abstract, harder to put into practice.  We understand love is the essence of God’s character, but how does that translate into love living in us?  We can extol love as the greatest of gifts, but do we lift love to that level in our relationships?

As in all things under the New Covenant, our new arrangement with God, the answer goes back to Jesus Christ.  In Jesus, love exemplified took on flesh.  In Jesus, love walked among us.  In Jesus, we have the fullness of love expressed in attitude and action.  And as Jesus reminded us over and over, His life of love was a reflection of the Father.

In Love Walked Among Us, author Paul Miller paraphrases Jesus’ statement in John 5:19, “I do nothing on my own.  I can only do what I see my dad doing.”  Mr. Miller continues, “We see this kind of dependence as unhealthy.  We prize independence and trusting ourselves, but at the foundation of Jesus’ life lies a childlike trust in God, whom he calls ‘Father.’  Jesus is not controlled by a rule book but by a relationship.”

At the center of this relationship is love.  Jesus took the love of the Godhead and extended it to us.  Both by showing us what love looked like during His earthly ministry and by the ultimate expression of love; dying in our place.  “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.  You are my friends, if you do what I command you.  No longer do I call you slaves; for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you” (Jn 15:13-15).  The kingdom that Christ ushered in during His first Messianic appearance among us is indeed the “kingdom of love.”

Again, at the center of this kingdom is a love relationship.  God instructs us to love not to reach some higher level of spirituality, moral perfection, or understanding.  God’s command to love, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (Jn 13:34), is inherent in who He is and who we are as His children.  Quoting again from Paul Miller, “Jesus interpreted life through the lens of his Father.  He didn’t say we should love our enemies because ‘that’s what love does,’ he said we should love because that’s what his Father is like.”

Love That Builds

Today we continue the theme of “love trumps knowledge” with a stop in I Corinthians chapter 8.  “Now concerning things sacrificed to idols, we know that we all have knowledge.  Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies” (I Cor 8:1).  In other words, while knowledge puffs up, love builds up.

In I Corinthians chapters 8 to 10, the apostle Paul writes about the “gray areas” of life in a Christian community, areas where sincere believers disagree about participation in certain events or practices.  A particular challenge to Corinthian believers was whether or not to eat meat sold in the market that was previously used as a sacrifice to idols.  Paul summarizes the knowledge argument for eating the meat in question saying, “Therefore concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one” (I Cor 8:4).  Basically, because idols have no intrinsic meaning (they are merely wood, stone, metal, etc.), eating meat sacrificed to idols is acceptable.  We are free to participate based on our knowledge about idols.

But knowledge is not the end of the story.  In verse 7, Paul continues, “However not all men have this knowledge; but some, being accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were sacrificed to an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled” (I Cor 8:7).  These believers, coming from an idol worship background, are sinning against their conscience by their participation.  What is the knowledgeable brother who is not harmed by participation to do?

“But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.  For if someone sees you, who have knowledge, dining in an idol’s temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols?  For through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died.  And so, by sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ” (I Cor 8:9-12).

The word “strengthened” does not mean that your participation as a “brother with knowledge” gives your weaker brother the freedom to join in.  Rather it means that your example has emboldened or empowered your brother to sin against his conscience.  In this way, the strong have become a stumbling block and sinned against their brother.

So how does Paul handle this challenge?  He concludes, “Therefore if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause my brother to stumble” (I Cor 8:13).  This is what love does.  Love limits its freedom for the greater good of our brothers and sisters in Christ.  “Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor” (I Cor 10:24).  Knowledge puffs up.  Love builds up.  Both are “up”.  But the lesser is focused on what we know and the greater on serving and edifying the body of Christ.  Truly, love trumps knowledge.

Love Trumps Knowledge

As someone who enjoys studying the Bible, enjoys putting the big picture together, and enjoys connecting the dots, knowledge is important to me.  Not some gossippy knowledge of “who hit who” or a superior knowledge compared to the guy next to me.  No, my interest is in a knowledge of God, His creation, His purposes, and how He intended life to work for us; humans created in His image.

God values knowledge.  God values the mind.  He instructs us to study to show ourselves approved, to be transformed by the renewing of our mind, and to love God with all our mind.  But as valuable as knowledge is, it pales in comparison to love.  The great chapter on love, I Corinthians 13, makes this point clear.  If I possess great speech, great giftedness, great knowledge, or great faith, but do not have love, it is useless.  It is that simple.  Giftedness, work, knowledge; they all are of no value without love.  Love trumps them all.

This issue is important because in our effort to be knowledgable, truthful, honest, and exact in our Christianity, love is often pushed aside.  Roberta Bondi writes, “How often do we injure another person in small or great ways because, remembering that it is important to be truthful, we forget that truthfulness is only a virtue on the road to love, not an end in itself.”

Has this been your experience in your marriage, your family, your Christian community?  You have blurted something out in an effort to be truthful, without intentional ill-will, only to realize then or later the harm it caused.  Of course, maybe ill-will was your intention, hiding it under a cloak of “speaking truthfully”.  Or maybe you have been on the receiving end of such action.  Paul writes, “And beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity” (Col 3:14).

Love is the bond of unity.  Love is the bond of peace.  Love is the bond of service.  Not just in the church, but in all our personal relationships.  Let your love be without hypocrisy (Rom 12:9), and remember the practice of love supersedes making a point about what you know.

The Supremacy of Love

“Now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (I Cor 13:13).  At the center of the supernatural Christian life is the desire and ability to love as God loves.  In His essence, God is love (I Jn 4:8).  And as His children, love should be our essence as well.  The apostle, John, describes the connection between God’s love toward us and our love toward one another in I John chapter 4.

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.  By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God sent His only begotten Son into the world so 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.  Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (I Jn 4:7-11).

John brackets this passage with the command to love one another.  In between, he explains the foundation for our expressive love is the love of God Himself.  The clearest demonstration of God’s love for us is mentioned twice in this short passage; God sent His Son to be the payment for our sins that we might live through Him.  Love of that magnitude is the model for us to love as God loves.

This is all well and good, but in a culture that thrives on measures of success, how do we measure love?  In reference to the desert mothers and fathers (circa 300 AD), Roberta Bondi writes in To Love as God Loves, “It is true that the distinction between having perfect love as the real goal of the Christian life and the disciplines designed to foster that love was sometimes lost.  Some brothers and sisters probably never knew any better; others did what human beings of all periods do: they simply forgot their goal, confusing their means with their ends…No amount of pious behavior or Christian discipline can replace love.”

I can measure pious behavior.  I can measure Christian disciplines.  I cannot measure love.  But our call is to embrace and practice a love that is beyond measure.  So set the yard stick aside and dive into the vast love of God.  Enjoy it deeply.  Distribute it widely.  “And beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity” (Col 3:14).  This is the supremacy of love.