We Christians love our “love” verses.
They are the safest verses to share, and are guaranteed to get the most likes. Lately, I have seen “love” verses used to oppose or dismiss “the other side”, which I suspect misses the heart of the verses. Love for us can be a self-serving thing: we want it extended to us while we limit our own extension of it, and we utilize it when it benefits us. This, too, misses the heart of the love verses.
They are verses we know so well, but understand so poorly.
I was struck this morning that we assume love is a good thing. The title is meant to be controversial. If “God is love”, then love is the most incredible thing in existence. However, we treat love as a cover-all for the things we don’t like; love is what makes things better. This is the “good” we want; perhaps we don’t understand what it means for love to be “good.”
Let’s see what Jesus has to say about that.
Jesus talks about love immensely, and demonstrated it with his life even more. It’s clear that love is essential to his purpose, and he made it clear that it is vital to being a follower:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.John 13:34-35
Jesus said this many times, and in this case it was after demonstrating “the full extent” of his love at the start of chapter 13, when he humbled himself by washing their disgusting feet. We could spend a tremendous amount of time breaking down what that love is and how it functions; for now we will focus on the fact that we are called to love, and by doing so people will know that we are Christ’s disciples.
So why am I saying “love is not a good thing”? We are learning here that the result of loving one another is that people will know that we are his disciples. What happens when people know that we are his disciples?
If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.John 15:18-21
If we love one another, people will know we are his disciples; if they know we are his disciples, they will treat us like they treated him.
We will be hated. We will be persecuted.
That doesn’t sound like a good thing. At least, that’s not what we are going for when we pursue love.
We pursue love because it feels wonderful; it meets our needs for being appreciated and cared for; it provides things we want or need. Why would we want something that leads to the opposite? How is that good?
A rich ruler approached Jesus and called him “good teacher”, and Jesus responded:
“Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”Luke 18:19
The man had a deeply limited understanding of “good.” Jesus knew that he intended to convey high honor, which is why Jesus related goodness to God; he also knew, if the man really believed Jesus was good, he would not have walked away in sadness.
Jesus was more “good” than the ruler could ever comprehend, yet the ruler’s understanding of goodness was too tied to his personal desires and perspectives. Someone like Jesus — who would cost him everything — could not be good.
We believe love is good, but our understanding is tied to our personal desires and perspectives. A love that costs us does not feel good.
Our local church body defines love as this:
“Love is seeking the greatest good for another, no matter the cost.”
The Apostle Paul puts it this way:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.1 Corinthians 13:4-7
We love that verse for weddings, but less so when we have to live it out. When we have to be patient, kind, not envious, not boastful, not proud, not dishonoring, not self-seeking, not easily angered, not keeping a record of wrongs, always protecting, always trusting, always hoping, always persevering… we realize how much love costs us.
Love costs us more than we have the capacity to give, and yet what we are invited to give will forever pale to what Jesus’ love cost him.
So love is not a good thing, at least not as we understand “good”. Love is not for our benefit or perseveration; it is for “abundantly more than we could ask or imagine.” When we live out love as Jesus defined and demonstrated it, people will know that we are his disciples, because no one else would be crazy enough to give up what his disciples do.
The rich ruler had committed his life to being good, believed that Jesus was good, and knew eternal life was good. The moment he realized the true “good” would cost him everything, he walked away. We believe loving others is good, believe Jesus’ love was good, and know that there is something eternal about all of it that is good. The moments when we realize love is costly, we walk away. We walk away from loving our neighbor to protect our comfort; we walk away from loving our enemy because we don’t believe they deserve it; we walk away from loving ourselves because we can’t trust who God says we are; we walk away from a life of love because it will cost us more than we are willing to lose.
We don’t have to walk away; we do need to understand what we are walking toward. If our understanding of love and its cost is too small, we will turn the moment it opposes our desires and understanding. If we, instead, remember that “God is love”, that He has called us to love, and that He can love through us, we will keep walking though we don’t have the capacity, strength, or even desire. We will find that we can love as the Apostle Paul described, not because we are good, but because God is good. Love is good.
In those moments people will not see us: they will see Christ.
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