LOVE, THE DIFFICULT DISCIPLINE
First Christians 13
The word love is a small word with lots of meanings. We love ice cream, we love our cars. We love our jobs and many other inanimate objects.
But when most people talk about love, they talk about cuddling by fire places, intimate dinners for two. Love evokes dreams of romance, long, slow glances, endless embraces, warm kisses. Love conjures up exotic places and exciting times, a heart that dances and skips instead of beats. The very heart of love is romantic, steamy, raw sexuality.
Sometimes love reminds us of a mother caressing her newborn, a father reading to his child, a child offering his last piece of candy to his friend. It evokes the feeling of being cared for, looked after, a sense of belonging. Love calls forth an explosion of rich sensory perceptions: the smell of baby powder, food cooking on the stove on a cold afternoon, the sounds of giggles, sweet words of love. We hear old songs that call forth deep feelings, we taste candy and it brings back a kiss. The sense of touch produces in us a menagerie of thoughts that take our breath away. Those intoxicating perceptions always leave us longing for more.
These are the decorations of love that make love palatable. But often love is not so tender. There is garbage to take out and diapers to change. There is cleaning up to do after a stomach virus. There are fierce arguments in the middle of the night, the kind that one contends in heartache and misery until a solution is found, but, you are never the same again. How could she be so selfish, how could he be so mean and cruel? There is the discipline of a child who has stolen a toy from Walmart, a daughter who has broken a curfew, a son who came home drunk. There is the time when you mother looks sweetly into your face and asks, “Now, who are you?” “I am your daughter,” you reply in tears. Now you are the mother and your mother is the child and you watch as she withers away; mind, soul and body. There is the tough decision of nursing homes and first-time separations after tens of decades of togetherness. And there is the saying of goodbye at the cemetery, the loneliness of parting.
Where is the sweetness of love now? Where are the sensual pleasures, the forever promises, the dizzy heads, the lightness of heart? I tell you, that love is at its deepest in the darkness of life. We know nothing when love is still sweet and sticky. That kind of love cannot endure what life will bring. Only love that is ripened, that has peered through the glass darkly, that moves beyond its sugar coating can begin to comprehend what God means when He inspired The Apostle John to write, “Little children, let us love one another for love is from God.”
We think that we invented the word love. We are wrong. Love is a God word. It is a God centered word that describes the Father’s nature, the Son’s example and the Spirit’s fruit. And the response that it demands covers every aspect of human experience—disposition, thought life, and behavior (New Dictionary of Christian Ethics & Pastoral Theology) sv. “Love,”). Love is by far the greatest gift that God has given to us and the greatest demand that He has made of us. God defines love for He is love. He tells us to love one another. We are commanded to love God. In fact, the two greatest commandments are to love God and to Love our neighbor.
The Bible, it seems to me, separates love from feelings. You can love your enemy. You can love those who mistreat you. The most common Greek word for love in the Bible is AGAPE. But it is not the word itself that is impressive, it is the Author of Love who defines love for us. God’s love describes a disposition, a deliberate attitude toward others which seeks the very best for the object of love. That is a loaded statement because what is the best for the object of love may be blessings or judgment. Love may allow us to be in the dark with ears that cannot hear the Spirit. Sometimes these negative moments are what makes us grow. We know that our parents discipline creates in us boundaries for our lives. The love of God does the same thing for us.
Love is a discipline, a disposition toward others and not an emotion. I don’t think this is an accident. When the biblical writers wrote about feelings of affectionate love, they used the word, splanchnon. The word means, “the inward parts of a body, including esp. the viscera, inward parts, entrails” (BDAG, σπλάγχνον). In the English Standard Version, Luke 1:78 translated splanchnon as “the tender mercy of our God.” It is often translated as love, deep emotion, affection. It is an emotion that moves in the deepest part of our being. The word occurs in the New Testament only in the plural. It describes an emotion that overflows with multitudes of love.
We can love others even when no good feelings are present. We are commanded to love our enemies and those who persecute us. We can love those whom we do not like or approve. I once heard a father say that he did not like his son right now, but he loved him. I think most parents understand what he meant. I think that God loves us but sometimes he does not like us.
We need to separate love from emotion. I think that love can generate emotions, but love is not an emotion, it is a disposition towards others. We make a mistake if we live by our emotions only. The kind of love that comes from emotions only will never last. It is the kind of love that is the subject of movies and songs and novels, it burns like a roman candle and then it fizzles out.
Love is a mental and spiritual discipline. We need to understand that unchecked emotions lead to disaster. The head gives the heart a map to follow. By remembering this head-heart relationship, we develop a proper understanding of what God’s means by love.
When we think of love, we may turn to 1 Corinthians 13, often called the love chapter. After exploring what love is and isn’t, we must be very careful as we seek to understand it. We think we know love. We tend to patronize Paul and speak about profoundness and good literature, for that is what English classes have reduced it to. But what we really find is the substance of the Bible itself, it is the single most important subject of the Christian life.
Paul had been talking about the nature of the Church as the Body of Christ. We have been called to live in spiritual community. The Holy Spirit has given each one of us spiritual gifts so that we may exercise them for the good of the body. Right in the middle of this discussion, Paul stops and waxes poetically about love. Why? Because love is the connective tissue that holds the body together. Without love there would be no church.
Some people measure their religious value by their religious actions. But, Paul said that your religious acts are empty, they are nothing if it is not done out of love. We are not naive. We know that some Christian people play act so that the rest of us will see their righteousness. We all know that acts of kindness can be done without love. So, I can speak with the tongues of men, understand the sweet language of the angels, but If I have not love, I am nothing more than noise.
If I have the gift of prophecy and I know all mysteries and all knowledge, if I have the faith to move mountains but I do not have love, I am nothing. In God’s kingdom it is not your abilities or your knowledge that counts. It is far better to love than to know.
I can even act heroic and die in a sacrificial act or give away all my worldly goods to feed the poor. But even with great acts as these, if we do not have love we are nothing.
Love is the result of a transformed life, it is the result of the filling of the Holy Spirit. Our love is the joyful response to God’s grace. Love is motivated by our relationship to Jesus. We love because we have been forgiven. Love is our response to salvation. But we learn love from God himself.
We are commanded to love one another. The Law was reduced to two simple sentences. Love God. Love your neighbor. It is not about liking or friendship or admiration, it is action toward the other. Sometimes we may not like God because of our circumstances. That’s ok, we are still commanded to love God. We are commanded to love our neighbor, a word that encompasses our family, our next-door neighbor or the stranger we run into at the store.
It may be that the hardest person to love is our fellow Christian, our pastor, the poor, smelly man who sits behind us in worship, the braggart who feels the need to show they are better than their fellow Christians. First Corinthians 13 was written in the context of Church life. It is a daunting task, even Paul has trouble in his description. He describes it with negative terms as much as with positive terms. Notice the practical terms that Paul uses. Love is patient, have you ever had occasion in church when your patience was challenged? And jealousy, can it be that much church discord is because we sometimes become jealous of one another? But, love is not jealous. If the object of love is not me but others, then how could love ever brag about itself or become arrogant?
Love does not step over the bounds of propriety. It does not make unnecessary challenges to people. It does not regard a sister or a brother as a sex object. It does not look down on someone, it does not seek its own way by throwing a fit of anger, and it does not drag up old wounds and old wrongs every time a conflict arises. Love does not act unbecomingly, it does not seek its own, it is not provoked, does not consider a wrong suffered.
Love does not listen to false accusations nor does it make them. Love does not sit around pouting because you did not get your way. It does not rejoice when someone falls. I have seen this happen and it is sickening to see Christians rejoice at the fall of other Christians and it may be something that I am occasionally guilty of. Instead, Christians filled with the Spirit of God, rejoices in the truth.
Love that pours from the heart of God into the hearts of His children produces a deep affection for one another. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, love never fails. Can you imagine what kind of people we would be if we worked as hard at loving each other as we do to spite each other and to put each other down? Each one of us has the right to expect the kind of love that bears all things, believes all things and hopes all things. I have times when life does not seem worth living, you have such times as well and that is when we need each other to bear our burdens.
Paul spent a lot of his time telling the churches of his great concern and love for them. And apparently, they did the same to him. Perhaps that is the great failure of modern churches, we do not affirm our love for one another. We need to assure each other that we will bear all things, believe in each other, will hope for each other and will endure with each other, and that God’s love in us will never fail.
Even the world with its perverse understanding of love might notice if Christians practiced Godly love. Love, real love, is the best witness we can offer to the unbelieving world. You may not know the proper philosophical argument to offer the atheist or the deep science to respond to the skeptic. But love overcomes all objections. Only those who know Christ can love as he loves.
Love is ultimately defined by the incarnation. God became flesh to live with us and to die for us as the sacrifice that takes away our sins and makes us right with God. Rich Mullins called the cross, “the wounds of love.” It may remain a mystery to us why God became flesh for us. We may lack any deep theological understanding of what the cross accomplished for us. But when we realize that these actions are wounds of love that save us, how can we resist such a love? And when we walk by faith, how can we not love others in a similar fashion, even in our weak, stunted, human life!
Love is a mandate, a decree, a command. Love is not the sugar-coated feelings that we all develop. Love is hard and difficult. It is God given. And when we love, we turn the other cheek, we love our enemies, we forget the wrongs done to us, we bear with all sorts of things, we become just like Christ.