I fail miserably on a daily basis. I frequently fall short of God’s standard of holiness and sinless perfection. Thankfully, it is by grace that I am saved, and not by my own works (Eph 2:8). Paradoxically, followers of Jesus are expected to prove their love to Him by obeying His commandments (John 14:15). In my state of grace, I am no longer a slave to the law, but am expected to fulfill the law in one single word. Love.
I’m not sure I like this, to be honest. I, like many other Christians, want a simple check list of things to do, say, and think. The law is easier to follow, because it is quantifiable. In addressing the Pharisees, Jesus tells them the law allowing for divorce was due to the hardness of their hearts, not because that was God’s intended will for them. We seek such loopholes to gratify our own desires first, placing God’s will second.
And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment.” (Mark 10:5)
Our hearts are continually selfish, wanting what is only in our own best interest. The law is what makes us feel like we’ve fulfilled our obligation to God and our neighbor, yet in reality, our hearts are hardened against them. The law is a way of disguising the stench of sin and death with the thick, cloying perfume of religion and self-righteousness. Even then, we fail in the law, as God knows we will. The source of the aroma of decay is only masked; we can never cleanse it on our own. The sickly-sweet smell of religion might seem bearable to our senses, but to God it is equally disgusting as our unadulterated sin.
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Cor 13:4-7)
We tolerate our own self-righteousness because love is irrevocably the hardest thing to do. Love requires continually dying to ourselves and our selfish desires.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Mat 5:43-48)
It’s easy to love the people who are like us. Friends, family, and likable figures we admire from afar. We love what is familiar and what is pleasing to our sensibilities. This is not love. Scripture tells us that if this is our definition of love, we are no different from the pagans who don’t know love. This love is conditional and selfish, the exact opposite of the love Christ showed us.
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. (1 John 4:7-8)
As Christians we cannot afford to love halfheartedly like this. Jesus was the ultimate example of love in that, while we were yet sinners, he died for us (Rom 5:8). Our sinful nature makes us unlovable by anyone else’s standards, but God pursued us even as we continually rejected Him. There is nothing good in us apart from Him, and yet He chose to love us proactively. Jesus spent most of his ministry surrounded by the outcasts of society. These were the people unlovable by even our sinful standards, though by God’s measure we are no better.
Loving one another as Christ loves us is a dangerous endeavor. It requires an extreme sense of vulnerability even most churches don’t advocate. Our emotional well-being is the final frontier of the gospel that it has yet to pierce. We will serve our neighbor, as long as he doesn’t betray us. We will help someone in need, as long as they do not take advantage of us.
We reserve this part of ourselves, and as we offer ourselves as a living sacrifice, we conceal this part of ourselves from God. We hold back to protect ourselves from being hurt, rejected, or hated. But God didn’t hold back. What message do we send when we draw the line at risking our emotional wellbeing or being wounded, betrayed, hated, or taken advantage of? Christ was relentless in His love for us, knowing already that we would reject, despise, and kill Him.
Can we ever really draw the line to saw what we aren’t willing to risk for the sake of Christ? The image of a pure and holy Sacrifice willing to give Himself over to those who hate Him passionately cannot be reconciled with that of Christians who give only 99% of themselves for fear of being seriously wounded in some way, or sacrificing some comfort for others.
Everything we have here fades in the light of eternity. It’s all temporary, yet we cling to what can’t last because following Christ may cause some short-lived pain or discomfort. I don’t want to be insensitive to the issue of emotional and mental health, but I do believe emotional wellbeing stems from a biblical perspective and allowing Christ to transform and heal. It is when we try to preserve a part of ourselves from the potential damage the world may cause for obeying God that we make idols of ourselves and our emotions. In effect, we tell God that protecting ourselves is more important than obeying Him. Pride, security, comfort, status, stability, friendship, and fear become the idols that wield control in our lives.
For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. (2 Tim 1:7)
We must relinquish this fear, and allow ourselves to be wholly vulnerable to show real, authentic, Christ-like love for others. We will be hated, persecuted, betrayed, used and abused, but this should neither surprise nor deter us. Jesus guaranteed this to His followers in no uncertain terms.
It saddens me to think that even in the church we are losing sight of what love really looks like. We so often exchange Christ’s unconditional love for the world’s cheap knock-off version, which is dependent on the whims and selfish desires of flawed, fallen humans. We barely love one another in a way that reflects God’s love for us, let alone our enemies. The difficulty in this is that we have to set aside our prejudices, disputes, pride, self-righteousness, and condemnation to see them as Christ sees them. God sees someone worth dying for.
The need for believers to die to ourselves cannot be understated. The kind of love exhibited by Christ is uncomfortable in practice. We expose ourselves in the most vulnerable way. I’ve heard it said that the difficulty in offering ourselves as living sacrifices is that we want to get up off the altar. But God calls us to remain on the altar. There we feel helpless, yet this only draws us closer to God, relying fully on Him. Only when we crucify our wills can God work through us.
Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Rom 5:3-5)
Suffering in this life is expected, but I would rather suffer for the sake of Christ than experience pain apart from Him. Love requires us to persevere past the pain, rewarding us with a renewed spirit of hope.
I want to rejoice in my suffering as the early church did, knowing God is doing a great work in my life. I want to be able to set aside the fear that lies to me and tells me it’s not worth the risk, because I know the greater risk is to never know and share God’s love. I want to have a love for people that is so radically different from the world’s version of love that everyone who wonders at it will be pointed directly to Jesus Christ. I want to put my selfish plans and desires on the altar. I want to love vulnerably and relentlessly, because that is what it will take.