Saturday, February 8, 2014

What is Love?

Mysterious, elusive love. It mystifies and enchants. It both elates and sickens. It provides endless inspiration for artistic expression in music, painting, poetry, prose, filmnot to mention the nostalgic lyrics of a one-hit-wonder: What is love? Baby don't hurt me no more! Like in this [pretty annoyingly] catchy song, love often mingles with pain in these contexts. Perhaps this is why a heart pierced with an arrow is so often used to symbolize love! The pursuit of love can indeed lead us down a lonely rabbit trail of sin and suffering. Our yearning for it can give rise to desperation, obsession, and compulsion. We are all on a quest to grasp it, to earn it, to experience it. Some of us find it, many of us don't. This is because many things that aren't actually love masquerade as the real thing: lust, infatuation, idol-worship, hopeless romancepeople-pleasing, co-dependency, neediness...all these things can feign love.

But what is love actually?

The concept of "love" is central to biblical truth. We know from Scripture that God is love (1 John 4:8). The gospel is rooted in love (John 3:16). The purest form of love is revealed in Jesus’s death on the cross. And we are admonished to love God above all else and to love others as ourselves (Matt 22:37-38). So what does godly love look like?

The Greek term for love used by John to describe God in 1 John 4:8 is agape, a form of agapeis, which is also used by Jesus (agapaƍ) when he quotes the greatest commandments to love God and others (Matt 22:37-38). The essence of agape love is self-sacrifice. True love, then, is not self-seeking (1 Cor 13:6). And it is the Holy Spirit who empowers us to love God and love others in a truly self-sacrificial way. Because Godly love is self-sacrificial, living it out can be costly to us. It can cost us material possessions, time, relationships, popularity, and can be really inconvenient! It motivates us to die to self (Luke 9:23; Gal 2:20). Because it is not of this world, it is often rejected by the world. But, loving others without the Holy Spirit often involves a self-serving, consumerist form of "love" that actually takes away from God and other people more than it gives.

When John says, "God is love" (1 John 4:8), he points us to the origin of love, for in the previous verse, he writes unequivocally, “love is from God” (1 John 4:7). This brings up the question, can we truly love without God?

Humans are made in the image of God, and so we have an innate desire to give and receive love. Paul tells us that the lawsummed up by Jesus in the greatest commandments to love God and love neighboris written on the hearts of men (Rom 2:15). We all have a God-given conscience that bares witness to the law in our hearts. We are pre-wired to express and seek love. While the law is written on the hearts of men, however, the fulfillment of that law is another story. Paul says, "but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous." (Rom 2:13). And to fully obey the law is impossible without Christ; Paul also writes: "For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit." (Rom 8:3-4). If we live in the flesh, then, we are unable to fulfill the law to love God and neighbor. But if we live in the Spirit, the righteous requirement of the law is fully met in us, through Christ, not through ourselves. So, God-honoring love is not possible without Christ.

But wait! you might say, I know loving, self-sacrificial people who aren't Christians! This is true. I do too. Because we are made in God's image, we all have an intrinsic ability to love others. Parents love their children, just as God the Father loves His children, for example. We were made in His likeness. It is also true that courageous acts of self-sacrificial love have been performed by people who do not know Christ. But here's the tragedy of a love without God: loving neighbor without loving God doesn't fulfill the first and greatest commandment of the law. It attempts to fulfill the second commandment to love others, but is an act of the flesh, not of the Spirit. And we know that living in the flesh is to live in sin and death (Rom 8:13). This is tough to swallow isn't it? Even courageous acts of martyrdom that have been performed by those who live in the flesh are like filthy rags before a Holy God! As it is written, "All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away." (Isa 64:6). Scripture is clear that to liveand lovein the flesh alone is to be bound by sin and death. Without being made righteous in Christ, we cannot love others in a God-honoring way with a love that endures forever. While acts of self-sacrificial love can be inspiring to many people and can be a blessing to others, they do not glorify God if they are performed in the flesh. In actuality, they are not truly righteous acts of love because righteousness is only found in Christ. But loving others in the Spirit always glorifies God because it cannot be achieved in human strength, so that the glory goes to Him! 

In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Our natural response to this would be: but I can't be perfect! That is true...who has ever succeeded in loving the Lord with all their heart, soul, mind and strength and their neighbor as themselves? We have a problem: our fallen, sinful nature. But we shouldn't be discouraged when we fail to love God and others perfectly. Christians are not perfect. We are in a daily battle against the temptation to live in our own strength and take back control from God. When we fail, the important thing to remember is that our righteousness is imputed to us through our faith in Christ—not through our own effort. And for those who are in Christ there is no condemnation (Rom 8:1)! So, we need not be slaves to guilt! 

Indeed, love covers a multitude of sins (1 Pet 4:8) and the love of God endures forever. Take a moment to absorb this...God's love never fizzles out, or shrivels up like a leaf. It cannot be swayed by sin. It is unconditional and unchanging. Godly love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres (1 Cor 13:7). It endures in perfect form for eternity! Godly love never ends in pain like the tragic love of a hopeless romance or in the death of an unbeliever. (Instead of an arrow-pierced heart, perhaps a heart with a crown over it is a more fitting symbol of love!). Godly love never fails (1 Cor 13:8). How amazing it is that Godly love never fails

And Godly love rejoices with the truth (1 Cor 13:5). Love without God, on the other hand, is not rooted in absolute truth, and so it is relative. It is vulnerable to being tossed back and forth by waves of human teaching, emotion, and circumstance because it is not anchored in truth. But Jesus said, "I am the truth." (John 14:6). So to love God, as Jesus commanded us, is to love the truthPaul further demonstrates this when he says: "wickedness deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved." (2 Thes 2:10). The truth of the gospel is the purest expression of love. God is love just as He is truth. Truth and love are inseparableinextricably intertwined. Truth and love are completely submerged and saturated in each other! In Christ, therefore, love actually is truth!

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