So love is important for Christians. But what exactly is love? While we could look at many definitions, I think it's most helpful to look at the world our loving God created, as it was originally intended to be. In the Garden of Eden, everyone was happy, everyone was nice, and everyone was provided for. But Genesis tells us that all this changed when Adam and Eve decided they wanted to be like God and define good and evil for themselves. Rather than trusting God's wisdom and benevolence, they looked to themselves for defining good. As I was growing up, I always thought the story of Adam and Eve was a bit strange - the talking snake and the seemingly trivial command to not eat a fruit. But one of the strangest aspects of the story has always been how Adam and Eve first reacted after sinning. Their response wasn't to hide. It wasn't to run. It wasn't to fight. Instead of all the responses we would think make sense, their first response was to realize their nakedness. But as I am learning, often times it is where I think the Bible is most strange that I end up finding it to be most profound.
God placed Adam and Eve in a garden. To those living in the arid Middle East, the garden certainly symbolized abundance and provision. In the garden, nature provided everything Adam and Eve could ever need for sustenance. In the garden we also see that Adam and Eve walked with God. God provided for Adam and Eve and was in close relationship with them. Finally, we see, or at least infer, that Adam and Eve were likewise looking out for each other. Man will leave mother and father to care for and love his wife and Eve is specifically called a helper for Adam. All things in the garden were looking out for Adam and Eve's good - including Adam and Eve. Adam was always looking out for Eve and Eve was always looking out for Adam.
Sin, however, changed this. When Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, for the first time in their lives they looked inward. They looked to themselves rather than others. When Adam began looking to himself, Eve could no longer trust him to be looking out for her good. We see this explicitly when Adam blames her for their sin. Likewise, Eve was now looking out for herself and Adam could no longer trust her. We see this deterioration of relationships highlighted in the curses God gives as a result of sin. Adam and Eve will no longer be content with equality, and Adam would now seek to rule over Eve. No longer were husband and wife, man and woman, human and human looking out for the good of others. Likewise, God cursed nature. A nature which had once provided all that humanity needed would now be plagued by thorns and thistles. Humanity's relationship with nature was broken. And finally, God exiled Adam and eve from the garden. Their relationship with God was broken. The garden where love had once prevailed, where all creation looked out for the wellbeing of others, was now destroyed by the inward focus of humanity. From that day forward, humanity would be characterized as a race ruled by self-interest.
The creation story shows us that love is a concern for, a focus on, and a service to others. Love's opposite is self-centeredness. But if we live in a fallen world - if we live in a world where others are imperfect, sinful, and cruel - who is now deserving of our love? Jesus tells us that we are to love our neighbors. Without knowing who your neighbors are, I'd probably say this teaching seems pretty obvious to most of us. For those of you with irritating neighbors, perhaps this particular command seems difficult enough. But Jesus shocks us when he declares that we are not only to love those we consider our neighbors, but our enemies as well! In Matthew 5:43-48, Christ says,
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Jesus destroys our typical notions of love by exposing the self-interest inherent in most of our definitions. We are ok with loving our neighbors because we know that we need to get along with our neighbors. If we love them, they hopefully won't cause problems for us. If we love them and give them things, they may repay us when we need something. But this self-focus is the opposite of love! Love is not love if we do it out of self-interest and if we only love those who will return our love. True love is an unconditional love - a love which extends even to our most hated enemies. We love our enemies not because they can or will do any good towards us, but because, as the Apostle Paul says, love "is not self-seeking" and love "keeps no record of wrongs."
So love is central to the Bible, love is others focused, and love is for everyone. But how do we love in an imperfect world? It would be easy to create a list of ways we can love, but love is not about lists of actions. This should especially make sense to those of you who are married. How loving would a marriage be if you asked your spouse for a list of actions which you'd obligatorily complete every day? Take out the trash. Clean the toilet. Write me a love letter. Tell me that you love me before you leave for work. Kiss me at 6:03 PM. If the only interaction we had with our spouses were obligatory, we'd have some serious problems. Such a relationship would be utterly empty because as Paul told us, love isn't mostly about actions, but rather it's about intentionality and motives. Are we seeking out others, to serve them for their own sake, or are we "loving" in order to gain something or to look good? Since I don't think any list of actions will help us, let's look at the best example of love in action. Philippians 2:3-8 shows us a wonderful picture of true love as God intended it, and as God himself demonstrates it.
3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. 5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death--
even death on a cross!
Not only did Jesus give up the comfort of living in God's presence and his status of ruler, he made this sacrifice for us while we were his enemies living in sin and rebelling against God. He did this not for his own advantage, but in obedience and love towards God, and in loving sacrifice for us. Lest we think this was Christ's job as savior and primarily a Messianic role, Paul tells us that we are to mimic Christ in this very way. Notice all the relational language asking us to lay down self-interest and take up the interest of others. Paul says, Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. We are to have the same mindset as Christ. Jesus shows us how to truly love - how God truly intended the world to be. He shows us that love is a decision we make which flows forth from a character of selflessness. While we are sinful humans with marred characters, God promises that when we choose to serve Him, He will begin making us more like Christ. As God develops this character - this fruit of the Spirit - within us, we will love with a truer love each day. Our love and obedience to God will grow not because we are seeking to earn favor from God or because we're obligatorily keeping His laws, but because as His children we have experienced His true, self-sacrificial, unquantifiable, and unmatched gift of love. When one experiences such true love, they cannot help but begin to embody that love themselves. A sovereign God who loves a sinner such as myself is my daily provision, my daily assurance, and the wellspring of life from which I drink. As I daily drink from God's character and life, his stream of living water flows out from me and into the world. And since the world I and God inhabit includes our enemies, those streams are to flow even into the world of my enemies.
Love, then, is not primarily a feeling towards someone who is close to you or someone to whom you're attracted, like many today think it is. Love is primarily a decision. As Christ shows, it's a decision we make to humble ourselves, obey God, and serve others. We love not for our own benefit or because others are deserving of our love, but because it's how God created us to function and how God himself lived when he walked this Earth. We love because God first loved us, and we bear our maker's image. As we repent of all the self-centeredness in our lives and from our attempt to set ourselves up as gods and rulers of the universe, and as we turn to God for restoration and transformation - He will enable us to more accurately reflect His image beyond our own little microcosm of self and out into the cosmos. This outward love of others is how God created the world to be, and it's how the world will one day be again. As we move closer to that great day of restoration, rejoice not only in what will one day be, but in what God has already wrought through Jesus. God's Kingdom has come to Earth and if we know God, we are its citizens, new creations called to be God's ambassadors and to advance God's reign. We don't do this through the power of weapons, politics, argument, or living lives withdrawn from the world. We primarily bring Christ's Kingdom just as he did, through his body, broken and spilled out in love. Power is not found in coercive might, but rather in love. We, the church, are Christ's body, and if we know God, we will lay down our lives in love for our world, as our savior himself did. Through such foolish means God has brought us, His former enemies, salvation - and through these same foolish means and vessels he will advance his Kingdom until Christ's return. It is not the lion of Judah who John envisions conquering the world by devouring his enemies, but rather it is the lamb who was slain (Revelation 5:5-6). We are called to conquer in like fashion, through a love and concern for others that is so strong we are willing to lay down our lives.
Now let me leave you with these parting words from Paul in Ephesians 3, declaring that our God's love is power, and it is this power of love he works in us as we move out into the world as conquerors for our King:
17 And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. 20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (Eph. 3:17-21)