As Christians, we are called to live a certain way, to be followers of God, walking in love just as Christ first loved us, giving freely of himself. (Eph. 5:1-2) Charity, kindness, goodness, and gentleness are intended to bloom from our souls, the fruits of a life transformed by the power of the Spirit. These fruits aren’t designed to grow and ripen before eventually rotting on the vine. Instead, they are to be offered up, used to strengthen and nourish others, to bless and edify them.
This isn’t a difficult concept for most Christians. That is until it runs up against our self-interest or makes us uncomfortable. We live in a world where we are taught that love is nothing more than a subjective feeling that can disappear as quickly as it appears. In this sense, we often find that we are willing to sacrifice so long as that sacrifice doesn’t demand what we deem is too much from us. In many instances, that’s when our sense of altruism seems to have run its course, and we find that our idea of love is one that is, often, quickly departing.
There is a great irony here. This is because we all desire love, grace, compassion and mercy, charity, and goodness; we want gentleness and understanding. Still, we can be slow to give it. More than that, we can be quick to put limits on it based on how we may feel at any given time.
It’s easy to see where this struggle comes from. We are not naturally inclined towards giving of ourselves, particularly when it seems like it’s putting us at some disadvantage. This natural inclination is why the sacrifice of Christ is so perplexing to the unregenerate soul because it is so pure, given in humility, lacking all pride or vanity or sense of ego. It is entirely selfless, given in love. Even though we are regenerate, brought to faith in Christ by the power of the Spirit, and adopted as sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father, we are not yet as we will be in the resurrection. We must still contend with that part of our nature that draws us away from that selflessness and humility, knowing that the flesh will always seek to call us back to who we were rather than who we should be in Christ.
Christ’s Expression of Love
When I think of this, one of the first places my mind goes is to Christ’s words when he is asked what the greatest commandment in the Law is. His answer is simply, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matt. 22:36-37) Yet he does not leave it there. Instead, he continues by stating that the second greatest commandment is like the first. This is namely that “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matt. 22:39).
Draw your attention to the first portion of verse 39, just before Christ states, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s here that he says that this commandment is like the first. The question then is, what does he mean by that?
The obvious answer is that they are both expressions of love for others besides ourselves. The first commandment is to love the Lord our God, and the second is to love our neighbors. These are both external to us; in this, the nature of our love should primarily focus outward to others rather than simply inward to ourselves. Likewise, we can say it is an expression of John’s principle of love which the beloved disciple offers in his first epistle, stating that since God first loved us, we, in turn, love. (1 Jn. 4:19)
Christians, called to be a disciple of Christ, is called to love God above all else, and, in loving God, they are then called to love their neighbor. The two are intrinsically bound together, inseparable from each other. If one loves God, then they love their neighbor, and in loving their neighbor, they express love for God.
In this sense, we recognize that there are two fundamental relationships here, the vertical and the horizontal. The vertical represents our relationship with God, while the horizontal represents our relationship with others. Neither can be sacrificed for the other, and, in this, often, what we find is that they mirror each other. Our relationship with God is reflected in our relationship with our neighbor. Christ himself explains this to us in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. (Matt. 25:31-46)
In this story, Christ speaks of those who cared for the King when he was in need versus those who ignored his struggles. His statement to both groups, the sheep on his right and the goats on his left, is that which they offered to these, the least of his brothers, they did also unto him. Here, Christ shows those who listen to him that the love, charity, and kindness that we offer to others directly correlates to the love that we show to him. We cannot forsake our love for others without abandoning our love for Christ. Our desire then, regardless of the challenges that it may present to our flesh or to our old nature, should always be to give of ourselves, even when it presents a challenge or represents a difficulty on our part.
Who Are Our Neighbors?
Perhaps a portion of our difficulty rests in who we consider our neighbors. This is not a new struggle or challenge for us. Christ himself addresses this question in the Sermon on the Mount when he states, “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.” (Matt 5:43–48)
Let’s focus our attention on a portion of the text found in verse 43. This is the “hate your enemy” portion of it. When Christ says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,'” he uses a second-person future indicative meant to function as an imperative in Greek. Here is the fundamental problem with this. One can find the command for the individual to love their neighbor in the Old Testament and the teachings of the Law (Deut. 6:4-5; Lev. 19:18), but there is no reference, no command for the individual to hate their enemies. Christ is, instead, confronting a popular teaching of his day, countering an erroneous interpretation among the religious leaders of his day.
In this, Christ radically transforms our understanding of who our neighbor is. The initial desire is to establish boundaries and, with these boundaries, limit who we view our neighbors to be. Yet, our Savior shows us these constraints do not exist. As such, the love and the grace we are intended to show extends further, weaving its way through the entirety of humanity, not simply those we wish to view as our neighbors out of ease, convenience, or comfort. As John of Chrysostom explains, “… Even though you should meet your enemy, is not his suffering enough to overcome and subdue your resistance to being merciful? And what about his hunger, cold, chains, nakedness, and sickness? What about his homelessness? Are not these sufferings sufficient to overcome even your alienation? But you did not do these things for a friend, much less a foe. You could have at once befriended and done good. Even when you see a dog hungry you feel sympathy. But when you see the Lord hungry, you ignore it. You are left without excuse.”
The Christian imperative to love then is not tempered by our feelings or desires, nor is it limited by the difficulty level involved with expressing that love. It is not constrained by the fact that it may be inconvenient for us. Instead, in reflecting the most genuine nature of Christ, it is intended to extend past us, springing from a sincere sense of who we are as disciples of Christ, born again in the precious blood of the Lamb, bearing those fruits of the Spirit.
This understanding is expressed in God’s own love for humanity. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (Jn. 3:16) Even when we were enemies of God, He reconciled us through His Son’s life, death, and sacrifice (Rom. 5:10), seeking after us and calling us to faith by the power of His Holy Spirit. This is what we are intended to emulate, a love so grand, so selfless, so devoid of pride and vanity that it gives freely and without pause or hesitation on our part.
The Permanence of Love
Why? Simply put, it is because this love is intended to be a transcending, encompassing love.
Think, for a moment, of the apostle Paul’s description of love found in his first epistle to the church in Corinth. Here he begins by stating that “love never ends”, or, as it is more commonly translated, “love never fails.” (1 Cor. 13:8) The conveyed meaning is that Christian love never falls. It is never futile or useless. It is never ineffective. Even when we cannot see its end, it always realizes its purpose.
Yet, so often we place our priority on other spiritual gifts, on other spiritual manifestations, never quite realizing that these are fleeting. These gifts are but temporary. Prophesy will pass away, tongues will cease, and knowledge will fade. Even as they do, we come to recognize that they are never quite realized in their fullness. These are all but partial, and their function and purpose will disappear when this life fades to eternity. (1 Cor. 13:8-9) Yet, faith, hope and love, these span beyond this life, and its limitations, reflecting a surpassing permanence. In this sense, they are far more important than any spiritual gift which we may receive, having an intrinsic value in the life of all Christians that endures forever. The greatest of these virtues then is love, unchanged and unchanging, steadfast by its very nature.
The reason for this is, first, because that relationship which we have with God, bore in love, carries through eternity, transcending the temporal to the triumphant. Second, it has a deep and abiding value in the life of the believer who lives by faith in hope for those things to come. The Christian who lives in and according to the apostolic lives a life filled with love, which is born from a pure heart, a good conscience and a sincere faith. (1 Tim. 1:5) This is the fruit of the Spirit we bear, intended to strengthen, nourish and edify others, drawing them towards faith and eternal life.
Thus love is what we, as the regenerate of Christ, born again of the Spirit, transformed by His power, perpetually strive towards, recognizing its inherent value. Constantly aware of the fact that how it manifests in our life is a reflection of the faith that sustains us, a reflection of our God, who is, in and of Himself, love, we don’t to limit it or its reach. Rather we recognize that those things that would keep us from love are but passing by. They are but fleeting distractions of the old nature meant to keep us from the new. Letting go of them, we must, instead, cling firm to the greater, to the ever prevailing and sustaining, allowing it to flow from us in wondrous mercy, grace, and hope.
As disciple of Christ love should pour forth from our being. It should do so not out of a desire for good works nor out of a desire to simply please God through our works. Instead, it should do so because of who we are in Christ, our nature transformed by the Spirit such that we are unable to hold it back. This, though, doesn’t just happen. It takes self-awareness, looking deep within ourselves, and recognizing those places that are holding us back, those places that we are clinging to that keep us from loving as God intends us to. It takes identifying our own deficiencies, those places where we have failed and are failing, and, in prayerful humility, turning it all over to God, trusting that His Spirit will remove those hindrances from us.
This can be incredibly difficult. Our society has, after all, conditioned us to believe that love is a feeling, one that is roughly on par with any other emotion. It conditions us to view love as purely subjective. We love those we feel like we can love, and we love until we feel like we can’t love anymore, or until it is no longer convenient. In those moments we feel as if our duty to love has run its course.
The truth is, as difficult as it is for us to understand, the love that we are called to is neither a feeling, nor is it subjective. It is objective, and an intrinsic part of who we are as a Christian, unavoidable and inescapable. It is a fruit of the Spirit. The branch does not simply produce the fruit because it feels like it, nor does it stop because it feels as if it has grown enough and its job is done. It produces the fruit because of the tree it is a part of and the strong roots that keep it alive. As such, we must recognize that the love that we show blooms from us as Christians because of the love of Christ, that love that, through blood, grafts us to the tree of life.
Love, dear brothers, and sisters is giving freely of yourself, offering freely of yourself, and showing grace, mercy, hope, and compassion to those in need. It is realizing that this is the blessing of your faith as the Spirit works in you and through you. See this love as a manifestation of your love for God. Recognize it as a manifestation of the love of Christ within you. You will then see that love abides, standing firm and never failing.
Lord, grant this unto us all…