Some beautifully miraculous events have taken place in my life recently. As the well of my heart overflows with joy, I have struggled to find the words to express what God is teaching me through this season of life on the edge of following Him in a new work. While we wait in the stillness for God to do what only He can do, it does not mean we are inactive. On the contrary, our lives are full to the brim, full of opening our home, time, resources, and hearts to those with whom God has given us the amazing privilege to serve and love extravagantly. Through simple acts of abundant giving and kindness, God has been teaching me and my family new ways to express our faith and follow Him together. Actually it isn’t really anything new. It is an ancient, often forgotten, way displayed for us in living color through Jesus and the manner in which He walked while His feet touched planet earth.
This way can be summed up in one tiny, yet powerful, word, a word whose meaning has been distorted, abused, and misunderstood far too much. It is the Way of Love. I capitalized this on purpose because there is really only one way to experience love in its truest, most radically life-changing form, and that is through Christ and Christ alone. “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). Real, genuine love can only come from God, because God is the very definition of love. Love is absolutely vital to faith in Jesus, because it is the one unifying point of Scripture itself. “‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?’ And he said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets,” (Matthew 22:36-40).
In the statement above, Jesus was saying that all of Scripture can be summed up by these two commands, that everything we read from beginning to end in the Bible can be understood from the lenses of loving God with all that we are and loving others as we wish to be loved. In fact, the word Jesus uses for depend means to hang or suspend and is the word chosen to describe how Jesus hung on the cross. Think of these two commands as the foundation on which everything about being a Christ-follower is built, except less like a building and more like a giant suspension bridge with two pillars of equal heights from which the entire structure is secured. If either pillar is removed, everything collapses as the pieces dependent on them lose their ability to achieve their designed purpose. Without those pillars, nothing else matters. Both pillars are also of equal importance. A person cannot claim to love God and not love others, and a person cannot truly love others without the love of God.
Notice how in 1 John 4:7-8 quoted above, we are reminded to love one another and that anyone who does not love, does not know God. John takes this further when he writes, “If anyone says ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother,” (1 John 4:20-21). John is echoing Jesus’ words to His disciples during His last meal with them before His death on the cross: “A new command I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another,” (John 13:35).
Did you catch what Jesus said? The world will know that we are followers of Jesus Christ by observing our love for one another. Did you catch what John wrote? We cannot love God if we do not love others. This is huge! Our ability to love people directly affects our ability to love God. Let that sink in: our ability to love people directly affects our ability to love God. If we aren’t seeking to find ways to love others, we are not in step with the heart of God. Let me say this again in an even stronger tone: If we are not actively going out of our way to be the love of Jesus Christ, relentlessly seeking people who need that love, and rearranging our very lives to offer them that love in genuine, real, tangible ways, then we are not living as followers of Jesus Christ. “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead,” (James 2:14-17). “So whoever knows the right thing to do, and fails to do it, for him it is sin,” (James 4:17).
This is serious business, something with which we all need to wrestle regularly, because love isn’t just a warm, fuzzy feeling of acceptance, nor is it a verbal beating about what a person should or shouldn’t do and should or shouldn’t believe. Love is something we live, something we do, and we must do it with purpose and intentionality. Since love is so central and integral to the Christian life, then it would stand to reason we need to know what it is, what it means, and how to express it with authenticity. Therein lies the problem. We humans struggle to understand love, let alone demonstrate it in our daily lives. Due to our sinful nature, we have taken the simplest, most beautiful gift ever given and twisted it into this marred, misshapen, mangled mess of human meddling. Somehow we have turned love, something that ought to be as easy as breathing, into something so overcomplicated we often can’t even recognize it when we see it, nor are we any good at expressing it in a genuine, pure way without a radical shift in our focus and perspectives.
So, what is love? Jesus talked a lot about love with His disciples as they spent their last Passover meal together, a ceremony that signified the blood of an innocent lamb protecting God’s people, freeing them from a life stuck in slavery. In fact, the entire point of Passover was to offer a picture of the ministry of God’s promised Messiah. “And he said to them, ‘I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer…’ And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood,'” (Luke 22:15, 19-20). During that same evening, Jesus spent time washing His disciples’ feet. The God who holds the universe in place, took on the limitations of human flesh, got down on his knees, and lovingly ministered to the filthiest parts of humanity. He also said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” (John 14:15), and, “This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends,” (John 15:12-13). This type of love is so radically different from our shallow definition. People who live this type of Christ-centered love are willing to lay down their way, their rights, their own good, for the benefit of others. “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others,” (Philippians 2:3-4). Interestingly, if you continue reading Philippians chapter two, Paul says our attitude should be like Jesus’ attitude when He did not hold onto His position of power in heaven, but left everything behind to come for us by becoming one of us in order to demonstrate His great love for us (Romans 5:8).
I could go on showing example after example in scripture where Jesus not only emphasized but exemplified selfless love for others through simple acts of service and genuine friendship to the least, the lost, and the lonely, the outcasts of society. Luke takes the idea of the greatest commandment a step further when he writes about a religious leader who wanted to test Jesus by asking Him what he needed to do to be saved. Jesus put the question back on the man by asking him what he thought God’s Law had to say. The man rightly answered Jesus by recounting the two greatest commandments: love God with all you are, and love your neighbor as yourself. Scripture doesn’t tell us this, but I have a feeling this same man had heard Jesus’ answer to this very question before; however, he had ulterior motives behind his questioning, “But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?'” Jesus responded with a parable about a Jewish man who was attacked by robbers and left for dead on the side of the road. Three individuals encountered this desperate man in need of immediate help. Two of them were religious leaders, the type of person one would assume to be the first to stop and help their fellow countryman. However, both passed by, barely acknowledging the obvious need right under their noses. It was the foreigner, a man of a nationality considered to be enemies of Israel, a people to be shunned and ignored, a Samaritan, who stopped to help a person he could have considered his enemy and not worth saving. After all, the injured man was part of a people who had oppressed the Samaritans, yet in this story, it was the oppressed who offered uncommon kindness to his oppressor. Isn’t that remarkable?
It’s not the religious who posses a capacity to show real love, it is those who know how undeserving they are of love, who know how much God has forgiven them, who know how desperately they need God just to make it through the day, who are able to express the kind of love Jesus commands His followers to give to anyone, no strings attached, no hidden agenda, no ulterior motive, other than an authentic desire to offer belonging and companionship without pre-conditions. It is a love that sees the God-given potential in every person, sees them as someone intricately made by God to be a treasured daughter and son of the King of the universe, sees them as a sister, a brother, a family member whose life was purchased by the most precious, valuable price ever paid, the blood of Jesus, BEFORE that cherished, loved one ever realizes any of this REGARDLESS of whether or not they ever do. Jesus didn’t require the woman at the well in John 4 to meet any expectations before He treated her as a human being worth His time; in fact, the Bible says He went out of His way to make sure He arrived at that well at the precise time the woman came there to draw water, so she could encounter His lavish, unconditional love. Jesus didn’t see her as a convert to be won, a number to get through a door, an attender to pad His number stats, or a means to an end…she was the end. He went out of His way to go to her, to meet her where she lived in the everyday, so she could have an encounter with her Savior.
“Jesus suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore, let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God,” (Hebrews 13:12-16). Jesus went outside the walls of the temple to reach humanity. He went to the places where sin, darkness, and hopelessness reigned most fiercely. He equated worship with sacrifice, with acts of service and love shown to those we believe deserve it least, those who are outside the city, the meeting place of the people of God, because we also deserved the love of God least. Jesus said to go, not stay and invite people to come. He said we don’t have a lasting city here, but we live for a future city, God’s city, His Kingdom, for His glory, not ours.
There is a passage in 1 Corinthians 13 that is popularly used in weddings. In reality, this passage is not talking about marriage. It’s talking about spiritual gifts among the family of God. After describing how spiritual gifts are to be used within the church, Paul writes that it doesn’t matter how great your gifts are, how fantastic a speaker you are, how many good deeds you do, how many sacrifices you make, if love is not at the center of your actions, then you’ve accomplished nothing. You can help out children and families with gifts at Christmas. You can deliver powerful sermons. You can invite hundreds of people to attend a well-put-together church service. However, if you are not willing to go, to leave your place of safety, to sacrifice your comforts to offer your presence to people, to sit with them as they grieve, to hug the children you send gifts to at Christmas, to listen to people’s real hurts and needs rather than speak great words at them, then you’re not really showing love, and you’re not really accomplishing anything for the Kingdom of God, because that is not how God loved us. God loved us by becoming one of us. He loved us by leaving His glory in heaven to be born in the lowliest of circumstances, offering His time and presence to sinners, and dying a criminal’s death, so we could receive forgiveness and go DO the same for others.
There is a powerful chapter of Scripture in Isaiah 58 where God calls out the evil His people had become. In this passage, God tells Isaiah to declare to the people their sin. What follows is surprising. It is a description of how God’s people seek Him daily, delight to know His ways, have fasted, humbled themselves, and worshipped Him. This doesn’t exactly sound like a description of a sinful, evil people at first, does it? However, God reveals the heart of the people, when He says, “Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,” (Isaiah 58:4). His people were claiming to love Him but were neglecting the needs of the poor, the helpless, the hungry, the hurting. God’s people were supposed to be like the Messiah as described in Isaiah 61 whose purpose was to “bring good news to the poor…bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, the opening of the prisons to those bound,” (Isaiah 61:1). God tells His people, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” (Isaiah 58:6-7).
Did you notice that none of the things God asked His people to do could be done from a distance? When God talks about sharing your bread with the hungry, He’s not talking about dropping off a few items at a local food bank. He’s talking about actually sharing a meal with people, opening your own home, offering the time of your presence, to people in need, people OUTSIDE the walls of a church building. In fact, God actually finds it detestable and offensive that His people would even meet to worship Him without having shown genuine, sacrificial love to the lost, the lonely, and the least first.
After all, isn’t this what Jesus did? Most often when we read about how Jesus decided to spend His time on the Sabbath, the Jewish day of worship, He wasn’t found in a religious building or service. Did He attend religious services? Yes, it’s just not what He spent most of His time doing on our equivalent of Sunday. He was out and about meeting the needs of real, hurting people, and He offended the religious leaders by His choice to heal and physically touch sinners rather than hang out to discuss a few Bible points with sanitized scholars in a safe, sacred space. God could not care less about our religious activity if it is not first rooted in His heart, His heart of love, and love doesn’t just offer lip-service; love offers real service, service that springs from a desire to give all that we are and all that we have, so one person might experience the same love we have so undeservedly received.