So you’ve made a commitment to growing spiritually in 2017? You want to be spiritually stronger, wiser, and more grounded? You want 2017 to be a year of exponential growth?
That’s what this series on Fruitful Discipline is all about. (Update on January 11, 2017: Listen to the corresponding sermon series on our Covenant-First Presbyterian YouTube Channel) Today, I’ll share with you a discipline you can practice to become more loving. Love is the master virtue. Colossians 3:14 says that of all the virtues, love “binds them all together in perfect unity.” There are lots of Bible passages that deeply explore the nature of love, so we can’t give an exhaustive look in this one post. Instead we’ll just look at I John 4:7-17 to see a few principles that will help us grow.
God defines love
When talking about love, we do face a problem: the English word “love” has become little more than a rorschach test into which we pack a range of meanings. It can mean anything from “I would sacrifice my life for this” to “I have a mild preference for this.” We love our sports teams, we love our spouses, we love our children, and we love ice cream. What’s more, we’ve smashed all kinds of attraction into love. We can be erotically attracted to someone, or we can be abstractly attracted to a principle (“I love my country”). We can say we love the people closest to us (“I deeply love my wife”), or we can say we love someone from a distance (“I just love that comedienne – she’s so funny”).
When the word “love” can mean anything, it’s easy to confuse love with things far removed from it. This vagueness leaves us vulnerable to manipulators and controllers and hustlers and lotharios who use the word “love” as a weapon to get what they want from their targets. Even worse – this vagueness makes it far too easy for us to be lazy and indulge in self-justification for our worse tendencies.
This passage tells us twice that “God is love.” God defines what it is to be loving. Let us not make the mistake, however, of importing all our vagueness of love back into God, making God into some squishy, undefined force that permeates the universe like a spiritual plasma. In the context, this statement cuts through vagueness and points us to clarity. As we come to know God through scripture, we get much more clear about the nature of love and what it takes to be loving.
First and foremost, we see the three persons of the Trinity all present in this passage. God’s nature as a Triune being demonstrates that love is experienced in relationships. Even if God had never created, God enjoyed perfect relationships in the community of the Godhead. I know that’s kind of mind-stretchy to think of. It’s far weightier of a topic than I’m ready to flesh out right now, but if you have time to ponder it, it’s worth contemplating, for the more deeply we appreciate God’s nature as a Triune being, the more deeply we comprehend the true nature of love.
However, for our purposes, we are thinking about practical disciplines. This passage tells us “This is how love is made complete among us …. In this world we are like Jesus.” (V 17) So to learn to be loving, we look to Jesus and seek, insofar as we’re able, to be more like Him.
Love as being present
Three times, this passage says that God sent his Son into the world. One of Jesus’ titles is Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” Certainly, Jesus’ atoning work is important. Naturally, Jesus’ teaching and leadership are important. Yet we shouldn’t overlook the importance of Jesus coming simply to be with humanity. Think about how many dinner parties and celebrations Jesus attended. Think about all that Jesus did and experienced in the years before his public ministry. If we are thinking in terms of pure efficiency, then that would be wasted time. But a significant part of loving is wasting time with those whom we love – wasting time with them because there is value in being with them.
It’s worth noting that the in the stories of the pagan gods, we very rarely find any examples of them simply wanting to be with humans. Oh there are plenty of stories of gods who come down to enjoy amorous affairs or to test people or to enlist mortals in their celestial Game of Thrones plots. But the God of the Bible wants to be with people simply for the sake of relationship. Jesus came to dwell among humanity, to share in life with us. He ate, walked, told jokes, looked at the stars, breathed the fragrances, and enjoyed the sensations of being human alongside other humans.
In the same way, God sends us to be with others. Do not underestimate the power of simply being present with someone and giving your full attention to them. I don’t mean sharing the same air while your mind is far off on something else. I mean bending your mind to focus on the person in front of you. Ask yourself “How can I love this person by being more fully present with them?”
Love as service
The passage tells us that God sent Jesus “that we might live through him.” (v 9) and “as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (v 10). Jesus was sent to meet our deep need of atonement. This is the highest form of service. There is no way we can imitate that work of Christ. However, in his earthly ministry, Jesus met other needs. He healed the sick, he encouraged the hopeless, he proclaimed good news. Jesus loved by serving.
In the same way, we are called to serve others. John Calvin described the Christian life as a life of self denial. He goes on to write: “Let this, therefore, be our rule for generosity and beneficence: We are the stewards of everything God has conferred on us by which we are able to help our neighbor, and are required to render account of our stewardship. Moreover, the only right stewardship is that which is tested by the rule of love. Thus it will come about that we shall not only join zeal for another’s benefit with care for our own advantage, but shall subordinate the latter to the former.” Put simply, we are to consider our calling to serve others as a higher calling than enriching ourselves.
So, considering this call, we ask ourselves “what needs can I meet?”
Love as helping others flourish
“This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit.” (4:13). Jesus gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is a gift beyond meeting needs. The Holy Spirit empowers us with gifts and growth. With the Holy Spirit we’re enabled to pursue God’s calling on our lives; we’re enabled to live a life of meaning and purpose. The Holy Spirit elevates us from survival to flourishing.
Again, if we are to show Christlike love, then we are challenged to ask ourselves: “How can we help others flourish?” How can we help them grow in their giftedness and their ability to serve and glorify God. If we were to use business speak, we might ask “How can I add value?”
Daily Discipline – Start the morning with three questions
So how to turn this analysis into something practical? Simple. Are you in the habit of daily prayer? Perhaps now is a good time to start. Start your morning with 5-10 minutes of prayerful time with God. And during that time, one of the things to do is to think about what you have coming up today and ask that God answer these three questions throughout the day:
How can I be fully present?
What needs can I meet today?
How can I add value today?
Go on – give it a try tomorrow morning. See if it doesn’t transform your day. It will likely push you in some challenging ways. God will make you aware of providential opportunities to serve and be of value that you otherwise would have been too busy to see. God will make you aware of someone who needs your time who otherwise you would have walked right past.
At the end of the day, reflect back over these three questions and ask yourself how you did. You might be amazed at what God accomplished through you.
Practice that for a few weeks, and see if you don’t find yourself becoming more loving.
Soli Deo Gloria