Wednesday, April 18, 2018

What Is Love?

In 1993, Haddaway asked a question that is still asked in dance clubs all over the world. What is love? This Sunday, in 1 John 3, we hear some of the answer.

What is love? John writes, "We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us..." That is how we know love and what love is. Jesus' offering of himself for us is the defining demonstration. But that's not all. John isn't interested in simply telling us what love is. In face, he never uses that grammatical approach. Instead of defining love, he tells us what it means to love.

John writes, "We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for one another." What does that mean? Does John mean that we should all die for each other? Maybe. But John goes on to show us what he has in mind: "How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?" Love is sacrifice for the sake of the other--not just on the cross but in our daily life.

John exhorts us to love "not only in word or speech but in truth and action." Not only. In premarital counseling, I ask couples to consider their "love languages." I ask, "When you are filled to overflowing with love for your beloved, how do you express that love to him or her?" There are five defined love languages: words, actions, gifts, time, and touch. I want each of them to name the way that they most naturally express love. Similarly, I want them to name the way in which they most effectively and profoundly receive love. More important than the specific love language, I want them to recognize when their preferences are different. If one spouse pours his heart out with loving words over and over, but the other spouse needs loving gifts like flowers or candy to feel it, it might help to recognize that--at least the concept--going into a long-term relationship. John captures some of that in his letter. Don't love ONLY with word or speech but also in truth and action. If we are truly filled with love, we will give of ourselves to another--not just our marital spouse but everyone whom we love in Jesus' name.

Toward the end of Sunday's reading, John takes it a step further: "And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us." Notice that "commandment" is in the singular, but the content of that one commandment is dual. Jesus has given us one commandment: to believe in him and love one another. That's the same thing. If you believe in him you love one another. They go together. They are inseparable. What it means to be a Christian, what it means to be a follower of Jesus, is to believe and love. "How can God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?" It can't.

In many Christian traditions, 95% of the emphasis is placed on belief and 5% is placed on everything else. "Do you really, really, really believe unwaveringly and undoubtedly in Jesus?" they seem to ask without any mention of how that belief manifests itself in love. Maybe there are better ways to test our faith. We can't be good to others and earn our way to heaven. But we aren't a part of God's kingdom if love for others is not manifest in our hearts. How do you know that you believe in Jesus? Instead of unwavering intellectual assent, it looks like unwavering charitable service. I suspect that John and the other first Christians would be confused if they heard the way we talk about faith without also talking about love. I suspect that Jesus would wonder how so many of his followers have forgotten what following him really means.

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