Here’s the truth: I failed at loving well today. I was selfish with my time and energy. All day long, in anticipation of writing about love, I tried to get my feet under me enough to actually love well, but I fumbled right up until the last bedroom light was turned off.
If you've been with me for awhile you'll know that I'm just embarking on a journey through the fruit of the Spirit...the nine characteristics that the Holy Spirit produces in the Christian heart, when we live in cooperation with the Spirit. Today is fruit #1, and we start off with love. Based on today and every day thus far in my life, I am not a love expert. (Good thing we have a real love expert. His name is Jesus.)
What even is love around here, anyway? We have watered-down love so terribly. I wonder how many things I said I loved today. I say trite silly things like, “I love chocolate ice cream” and “I LOOOVVEEE coffee.” “I love this song.” “I love these jeans.” And then I have the audacity to use the same word for my husband: “I love you more than anything!” And when my girls head into the school building each morning: “Have a great day! I love you!” and even for Jesus when I end my prayers: “I love you Jesus, Amen.” (My three-year-old just now came into the kitchen, grabbed my diet Coke, took a sip, smiled hugely, and said, “Ahh. I love this stuff.” No joke. Right now.)
How is that all the same word? And how ridiculous is it that I use the same verb for coffee and Jesus? I’m ashamed. Now, part of the problem is simply English…we only have one word for Love. In Greek, it isn’t all the same word. But most of the problem is me and my small, tiny, pathetic understanding of what love really is.
We use one word for such a vast array of meanings that it loses significance. I mean, my man, my kids, and my Savior…yeah…I love them. LOVE them. But coffee & ice cream? Well…If we use this little four letter word for everything from our favorite ice cream to our new Iphone to our favorite stores to the people we would lay down our lives for in a heartbeat and then even to our Savior who is EVERYTHING…then what exactly does this word actually mean?
Wikipedia sheds some light on this, believe it or not. This is how Wikipedia defines agape, which is the Greek word for love listed in the fruit of the Spirit: “Agape denotes a really undefeatable benevolence and unconquerable goodwill, that always seeks the highest of the other, no matter what s/he does. It is the self-giving love that gives freely without asking anything in return…” (Wikipedia)
Agape indicates loving by choice…it is an act of the will, not based emotion. Isn’t that fascinating? That’s why the Bible commands us to love so frequently…because love isn’t based on emotion. If my love was based on my “feelings,” my family would fall apart. My marriage would crumble, and my commitment to Jesus would be feeble. Too many days my love is based on my weak feelings, and those days are rough days. I have a hard time giving freely of myself when I’m wrapped up in whether or not I feel like it. Loveless days are joyless days. Those are the days when I am most grateful to have a re-start the next morning. But love is a choice, and a command: “This is my command, that you would love (agape) each other as I have loved (agaped) you.” (John 15:12)
Agape indicates the unconditional love of God for you and me; the sacrificial love that saves us from sin and gifts us eternal life. Notice how the definition itself shows us that this love is "undefeatable" and "unconquerable:" Love, in it's very essence, is infused with resurrection power. Jesus is the epitome and the very definition of Agape love: “But God demonstrates his love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) So since Jesus is the answer (always!) on to how to love, clearly we learn best by looking at him. As I’ve pondered for a few days now, three characteristics of Jesus’ love keep surfacing in my heart: 1) Love is not tolerance; 2)Love is always sacrificial; 3) Love calls us to bigger things.
The cross of Jesus, the greatest display of love on planet earth, shows us all three: On the cross God defeated sin rather than tolerating it. On the cross, Jesus sacrificed unto death. And through the cross and resurrection, Jesus' love brings victory to our lives in bigger and grander ways that we can ever image.
Love is not Tolerance
Culturally, we have watered-down love and then traded in our pathetic version of love for a very sad thing we call “tolerance.” Then, if we tolerate well enough, we lift it high and celebrate it as love. As if tolerating someone was the same as loving them. I tell you what, I love my kids more than life, but there was a whole lot of behavior today that I did not tolerate. There was a whole lot of behavior Jesus didn’t tolerate during his time on earth too…lest we forget about his ferocity when people were making the temple a marketplace.
We tout tolerance as if it’s love, but can you imagine if Jesus commanded us to tolerate each other? How sad would that be? “This is my command, tolerate each other.” OUCH! Sometimes, too often, I do just tolerate my kids instead of actively loving them, and it hurts them. In the early days of our marriage, Paul and I all too often tolerated each other rather than loving each other well. Days of being tolerated were lonely days. Tolerance hurts; Love heals. I’m so grateful that Jesus calls us to something so much higher and better than tolerance. Love doesn’t mean accepting all behavior or turning a blind eye to sin; it means quite the contrary. In John 8, Jesus gave a breathtaking display of love when a woman who had been caught in adultery stod before him, expecting condemnation and even death. In tremendous love for her, Jesus addressed the angry crowd, pointing out the fact that this vulnerable woman was not the only sinner in the crowd. After they all finally left, Jesus looked in her eyes and assured her that He would not condemn her. But he loved her too much to let her continue in a lifestyle that hurt her and others. He commanded her to stop her pattern of sin. Jesus never tolerates sin. He is gracious and patient with us, but not tolerant. The cross of Jesus is proof of God’s intolerance to sin. Jesus died for to pay the price for our sin because God, in his perfect holiness, cannot tolerate sin. It had to be paid for, so in perfect love, agape, Jesus paid for it.
Sin not only hurts us and those around us, it also separates us from God and gives Satan a foothold in our lives. Love covers a multitude of sins, but it doesn't ignore sin. (1 Peter 4:8) Will we love each other enough to call out each others' sin?
Love is Always Sacrificial
Always. And Jesus portrays this perfectly, all the time. One time that stands out to me is in Matthew 14. Jesus was exhausted, his cousin John just died, and, in his humanity, he needed some rest and solitude: “When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.” (Matthew 14:13-14). Wow. So sacrificial. Jesus was constantly laying aside his own needs for the needs of others. That’s what love is. I am so in awe of this ability of Jesus’…to give and give and give. Because, remember, he was fully human. He needed sleep! But also loved perfectly. Man, I want to love like that. It doesn’t always feel good and it’s rarely glamorous. But that’s love. Selfishness robs my ability to love so often. But Jesus' love is totally fueled by humility, and he is fully sacrificial.
On the night Jesus was arrested, he washed his disciples’ feet (John 13). Washing feet was the job for the lowest of servants. It was dirty, undignified work. That’s why Peter was at first appalled that Jesus was going to do it. But Jesus was the epitome of love and humility, love isn’t really love if it’s not humble. After Jesus finished washing his disciples’ feet, he commanded them (and us) to wash one another’s feet; to humble ourselves for the sake of another without asking anything in return. Love sacrifices. Love serves. All the time. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13, love is never self-seeking. If the goal is self-promotion, it’s not love.
Love Calls Us to Bigger Things
Loving each other doesn’t mean letting each other off easy. Love is hard work. It means giving each other grace, yes, but also helping each other grow. The love of God calls us out of ourselves to bigger things than we can imagine. Love stretches us beyond what we think we’re capable of. One of the verses that intrigues me most about Jesus’ love is Mark 10:21. Jesus was confronted by a young man who was confused about how to receive eternal life. The man was sincere and kind; Jesus could have let him off easy. He could have said, “Ah, you’re good man. No worries. Good job keeping the commands.” Instead, the text tells us that Jesus “looked at the man and loved him.” He loved him. And then gave him a very high challenge. It seems that Jesus saw something blocking this man’s heart from God, because in love, Jesus told him to go and give all of his stuff to the poor, and then to come follow Jesus. Perhaps this rich man’s stuff kept him from loving God with his whole heart, and he needed to get rid of it.
In love¸Jesus chose to not let the man off the hook but called him to a higher standard. Jesus raised the bar. Stretched him. In fact, Jesus stretched him so far that he told his disciples that this task might be impossible for a man, but with God everything is possible (Mark 10:27) What a challenge! What a test of faith. And it was done in love.
We do each other a disservice when we don’t spur one another on. Love casts out fear (1 John 4:18), so there's nothing to be afraid of. When a friend is ready to throw in the towel too soon on something God has called her to – whether it be a new job, staying home full-time with kids, a mentorship program, weight-loss health initiative, even her marriage – we might love better by raising the bar for each other. Not in pride, not in arrogance, but in a loving desire to spur one another on to doing hard things, because, as Jesus said, with God all things are possible.
The love of God has already resulted in the most earth-shattering, phenomenal victory ever. His love conquered death. The love of Christ calls us up out of ourselves and to a victory that is far greater than anything we can ask or imagine.
So, what is love? Jesus. How do we love? Jesus. Why do we love? Jesus.
He loves you, friend.