Perhaps you have noticed: love, the awesome, challenging, life-transforming ‘agape’ love practiced by Jesus and offered to His followers is often distorted. This distorted love accords with and is an out-growth of modernism, the pervasive cultural/philosophical movement which many of us grew up in. The distortion appeals to the rational side of our mind. I call it ‘mostly-rational-love.’ Many of us were unknowingly trained to love God and one another in this impoverished way.
Mostly-rational-love is a sterile, manageable sort of thing which flows out of modernism’s preferred certainty of a largely if not wholly ‘objective’ way of living. While this distorted love rightly emphasizes self-sacrificing action (“love is a verb,” they sternly say), it unfortunately minimizes and often excludes the subjective aspects of agape love. The distorted version attempts to squeeze out emotion, warmth, intuition and desire – crucial aspects of true agape love. The result is a barren act of the will with a withering loss of agape’s richness, depth and Christ-power; genuine life transformations rarely happen in this climate. Mostly-rational-love may also be a symptom of attachment disorders - those festering heart wounds which arise from being poorly loved in our earliest years. Subsequently, the quality of our love for God and one another is inferior and lack luster. This kind of love leaves our relationships, our worship, our lives impoverished.
What’s In Your Stew? It’s a meat-and-potatoes-only type of Christianity which embraces mostly-rational-love; its emphasis is on living in strength, assertiveness, success, efficiency and accomplishments with minimum mess. This kind of discipleship - in both theory and practice – misunderstands being, is all about doing and its doing mostly flows from duty rather than desire. It assumes we ‘love’ someone by simply performing a calculated, self-sacrificing act of the will and that action is carried out in a self-protective manner minimizing any exposure to difficulty and disappointment. This is loving in a sterile sort of way. Because there is good truth mixed into this distorted discipleship stew, we may feed on it without noticing it is malnourishing. However the folks we are attempting to love sense something is missing. God does too.
Agape! Of course Jesus was talking about agape love when He said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37) and “Just as I have loved you, you should love each other” (John 13:34). Jesus launches us on a life-long journey of A) learning to love God the way He desires to be loved and B) learning to love one another like Jesus loves us. This challenging dynamic – learning to agape God and one another – is the primary goal and the central process of our lives and our spiritual formation.
Earlier (see ‘J’ is for Journey) in our study of ‘devotion’ we explored three key facets of agape love: commitment, intimacy and passion – perfectly modeled and faithfully lived by Jesus. Of these three facets we usually major on ‘commitment’ and minor on ‘intimacy’ and ‘passion.’ But be aware – commitment will keep us together with God and others but it takes both intimacy and passion to draw us close in loving relationship and it’s within relationship that we truly mature as Christians.
“Oh!” Amazingly God empowers our devotion – to love the way Jesus loves – by indwelling us with the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5). Increasingly as we cooperate with the Spirit our love for God and for one another is infused with these qualities of commitment, intimacy and passion. “Oh” the warmth and tenderness and caring and compassion and risk and heart-ache and joy and intensity and disappointment and emotions and desires and pain and waiting and experiencing that is involved with intimacy and passion! “Oh” the subjectivity of it all! “Oh” the intuitive fabric and functioning of intimacy and passion. “Oh” that we would be committed to love God and one another intimately and passionately!
Deciding to Love vs. Desiring to Love. Because we are commanded to love God and one another, we might wrongly think of love as only a ‘duty’ which must be performed in order to avoid punishment or attain some performance standard. And because loving actions typically require us to ‘serve’ others and ‘sacrifice’ for them, we might mistakenly think of such love as only an act of the will which does not require our emotions to be involved. Jerry Bridges addresses this problem:
“…we can sometimes give the impression that love doesn’t involve any emotion – that it is entirely an act of the will, or one’s duty, regardless of how one feels. The Bible does not support such an unbalanced concept of love. …the Bible uses such expressions as ‘Love one another deeply, from the heart’ (1 Peter 1:22) and ‘Be devoted to one another in brotherly love’ (Romans 12:10). Some translations choose such words as fervently, fondly, and affectionately in the same passages to describe the love Christians ought to have for one another.
All of these passages indicate that our emotions are involved. We are to reach out and embrace each other with a deep fervency of spirit…. Obviously, such a fervency of spirit cannot substitute for loving actions, but surely it should accompany them. We dare not settle for less.
Love is more than a mere act of the will. We should do more than just decide to do acts of love; we should desire to do them.” (Jerry Bridges, The Fruitful Life, NavPress, 2006)
What Should Love Act and Feel Like? Paul addresses this question in the famous Love Chapter of 1 Corinthians 13. While Paul describes love with positive action words (patience, kindness, rejoicing and hopefulness) in verses 4-8, please consider the emotions which should accompany and enrich those action words. What happens to the quality of these actions if we delete (suppress?) the normal, accompanying emotions? Answer: quality shrivels!
An even more complete understanding of love necessitates we also consider what is not legitimately a part of agape; it is not jealous, not boastful, not rude, not [selfishly] demanding, never gives up, never loses faith. And notice the emphasis on justice and truth as part of love. Finally, be aware of Paul’s focus on the test of time for true, agape love – it endures, persists – even through hard, dry seasons. Agape seems to be the chief of challenges and provokes (and often is driven by) healthy Christ-like emotions while excluding other emotions. Emotions shape, serve and spring from agape love.
Serving, Sacrificing, Sharing. Jesus announced His new commandment – agape one another (John 13:34) - but also demonstrated, physically and relationally what this kind of loving looks like. Examining the context in which Jesus’ new commandment was spoken helps us see how He intends we live our lives of love:
Loving one another looks like ‘service.’ Jesus undressed, wrapped himself in a towel and washed the disciple’s feet (vs. 4-11) as a powerful example.
Loving one another looks like ‘sacrifice.’ Jesus understood that the time of his betrayal and sacrificial death was very near (vs. 1-3, 31-33) - He was celebrating the historic Passover and making Himself the Passover Lamb.
Loving one another looks like ‘sharing.’ Jesus shared his deep feelings with his disciples as indicated throughout chapter 13 of John. This was the relational and emotional sharing of Master with disciples; Son of Man with sons of God (dear children). Jesus was pouring out his life to his disciples a few hours before his blood would also be poured out. This was/is agape love even in an atmosphere of spiritual war.
Therefore loving one another should increasingly take on these characteristics: we should be serving one another in self-sacrificial ways which include expressions of fond affection, deepening friendship and heart-felt caring. It’s all about building, sustaining, repairing and growing our relationships, putting love into action in Holy Spirit empowered ways which are infused with desire, emotion, imagination, creativity and long-suffering. This is the kind of love which cultivates abundant, meaningful life and true character transformation.
Love Passed Over. God’s kind of love has been overflowing with commitment, intimacy and passion from the very beginning – He’s been singing a love song and desires us to join in. Eugene H. Peterson helps us appreciate, celebrate and appropriate the “exuberances” of love:
“The most pondered act of salvation in Israel was the Exodus. The event was the kerygmatic center to all of Hebrew life – a glad proclamation of the dynamic action by which it was now possible to live with meaning and in praise before a holy and living God.
Salvation – God doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves, overcoming the powers of bondage, leading through the forces of evil, establishing the people in fact as God’s beloved – was announced in the Feast of Passover as present and personal.
Passover was the concentrated, annual attention that Israel gave to God’s definitive act of saving love. The [Passover] meal concludes with the reading of the Song of Songs. No lyrics, ancient or modern, communicate the intimacies and the exuberances of being whole and good in relation to another – that is, of being saved – more convincingly than the Song.” (Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, Eerdmans Publ., 1980)
Jesus, the perfect Passover Lamb, leads us in singing the song of God’s kind of love. Let’s not pass over the “intimacies and the exuberances” when we love one another; let’s love the way God loves.