As we think about the first fruit of the Spirit –– love –– there’s one small word in the gospels that is full of challenge for us. It’s a word has challenged me hugely in many relationships in both my family and in my church. It’s the word “as” in John 15:12: “Love one another ‘as’ I have loved you”, Jesus says. In this context, “as” means “in the same way”. “My love for you is the model. I want you to copy that model in your relationships with each other.”
Models are often crucial to good relationships. I worked once with a woman whose mother had abandoned her while the girl was in primary school. By the time she came for counselling, the woman had a highly successful professional career in management but as her daughters grew into teenagers she realised that part of what she was lacking was a model. She told me,
I’m not always sure how to treat my daughters because I never had anyone to teach me one-to-one about being a woman and a mother. I wasn’t really confident that I knew how women behaved. No-one ever took me aside as a teenager and offered me any help with how to choose clothes and makeup. I was never really sure how to be a woman. It’s like walking in the dark.
On our Christian journey, we often feel we are walking in the dark –– where we need someone to follow if we are to fulfil the command to “love one another”. Loving “as Jesus loved” seems like a huge challenge. We can feel like children in kindergarten who have just learned to form their letters being told to write like Shakespeare. That’s when it’s important to think again about what ‘as’ might mean.
“As” is not an exact quantitative word pointing to something that can be measured. It’s a pointer to a mysterious quality, a flavour, an essence –– an essence that cannot be measured –– an essence that can be experienced and known in what the psalmist calls the “inner parts”.
Writers of the Bible wax lyrical about the love of God. The familiar hymn about the “deep, deep love of Jesus” describes it as “vast, unmeasured, boundless, free”. But sometimes in that very lyricism there lies a temptation to romanticize the love of God -– to make the love of Jesus an intellectual concept -– so abstract and so ideal that we sing heartily about it in church, smile beatifically at our brothers and sisters and leave without having to change.
But change, radical change, and adjustment to our natural ways of doing things, is what Jesus commands when he commands us to love. As He reminded his disciples, “Even sinners love those who love them”. We all love people who are like us. That’s easy.
The hallmark of a Christian is, in one sense, an unnatural kind of relationship –– a love which somehow manages to respond in a positive way to those who do not love and understand us, those who oppose and misunderstand us, those who patronise and reduce us, those who irritate or disgust us. More difficult perhaps, for a group of people who feel called to preach the gospel to the world, we are called to love –– i.e. develop this most unnatural kind of relationship with –– those who are not interested in us or our witness at all. We are called to love those who seem only to be interested in their own (as we see it!) small, selfish lives. Once we start to think about these “others”, we can see what a huge task Jesus presents us with. We are called to love those whom, in the church, or maybe only in the privacy of our own minds, we describe in the language of judgment and disapproval as “selfish”, “foolish”, “unwise”, “hypocrites”, “sinners”, “wrong-doers”, “worldly people”, non-Christians, non-Adventists, secular people . . . . We can all fill in the gaps with our own labels –– our own language of disapproval. And finally, and maybe most difficult of all, we are called to love those within our own Christian family who see all of this differently from the way we see it –– and for them, there is a different set of labels.
This is a huge challenge. The easiest thing in this context, especially within the church fellowship, is to major in labels –– to major in cheap judgment rather than in costly love and understanding, to focus on what is “right” rather than what is loving. How can we learn to love? How can we learn to love? That must be our only question.
My experience as a counsellor has taught me that people learn to love in one major way –– by being loved, by experiencing what it means to be part of a loving relationship. The first handicap for many people who come for help with their relationships is that, in one way or another, they have not been loved properly. They have not been on the receiving end of healthy loving. So it is with the Christian life. Many of us are trying to love others without really believing that we are loved ourselves. We are trying to love because we know we should. And we soon find that is a pretty short-lived activity. Trying to love because “it’s the right thing to do” has its merits but soon loses its energy. To love, you need energy. The first quality of love, says Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 is that it “suffers long”. Love which suffers long without the energy, without the spirit of Jesus soon becomes victim-like and neurotic.
The energy to love other difficult and unattractive people comes from the understanding that we ourselves are loved. Many of us will have close relatives and friends who call attention to the difficult and unattractive parts of ourselves and our behaviour which we would prefer not to acknowledge. The heart of the gospel is to know –– not just in our heads but in our hearts –– that we worship a God-Man who loves even those dark parts of ourselves which we would prefer to beat up and leave on the roadside! The energy to love other people, even our enemies, comes from the knowledge that all that we are is loved and accepted –– that even when we are stubborn and proud and petty and foolish and greedy and .................. (fill in your worst descriptions of yourself here!) we are loved.
When we look at the Model in the gospels we find a God-Man who not only accepted people but liked to be with them –– even the grossest and most unprepossessing of people. We find a God-Man with a unique and resourceful energy, an inexhaustible fund of clever, creative and constructive ways to love –– to respond to the evil tendencies and destructive insecurities he found in the men and women around him. A God Man who was willing to be “with” people even when they misunderstood and rejected Him and His ideas. A God-Man who modeled an extraordinary ability to absorb violence without passing it on –– a quality much needed as we begin the second decade of the twenty-first century.
When we can catch even the smallest glimpse of that love and understanding extended to the scum of the earth who surrounded Jesus, and get a whiff of the idea that it is on offer to the scum of the earth like us too, our response to that love, gratitude for that love will start to grow in us a tiny spark of love, patience and understanding for the people in the world who are, just like us, short on love!