Last week, we looked at the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5: 22-23. These are the characteristics which the Holy Spirit wants to duplicate in our lives, so we become living examples of Jesus on earth today. These characteristics are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Today, we look at the first of these --love.
It is no accident that Paul starts with love. Love holds the Trinity together. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are eternally love each other. We are connected to Jesus by Christ’s love for us and our love for Christ. It is connective tissue of the Body of Christ. Paul says that faith, hope and love exist, but love is most important.
Today, I will answer three questions about love. 1. What do we love? 2. Who do we love? 3. How do we learn to love?
What is love? Jesus said we love God with our heart, mind, soul, and strength. These elements are not just true of our love for God, but of any love. Love is a combination of feeling, thought, and action.
We love with our hearts when we feel empathy for another. Empathy is feeling what others are feeling. When another is happy, we are happy. When another is sad, we are sad. It’s the emotional aspect of love.
Jesus felt this perfectly. Isaiah 53: 4 tells us, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrow.” On the Cross, Christ felt the sorrow of the whole world. He felt pity for those who crucified Him, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” He wept with those who wept and laughed with those who laughed. When someone was abused or oppressed, He got angry. He felt what others felt to the degree that they felt it.
We’re usually empathy-challenged. Some of us have more natural capacity for empathy than others. But we can all grow more empathic with others, if we will just make a habit of putting ourselves in the place of others. We need to pay attention to the feelings of others around us.
Empathy is risky and painful. But we can’t really love without sharing the pains and joys of others. If we cut ourselves off from the emotions of others, then we cannot really love.
We love with the mind, which means we use our brains to understand what others need, and what they are thinking. To love God, we must know God. To love another, we must know them as well. People are not all the same. Each person is unique and loving them has to be unique.
Suppose a child asks you for a cookie. A cookie might make him happy, but it might not make him healthy. If we just give it, then we might be hurting the child by causing him to love cookies too much. We might even be undermining his parent’s authority who said, “No cookies!”
Suppose a beggar asks you for a handout. Our natural response might be to give it, but we don’t know the beggar. The beggar could use our money to buy drinks, drugs, or something else that could harm him or her. It would not be loving to give without taking the time to really know what that person needs.
We live by our actions—with submission and sacrifice. Submission is allowing another person to have their way. Sacrifice is giving up what we like to give someone else what they like.
We are usually naturally selfish. If we sit in our living room, we’ll naturally take the most comfortable chair, and leave our spouses the rest. We’ll naturally turn the TV to our program, instead of what our spouses want to watch. If the dog wants in, then we wait for our spouses to let her in. If the garbage needs taking out, then we let someone else do it.
But we complain, “I work hard all day. Why should I have to work when I get home?” What has your wife been doing all day? Love is not keeping score of who does what, but it is sacrifice and submission. Love is not asking, “Have I done my share?” It is asking, “Is there more I can do to make her happy?” Love is constantly seeking ways of encouraging the well-being of others.
Christ gave Himself for our redemption out of love on the cross. But more than that, He gave up heaven in His Incarnation, to live a life of trouble, and a life of sorrow on earth for our sake. He didn’t just die for us, He lived for us. If we want to love someone on earth, we don’t just die for them, we live for them. We devote ourselves to their happiness day in and day out. Love is a daily denial of our will and our comfort for the ones we love.
The second question is, who do we love?
That’s easy—everyone. We should love God and our brothers and sisters both literally in the family and figuratively in the church, along with our neighbors and fellow works. We are even told to love our strangers and even our enemies.
That’s hard to do! In fact, it’s impossible to ever get it right. After a lifetime of trying to fulfill the great commandment of love, we will still fail frequently. However, that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. We should constantly be trying to love more people and to love them more deeply.
Even though there are so many people we should be loving, and there are always some we should love more than others. By loving these people, we learn to love everyone else.
Here is the God-ordained order: love God first, those close to us second, and the stranger third.
1 Corinthians 13 is called the “love” chapter. It’s Paul’s instructions on how to love each other. The most interesting thing that Paul shows us is that there is a priority in loving. It doesn’t address all love, but indicates that there is one kind of love which is most important to learn.
It does not really address the love of God. Neither does it address the love of the stranger. It is mainly talking about the love of those within the Body of Christ and our family.
Look at verses 1-2.
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”
If a person speaks in tongues, practices prophetic gifts, does miracles, or has an exhaustive knowledge of the Bible and theology, we would probably assume that they have a great relationship with God, right? Maybe so, but Paul says it doesn’t matter. If we’ve spent our whole lives trying to love God and serve God, yet we don’t love others, it’s all useless. Something vital is missing in our love. If you go to church every Sunday, and jump up and down and sing, “Hallelujah!” you may love God, but you are nothing. You still have not loved others.
Verse 3--“If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.”
You can work at the soup kitchen every week, give huge amounts of money to social agencies, and give your time to serve the poor and the needy, but if you don’t have love, then you’re nothing. You might think these things matter to God, but Paul says they don’t. It’s not what you do but who you are that matters.
Loving God and loving the poor are important and necessary, but it’s not what Paul is talking about in the love chapter. He’s talking about another kind of love that is vital to everything. It is described in verses 4-8:
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.”
Paul is not describing our love for God. Who’s arrogant or rude to God? Who can rejoice in wrongdoing with God? Neither is he speaking about the love of strangers which is expressed in our charity. We can’t be arrogant or rude to people we haven’t met. It’s only the people around us, the people we live with, that we can be callous or compassionate, patient or impatient. It’s the people right in front of us that make us or break us when it comes to showing love. These characteristics pertain to the way we treat people we know—our spouses, our children, our parents, our friends, the people in our church family, and the people we work with—these are the people who we should first show our love.
When I was in college I met an anti-war protestor. He protested the war, because he thought stopping war was a loving thing to do, but hated his parents. Paul would say to him, “Your protest counts for nothing,” because he could not love people in his own home. I once knew a man who was a pro-life protestor, but he did some terrible things to his own children. How can we love a fetus we don’t know, but hate the child in front of us? We must first learn to love the people beside us before we can love the people beyond our vision.
Our third question is, how do we learn to love?
We develop love by practicing on those closest to us.
Suppose you want to get in shape. How do you do it? You join a gym where you lift weights, get on the treadmill, and take Zumba classes. At first, it’s very hard, and you try to think of every excuse for not going to the gym. But if you stick with it after a few weeks you’ll start to feel better. You’ll have more energy to work harder at work and play harder at home.
Your home, work, school and church are God’s “love gym” for you. It’s where you go to build your capacity to love God and love strangers. Like a workout at the gym, where you build your muscles through heavy resistance, our time at home with people closest to us are meet with the strongest resistance to love. By learning to love in our private arenas, we learn to love better in public. It’s not in the special activities we do, but in the normal everyday relationships where love is the hardest. That’s where we learn what love really is.
Love isn’t supposed to be easy. If you find it easy to love the people around you, then start hanging around with people who challenge your capacity to love. Expand your circle of relationship to include people who are not like yourselves, and learn to know them and empathize with them. That is where we learn what love is really all about.Invite a crabby person to dinner. That’s how we develop our capacity to love