Christian love is based on commitment. But that love won’t flourish unless it is actively expressed
Some years ago I was living in a household with eight Christian men. One night as we sat at the dinner table, one of the men began to speak about a problem in his life. It wasn’t an easy, off-the-cuff sharing. The problem had been with him for years, and he spoke of it with a great deal of difficulty. When he had finished he said “That’s the first time I’ve been able to tell anyone about that problem, and the only reason I was able to share it now was because of your commitment to me.
He went on to say that for the first time in his life he knew he was with a group of people who would love him regardless of what was wrong with him. He was right. Our life together was based on a commitment to treat one another as brothers, to support one another in the Christian life. Because we had committed ourselves to love one another regardless of how we felt, the man experienced a great deal of freedom to be honest about himself.
For many people today, love is based on mutual attraction and common interests. But in Scripture, love is based on commitment. Jesus saw us in our sin, yet he loved us enough to die for us. His commitment to us was unshakeable. This type of steadfast love should be at the heart of our relationships with each other. Christians are supposed to love one another not because they happen to feel good about each other, but because they have committed themselves to love one another as members of the same body.
But we must not only be committed to love one another; we must also express this love. The love between a husband and wife won’t grow very much unless they express it. In the same way, love within a prayer group or Christian community won’t flourish unless the members actively express their love. They can learn to do so in several particular ways: by showing affection and respect, by service, and by loving, faith-building speech. In these ways, Christians support and strengthen one another and demonstrate their commitment to love.
Expressions of affection
Often, people have only vague clues as to whether others love them. “These people must care for me,” they may conclude. “They haven’t asked me to leave, they’re not ignoring me, and they haven’t left me out of any of their plans. They must think I’m okay.” But Paul wrote, “Love one another with brotherly affection” (Romans 12:10). In other words, love one another in a direct, straightforward way, expressing your love for one another; hug one another. Greet others so they know you’re glad to see them; tell them that you love them.
Expressing affection is an important part of the Christian life, not an optional feature that we tack onto our relationships if we have time or if we happen to think about it. When we express affection we let people know, without a doubt, that we love them. That knowledge can bring a deep security and peace into their lives and into our relationship with them.
I used to think that expressing love was more important with friends I didn’t see very often than with those I was closest to. As a result, I wasn’t too concerned about expressing affection to the people I lived with. I thought, “Well, they must know that I love them. We’re together a lot and we haven’t had an argument in ages.” Then one day I realized that if affection brings security and peace into relationships, it should play an important role in the way I relate to the people I see daily. It is important to express affection to people we don’t know very well, but it’s even more important with those we are closest to – husband, wife, children, or roommates.
Recently, at a conference attended by people from various countries, I noticed how people from certain cultures made a point of expressing respect. People from Japan, for example, bowed to those they met. It struck me that we Americans don’t make much of an effort to honor one another, aside from teaching our children to say “please” and “thank you.”
Paul writes, “Outdo one another in showing honor”; we could say, “in showing respect.” He could have written merely, “it’s good to show respect,” but instead he wrote, “outdo one another.” Why is Paul so insistent? Because each person we approach is made in the image of God and is worthy of honor.
There are many things we can do to show respect. We should pay attention to people when they talk to us. When they’re finished speaking we should respond to their statement, and not ignore it or rush ahead to make our own point. We shouldn’t interrupt people when they’re talking.
If we’re reading the paper when someone comes into the room, we should get up and greet the person. When we’re with a group of people, we should make sure that no one in the group is neglected or passed over as though the person were of no worth. We should speak about those who are absent in the same way we would relate to them if they were present. We should be eager to do favors for one another. In everything, we should give others the full respect they deserve as human beings created in the image of God.
At the Last Supper, Jesus deliberately performed a task that was inappropriate to the one at the head of the table. He “began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded” (John 13:5). His action was totally unheard of – the host at the table never washed the feet of his guests. Yet Jesus chose to serve his disciples in one of the most menial ways possible; then he told them to do the same. “If I then, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:14-15).
Loving one another means being ready to take on the smallest, most menial tasks. We should serve one another faithfully in the tasks assigned to us, and we should move beyond those duties to serve in ways not required of us. A willingness to serve is a sign of our love for one another; it helps to build up the prayer group or community.
Patterns of speech
As we enter the Christian life, many of us discover that we need to eliminate profanity, cynicism, insults, and other bad habits from our speech. Once we’ve removed these obvious, major faults, we tend to think our speech is in order. However, in his letter to the Ephesians Paul writes: “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29). Paul isn’t saying simply, “eliminate the bad habits.” He exhorts Christians to say only things that build up others in faith, that strengthen them in the Lord. Paul sets an ideal for the way Christians should speak. It’s a much higher ideal than most of us have chosen.
For example, many people tend either to be too talkative – they say whatever comes to mind, or too reserved—they don’t say much at all. Both of these speech patterns are problems because neither builds up the listener. A person who is either too talkative or too reserved should follow Paul’s advice, and learn to say only those things that edify and are appropriate for the occasion.
Several years ago, as a group of us sat around talking, we began to speak about times when the Lord had shown each of us his love in a special way. Some people shared about events during which they felt particularly close to God, others spoke of experiencing God’s love while praying. Afterwards, I noticed that we all felt closer to the Lord and to one another. Speaking about the Lord, about our desire to love and serve him, “imparts grace” to our listeners, and can help us gain control over our speech.
Paul’s ideal of speech also includes encouraging one another. We don’t need to deliver a eulogy every time someone does something good, but we should learn how to tell people in a straightforward way that we appreciate them and that they have done something well. A husband should let his wife know that he appreciates her work around the house. An employer should praise his employees for their work. If a very shy person gathers up the courage to share at a prayer meeting, someone ought to seek him out after the meeting and tell him how meaningful the sharing was. A few words of encouragement will go a long way in strengthening someone and filling him with a desire to serve. encouragement is one of the greatest acts of love we can render. We need to do it in a way that strengthens people, calling them on to love the Lord.
Negative humor and complaining
Speaking in a loving way, in a way that imparts grace and builds up the listener, means avoiding negative, destructive speech. One of the most prevalent – but least recognized – forms of this kind of speech is “negative humor,” humor that contains a barb or an offensive remark. For example, a person may be talking with some people and make several awkward remarks. A friend turns to him and says, “You know, it seems that the only time you open your mouth is to change feet.” While the friend’s comment is intended to be humorous, it’s also negative. Frequently when people make comments like that, when they kid around in an insulting way or joke about somebody’s weaknesses, their intention is good. They’re trying to be affectionate and supportive. In this case the friend might have been trying to let the first person know that it didn’t matter how many inappropriate remarks he made, they were still friends.
In our society, negative humor is one of the few socially acceptable ways of expressing affection.
We are not encouraged to hug people to let them know we love them, but we can make humorous—but negative remarks that are indirectly intended to convey affection. But no matter how good the speaker’s intention and no matter how witty the remark, negative humor is unloving. It focuses on a person’s weaknesses and mistakes, and therefore is not an appropriate way for Christians to show affection. If someone “affectionately” told you that you spend a lot of time with your feet in your mouth, you would probably laugh and take it well, but chances are you wouldn’t feel tremendously loved and supported.
On the other hand, expressing affection in a straightforward way brings a person security, peace, and a sense of worth before the Lord. Although in our culture it’s difficult – and at first, embarrassing – to be openly affectionate in speech, Christians should drop all forms of negative humor and learn to be affectionate in a direct way.
Grumbling and complaining are other forms of negative speech that have no place in the Christian life. Like negative humor, they are common in our society. People complain when they have to wait for a red light to turn green, they complain about their jobs and salaries, they grumble about their wife or husband or children. Grumbling and complaining might be socially acceptable, but they make us less ready to love and serve. When we have to get up in the middle of the night to feed the baby, when we have to sit through a day of meetings, we make it harder on ourselves – and those who hear us – if we grumble and complain. When we’re in difficult situations we should say, “Praise God, another opportunity to serve, another opportunity to get up in the middle of the night, another opportunity to go the extra mile. This is what God calls me to and so this is what 1 want to do.” The more we express our willingness to serve and praise God in the midst of trials, the more we will take on the Lord’s own attitude toward service.
Positive speech also means keeping an attitude of faith when we speak. We shouldn’t say, “I’ll never learn to control my temper.” Speak in faith and expect the Lord to work. We also need to avoid gossip and speaking critically of others. In other words, we have to remove all the negative elements from our speech and replace them with positive words of love and faith. That doesn’t mean that we should ignore difficulties. It does mean that if a problem arises we should avoid complaining and instead deal with the situation directly, in a way that will correct it.
Christians must actively strengthen one another in the Christian life, and draw each other into a deeper love for the Lord and for one another. Although the ways we show affection and respect for one another, the ways we serve and speak with one another, may seem relatively insignificant, they are in fact at the heart of our life together.
This article was originally published in New Covenant Magazine, June, 1976, copyright © 1976, 2004 by Stephen B. Clark. Used with permission.
Top composite image credit: Expression of Christian love from Bigstock.com, © by thegarden, stock photo ID: 744126, with quote from Romans 12:9-10 added.
Steve Clark has been a founding leader, author, and teacher for the Catholic charismatic renewal since its inception in 1967. Steve is past president of the Sword of the Spirit, an international ecumenical association of charismatic covenant communities worldwide. He is the founder of the Servants of the Word, an ecumenical international missionary brotherhood of men living single for the Lord.
Steve Clark has authored a number of books, including Baptized in the Spirit and Spiritual Gifts, Finding New Life in the Spirit, Growing in Faith, and Knowing God’s Will, Building Christian Communities, Man and Woman in Christ, The Old Testament in Light of the New.