October/November 2014 - Vol. 76

 Christians holding
                  crosses in prayer together
Growing in Our Love for Our Brothers and Sister in Christ

“Be imitators of God, beloved children. Walk in love, as Christ loved us
and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice.”
– Ephesians 5:1-2

by Don Schwager

We learn to love through imitation of God
What does the Apostle Paul mean when he says, “imitate God” and “walk in love as Christ loved us” (Ephesians 5:1,2)?  When God made a covenant with the people of Israel on Mount Sinai, he revealed the nature of his covenant love to Moses when he declared,

“The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy and faithfulness, keeping merciful love for thousands” (Exodus 34:6-7).

God's plan from the beginning of creation was to have a people created in his image and likeness who would be united with him in a bond of love and unity.

Paul the Apostle tells us that God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world... and He destined us in love to be his sons [and daughters] through Jesus Christ. according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved (Ephesians 1:4,5).

Through Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on the cross we have been reconciled with the Father in heaven and have received adoption as children of God. The Lord Jesus has won freedom for us over sin and has sealed us with his Holy Spirit. We are now free to walk in love as he has loved us (Galatians 5:1,13). As God’s beloved children, his sons and daughters, we are called to imitate God in his character – in his steadfast love, kindness, mercy, faithfulness, and forgiving-heart.

 Loving others as God loves us, choosing to do what is (morally) good and to reject what  is evil, turning away from falsehood, deceit, and lies and living according to the truth as God reveals it to us – this is what it means to imitate God and to be like him in his image. 

The nature of Christian love
Christian love – the love which Christ has taught us – is costly and sacrificial. Paul says that Jesus “gave himself up for us” (Ephesians 5:2).  His whole life and ministry was an offering of love to the Father in humble service and love for his “brethren” – the brothers and sisters he called to be his disciples. That is why Paul describes Jesus’ love as a “fragrant offering and pleasing sacrifice” (Ephesians 5:2). 

The Lord Jesus puts us first in his love and care. Although he was King and Lord by right, he willingly became a lowly and humble servant for our sake. He proved God’s love for us by washing his disciples’ feet and by freely laying down his own life out of merciful love for us.

Jesus said 'wash one
                          another's feet'

We love one another as Jesus has loved us
Christian love – the love of Christ – supercedes and surpasses the Old Covenant commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself”.  Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment – “that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34). Jesus sets the new standard of love – a love that is willing to sacrifice everything – including one’s own life – for our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Jesus is our model who shows us how we are to love as he has loved us. His love for us is wholly (entirely) directed towards our good – our welfare.  This is the true meaning of love – a love that is outwardly focused and wholly directed towards the good of the other person.

God’s Love is a supernatural gift
that transforms our ability to love others
How is such love possible? What appears to be impossible on the human level now becomes possible through what the Lord Jesus does in and through us by the gift and working of the Holy Spirit. Paul tells us that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the gift of the Spirit which has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).

God’s love is a supernatural gift freely given to us. Like any spiritual gift given by God, this gift of love must be exercised if it is to grow and mature in us. This gift of supernatural love doesn’t replace our human love – it transforms our human ability to love others freely and whole-heartedly for their  good.

“Through love be servants of one another”
The Holy Spirit purifies our hearts – out thoughts, intentions, attitudes, and inclinations – so we can freely choose to love others as Jesus himself has loved us. Paul the Apostle tells us that “Christ has set us free” from slavery to sin and selfishness (Galatians 5:1) – so “Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another” (Galatians 5:13).

The gift of Christian love
True Christian love is not a sentiment, feeling, or good intention alone - it is the deliberate and free decision of the heart that motivates and impels us to do what is good, right, merciful, and kind – even when we do not “feel like doing so” or when we face obstacles and difficulties that stand in the way of showing love, mercy, kindness, and goodness. 

Love is a supernatural virtue
that strengthens us in relating well to others

The love which God pours into our hearts through the gift of the Holy Spirit is a supernatural virtue (a Christian character trait) which strengthens us in loving God as the supreme good whom we love above all else. This supernatural virtue of love also enables us to love other people – especially our brothers and sisters in Christ as well as all the people we relate with, including our enemies – with heart-felt kindness and charity (doing good for their benefit without any expectation of payment or return in kind), with goodness, patience, and mercy (forgiving them from the heart and not holding on to any ill-feelings or resentments).   

We can choose to do a kind deed from time to time, especially after someone has been kind and good to us. But the virtues go further because they strengthen us in habitually doing good for others regardless of how they may treat us.

Why we need to grow in virtue
Virtues are good habits of heart (based on a personal choice and a decision) that incline us to do what is good, especially in the face of challenges, difficulties, and obstacles that try to hinder us from choosing and doing what is right and good.  The more it becomes a habit the easier it is to do in a regular and ongoing way.

Vices are the opposite of virtues. Vices are disordered and bad habits of the heart that incline us to do what is wrong, hurtful, or harmful for others as well as for ourselves.  Bad and sinful habits are not easy to break – they can be mastered and overcome with God’s supernatural grace and help and through the support and encouragement of others, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ who also seek to grow in holiness and righteousness. 

Christian love is rooted in truth and moral goodness
The virtue of Christian love is rooted in truth and moral goodness (righteousness).  Love without truth inclines to mere flattery and false praise. Truth without love inclines to harshness and  legalism. Christian love is wholly oriented to seeking the good of the other person. It is servant-hearted love because it takes its eyes off oneself in order to focus on how one can serve the best interests and welfare of others.  Christian love is linked with humility and meekness because it doesn’t insist on one’s personal rights, privileges, and preferences. Christian love is always oriented to serving others for their sake, their welfare, and benefit.

The reward of Christian love
The reward of Christian love is God himself – who loves us generously, selflessly, and whole-heartedly for our sake. That is why Jesus went to the cross with joy rather than sorrow – his joy was rooted in pleasing the Father and in laying down his life out of merciful love for us.

God loved us first and our love for God is a response to his exceeding kindness and mercy towards us.  Our love for others proceeds and flows from the love of God – the love that has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us (Romans 5:5). We imitate God when we show love, mercy, kindness, and forgiveness for others.

Some signs of the lack of love
What are some of the tell-tale signs of lack of love in Christian community?

  • Holding on to hurts and bad feelings - such as bitterness, resentment, grudges
  • Critical and judgemental thoughts and speech
  • Neglecting or refusing to ask for forgiveness or to receive forgiveness
  • Neglecting or breaking a commitment or promise made to our brothers and sisters  (especially our commitment to meet together in share groups and community meetings – we need to apologize when we can’t make a commitment for a good reason or ask forgiveness if we fail to keep a promise or commitment out of forgetfulness, etc.) 

Overcoming personal blind-spots to loving others
We all have blind-spots in our personal lives and we need others to help us recognize and overcome them. That is one key reason we need each other in Christian community. Our brothers and sisters in Christ can often see our blind-spots better than we can by ourselves and they can help us avoid hurting others because of our blind-spots. That is why we need to be humble and willing to let our brothers and sisters show us where we may be failing to express love, patience, kindness, and meekness in our relationships.

We need to patiently listen and receive the input and correction our brothers and sisters bring to us. How else can we grow in love, righteousness, and holiness and overcome our blind-spots unless we allow our brothers and sisters to help us see them and overcome them.

“Put away bitterness and anger – be tender-hearted”
Paul the Apostle tells us to “put away bitterness, wrath, anger, and slander” so that we can freely choose to “be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:31-32).

 Scripture repeatedly calls us to forgive one another. Jesus asked his disciples, “How many times should one forgive his brother? Seven times, no, I say seventy times seven.”  The constant exhortation to forgive each other suggests that we fail one another and let one another down every day – and maybe several times a day. But that must not stop us from promptly forgiving each other from the heart.

 If we offend our brothers or sisters, we need to go privately and directly to ask their forgiveness. The longer we put off forgiving one another, the easier it is for resentment and bad feelings to settle in our hearts and minds. Forgiveness breaks the chain of bitterness, anger, resentment, and hurtful speech that hurts, wounds, and separates us from one another in loving-kindness and mercy. Forgiveness opens the flood-gate of mercy and healing love.

In every stage of life – we must learn to grow in greater love
However old, experienced, or advanced we are in age, we must never think we have attained perfect love and maturity. In this life we never stop growing in love, wisdom, holiness, and Christian maturity.  Every stage of life – from infancy, childhood, young adult, middle age, senior age, and advanced old age –has its own unique opportunities and challenges for overcoming weaknesses and sinful tendencies, such as selfishness, pride, fear, and lack of brotherly love.

Unfortunately many people regress and fall back into selfish and immature ways of behaving and living due to isolation, neglect, sin, and worldliness. That is why a community of faith, hope, and love is essential if every member of Christ's body is to grow and reach maturity in every stage of life - from childhood to advance old age.

We grow and mature together in a community of faith and love
The Lord’s plan for our personal growth in faith, hope, and love and in full Christian maturity is the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:13-16) – the community of brothers and sisters who are committed to helping one another grow as disciples of Jesus Christ – from birth to adulthood and from adulthood to advanced old age and to everlasting glory with the crucified and risen Jesus Christ who reigns for ever.

Let us be grateful for the opportunities that God offers us for growing together in Christian community as a body of disciples who love each other as the Lord Jesus has taught us.

[Don Schwager is a member of The Servants of the Word, and author of the Daily Scripture Readings and Meditations, and the book, Training In Excellence: How Godly Character Forms Strong Men and Women and Strengthens the Building of Communities for Generations to Come.]
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