October / November 2019 - Vol. 106

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Foundations of Christian Living
The Meaning of Christian Love
The following article is adapted from Basic Christian Maturity: The Foundations of Christian Living, edited by Steve Clark and Bruce Yocum, and published in1975 by (c) The Word of Life, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. It was developed as a teaching resource for Christian covenant communities and prayer groups in the charismatic renewal movement. - ed.

True and False Conceptions

Most people, both Christian and non-Christian, believe that lack of love is at the root of much social and emotional disorder. The problem is not "love
pro or con," but rather the way people are to understand and express love. Thus, it is absolutely crucial to distinguish between the Christian conception of love and the conception of love prevailing in contemporary society. These conceptions are very different, and Christians should recognize the differences. Indeed, the world seldom marvels at the way Christians love one another largely because most Christians are confused about the nature of Christian love and consequently do not love each other in a uniquely Christian way. This presentation is designed to help people disentangle the Christian view of love from the modern worldly view.

Emotions and Commitment
Modern people conceive of love as a feeling, not as an action. To the contemporary mind, love consists largely of positive emotional responses. This notion about loving people resembles the modern misconception about loving God which portrays love as primarily an emotional experience. A modern person believes they experiences true love when they feel passionate toward another person, or is overcome by a feeling of compassion for a suffering world. Such a view of love is not the scriptural view. Positive emotions are helpful, but they are not the central reality of love. In fact, feelings can even disguise selfish or complacent attitudes. Christian love is embodied in committed personal relationships; it is expressed in care, concern, and service. Christian love is primarily a matter of will and action, not emotion.

Christian love is action empowered by the Holy Spirit and expressed in a decisive personal commitment to others. The Christian need not wait for an overpowering emotion in order to love the people at the office, the neighbor down the block, or the members of their church or prayer group. They can decide that they ought to behave lovingly toward them, request God's aid, and proceed to love.

A decisive personal commitment of love overflows in actions undertaken for the benefit of others. Jesus provides two commandments illustrating how Christians ought to love one another with a decisive personal commitment. In Matthew 22:39 he commands "you shall love your neighbor as yourself." C.S. Lewis, the noted Christian writer, examines this command in his book Mere Christianity and discovers that he does not always have "a feeling of fondness or affection for myself, and I do not even always enjoy my own society. So apparently 'love your neighbor' does not mean 'feel fond of him' or 'find him attractive'."

Lewis expresses an important truth. Though people do not always feel affectionate towards themselves, they still carefully meet their own physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. People love themselves by accepting their faults and correcting them; getting the proper amounts of food, exercise, and rest; seeing that any damaged parts of their body are speedily repaired; acting to receive adequate affection and understanding; and generally developing personal health and Christian maturity. Christians do not have to feel good about themselves to provide for themselves this way. Similarly, according to the commandment of Jesus, Christians must treat others as well as they treat themselves, regardless of their feelings.

Jesus' second revelation about Christian love is the model of his own love. In John 13:34, Jesus tells his disciples "a new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you." How did Jesus love his disciples? He lived with them, fed them, cared for them, taught them the truths of the kingdom, and finally gave his life for them. Jesus did not choose his disciples because they attracted him personally or because they shared common interests. He certainly did not always have feelings of affection for them. Jesus had even less affection for those enemies who plotted his murder, yet he also loved and died for them. God's love for people is deep and consuming, though not based on emotional attraction. The root of this love is a commitment to serve, care, and be concerned.

Though rooted in a commitment of the will, Christian love is not dry or impersonal. On the contrary, it should be affectionate, sensitive, and warmly personal. Christian love does not stem from emotional attachment, yet it should express emotional acceptance and support. Feelings of affection, compassion, and admiration can aid love and we should not discourage or suppress such feelings.

However, positive emotions only aid love; they are not love itself. Even when warm feelings are not present, the Christian should express love in a way which communicates affection and concern. Indeed, the more Christians love each other personally regardless of their feelings, the more their feelings will support their love. When their emotions function properly in the service of personal commitments Christians are also able to love as God loves.

Types of Relationships
A second source of confusion about Christian love is the modern tendency to blur distinctions among different relationships. Many people today believe love should be expressed the same way in all types of relationships.

On the contrary, Scripture approaches love and relationships in an entirely different way: appropriate expressions of Christian love differ with the sex, age, position of authority, and familial status of the individuals in the relationship. A father should discipline his son, but he cannot discipline his employer. A child should revere and obey his father, but not his playmate down the block. Biblical Greek is better equipped than English to capture these variations in the expression of love. The writers of Scripture use different Greek words for sexual love, brotherly love, familial love, and hospitable love. All of these types of love can be expressions of "agape," the Greek word the authors of the New Testament chose to describe God's committed personal love.

One of the most important of these scriptural distinctions is the difference between "brothers and sisters" and "outsiders" (Colossians 4:5, 1 Corinthians 14:23-24). The "brothers and sisters" are those who have been baptized into the people of God and have a special commitment of love to one another. The "outsiders" are those not yet participating in this relationship. Some people object to the Christian emphasis on "love of the brothers," terming it too exclusive. They refer to the words of Jesus, "If you love only those who love you, what credit is that to you?" (Luke 6:32). Indeed, God's love is unconditional. Christians should love all men and women, regardless of whether they are Christians. Nonetheless, a different type of relationship exists between Christians than between a Christian and a non-Christian. At the heart of their lives, Christians share an intimate union with God. Christians can devote themselves to serving non-Christians, but they have a special relationship to their spiritual family, just as a person has a special obligation to his or her brother by birth. As with a father and son or a husband and wife, the type of relationship influences the expression of love.

How to Love as a Christian

Overcoming Obstacles
Many of the problems people encounter in trying to grow in Christian love are caused by the modern misconceptions about love described earlier. Society is saturated with false images of love conveyed through various media, such as movies, plays, novels, newspapers, magazines, television, etc. Because these popular images pervade the modern consciousness, some people do not immediately understand and accept teaching on Christian love. Even those who do accept the teaching must struggle to combat those misconceptions which they had accepted so long. A discussion of some of these misconceptions follows.

Negative Feelings. One common problem involves the occasional irritation, resentment, or dislike everyone experiences in relationships with others. Such emotional reactions are not good, but neither are they grave transgressions. However, since many Christians still view love as an emotion, they are crippled by self-condemnation whenever negative feelings harass them. In reality, the test of love comes through action, not emotion. But people who are plagued by scrupulosity and misguided guilt feelings about their emotions should put these feelings aside before they lead to introspection and self-condemnation. Christians are not committed to feel fond of everyone; they are committed to humble, loving service.

"Feeling" Love. A second and related problem sometimes plagues the person who does not "feel" love and yet acts in a loving way. Such a person may feel like a hypocrite for acting in a loving way in the absence of emotion. They may also feel guilty about their lack of loving feelings. Again, their emotions are in the foreground. Christians can love despite their wayward feelings by refusing to yield to self-accusation, discounting the importance of feelings, and acting upon the truth of God's word. If a person decides to act lovingly and ignore contrary emotions or the absence of emotions, the usual consequence is a growth of positive feelings.

Capricious Love. Some people strive to change their feelings about someone, fail miserably, and conclude that love is capricious and beyond the reach of a personal decision. "I suppose there are just some people I cannot love." This is a lie. God has given Christians the power to love all people. Doubts about this truth derive from a false association of love and emotion. Once again, Christians might not always feel affectionate towards everyone, but they can indeed love everyone.

Loving Many People. Another obstacle to Christian love is confusion about how it is possible to love many people in large groups. Again, the false association of love and affectionate emotions lies at the root of the problem. Some people who equate love with affectionate feelings have spent many years of cultivating intimacy with a few others spouses, family members, and close friends. Often they cannot understand how they can love several dozen or several hundred people in their church or prayer group, for it is clearly impossible to be intimate with all of them. These people need to understand that it is possible to commit one's life in love to many other people without being intimate with all or even most of them. Indeed, as Christians understand that love means commitment rather than intimacy, the "love of the brethren" becomes a tremendous joy which they can experience on a daily basis.

The Holy Spirit
Christian love is the fruit of a decision. Nonetheless, such love demands more than a right understanding, a benevolent disposition, and a determined will. Christian love demands the power of God. Only through the indwelling Holy Spirit can men and women fully love as God would have them love. Christian love means giving of oneself as Jesus gave of himself. In order to follow Jesus' example of self-sacrificing love, the Christian must live in union with God, have faith that God will supply the needed grace, and ask for God's constant assistance. Christians must decide to love "in deed and in truth" (1 John 3:18). However, only the Spirit of God will empower them to live out this decision.

This article is adapted from Basic Christian Maturity: The Foundations of Christian Living, edited by Steve Clark and Bruce Yocum, and published in1975 by (c) The Word of Life, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA.

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