Love is tricky business. It is incredibly hard for Christians to speak about love and show love to a lost and dying world because, while love in-and-of itself is a rather simple thing, the issues that surround it are profoundly complicated.
On the one hand, this should be rather straightforward. After all, everyone loves love. I've met very few people who openly rejected the desire to be loved and I suspect even these hard-core haters are only reacting to some past hurt. But our world is obsessed with love. Porn websites promise the quick fantasy of being loved by beautiful women. Most pop music is about love. Self-help books claim to teach you how to acquire it. Oprah has even built an entire media industry on the subject of love. 99.999% of the world embraces love, desires love, pursues love, and realizes they desperately need love.
One the other hand, very few seem to know what it is.
This is what makes love a tricky business. The non-believing world, and even many Christians, convince themselves they understand love. For most, love is a feeling of being accepted. While there is some basis of truth in that idea, that idea suffers two major flaws. First, according to Scripture, love isn't a feeling. Instead, it is a set of concrete actions one demonstrates to someone else (such as patience, kindness, gentleness, etc). Second, though it is certainly true that love results in the acceptance of someone else, acceptance is often taken to mean agreement or the ability to get one's way. The world is full of people who say "you don't love me unless you accept my choices" or "you don't love me unless you let me have my way". We see these attitudes in the non-believing culture, but also in Christian families and even in our churches.
But the Bible explains love in very different terms. Love, truly defined, is a complete commitment to the other person. It involves the joyful celebration of that which brings the other person benefit and the hatred of that which brings the other person lasting hurt. Because love comes from God, it totally and completely accepts the other person as being valuable, wonderful, and important. But because love operates in a fallen world, it often cannot accept the environment of the person who is loved, or the mindset and attitudes held by the one loved. While a parent should completely accept and be radically committed to their teenage child who is addicted to heroine, that same love will require an intense hatred of their son's addiction and the desire steer him away from those people and situations that are dragging him further into his addiction.
But in terms of practice, how does one provide loving leadership in a relationship? The Bible speaks directly to this issue and its truths can be applied to parenting, to marriages, to church leadership, and to any and all human relationships. Over the next several blog posts we will look at various aspects of love, starting with the need to die to ourselves.
True, biblical love means that we die to our own desires and needs. Bonhoeffer understood this truth when he said "when Christ calls a man he bids him come and die." This kind of love is only possible when we have given our lives to Christ. Paul said "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Galatians 2:20). Without Christ, we are consumed with our own desires. But when Christ saves us, he frees us from this idolatry and we seek to live for him and like him. Elsewhere Paul pleaded for husbands to show this kind of love to their wives: "husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her" (Ephesians 5:25).
True love seeks what is best for the other person. It is not motivated by self-interests but only the desire to see the other person grow and flourish.
Jesus has a lot of rights. He has the right to be respected. The right to be worshiped. The right to be obeyed. The right to be recognized as King. Of course, all of these rights will eventually be fulfilled as the Bible promises that one day "every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord" (Philippians 2:11). But even though Jesus hasn't given up those rights in an absolute sense, in his dealings with mankind he hasn't made those rights primary. He could have come to mankind demanding to be honored and obeyed. But instead, he took the form of a servant (Philippians 2:7). He laid aside his majesty in order to serve humanity. Mark 10:24 says "for even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."
This kind of self-sacrifice is THE standard for how Christians are to relate to others. In some way, all of us are leaders in that we have the responsibility to lead our relationships in the direction of love. Paul specifically commands us to "have this [self-sacrificing] attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ" (Philippians 2:5) and also says "let no one seek his own good, but instead that of his neighbor" (1 Corinthians 10:24). This is how love operates. Anything else is just a demonic, self-gratifying counterfeit.
Do you realize that all conflicts and tensions within a relationship are caused by the selfish desires of one or both parties? The Bible is very clear about this, and there are no exceptions. James says "what causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you?" (James 4:1). Maybe there is a member of your family who you haven't spoken to in years. Or perhaps you refuse to worship at a particular church because you don't agree with the pastor or another leader on some secondary matter. Or perhaps you have held onto a hurt against someone else for years, resulting in a shallow, distant relationship. Sure, maybe they truly hurt you, but you've stopped pursuing them. Your mouth might claim to "love" them, but your heart inwardly calls you out for being a liar. When you think of them, there is no joy, no appreciation, no thankfulness. You have not pursued them to restore the relationship, and you don't weep over the distance between you. You sit and stew in anger, or perhaps worse, have so removed them from your heart and mind that you don't even think about them. If that is the case, the Holy Spirit is convicting you of the sin of refusing to show self-sacrificing love. Repent of this sin, go to the individual and intentionally seek to build a relationship where their flourishing (not your hurt, preferences, or opinions) is your greatest desire.
Perhaps for you the roles are reversed. Maybe you are feeling the pain caused by someone withdrawing from you. Maybe you wronged them but they won't accept your forgiveness, or perhaps they are angry because you won't give into an unreasonable demand. Whatever the original cause, you've long since lost count of the phone calls not returned and emails or letters not answered. You're requests to meet together to work things out have been repeatedly ignored or perhaps even flatly refused. You've wept often, falling on your knees in prayer for the relationship to be restored, but the object of your love remains trapped in their own destructive selfishness. If this is your situation, don't despair. Continue to show love however you can. Pray for them. Thank God for them. Bring to your mind often the reason you care for them. Yes, it hurts, but you know that love isn't a feeling. It is a choice that you made.
Father, give me a selfless love for others. Put in me the zeal to lead all of my relationships further into this kind of love. May my desire be the benefit and the flourishing of those around me. Amen.