The word “love” occurs 686 times in the NIV; by comparison, the word “truth” occurs only 137 times. We should be pleased that God speaks 5 times as often about love than truth, because most people care far more about love, too. Sadly our behavior often suggests otherwise. Even worse, the common practice among Christians suggests that “truth” or “being right” is our first priority, but is it?
“(S)o we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister” (I John 4:16-21).
“God is love.” He judges, but he is not judgment. He gets angry, but he is not anger. He loves; he surely does not hate us, although he does hate sin because it corrupts his creation. He doesn’t sanction hate, not those who kill by whatever name them may call him, not by those who use Jesus’ name to justify hateful behavior. Haters cannot justify their hate with a verse from His word because GOD IS LOVE! And what a great promise goes with his identity: we can trust his love, know and accept, and then rely on Love who is God. This is better than a promise he makes; love is God’s very essence, not just what he does but who he is!
“Whoever lives in love lives in God…” God is the source of love, but living in love is a choice. To choose to live in love is to choose to live in God. I find this a real blessing because I have often questioned my ability to sense God and to know His love. Yet my very first sermon was on I Corinthians 13, the “Love Chapter”, and I have spent most of my life trying to “live in love,” however imperfectly. We have too many cultural boundaries, religious restrictions, and personal weaknesses that interfere with our simply loving each other.
Despite what I wrote above, the opposite of love isn’t hate; it is selfishness. We hate because we are selfish; we don’t care because we are selfish. We justify sanctimonious and dogmatic attitudes and behavior because we are selfish. We puff ourselves up in religious pride because we selfishly seek to exalt ourselves. We are so comfortably self-centered that we have turned love into its opposite. We say, “I love you,” when our “love” is all about our own feelings. We think that sex is the basis of love, instead of the other way around. Marriages fail over half the time; if we counted steadies, live-ins, and significant others; it might be more likely that 90% of relationships fail. They fail for lack of genuine love that is more God-like, other-oriented, sacrificial, unconditional, patient, kind (I Corinthians 13:4ff).
“…and God in them.” Want to love like God? Then, invite Him in. Love like God loves, and He will be there. Ask God to be part of your love, and He will be there. Consider how God sees your love (and He does see it and all you do1), and He will be part of your love. Sadly, I am sure that people can say “god words” and do godless things, but a genuine effort to please our attentive God, He will honor! I am confident that nothing pleases Him more than our sincere efforts to love truly.
“This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus.” I find two things in these words to be unexpected and maybe a little strange. First, the connection between love and judgment seems strange. If I were to ask people what is the best way to be confident on the day of judgment, I can imagine a lot of answers, and none of them would be love. How about you? Obedience, faith, love for God maybe—but this says it’s love being made complete in us, a process that depends on our choosing to love.
Please, don’t misunderstand. We start the whole thing by a new birth in God’s grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-10), and surely we can take a measure of confidence in that. Yet many have been born again and still feel uncertain. Then they attempt to feel more secure by trying to be more religious, whatever that may mean. It certainly doesn’t happen sitting in a pew or putting extra money in the offering. It isn’t any of the things listed in I Corinthians 13:1-3.
The answer to those feelings is found in what we receive in the new birth, that is, a new nature. What is the sign of a believer’s new nature. I believe it is the desire to love, the very need to love, a fundamentally different attitude about people. New believers are often drawn immediately to their new family, to love and be loved. It is a perspective I hate to see corrupted by legalism and judgmentalism. Such ways of seeing others draw on the old nature, the natural man, the self-centered one. He or she, feeling the lack of confidence in their faith, use condemnation to lower others and, by doing so, seem to elevate themselves. Guilty eyes look for others to shame because they cannot bear to consider their own shame. The gift of freedom God has given is lost in the rubbish of corrupt lives that can be hard to leave behind.
I think the confidence on the day of judgment comes when we look on others with love, seeing the person and not merely their faults, looking for their gifts and beauty, not merely their burdens and ugliness. When we love others humbly, graciously, mercifully, we gain the freedom to believe ourselves loved and desired by a forgiving God who accepts us in the loving sacrifice of His Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus through his death sets us free, free to love. When we put love first, we free ourselves to enjoy Christ’s love and freedom.
Permit me to repeat and emphasize. When we re-tune our radar to see past the evident faults and failings of others, seek out the good, the true, and the lovely, and appreciate and encourage their gifts and their amazing accomplishments, that is love. That attitude will reduce our fear of judgment as we have chosen not to judge others; keep that in mind when you read Matthew 7:1-5.
Somehow this makes my second strange thought all the more remarkable, that “in this world, we are like Jesus.” I know that Jesus came into this world, took on human flesh, and became like us. So how, now, are we like him? We are agents of God’s love, just as He was and is. That’s why he told his disciples, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another”. When we choose to love each other as he loves us, we are most like Him. I’ve heard a lot of well-intended nonsense taught as “Christ-likeness,” but this the real thing.
Still what about this? “As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy’” (I Peter 1:14-16). Well, Paul put the kibosh on loveless spirituality in I Corinthians 13, and Peter and Paul together seem to pretty well define love as the key to holiness. The idea of a hermit in a cottage in communion with God2 is both unrealistic and disobedient. He calls us to be like Him, and he was no hermit, hiding from people. “Love your neighbor as yourself” requires at least one neighbor!
“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” It was these words that brought me to this passage today: “There is no fear in love….Perfect love drives out fear.” I’ve spent many hours recently reading sociology with one of my students and getting pounded with the drumbeat of “tolerance”. We get it from the media, educators, and the government, but I think their idea of tolerance is largely bunk! To be “tolerant” as they teach, we Christians must put away the idea of sin; if we are unwilling, then we become the enemy. Except the faithful have always been regarded as the enemy by the real Enemy and all the legions who, knowingly or otherwise, follow him and his lies.
Unfortunately, many believers respond either with surrender or with sanctimony. On the one hand, they give in to the message that cannot be reconciled with the truth. God never calls us to tolerate sin, and to ignore sin in the lives of others is to ignore their greatest problem, one that, unaddressed, ends in an eternity forever separated from God and His love. On the other hand, they become snobs arrogantly condemning sinners when none of them, of any of us, is anything more than a sinner saved by grace.
In both cases, I believe fear gets in the way of love. Loving is by far superior to tolerance. Being tolerant requires nothing but not caring, but love requires, first of all, true compassion…for the gay man, the dark-skinned prostitute, the illegal alien who speaks Spanish, the Muslim who may indeed hate you, the tattooed, body-pierced Goth dressed in black, the Chinese student from the country we now often consider our greatest enemy, the unmarried woman with 5 kids by 5 different fathers (Might she be Samaritan?), the drug-addicted alcoholic. We don’t just fear the alien strangers and nonconformist people next door, we also fear a system that seems to be running in the wrong direction, leaders who don’t just have bad ideas or sinful lifestyles but who boldly lie about both, a culture bent on removing all vestiges of Christian influence and, if possible, any real Christians as well. I love the dream that became the United States, and I am committed as a citizen to seek to preserve or restore its freedoms and its prosperous way of life. But we…I…need to remember that “perfect love drives out fear.” In other words, we never have the right or the need to displace love with anger, self-righteousness, scorn, hatred, or condemnation. The only key to the things we desire—whether in this life or the life to come—is through fearless love3.
Our fallen human instincts are to penalize those who do wrong “because fear has to do with punishment.” In its role in civil justice, that may be acceptable. We lock up dangerous people because we fear the harm they may do. That’s what God-ordained government is supposed to do. However, that is one thing, and this is another. As Jesus said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). No matter how much we love life, this life—an we should as a gift from God—this life is temporary. Fearless love enables us to deal with matters of time and eternity, to look past weaknesses of the flesh—not merely the failings of others but our own as well—to love the one who bears God’s image and enjoys God’s love despite sin. Neither personal fears nor political fears should be allowed to interfere with God’s love in us.
The price of letting fear stop our love is failing to be perfected in love. I’m not sure I can imagine being made perfect in love, but I surely want to be! As the years have passed since that first sermon, I know I have learned to love. I can’t say I’m never afraid, but I find I truly do care about most everyone. Easiest are my refugee and international students and several exchange students; I could not have imagined those years ago that I would come to care so much for young people from other countries. I simply had no basis for the idea. Taxi-driving is anything but glamorous, but I do enjoy getting to know passengers, sometimes just in the course of a single ride, sometimes over many. Moreover, I gain a kind of satisfaction in being able to help them out with as small a thing as a cab ride…and occasional opportunities for more. School families, next door neighbors, waitresses and baristas—people I meet quite quickly people I care about, people I love.
I think I’ve learned one important thing about being perfected in love. I think that maybe the process quiets the urgent and sometimes oppressive need to be loved. I’ve known and believed that God loves me for a long time, and that does help. Perfect love drives out the fear of being unloved…over time. My life hasn’t been as difficult as some. I wondered if my father loved me, and he died when I was 19 (I eventually figured out that he did). I struggled to make friends and, for years, hoped to make and keep a true “best friend,” a friend for a life-time. I’ve mostly stopped worrying about it. The steady girlfriend I might have married chose someone else. The one I asked to marry me, said yes, and then chose another. A third might have been “the one,” but had personal issues that led to her suicide. I’ve had close friends who’ve turned away, perhaps because I messed up. Still, I never went through a messy divorce, had a spouse or child die, been beaten or abused, or alone faced a critical illness. I would have liked to have been a father; I think I’d have been a good one. God had other plans. All of this to say, today I am content. Today I am rarely afraid of loneliness or even dying alone. Today I can see that love is being perfected, as fear is driven away.
“We love because he first loved us.” Although we have numerous examples, we still struggle to comprehend how the limitless God of the universe could bother to love us insignificant, oh-so-very flawed creatures. Yet mothers love their children even after they do awful things. Some marriages do endure despite the obvious failings of both husband and wife. A person can love a dear pet, even after it ruins furnishings, soils clothing, chews shoes, and shows no remorse whatever, beyond maybe a guilty look. Love shouldn’t be a mystery in a world designed in every way by a loving Creator, and our capacity for love, like those examples or even better like Jesus, is possible because he already loves us even before our lives begin.
“Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” This parallels Paul’s warning in I Corinthians 13. It summarily dismisses the piety of the harsh, judgmental, unloving bigot; it likewise dismisses the condescension of the arrogant, know-it-all pretender with his little flock of yes-men4. Now this addresses love for spiritual siblings, but let’s be careful with that. I’ve been around for a few decades, and I’ve observed the insidious ways people dismiss the salvation of brothers and sisters to be justified in their rejections and condemnations: “Oh, I can look down upon them for obviously they are not true Christians.” It is a faulty basis for condemnation, based upon prior judgment, and it is wrong on the face of it. Even were it otherwise, it doesn’t negate “Love your neighbor as yourself,” when Jesus used a much despised Samaritan to illustrate “neighbor”.
The premise often assumed is that first we love God, and then (when we get around to it) we’ll love our neighbors, brothers and sisters, whomever. John turns that around. Our ability to love God is educated by our loving for other people. It’s so easy to say, “I love God.” I knew someone who said to her daughter, “I love you, honey,” and that was a message to go fetch a pop from the fridge. Proof for our love for God must meet a pretty high standard, based on seeming intangibles; but, loving our brother or sister, that is very tangible. If we cannot do that, we cannot possibly be loving God. Our claims are meaningless and presumptive.
“And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.” God leaves us no wiggle-room. If a person is sincere in their desire to love God, then they have no choice but to love their brothers and sisters at the same time. Here I must express my dismay that so many believers are not loving. Yeah, I know lots of really nice church folks, but loving is much more than being nice. When I began preaching in my first church, some people would tell me as they greeted me at the door that I had preached a “nice sermon.” ARRGH! I bluntly told them that the word “nice” was hardly a compliment. I was not preaching “nice” sermons, at least not intentionally; I sought to teach insightfully and preach prophetically. Nice is harmless and inoffensive. It can be completely passive or syrupy sweet. I hope my preaching was neither, and I believe love is much, much more than nicety. I preached a sermon on love at one church, and they didn’t invite me back! I think they got the point, but they didn’t want to hear it. Love isn’t words; it is actions. Love isn’t sweet and cozy; it faces that which is dirty and ugly with kindness, patience, and gentle wisdom. We may not even like a brother or sister, but we must nevertheless love them.
By the way, I am not opposed to expressing affection, brotherly and sisterly love, or sympathy with words or touch. They are important and they have their place. Just back them up with suitable supporting actions.
Is it significant that John doesn’t mention that to love God requires obeying his commands until the next chapter of the epistle? I think it is. If we’re serious about our relationship with God we dare not ignore our relationships with other people, both our brothers and sisters and our neighbors. Love benefits us, not in getting love, which we already receive from God. Love drives out fear, the fear that keeps us from loving. To put this in a slightly different way, we must choose to love to experience its benefits, as opposed to waiting for courage before we try. Whom do we try to love? Look around, or more accurately, pay attention. We are surrounded by people who need our loving interest and compassion. Put aside your fear of never being loved and be the one loving others. Put aside your fear of their shortcomings, offensiveness, and sinful behavior—they are only sinners like you. Put aside your fear of saying or doing the wrong thing or of being perceived as foolish; God will enable you to love, and your love will be welcomed. Put aside your silly words of love, and replace them with loving actions. Put aside your fear that maybe God doesn’t really love you, that he loves nearly everyone else but not you. Instead, love others, discover the love of God perfected in you, and watch your fears wither away in the limitless love of God!
1Psalm 139:7 makes it clear that no one can flee from God’s presence, yet we can ignore Him. He misses nothing; He knows everything. Still, when we seek him, we will find him (Matthew 7:7-8). In a sense, we can push him out of our lives and actions, and I suspect that hell is little more than God granting such wishes. I don’t want to do that or go there, and I hope you don’t either.
2I am aware that some groups combine reflection with service, and I’m not implying any criticism of them.
3Here is a place to mention one of my favorite little books called Deadly Detours by the late Bob Briner. He discusses the mistake Christians make in becoming such advocates against certain concerns like abortion or gay rights that we cannot reach across to an adversary to share the love of Christ. That book should be on every pastor’s bookshelf, if not every believer’s, but I know not that many were printed. Even the publisher thought it was too controversial.
4In this, I include those who presume to criticize or correct. Both have their very necessary place in spiritual leadership and growth. Jesus was very clear that such efforts must be done personally, directly, and privately, at least at the outset. No pulpit, broadcast medium, or social venue is the place to attack those with whom you disagree. If the place and manner of “correction” most likely leads to hostile reaction, then it was probably the wrong manner and place. The missing ingredient is most likely love. The objective is not to “win” an argument, and it is not to recruit converts to your religious group. Unloving hostility among Christians is not justified whether you are the defender or the attacker. Patient, tender, loving, understanding correction is always focused on the other person, while recalling wisely one’s own shortcomings and failures.