THE TRUTH ABOUT LOVE
You get the impression the Apostle John was always talking about love. It seems to have been his favourite topic. The theme of love certainly stands out in his first epistle. In various places in this letter he says things like “God is love”; “Perfect love casts out fear”; “We should love one another”; “Whoever does not love does not know God.” With John it’s love, love, love.
But what exactly is this love John is talking about? The word “love” means different things to different people. And this isn’t just because the word “love” is often thrown around very casually - such as when people say they love chocolate cake or the Toronto Maple Leafs. Even when we use the word “love” in a robust and fully-formed way, it can take on different meanings.
C.S. Lewis once wrote a book he called The Four Loves. In this book Lewis identified four different types of love. There’s the love between family members. There’s the love between friends. There’s romantic love. And there’s also a love that goes beyond the attachments of family or friendship or romance. Undoubtedly these four types of love often overlap. But they each refer to something a little bit different. So when John tosses the word “love” around, we can be excused for asking, “What kind of love are you referring to?”
It’s almost as if John hears us saying this. He recognizes that he needs to define the love he’s talking about. So he says, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.” It’s an unusual way to put it. It’s not exactly your standard dictionary definition. If you look in the dictionary, you’ll see something that says, “Love: That state of feeling with regard to a person which arises from recognition of attractive qualities, from sympathy, or from natural ties, and manifests itself in warm affection and attachment.” But John’s definition of love is nothing like that. Instead of giving a philosophical statement, he tells a story: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. If you want to know the true definition of love, that’s it. If you were to look up “love” in John’s dictionary, what you would find would be a picture of the cross.
This love is what C.S. Lewis was getting at with his fourth type of love – the love that goes beyond the attachments of family or friendship or romance. When Jesus laid down his life for us, he didn’t do it because he looked on us as members of his family. It’s true that Jesus did talk about his brothers and sisters, but he defined his brothers and sisters as those who do the will of the Father. Jesus didn’t just die for his brothers and sisters - for those who live in accordance with the Father’s will. In fact, he died for those who have gone against the Father’s will. He died for sinners – sinners who have cut themselves off from God’s family.
Jesus also didn’t lay down his life for us because we were his friends. Perhaps now we are his friends – because we’ve put our faith in him and given our lives to him. But it wasn’t because we were his friends that Jesus died for us. Jesus died even for those who ignored him – those who would have nothing to do with him. He died even for his enemies.
Jesus also didn’t lay down his life for us because he was moved by romantic feelings. The essence of romantic love is that it sees some appealing qualities in the other person. But while we were still sinners, there was nothing appealing about us. There was nothing about us that would have drawn him to us. And yet Jesus died for us all the same.
The love Jesus expressed in the cross was the greatest of all loves. It was a love that rose above the types of attachments that so often pass for love in our world. It was a love that was completely self-giving, completely self-sacrificing. It was a love that was willing to give everything away.
This is the kind of love that John says we should have for one another. John says, “Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” That sounds like an unbelievably extreme statement. It sounds like John wants to send us all to martyrdom. There are times in the history of the church when that’s exactly what this has meant. We can think of the story of Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest imprisoned in the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz during World War II. He was in Auschwitz for hiding over 2,000 Jews from the Nazis. When several prisoners escaped from the camp, the Nazis ordered ten random prisoners to be killed. Kolbe volunteered to take the place of one of the ten who had been selected.
It’s a stunning example of a follower of Jesus laying down his life for a brother. It’s an act of sacrifice that continues to reverberate through the church to this day. At this time and in this place, we are not very likely to find ourselves in the situation of Maximilian Kolbe. But that doesn’t mean we can’t live out Jesus’ love in other ways. John quite helpfully provides an example. He says, “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?” In other words, self-giving, self-sacrificing love can be as simple as taking pity on someone in need and sharing with them out of your abundance. And it’s truly the love of God when you help the person not because they are a family member or a friend or someone with admirable qualities. It is truly the love of God when you do it simply because this is a person in need whom you have the capacity to help.
It has to be said that this type of love is not well understood and often not well received in this world of ours. The world understands love of family. The world understands love of friends. The world understands romantic love. But the world doesn’t really get the concept of sacrificial love.
The writer and philosopher Ayn Rand did not think very highly of sacrificial love. She was of the opinion that greed is good, and she believed living selfishly is the way to go. One of Ayn Rand’s followers is a man by the name of Gary Hull, and he has expressed the view that genuine love is always selfish. Hull says that to love a person is selfish, because it means that you value that person, that he or she makes your life better, and they are a source of joy to you. According to Hull, love is not a sacrifice, it’s an investment – an investment in someone whose happiness is important to your own happiness.
This is a very worldly view of love – although we’d have to admit, if we’re honest, that it’s how we view love much of the time ourselves. A lot of the love we offer comes with a desire to receive something back in return. In other words, it’s not really selfless. It’s an investment we make, in the hope that it will give us some sort of payoff. Perhaps we hope that we’ll receive love in return for our love. Or perhaps we hope that others will take note of the acts of charity we do, and give us a pat on the back and a boost for our ego. From this perspective, our sacrifices don’t look so sacrificial, and our acts of love don’t look so self-giving.
This is why we have to keep turning back to the Apostle John’s definition of love. This is why we have to keep reminding ourselves of the cross. If we follow the world’s lead, we will be able to claim that we display love in our lives, after a fashion. But it won’t be the love that’s in Jesus. It won’t be the love that truly comes from God.
The love that comes from God is not a love that’s looking for some kind of payoff. The love that comes from God is a love that focuses on the other person, not on ourselves. It’s a love that doesn’t expect something in return. It’s a love that gives simply because it recognizes a need in another person. When it sees that need, it responds with compassion, because that is its very essence.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?” Even sinful tax collectors could recognize a trade off when they saw it. They knew all about love as an investment. They didn’t know anything about love as a sacrifice.
In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses tells the Israelites that they are to love those who are aliens in the land. “Aliens” sounds like a science fiction term, but it actually means foreigners in the land – strangers who don’t belong there – who are not members of any of the tribes of Israel. The Israelites are to love these strangers – not because they’re going to get anything in return – not because it’s some sort of investment that will produce a payoff. They are to love these strangers because the Israelites themselves were once aliens in the land. They were foreigners in Egypt, and God took pity on them. As God’s people, that is how they too should act. They should act towards others the way God acted towards them.
This is the kind of love we as followers of Jesus are called to display. This is not a love that consists merely of words or feelings. Instead it’s a love that’s displayed in actions and in truth.
Of course, it’s not a simple thing to love one another as God has commanded us. It’s not so easy for us to rise above our worldly assumptions about love. And it’s even harder for us to live out a love that’s characterized by sacrifice and selflessness.
But, thankfully, we don’t have to sort all this out on our own. The way we can obey God’s command to love is to live in him. And when we live in him, he lives in us. By the Holy Spirit, God guides us and shapes us and transforms us. With God living in us, there’s no limit to the love we can display.
The story is told of a pilgrim who stopped for the night at the outskirts of a village. As he settled down to sleep he was interrupted by a man from the village who approached him in great excitement. The man from the village said to him, “Give me the diamond; give me the diamond.” The pilgrim said, “What diamond?” The villager said, “I have had a dream that you have a diamond of great value, and according to what was revealed to me in this dream, if I ask you for this diamond you will give it to me and make me rich forever.” “Very well,” the pilgrim said, and with that he reached into his bag and pulled out an immense precious stone. “You may certainly have it,” the pilgrim said, and then he settled down again to sleep.
The villager stared in amazement at this stone. It was the largest diamond he had ever seen. He took the diamond and walked away. But when he lay on his bed that night, he found that there was something gnawing away at him. He tossed and turned all night, unable to sleep. So the next morning he went back to the pilgrim and said, “Give me the treasure that makes it possible for you to give away this diamond so easily.”
That treasure, of course, is the love of God. With the love of God in us, it becomes possible for us to give, to care, to sacrifice. We can do that because we know we have something that is more valuable than anything we could ever give away. We have the love of one who has given himself away for us.