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True Love

“I’m not a smart man,” said Forrest Gump, “but I know what love is.” In truth, Forrest in his constancy understood love better than almost everyone else in the movie. Like many profound and beautiful words, the word love has been manipulated in many ways. “all you need is love,” sang the Beatles in the 60s. “We did it all for the glory of love,” was Peter Cetera’s 1980s refrain, and Alicia Keys’ haunting vocals in Fallin’ lament the paradox of falling “in and out” of love with someone who gives her so much pleasure and causes her so much pain.

We readily ascribe “love” to our favourite foods, clothes, place and songs, affection for animals and activities. It has often become a synonym for sexual attraction, with or without any form of commitment. It is a word we could apply to an actor or musician we’ve never met, but never to an enemy. It seems that “love” has become simply a more intense form of “like.” An emotive response ascribed to “love” can override reason, justice and common sense. It would be virtually inconceivable in popular parlance to “love” something or someone we disliked or hated. Yet that is exactly what the radical love of God calls us to in reciprocation. How can this be?

Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). He followed through on this himself, praying to his Father for forgiveness for those who were crucifying him (Luke 23:34). The reason he gave can be seen in the whole context of the Matthew 5 quote, which is part of his Sermon on the Mount.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:43–48).

Loving those who love us, in whom we have a vested interest, is no big deal. Everyone, even the most hardened criminal or dictator can do that, perhaps even putting the welfare of their relatives above that of a whole nation. But love of others, indiscriminately, universally, regardless of how they view or treat us, that’s different. That is the love of a gracious God, the God who in his very nature is love (1 John 4:16). Love is not a feeling. It is relational and it is active. God is love because he is relational and active. He extends his love to his wayward creation, even though he hates the sin that has warped it. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Jesus showed this same love; “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:12–13). Jesus, who is God and man, laid down his life in love for us, when we had done nothing to deserve it. In fact, universally humankind has sinned and in doing so rejected God. But he did not reject us, because he loves us.

“For one will scarcely die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die — but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7–8)

The love that we are to show to everyone without discrimination is this sort of self sacrificing love. It is the appropriate response to the love of God. How would you feel toward a person who rushed into a burning building or abseiled down a crumbling cliff face to save your life? Would you ignore them? Mock them? Pay lip service to their efforts? Hardly! How much more should the idea of the Almighty God becoming human in order to die for us pull us up sharply and make us consider our response? What would a God like that require in response to his saving love? Simply, reciprocation. Not that we can do anything by our own efforts to impress God with mighty works, as if we could repay him. We cannot repay him. Our response is to be in humble gratitude for his amazing grace. A smart religious lawyer once questioned Jesus as to what was the greatest commandment of God. Jesus replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37–38). Jesus’ close friend and disciple, John, wrote to Christians to remind them “We love because God first loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:19–21).

God’s love is indiscriminate; he sends rain and sun on the evil and on the good. So too our love must be indiscriminate. Another religious lawyer tried to trick Jesus by getting him to specifically define the “neighbours” we are to love. Jesus told the parable of the good Samaritan in response. To really get the impact of this parable we need to realise that the relationship between Samaritans and Jews was like the antagonism between Palestinians and Jews, or North and South Korea, except without the bombs. Yet this Samaritan stopped to help the Jew who had been mugged. This means that wealthy, conservative white American Christians need to love impoverished black and Hispanic people, and Australians need to love refugees. I need to love people I find disagreable or offensive. It’s that radical.

How can anyone do this? It seems so countercultural! That’s because the Gospel of Jesus Christ is countercultural and always has been. God isn’t impressed or influenced by the vagaries of “culture” and public opinion. He is unchanging. The reason it seems impossible comes back to my original point about what love is. Love is not an emotion, akin to a stronger form of “like.” God doesn’t suggest we have to like everyone. Love is relational and it is active, and it actually overrides feelings! In fact, Paul often had to remind the early churches to put aside their social, cultural and personal differences for the sake of love (Romans 12:9–18; 2 Corinthians 13:11; Ephesians 4:23). Here’s how the Bible describes love:

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4–7).

You might recognise these words from a wedding service. The passage is an interesting choice because in its context Paul is actually berating and correcting the Christians at Corinth for being exactly the opposite of loving! He says it doesn’t matter how clever you are, how many talents or how much power, or what great accomplishments you have, or how generous you are, if you do not act in love, it’s all useless (1 Corinthians 13:1–3). Yet love is evidenced by action, by what we say and what we do, how we minister to others and how we treat them. Love is relational and it is active, it is not a transient feeling. True love persists beyond infatuation, transcends what we like or dislike about the person or what they do for us, and manifests in what we do and say; how we treat them. True love is sacrificial and selfless, as is God’s love for us in Christ.

We are saved by grace, through faith, not because of who we are or what we’ve done. Grace is undeserved favour and it is the motivation for the action of love. The appropriate response to God’s lavish and gracious gift of love is to love in return, in gratitude. Paul calls this our “reasonable service.” We don’t need to find motivation to love others because of their loveableness. That would be a poor motivation. God loves the unloveable; sinners like us, and so should we. After all, if we are truly honest with ourselves, we do not deserve God’s love. Yet it is our reasonable service to love, as he has loved us.

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