Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Meditations on Love

"This is my commandment: love one another; as I have loved you, so you are to love one another. If there is this love among you, then all will know that you are my disciples." (John 13)

"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself." (Luke 10)

It may be better to call this 'love' charity, since love has become a word so often manipulated that it may lose the meaning Jesus here intended. Charity means love in the Christian sense. But it does not mean an emotion. It is not a state of the feelings but of the will; that state of the will which we have naturally for ourselves and must learn to have about other people.

Charity for our neighbors is a different thing from liking or affection. We like some people, and not others; this is not a sin or virtue, just a fact. However, what we do about it is either sinful or virtuous. As Paul says,

"The parts of the Body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts of the Body that we regard as less honorable we invest with greater honor, and the unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so combined the various parts of the Body, giving special honor to the unpresentable part, that there may be no sense of division in the Body, but that all its organs might have the same concern for one another. If one organ suffers, all suffer together; if one is honored, all rejoice together." - I Corinthians 12:22-26.

In other words, the way God designed our bodies is a model for understanding our lives together as a church: every part dependent on every other part, the parts we mention and pay attention to and the parts we don't; the parts we readily see and the parts we don't often see. The parts we don't naturally pay attention to are paid extra attention, for all the parts need attention, though some would not naturally attract attention. As a body, it is a simple fact that if one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance.

Paul wrote this, not from an ivory tower; but from the warmth of the fire that blazed in and among the brethren at the Church of Ephesus. As John Skidmore says, "The Ephesian brethren had this powerful understanding of the role of status in people's lives. The most important status is emotional -- how people are respected and valued from each other. They understood that the more beautiful, handsome, socially skilled, athletic, tall, well-endowed people naturally attract to themselves honor. There is nothing wrong with that. It is a simple fact of life. The fact was acknowledged. But they also understood the brokenness and pain that comes from not being honored, wanted, respected, sought after. So they made it a practice to seek after, want, honor and respect those that did not naturally attract such things. They shared the sight of Christ - seeking what was not obvious to carnal eyes, and had the hope of Christ. Please remember the line that precedes the famous scripture - 'If any man is in Christ, he is a new creature...' This preceding line was the Ephesian secret wisdom..."

Natural liking and affection make it easier to be charitable towards others, and should normally be encouraged. But we should look out that our liking for one person makes us uncharitable, or mean, to someone else. It is also wrong to think that the way to become more charitable, more loving, is to sit around trying to manufacture feelings of affection. Some people may be more 'cold' by temperament, but that does not cut them out from the command to love.

C.S. Lewis suggested that one "not waste time bothering whether you 'love' your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him... Whenever we do good to another self, just because it is a self, made (like us) by God, and desiring its own happiness as we desire ours, we shall have learned to love it a little more or, at least, to dislike it less."

"Consequently, though Christian charity sounds a very cold thing to people whose heads are full of sentimentality, and though it is quite distinct from affection, yet it leads to affection. The difference between a Christian and a worldly man is not that a worldly man has only affections or 'likings' and the Christian has only 'charity'. The worldly man treats certain people kindly because he 'likes' them: the Christian, trying to treat every one kindly, finds himself liking more and more people as he goes on--including people he could not even have imagined himself liking in the beginning."

I have found that when I am open to loving people, even those that desperately annoy others, I not only love them with my will, but the Lord even grants affection. Perhaps it is because I think there is something special and wonderful about everyone, a conviction I believe the Lord placed in me at a young age, and which is only further encouraged by Scriptures concerning the variety of gifts and the need for unity. And I've seen this at work, beginning with the fellowship of believers who encouraged me in college (and continue to encourage me to this day--I pray I return the favor). As time goes on, I see that the sincere desire to love and see our brothers and sisters with Christ's eyes is a hallmark of a healthy, vibrant fellowship; the kind of fellowship that existed in Ephesus so many years ago.

In summary, Christian love, either towards God or people, is an affair of the will. It is dangerous to interpret the Scriptures based on what we feel is fair or right or natural. If you are trying to do God's will, you are trying to obey his great commandment of love, which is a matter if setting your will in line with His. He will give us feelings of love as He pleases. We cannot create them, and cannot demand them as a right. Our feelings come and go, His love for us does not.


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