Love, pt 1

I’ve been thinking more about love. I preached on 1 Cor 13 two weekends ago. You can hear, read, or watch that message by clicking here.

Love is the beginning, middle, and end of our Christian lives. Without it, the Bible describes us as spiritual noisemakers: a clanging gong or noisy cymbal. So, consider this blog an appeal for a more loving Christianity. But what is that love? And how is it different from the love the world can give?

Let me start by acknowledging that all humans are capable of giving and receiving love on some level. We are created in the image of a God who is love; and though we have fallen, and though God’s image within us is tarnished, nevertheless we can still–faintly at least–reflect some of his love.

Having said that, as Christians we believe that it is only through Christ that we reach our highest potential, including our potential related to love.

That’s why Paul states: “…the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” Ro 5:5. When Scripture urges God’s people to a life of love, it is talking about a God-created, Spirit-induced love. This is something more than our natural love, something in addition to our natural capabilities.

And it is exactly here that the church runs into so much trouble.

Because, in my estimation, there aren’t 1 in 10 Christians who sees their love lives as a supernatural production of God within them. The overwhelming majority views the Great Commandment (love God, love your neighbor) as simply one more “duty” in a laundry list of duties. Perhaps the biggest, most important one, but still just another duty, obligation, and job from God. And, like all obligations, we dutifully perform the obligation of love, to the best of our abilities, with the same strength with which we clean the house, fix the car, care for the kids, and mow the lawn.

But isn’t love to be something different? Shouldn’t its fuel be the high-powered Holy Spirit rather than our putzy little tricycle of the flesh?

The main power of love is the Holy Spirit, who pours forth the love of God in our hearts. Do you see your love life that way? Your love for your spouse? your kids? your obnoxious neighbor? your in-laws? your pastor? Do you see your love as a function of the work of God in your heart?

Okay… confession time. A show of hands. Raise your hand if you consciously view your love life as a supernatural production of God within you via the indwelling Christ and the Holy Spirit. Class? Anyone? Anyone?

In all honesty, my hand isn’t up either.

Most of us act as if we can produce, on our own, that which pleases God. INCLUDING LOVE. And therein lies the seeds of Pelagianism.

Pelagius, a British monk of the 5th century A.D., taught that unaided human nature could produce that which pleases God, all the way up to and including salvation. He denied our inherent fallenness and sin; and he denied our need of God’s grace to live up to God’s standards. The church rightly recognized his teachings as contrary to Scripture. Because we are fallen and we do need God’s grace, and we can’t lift a finger correctly unless it is by his gracious power.

But don’t we hear the echoes of Pelagius every time our preachers and teachers send us forth to “love the world,” without reminding us of that love’s wellspring? Without teaching us that we are to love by the power of Christ or else it isn’t love? Don’t we need constant reminders that it must be God’s love flowing through us? And that all else is “wood, hay, and stubble” (1 Cor. 3:12)?

Worldly love does not please God. Would you agree?

Yet, in the church of today, how many Christians are taught this? How many Christians are taught to love by God’s power; to let the love of God flow through them by the Holy Spirit? And absent this teaching, how much of our supposedly Christian love comes across as self-serving, immature, agenda-driven, and fragile? How much of it actually turns off seekers of Christ, and sends them running away from the church?

And how much of our love is spasmodic… not the steady stream which God supplies, but the fits and spurts that our fallen human nature supplies.

Love is the first fruit of the Spirit. It is also the first work of the flesh. As the fruit of the Spirit, it will adorn the gospel. It will draw people to Christ. As the work of the flesh it will make us self-congratulatory. It will distract people from Christ. It will not endure all things; it will not believe all things; it will not hope all things. And it will most surely fail.

But there is one more all-important factor we need to consider if our love is going to emit the fragrant aroma of Christ. I’ll save that for the next entry.


14 thoughts on “Love, pt 1

  1. How do we know when love is from us or from God? He doesn’t take over our bodies and move us involuntarily. We must choose to love. We must perform the love by our own volition. At what point does God’s love interject into the process? What causes one persons effort to be barren of God’s power and another’s to be blessed? If a person is choosing to obey God’s commandments, wouldn’t He supply the supernatural love to make it successful? Why would He not?

  2. All Ears,
    You’re stealing my thunder from the next blog! But here’s a short answer: yes, we perform acts of love by our own volition. God’s love enters the process as we act in faith and awareness of it.
    “If a person is choosing to obey God’s commandments, wouldn’t He supply the supernatural love ot make it successful?” Not necessarily.
    “Why would he not?” Pride, attention-getting, legalism, arrogance, selfish motivation, immaturity.
    The glory must always go to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
    I’ll say more in the next entry.

  3. Nice post.

    I think the problem I have, is knowing that a situation is calling for God’s love and He has put the seed to handle the situation in my heart, then I going right on and being ticked off, annoyed, sarcastic, mean, apathetic, etc. anyway because it’s easy…and on a nasty fleshy side, it feels better right then…temporarily.

    Then later, I feel bad…and the situation has gone…and I wish I’d handled it better.

  4. Wow, Brian. Thank you for your honesty…

    Bill, while you’re at it (the sequel)… we hear the word ‘love’ used in so many different ways. I think defining it is important as Christians are often accused of lacking it – not only validly accused when we get (as Brian stated beautifully), annoyed, sarcastic, mean, apathetic, etc. But also when, as kindly as possible, we stand up in defense of something that many others disagree with – doing so because we believe it’s honoring to Jesus.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on the part of love that stands firm. I’m not a fan of anger or harsh speech in any circumstance; hard to tell where it’s coming from – and little comes from humans that is righteous. I’ve also learned much from you about the gentleness of Grace. But is there a love that (metaphorically) flips over tables or tells a friend ‘get behind me!’ (like Jesus), or verbally wishes non-truth would ’emasculate’ itself (like Paul), or picks up a sling-shot to defend the troops against a scoffing enemy of God (like David)? If so, how can we tell the difference between that kind of love and someone who’s just being a “freak”?

  5. All Ears & -V- (and everybody, I suppose),

    One of the philosophy guys I’m always talking about is a Jesuit scholar named Bernard Lonergan. Towards the end of his career, he emphasized the involvement of God in our cognitional operations (a fancy way of saying “the way we go about thinking”) and how we make moral choices. I’ll do my best to give a brief outline of his thought on the matter, and I think it might give one answer to the concrete “how?” of God’s-love-in-us.

    Lonergan says that whenever you know anything (and later, whenever you make any decisions), everyone performs the same set of operations;
    – You experience some data. (For example, you read the Scriptures)
    – You ask questions about that data. (You ask,”what does that mean?”)
    – You pattern or organize that data into an “insight” as an attempt to answer your questions. ( You say,”Maybe it means ‘this.’“)
    – You reflect critically on your insight. (You ask “Is this true?”)
    – You make a judgement. ( You say “Yes, the scripture means this.”)
    – You choose an action. (You live/behave as though that scripture is true and meaningful.)

    Now, this set of operations is merely natural, often soaked in sin and doesn’t guarantee anything. You can pay attention to the wrong data, ask the wrong questions, come up with unintelligent patterns or “insights,” refuse to be sufficiently critical, hold off too long on making a judgement or behave irresponsibly. All of those things can screw up the process. But none the less, whenever you know something, wrong or right, that is the method by which you do it. Pay attention and you’ll realize he is right about this. If you try to disprove it, you demonstrate it to be correct. But that’s a discussion for MY blog, not Bill’s. 🙂

    But you’re probably thinking “What in the world does this have to do w/ love?!?!”

    Well, later in his career, Lonergan seems to take the real, concrete effects of God’s love more seriously, and spends some time talking about what Faith is and means. He says that Faith (as opposed to “belief,” which has propositional content) is the “experience of God’s Love.” Sounds kinda unimpressive but, for Lonergan, being awash in God’s love does some incredible things.

    (stay with me. this is really interesting stuff.)

    Our experiences, our culture, our personalities, our psychology and (most influentially) our sin-full nature create what is called a “horizon of meaning” for us. What this horizon does is provide, within its limits, what we can consider possible and meaningful. Have you ever known someone who has problems and the solutions seem so obvious to you, but they can’t seem to figure them out, except maybe with lots of counseling or therapy? This is the limiting effect of our natural horizons. Luckily, horizons are also always growing and changing. The good part about our horizons is that they provide a kind of field for our ideas to play in. Without those horizons, we can’t know or be anything. Trying to think or make responsible decisions w/o a horizon is like trying to play a sport with NO rules at all. Its impossible.

    Okay, back to Love: Bernard Lonergan says that the experience of God’s Love in Faith radically reshapes our personal (and cultural, I would wager) horizons of meaning. In concrete terms it means;
    – we can pay attention to different data
    – we can ask different questions
    – we can conceive of different patterns or “insights”
    – we can hold our insights to different critical standards
    – we can judge different things as true (and GOOD!)
    – we can choose to act differently
    This, for Lonergan, is what conversion does: our whole “horizon of meaning” gets a God-certified engine replacement, so to speak. Natural knowing and acting and loving bubble up from experience to judgment like a useful, but impure spring. Graced knowing, acting and loving flow down from our new values all the way to the most basic way we experience the world. Creation can literally look different after we accept God’s Grace. Indeed, “…the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” The experience of God’s love (the greatest manifestation of which is recognizing Christ’s salvific act on the Cross) makes us into “a new creation.”

    So now you’re thinking “Great, now I’ve got a complicated philosophical description of “love as a function of the work of God in your heart,” but I still don’t know how to know what the (God’s-)loving action is?”

    Well, there isn’t a way to know with absolute certainty, but if you are authentically letting the natural trajectory of your “cognitional operations” play out once it has been reshaped by the experience of God’s love (Salvation), you can have faith that God is leading you in the right direction. And if you are in a community that is going through this process of re-creation together (which we call a “Church”), then you have access to lots of help. Still too abstract? Lonergan provides what he calls the “transcendental precepts” to help us remain faithful to the way God has (re)made us.
    (don’t let the word ‘transcendental’ make you nervous. He means it in a technical, philosophical way, not a new-age-y, crystals and sitar-music way.)
    They are:
    – Be Attentive (pay attention to the right data)
    – Be Intelligent (use your mind to pattern that data creatively)
    – Be Reasonable (don’t settle for answers that aren’t good enough)
    – Be Responsible (don’t act rashly or with bias)
    – Be in Love (with God!) (value the right things the right amount, with God at the top.)

    And -V-, you ask a good question about determining if someone is actually acting in love or not. Sometimes we have to make those kinds of judgments (for example, in an election year), even though we aren’t equipped to make them with certainty. We do, after all only have access to the “outward appearance.” Our motives are often not even perfectly transparent to ourselves! Only God gets unadulterated access to the hearts of human beings. But, we can start by attempting to hold people’s reasoning and actions up to the Transcendental Precepts. It doesn’t tell us much, but it at least rules out blatant bias and sin. And that is genuinely helpful in a confusing world.

    I’ll say (lastly!) that for Lonergan, the only way to have your horizon reshaped is to accept and respond to God doing it TO you. If this whole thing sounds overly rationalistic, remember that for your natural cognitional operations to work correctly/objectively, Faith has to come first. Though his philosophy does have some limited trust in authentic, natural human operations, Lonergan is definitely non-pelagian in his theology. At the same time, the effect of God’s love in us is not magic. It plays out concretely at our most basic, ontological level and we can know it. That “ontological” word just means that God doesn’t just change some things about us. God recreates the very thing that makes us what we are; Our self. Our soul, if you like.


  6. Bill,

    The “ontological” truth of love is the Trinity.

    John 17 is the best passage. Jesus talks about “the love he has had with the Father before the world existed.”

    The adoration of the Father, the Sacrifice and Glorification of the Son, the Procession of the Spirit.

    It is all love-driven. As members of Christ’s body, we come to “image” God in this respect.

    The Inner Mess is the disobedience of Adam (made present in the here-and-now). The Inner Mess is anti-Love (which is why it is anti-Grace).

    The whole Law of Moses was “good” and provided for right relationships between men and men, and men and God.

    But the Inner Mess rebelled against that Law, because the Inner Mess is part of the heart of man.

    God did away with the Law, because God provided for a new heart (Inner Grace), which is “sealed” by the Holy Spirit.

    Thus our Inner Grace (Spirit-powered Love from God) coexists with our Inner Mess. Not until our resurrection will the Inner Mess — along with its midwide, death — will be down away.

    In the meantime, we still cover our nakedness with the Inner Mess (pure lipstick on the pig). Our real beauty is Inner Grace, which will finally be our “white raiment” in the resurrection state.

    “We see dimly yet in a mirror (the image of Inner Grace, or reflection of our Lord)…”


  7. Bill wrote,

    “worldly love does not please God. Would you agree?”

    Yes and No.

    I would agree that “worldly” love does not please God, but the question is what is worldly love?


  8. Oh, and Jonathan, i read your post and still don’t quite understand what you are getting at.

    could you just put it into one sentance? It is hard for me to really get down to the nuts and bolts of what you are trying to say.


  9. one sentence..hrm..I’m not good at that! but let me try a couple of ways:

    Attempt #1: Fully accepting the Love of God results in a rebirth so complete that our whole world and our whole self become something new.


    Attempt #2: God’s love re-creates, not just how you relate to other people, but how you relate to EVERYTHING.

    If you can think of specific questions about “nuts and bolts,” shoot me an e-mail.

  10. Hi, Jonathan.

    Thanks for passing along some of what you’ve learned. My favorite parts of what you’ve shared are:

    1. Acknowledgement that our own ways of ‘knowing’ are finite, flawed.
    2. God’s love is not just a ‘floofy’ emotion, but has real, powerful and practical impact on our ‘horizons’.
    3. Christ’s Cross is the ultimate manifestation of God’s love for us.
    4. ‘The experience of God’s love’ related to salvation. (There’s more to our salvation than what we can ‘experience’, I think, but I like that definition as a part of what it means – could be semantics here).
    5. The concept of ‘The Church’ as a community that is undergoing re-creation together.
    6. Admission that our perception/judgment of others’ acts is limited, but can be held up to certain precepts.
    7. The impacts of God’s love in us are redemptive and restorative in a whole-person sense.

    In, short – not a whole lot not to like, I think. And, #1, 2, and 6 seem to directly relate to conclusions I was moving toward in the line of questioning at the end of my comment. We need to be careful (on all sides) of labeling as ‘non-loving’ the perceptions or responses of brothers and sisters in Christ that may, at times, appear stubborn or disagreeable. They may be in defense of something True that our growing horizons will, in time, by His continued work in us, allow us to see.

    This is, of course, far easier to do when someone is being stubborn or disagreeable about something we too feel stubborn or disagreeable about. It can be another story when the tables are turned. Love that stands firm in His Truth – with humility, and without fear – is an ongoing journey for all of us, I think. And something He’s been reminding me is particularly needed as of late…

    I haven’t agreed with all your comments, Jonathan; I’m betting you haven’t agreed with all of mine – we may be coming from different perspectives, maybe even in some important ways. But I’m getting that we are motivated by love for the same God, and His same Son. And place highest value on what He did for us on the Cross. I am thankful to be sharpened as you continue to share your thoughts.

  11. Okay, that seems somewhat self evident.

    what would someone say that disagreed with your statement?
    (that may help me understand it better)


  12. Well, the common sense understanding of how we relate to what is real is something like:
    “There’s a real object (or world). I can ‘see’ it if I remove all distorting and mediating ideas, prejudices, inclinations, etc.”

    Bernard Lonergan calls this “the principle of the empty head.” It’s the idea that we just intuit what is real and it uses the metaphor of sight. As long as there is nothing distorting or limiting my mental “vision,” I just know what’s real.

    The problem with this is that we either:
    a) reject anything but what we can sense (empiricist scientism) and so truly supernatural religion is out of the question
    b) we treat God and spiritual realities like they are bodily realities. We think of God as a being. an old man with a beard. Heaven and Hell become literal “places” where our souls go. But what we mean by soul is some kind of spiritual “stuff” or substance. Grace is understood to be like little nuggets of God power that change our “souls” into something new.

    Except (b) doesn’t work because the way we would prove the truth or fiction of those spiritual-realities-understood-as-bodies is scientific in the empirical sense. But that level of understanding (the experiential) doesn’t really apply to spiritual realities. How can I measure that God has changed my “heart of stone to a heart of flesh?” Well, we judge it based on fickle and confused emotions.
    So we end up either abandoning reason all together or faith all together. Think Warren Jeffs on the one side and Richard Dawkins on the other.

    So, that’s one common way of thinking that contradicts what I wrote above.

    Another is the common secular understanding of how religion works.

    Probably most of us in churches have bought into this understanding, particularly when we think about evangelism. The person-as-person is a secular person for most of our culture. Secularity is considered the starting point, the most basic unit of individual. Like the coat rack you hang identities on. Then you add religion to that. The basic substance stays the same, but you have some new practices or beliefs or jewelry or whatever.
    Christians are just secular people wearing a silly shirt, in this way of understanding what a person is.

    What I wrote above implies that
    a) God has made nature in such a way that it still functions under the weight of sin. Its not perfect, but it is good. Not good enough to save itself, but still good. If we forget this, we become Gnostics. This is the difference between an epistemology that says “I either see ‘it’ or I don’t” and one that says “I know ‘it’ more or less completely.”

    b) God’s grace changes you into a new kind of person, not just a generic secular person with a particular set of spiritual accessories. You go from a well-made-but-fallen person to a born-again person. You go from being a resident of your welt (world of personal concern) to a resident of the “Universe of Being.”

    I could go on and on about this b/c I find it so exciting, but I’ll leave it at that and hope it helps.

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