Learning How to Love (Part 1)…

I suppose it’s appropriate that I’m thinking a lot about love this week. After all, yesterday was Valentine’s Day, and I shared a message with the folks at Beulah Community Church on the biblical understanding of love (watch it here). As much as I think I understand the concept of love, I find that I struggle greatly with the actual act of loving. That’s the rub for me.

Those of us who have grown up in church have heard these words all our lives: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12: 30-31, Lynn Paraphrase). We’ve heard them, and I, for one, have always asked, “What does it mean to love God?” Let’s not talk about loving others. I want to know what it looks like to love God? What does it feel like to love God? Sometimes I think it’s easier to love others than it is to love God. Of course, the Apostle John wonders, “if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see?” (1 John 4:21). I assume if you’re reading this that you do, deep in your heart want to love God, too. Like me, you just want to know how.

An Encounter with Jesus

I think to know how to love God, we first need to understand the context in which Jesus made the statement. Jesus made the statement after his authority was challenged. The Pharisees were attempting to entrap him, so they had challenged him on the issue of Jews paying taxes. Pharisees didn’t like paying taxes to the occupying government, and worse, they hated the Jews who served as tax collectors for the Romans. Inhabitants were responsible for paying 1% of the income as an income tax, but in addition to that tax there were import and export taxes, crop taxes, sales taxes, property taxes, an emergency tax and others. Sounds familiar to me! Jesus said, “Pay your taxes.” He wasn’t going to be trapped.

Then, some Sadducees approached and asked a question about the resurrection. Hey? If the Pharisees couldn’t trap him, perhaps the Sadducees might. Sadducees and Pharisees were like political parties in the United States, except they were religious parties and they held differing opinions on theological issues. It might be more akin to Baptists and Methodists today. They’re both Christian, but with different understandings on certain issues. Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection from the dead, and to prove their point, they chose to challenge Jesus with an outrageous puzzle. We won’t go into what Jesus said to them. Suffice it to say, Jesus answered well.

One lawyer who had been witnessing the entire episode perceived that Jesus was a pretty smart fellow, so he thought he might give it a try. Now, think about this: a lawyer is steeped in the law—even the religious law. So, the lawyer asks a religious question, and if he was asking a religious question, he was expecting a religious answer. That’s exactly what Jesus gave him.

Jesus answered the Jewish lawyer with the Jewish “Shema.” It’s Deuteronomy 6:4 – 5, and every self-respecting Jewish male recited it every morning as part of his daily devotional. Listen to Deut. 6: 4 – 9: 

4 “Listen, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5 And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength. 6 And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. 7 Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. 8 Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders. 9 Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Loving God, for the Jew, as it was meant to be, was about living in the constant awareness of God’s presence and grace. The purpose of the Shema was to incorporate God into daily life. Daily living was the context for teaching children about God. Daily living was the context for experiencing God. God was not just for one day a week. God was for every day. God IS for every day. If we don’t experience God somewhere, some way every day, we need to question whether we experience God at all.

Jesus told the lawyer, “Love God with all your life—heart and soul (the emotional & spiritual self), mind (the intellectual self), and strength (the physical self). Jesus was saying, “Employ all your energies—put your whole self into it. In one word—be passionate. I love the way Eugene Peterson says it in The Message: Jesus said, “The first in importance is, ‘Listen, Israel: The Lord your God is one; so love the Lord God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy.’

What are we passionate about? That’s a fair question, isn’t it? It’s fair because we know we invest in those things we’re passionate about. Here’s a list of passions. Where’s yours?

  • Movies
  • Clothes
  • Sports
  • Politics
  • Music
  • Food (my personal favorite)

We can even be passionate about faith, but that’s usually only one day a week. If we’re not careful, we can let life steal our passion. That’s what happens to most of us in our relationship with God.

Passion Killers

Pastor Rick Warren has a list of what he calls passion killers. He says these things are what kill our passion for Christ. First is an unbalanced schedule. Life is about balance. Too much of anything, even a good thing can be bad. Work is a great thing, but too much work can kill our passion for our spouse, our hobby, our children, or our relationship with God. 

Second is an unused talent. I know when I was a DS, and I wasn’t preaching every week, I could feel myself losing that passion. I’m passionate about preaching. I may not be very good at it, but I love to do it. You pay me to be your pastor, but I preach for free. 

A third passion killer Warren identifies is unconfessed sin. Guilt is a great passion killer. Warren says that, “We don’t walk around thinking, ‘I have a sin in my life. I am a guilty person’.” Rather, we rationalize it. Consciously we think, “It’s no big deal,” but subconsciously it gnaws at us. We don’t have to carry that guilt, though. Christ died for our sin. Confess it, and move on. Don’t let guilt kill your passion for God.

A fourth passion killer is unresolved conflict. Conflict divides us from one another. If there’s conflict at work, you don’t want to go to work. If there’s conflict at home, you don’t want to go home. If there’s conflict at church, you don’t want to go to church. Conflict will kill our passion for anything, and that includes God.

A fifth passion killer Warren notes is an unsupported lifestyle. He says we’re created for relationship, and if we live in loneliness, we find our passion for most all life diminished. God created us for relationship with himself, and with each other.

Loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength is about rediscovering that passion. How do we restore the passion in our lives? Three words: desire, devotion and discipline.

Three D’s

Desire is the first characteristic of loving God. We’ll never love God unless we first desire Him. We pursue the passions of our lives –whatever they are—yet, they too often leave us unfulfilled. It might just be because our hearts are made for God. I love how the wisdom writer says it in Ecclesiastes 3:11: Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end.

Devotion is the next characteristic of loving God. There is no better picture of absolute devotion than a man and woman standing at the altar on their wedding day. The smiles, the endearing gazes into each other’s eyes, the little wink as the vows are spoken to each other, and the anticipation of the coming night.

I get a good view of this every time I perform a wedding, and even the worst couple, in that moment, are carried away in heart, soul, mind and strength. The great A. W. Tozer said, “We are called to an everlasting preoccupation with God.” That is devotion, and as husband and wife stand at the altar hopelessly devoted to each other, I am reminded that we are the bride of Christ.

The final word is discipline. I don’t like that word mainly because I have little self-will. It makes me cringe and think I have to do legalistic things to meet God’s approval. I think it’s being “obedient.” Obedience is not how we love God. Obedience is a response to love. Obedience is evidence of our love. Discipline is not law, but is a means of experiencing God’s grace. Spiritual disciplines like fasting, confession, Bible reading, solitude, worship and prayer are tangible ways we incorporate God in the every day.

As I write this morning, I am reminded that Lent begins Wednesday, and Lent is the perfect time to practice the spiritual disciplines more intentionally so that I can love God more meaningfully. Oh, and there’s one more discipline—the sacrament of Holy communion—it, too, is a way to incorporate God in the everyday. That’s what it means to love God—experiencing Him every day!

How will you experience God today…and everyday?

Until next time, keep looking up…

True Love: You Think This Happens Every Day?

valentines-dayWhoever thought love could be such a lucrative business? Retailers, that’s who! According to the National Retail Federation, the average amount spent on Valentine’s Day is $136/person this year, with a total spent for the holiday of $18.2 billion dollars. That number is actually down from 2016, but it is still a big number for the nation’s second largest Hallmark holiday.

Unfortunately, Valentine’s Day has become the world’s definition of love—emotional, romantic, (dare I say?) erotic, and sometimes, downright corny. You can’t think corny without thinking about The Princess Bride and Westley’s pursuit of true love. You can watch it here:

The Bible talks a lot about love, too, but it’s not the type of love the world talks about or that we celebrate on Valentine’s Day. Actually, the Bible says that love is the greatest characteristic we can exhibit as those who seek to be disciples of Jesus Christ.

We find the Bible’s most compelling explanation of love in what is called the “Love” chapter of 1 Corinthians 13. We hear this passage recited at weddings, when man and woman stand before God to pledge their love to one another, as though this passage is speaking of some emotional, romantic feeling that we have at weddings. Listen to the passage as the Apostle Paul writes it to the Corinthian Christians:

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.

Prophecy and speaking in unknown languages and special knowledge will become useless. But love will last forever!

13 Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.

Love can be so confusing. That’s because love is such an interchangeable word. We love our car. We love our job. We love our family. We love our church. We love going to the beach. We love our new hairstyle. We say things like, “Oh, I love how that new dress looks on you!” Or, “I just love how the light brings out the color of that painting.” The long and short of it is that we love everything, and in reality, we end up not loving very much at all.

Apparently, the Corinthian Christians were confused, too. That’s why Paul was writing—to correct their misunderstanding of what it means to love. Of course, much of Paul’s letter is spent correcting their understanding of a lot of issues. Throughout this letter, Paul addresses sex and marriage, lawsuits, incest, food sacrificed to idols, and worship in the church. Then, he turns his attention to love.

The Corinthians knew what love was. They had a couple of different words they used regularly to communicate the idea of love. First, there was the word they used to communicate romantic love. There’s a little town where I served my first full-time appointment as a pastor. The name of the town is Eros, and every year, thousands of people send their Valentine’s Day cards to Eros, LA to be postmarked to their sweetheart. That’s because Eros is the Greek word that indicates erotic or romantic love.

Another word they would be familiar with communicated the idea of “brotherly” love—rather like a fond affection. That’s why Philadelphia is called the city of brotherly love.

Paul uses a different word when he writes of love. He uses a new word for a new idea, and it’s a word not used outside the New Testament. The Corinthians didn’t quite get it. Sometimes, I think we don’t either. The word Paul uses is αγαραώ, and the shades of meaning that lie behind the word are sacrificial, self-denial, and unconditional.

For Paul, the word “love” was seated in the will, not in the emotions. This love was not a “feel good” kind of love, but rather a sacrificial, self-denying love. It’s not the kind of love the world is very familiar with.

The world says love is up to us, that love is strictly about a relationship between human beings. We sing about it in our songs. The Beatles classic

tells us it doesn’t matter who you are, where you are, or what you’ve done, all you need is love. Love makes everything right. And, Dionne Warwick sang What the World Needs Now is love, sweet love. It’s the only thing there’s just too little of. Both seem to indicate if we just love each other enough, if we just “feel good” about everybody, then everything will be alright.

The Bible teaches that love is other-worldly. 1 John 4:8 says, “God is love.” Love as Jesus and Paul proclaimed in the New Testament is rooted in the nature and character of God. It’s more than a touchy feely, emotional affection. It is deeply sacrificial and fully self-denying. That’s the love that transforms the world, and it’s the love that will transform us. The world will never be a better place without the love of God. When we experience God’s love then we learn how to love others, for this love is a fruit of the Spirit.

The world also says, “We fall into and out of love.” Again, our music reflects this philosophy. Taylor Swift is good at writing these kinds of songs with You Belong with Me, or Begin Again. Elvis sang I Can’t Help Falling in Love, and the Righteous Brothers sang You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling.

Man! I’m showing my age, aren’t I? There are a lot of songs today we call “love” songs. They’re really not. They’re “lust” songs. They’re all about the romantic, or the erotic—all about the physical. In contrast, the Bible says, “Love perseveres, is patient, and it grows.”

The world tells us love is getting what we need in a relationship. The Bible says love is self-denying. John 15:13 says, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” That’s the love Jesus Christ showed to us on the cross. It was the ultimate love—the ultimate sacrifice—the ultimate self-denial.

St. Valentine knew this kind of love. May I remind you of his story? As legend tells the story, Valentinus was a Roman in the 3rd Century who protected Christians from persecution during the reign of the Roman emperor Claudius II. Valentinus was arrested for breaking Christians out of prison.

He converted to Christianity while in prison and was condemned to death. He was beaten with clubs, stoned and finally beheaded outside the Flaminian Gate on February 14, 269. After his death, this gate was known as Porta Valentini. While he was in prison he sent messages to his friends saying, “Remember your Valentine!” and “I love you.”

On the night before he was executed, he sent a note to the jailer’s daughter, whom he had especially befriended, and he signed that note, “From your Valentine!” Valentine gave himself in sacrifice for others. He demonstrated the greatest characteristic—love in the biblical sense. What a shame that Hallmark and Hollywood have co-opted the concept of love, and we’ve come to accept it as something totally other than it was ever meant to be.

So, here’s the challenge. Find ways to show biblical love this Valentine’s Day. Word of warning: Guys, go ahead and buy the roses and the candy. You’ll be sorry if you don’t, but what way can you live more sacrificially toward your spouse? What time can you give up to serve in your community or in your church?

Remember, it isn’t love until it costs us something. When love is costly, when love is about giving something up, when love is about surrendering our will to that of another, then we can sing with John, Paul, Ringo and George, All You Need is Love, and there’ll be meaning and transformation. What will you do? It’s up to you!

Until next time, keep looking up…