Monday, February 04, 2008

Musings About What is Important

I have been spending a lot of time lately reflecting on the nature of love. There are those that define love in so many ways. There was a time when I would have automatically thought of unbelievers as being the ones who have all of these various ways of defining love. But I have come to realize that many Christians have unknowingly fallen into the trap of defining love according to their own pre-conceived notions, friends, culture, etc.

In a recent teen gathering, one of the young men made the distinction between what he described as "Love," and "Lo-----ve (said with oogly emotions)." The former is true love, the love that Christ commanded in John 13 when he said, "I new commandment I give to you, that you love one another as I have love you…" It is not "lo-----ve" that puts butterflies in your stomach, that might be hear this week and gone the next. It is not the puppy love that star struck people have experienced. It is the love that God has demonstrated. I was glad to hear that these young people already beginning to have a good handle on what real love is.

But in my experience, I have both seen and heard twisted definitions of love. I still remember Steve's dad, Larry. He was gruff and emotionally abusive. I am not sure if he was every physically, abusive, but it wouldn't have surprised me because sometimes there was evidence of what looked like physical abuse on his wife. This was a man who regularly yelled at his wife and kids. If they didn't get good enough grades, didn't act polite enough, didn't come home on time, or when the kids were younger, if they went across the street, he would yell at them, lecture them, and often demean them in his tone of voice and in what he said. Most of us without hesitation described him as mean and self-centered. Most of his conversations were full of himself. He rarely truly listened to what other people were saying unless it was to use it against them, win an argument, or something like that. The befuddling thing about Larry is that he thought this was okay. He used to tell people that he was trying to care for his family, and at times he would even say it was because he loved them. In reality, he was trying to justify his meanness under the guise that it was love. The reason he was such a hot-head, the reason he could be so mean, the reason he was an unsafe person, according to himself, is because he loved.

I eventually learned that his wife, Tammy, had grown up with a Father not unlike Larry and an emotionally and physically distant mother. Tammy never really understood what love was. Her Dad "loved" her so much he used to abuse her. It wasn't until Tammy became a Christian that she began to experience Christian love. To make a long story short, she tried to get into some counseling, but Larry refused. Out of concern for her children and herself, for their physical, emotional, and spiritual health, Tammy separated from Larry. Tammy and her kids began to experience Christian love from brethren in the church. It was not harsh, but gentle and kind. At first it frightened her. But as her faith grew, her love grew as well.

Love. What is it? Tammy only began to understand it after experiencing it through the kindness of Christians and through spending regular time in God's word. She began to see Jesus as the perfect husband, and how she could be a godly mother to her children by following his example.

Love is not what we say it is. Love is what God demonstrates. Love is what God says it is. One interesting feature about the most common word for Christian love in the New Testament is the word chosen to express it, "agape." It is interesting that this word is used very, very little in secular Greek literature of the day. In secular literature, things like "philia" (affection) and "eros" (fleshly love) are commonly found. But in scripture, agape is used profusely for Christian love and the love of God. The fact that many writers did not use the more common "philia" for love, but chose the rarely used "agape," itself shows that the godly concept of love differed from what the culture at large thought of.

This is why it is so important to spend time in the word. The word of God is the "sword of the Spirit," according to Ephesians 6. The word will help to combat worldliness. It will help fight off acceptance of a worldly concept of love.

1 Corinthians 13 gives an explicit description of "agape." This "agape" chapter tells us first of all that, "Agape is patient, agape is kind." Tammy experienced patience and kindness in that group of Christians. The harsh "love" of her husband and father was not Christian love, in spite of the fact that Larry called it "love." 1 Corinthians 13 also says that "agape does not act unbecomingly." Another way to put it is that it does not act in an ugly way. It is kind. Larry was one of the most unbecoming men we knew at the time.

When it comes to love, I think Christians everywhere need to remember that it is the greatest command and that all of our service, all of the Bible hinges on love. Jesus said the entire law and the prophets rest on the command to love God and love our neighbor. I recall that Jesus was a kind and loving person. Usually when he was harsh, it was with the abusers, such as the Pharisees, whom he described as "white-washed tombs." But overall, the scriptures tell us that Jesus was righteous and full of compassion and kindness. Jesus demonstrated the love of God. Jesus demonstrated real and genuine love.

One of my favorite illustrations of the nature of love is to talk about fake plastic food that you sometimes find in food displays in the store. Sometimes they are very real looking. I remember picking up a block of cheese, only to discover it was not real cheese. It was rubber! Let's say you look at a barbeque grill and there is a steak on it. You can't tell whether it is real or not. One way to test it is to light up the grill and start grilling the steak. If it were a real steak, what would happen? It would first start to sizzle. It would let off a pleasing aroma. Juices would start running off the steak as it begins to turn into a golden brown color. You stomach would start growling as you anticipate a good steak. And if you like a good steak, it would still be pink in the middle and brown on the outside and served with… well, you get the picture.

Now, lets say it is a plastic steak. What would happen then? It sure wouldn't sizzle, but would start to melt. Instead of a pleasing aroma, it would let off toxic fumes. Instead of your stomach growling, you would probably get sick to your stomach at the fumes. Instead of turning brown, the steak would melt and turn into an ugly, sticking, useless black lump of burnt plastic.

That is the different between "real" love, the love of God, and other kinds of love. When the heat gets turned up, when things get ugly, when it gets hard, self-defined plastic love gets ugly. It can even make you sick, just as we were sickened at Larry's brand of love. However, "real" love turns into something even more pleasing. There is no more powerful demonstration of this than Jesus at the end of his ministry washing the feet of Judas, comforting one of the thieves on the cross, or praying for his persecutors as he hung there. In the words of 1 Corinthians 13:8, "Agape never fails."

I believe that if we as husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, co-workers, friends, and brethren base our relationships on this so very different "agape," then our relationships will never fail.

How important is love? Here are some clear answers:

"And He said to him, 'You shall love the Lord your God will all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets" (Mt 22:37-40).

"If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have {the gift of} prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed {the poor,} and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing" (1 Cor 13:1-3).

What is love? Here is a very good description:

Love is patient,
love is kind
and is not jealous;
love does not brag
and is not arrogant,
does not act unbecomingly,
it does not seek its own,
is not provoked,
does not take into account a wrong suffered,
does not rejoice in unrighteousness,

but rejoices with the truth;
bears all things,
believes all things,
hopes all things,
endures all things.
Love never fails;…" (1 Cor 13:4-8).

What is love? Here is an excellent definition to spend reflection time on:

"…God is love" (1 Jn 4:8).

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