Dying To Love
DYING TO LOVE
It’s been about twelve years now since I gave my life to the Lord. I still remember that night. I went for a walk on my college campus. I went to a dock on a lake, fell to my knees, and prayed, “Lord Jesus, I cannot stand on my own any longer. Come into my heart and teach me how to love.” And somehow after that I knew that Jesus was alive. That was my first prayer as a Christian. Though I was raised in the church, I had never made the Faith my faith. Till that moment, I had never really confessed that Jesus is Lord and that he rose from the dead.
Since that day, the Lord has honored that prayer. I have learned a lot about loving people and a lot about loving God. I find it strange that today is Valentine’s Day, the day we traditionally celebrate romantic love, and also the first Sunday in Lent, the season of fasting and prayer that traditionally comes before Easter, the day we celebrate God’s greatest act of love, that being the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. I find it strange that the word Lent is actually Latin for spring and yet the season of lent is traditionally a season of dying to oneself. A season where we are reminded, as Ash Wednesday suggests, that from ashes we were made and from ashes we shall return. But the Lord has shown me that dying has a lot to do with loving, though we may not think it to be so. In our society, the meaning of love, the boundaries of love, are in flux. What is love? Is love an emotion? Is love a choice? Today, I want you to understand three things.
- What love is
First, let’s try to define our terms. What is love? Perhaps that is too big of a question for a small town pastor to attempt to answer, but let’s give it a try. In learning a new language, it helps to have a Rosetta Stone. A text where there are two languages that say the same thing. Therefore, if you know one language you can decipher the other. The Bible gives us a Rosetta Stone of sorts for love. In 1 John 4:8, we are told, “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.”
There you go. What is love? Love is God and God is love. But why is God love? Our Faith teaches us that God is not an impersonal force or emotion but a personal God. What is it about the character of God that makes God love? Well, three basic confessions we have about God are that God is omnipresent, omnipotent, and benevolent. God is present everywhere, God is able to do everything, and God is perfect goodness, without sin. So from this we can deduce that love has something to do with presence, action, and benevolence. When I say that I love Kari, my sister, my dad, or my mom, at a very basic level I am saying that I choose to be present with these people, I follow this presence with action, and that action is intended for their good. The nature of my love is limited. I have limited time and choices. Because I love Kari, I give my time to her and her to me. That means I can’t give my time to as many other things. Our love is limited because we are limited. We cannot be in more than one place at a time, we only have a limited amount of time and energy to give. But God is ultimate because H
As the planets spin around the sun and are held together by the mysterious force of gravity, today’s Scriptures tell us that our spiritual and moral universe hangs upon these two commandments: love the Lord our God, and love people. Our second question then is how we are to love God and love people?
Jesus tells us that we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind. In other words, we are to love the Lord with our entire being, with all our facilities. And yet, that is not how we generally love and worship God. Instead, I see that people tend to either gravitate towards heart, soul, or mind.
The Greek word for heart is shorthand in the Bible for the center of one’s being. Thus, it has a bit different meaning than how we use it today. Today when we say “follow your heart,” we generally mean do what feels right to you. In the Greek and Hebrew mind, the heart does include the emotions, but it also includes our thoughts and how we relate to our bodies. I think Eastern ideas of meditation and “centeredness” get to the idea of what it means to love God with all your heart. People who are focused on loving God with their heart are focused on centeredness, balance, and wholeness. Often folks in this camp will connect with meditative practices that you might find in Catholicism, monasticism, or eastern mysticism. They may be very interested in communal life, in fellowship, in being connected with God and with others.
The word for soul in this passage is where we get our word psychic in modern language. While “heart” has the idea of centeredness in the Hebrew religion, psyche in the Greek has the idea of energy and power. We even sort of use it that way today when we says someone has “soul” or is a “soul full person” or likes “soul” music, we generally mean someone who is more comfortable with emotional expression that reaches deep into our being. One might see this with some more modern worship music which is more emotional and builds up to a fever pitch. The charismatic or Pentecostal movement might be associated with loving God with one’s soul or spirit.
Finally, we are told to love God with all our mind. The Greek word here for mind goes beyond the regular Greek word for mind and perhaps could be better translated “critical thinking.” In other words, we are to study the Bible, we are to ask questions, we are to use our reason seek God. The old Reformed adage of “faith seeking understanding” gets at the idea. Proverbs 3:5 tells us to trust in the Lord with all our heart and not to lean on our own understanding. It is true we cannot reach God through our own reason. That is why atheists or agnostics who are purely based on reason will generally stay as atheists and agnostics. But once we do love the Lord our God, once we have formed that heart and soul connection, the Lord will teach us new things about him. I certainly understand more about the Lord than I did twelve years ago. Folks in this category are the armchair theologians, the C.S Lewis fans, the fans of apologetics, that is making rational arguments for faith. Frankly, these are the types of folks you will find in seminaries and divinity schools. For these folks, truth, theology, doctrine, and truth matter, even if they disagree over the definition of that truth.
We may all find ourselves connecting in different ways to each of these three descriptions. The hard part of this passage is that Jesus is asking us to engage in all of them, to throw our whole selves into the pursuit of God. How are we possibly able to combine these three very different ways of loving God? I think Jesus points us to the idea of obedience. Jesus tells us in John 14:15 that if we love him we shall obey his commandments. Many think that Jesus’ teaching on the love negates any need to understand what the Scriptures say about morality. But instead, loving God and loving people allows us to fulfill God’s law in its entirety, and makes ethics and morality even more important.
Along with the greatest commandment, Jesus says there is one like it: to love our neighbor as ourselves. How do we do this? Jesus tells us in Matthew 7, “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the prophets.” This is often called the Golden Rule. Some scholars think it is called this because Roman Emperor Alexander Severus (A.D 222-35), who was not a Christian, liked it so much he had it engraved in gold on a wall (New International Commentary). As many scholars have pointed out, many religions have a version of this rule, it is not unique to Christianity. Yet, scholars have also noted that while many religions have a version of the Golden Rule, it is most often described in negative terms. Even in Judaism, there is a story where a disciple comes to his Rabbi and asks him to teach him the entire Law while he stands on one leg. The Rabbi’s reply, “Do not do to your neighbor what is hateful to you. This is the whole of the Torah; the rest is commentary” (New International Commentary). Notice though, the Rabbi voices the command in the negative: don’t do to others what you would not want done to yourself. Yet, Jesus voices it in the positive, suggesting that you don’t have to wait for someone to do something to you, may it be good or bad, but that we are to think how we would like to be treated and we are to actively try to treat others in that way.
Gary Chapman, author of The Five Love Languages, might rephrase the Golden Rule a bit to a Platinum Rule. Not only should we actively seek to treat others as we want to be treated, but we should actively seek to treat others as they would like to be treated. During Valentine’s Day, we celebrate the experience and feeling of “being in love,” but as Chapman points out, experiments have shown that the “in love” experience last two years at the most (Chapman, pg 30). During my Prepare and Enrich marriage counseling training, the material called this “Idealization distortion” or in laymen’s terms, “wearing rose colored glasses.” Falling in and out of love is a natural process that is partially because we simply get to know each other’s imperfections. But Chapman argues that it is also because we receive love in different ways. We have what he calls “love tanks.” And the way I want to be loved may not necessarily be the way my partner, friend, or family member wants to be loved. As the title suggests, there five primary love languages Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Receiving Gifts, Acts of Service, and Physical Touch. The titles of each love language are sort of self-explanatory, but I would recommend the book to you if you want to learn more. Wouldn’t it be a great world if the people we cared most about shared our same love language? But many times we fall in love with people and we love people who receive love differently than ourselves. And thus our tanks for love so often end up empty even though neither side intends it to be so.
I have come to see that love alone is not enough. Not even hard work is enough. What I have seen through my own experience and studying these passages is that what love requires to flourish and find completion is empathy. True love is imagining what it would mean to walk a mile in another person’s shoes and giving them what they need to keep walking with you in those shoes even though that’s not what you need to keep walking yourself. True love is altruistic love. True love is God’s love, which is called in the Greek agape or sacrificial love. To quote Everette Worthington in his book Forgiving and Reconciling, “Altruism is other oriented love. Often, altruism is thought to be tainted if it is not self sacrificial, or if the giver derives some benefit from an act. But benefits that flow from loving acts are inevitable. Love occurs between two people. Love given is love returned. Altruism is not giving without getting anything in return. It is simply giving for the benefit of the other person” (Worthington, 120). And to give for the benefit of the other, we must have empathy. We can care deeply about others, but if we can’t put ourselves in their shoes, our loving actions could be misinterpreted and could as easily hurt them as help them.
The problem is if we love to feel good, then we shall fail and we shall continue to feel bad because we are still centered in ourselves. We all need love to live. In fact, many of us dying to love and dying for love. But the Scriptures teach us that we have to die to love. Loving ourselves, according to the Bible, isn’t just about self-esteem and meeting our own needs, it is about losing ourselves. It is saying as Paul said, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). The thing I have come to realize is that empathy requires emptying. That empathy requires death on your part, that the one you love may have life.
Other religions claim to have a god of love but they, in fact, do not. Because for love to be complete, there must be empathy. And how can an infinite God truly be love if he can’t truly relate to his creation? But in Christ, God emptied himself, and took on our flesh, he died for us so that his love could live in us. In the words of 1 John 4:9-10, “in this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be a propitiation for our sins.” And thus we see how strangely appropriate it is for the church season of mourning and fasting to come during the time of spring, a time where we see new life sprout from the Earth. And thus we see how appropriate it is that the first Sunday of Lent falls on Valentine’s Day. Because we are dying to love and to be loved. But to love another, we have to lose our own life. To receive love that we may live, we must first give love and that means we must die.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit Amen.
Reminds me of this quote from Parker Palmer: “If I hoard possessions, it is because I believe that there are not enough to go around. If I struggle with others over power, it is because I believe that power is limited. If I become jealous in relationships, it is because I believe that when you get too much love, I will be short-changed.” (Let Your Life Speak, 106-107)