Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Guest Post : "What is Spiritual Love Anyway?"

Note from Melanie: I've been planning on writing an article like this for a while but my sister got there first and did a way better job than I could have.  Since she has a private blog, viewable by invitation only, I got her permission to repost her article here.  

by Amanda A.

We as Christians know that love is to be the basis of everything we do. We know that we can have true love only as we are abiding in Christ and letting His love control our lives. But what does this love actually look like?

In the realm of conservative Christianity reigns a certain idea about love – that love is faithfully good to a person while the person is performing well, and once the person stops performing to the expectation, the loving thing to do is to cut that person off till they have repented and gone back to performing well. In the name of loving like Christ, we as Fundamentalists have hurt many people. In the name of the love of Christ, we have shunned our friends and cut them off. We have acted on the principle, “I will be your faithful friend as long as I see you as following the Lord.” If we had done it only once, and if we recognized our problem, the issue might not need to be addressed. But cutting off fellow Christians in the name of love has become so much a part of our lives that it can’t go unaddressed any longer. This mindset is dangerously unbiblical.

Look at what the love of God is. It is unconditional, not based on anything we do or don’t do. “We love Him because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Jesus loved us so much that He died to pay our sin debt when we were not following Him, in fact, when we hated Him and definitely didn’t deserve it. “God proved His own love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Jesus came to the world not to condemn it, but to save it (John 3:17). He came to seek and to save the lost (Matthew 9:13). He remains faithful in His love to us even when we don’t (1 Timothy 2:17).

What God’s love does not do is put people on probation. Think of Peter denying Jesus, and Thomas refusing to believe unless he actually could touch the Lord. Did Jesus pull back from them when they sinned against Him like that? He had gentle words of reproof for them, but He never withheld His love and forgiveness, or even His miracles and companionship from them.

Something that we seem to think Jesus does is put people at arms’ length when they wander from Him, and we do this in our own interactions with people whom we perceive as being in sin. One of the verses we use for this is 1 Thess. 5:22, “Abstain from all appearance of evil.” However, it would be more accurately translated, “Abstain from every form of evil” – not every appearance. If you think about it, Jesus did not abstain from every appearance of evil. He spent time with publicans and prostitutes. Seriously, if it is wrong to associate with sinners, Jesus was one of the most sinful people alive. In fact, association with sinners was one of the main problems the Pharisees had with Jesus. The Pharisees loved no one but themselves and were more concerned with keeping a good name and keeping ceremonially clean, and they ignored or altered the command to love one’s neighbor, and condemned those who did.

See a connection between that and our practice in Fundamental churches and our own thought processes? We change what it means to love one’s neighbor. What do we do when we see a girl who dresses borderline immodest and bleaches her hair get kicked out of her Christian college and then leave home? We say it is loving to cut her off, and we cut her off. And after we change what means to love one another, we condemn those few people who still show mercy to her who has been cut off by everyone else in the name of love. But what we don’t realize is that if we’re going to condemn those people who have compassion on her, we should condemn Jesus too. Jesus loves those who wander from Him and waits for them with open arms. After all, He didn’t come for the righteous, but for the sinners.

Mark 7 records in detail one of Jesus’ conversations with the Pharisees about this. The Pharisees altered the commands of God to give them more freedom to serve themselves. After all, who wants to honor their parents when they could alternatively give a gift to the church in the name of helping them and be free from any other responsibility? As Fundamentalists, we often apply this passage to Pharisees, to Catholics, and to other religious groups who place a lot of emphasis on works. But we forget to apply it to ourselves.

“This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men. Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men” (vv. 6-8). We worship God with our mouths, but our hearts are far from Him, and that shows in the way we “love” each other. Jesus said, “By this will all men know that you are My disciples, if you love one another.” We say we love God, yet we shun not only the lost He came to seek and to save, but also those who are His people. What’s even worse is that these believers we shun aren’t always as backslidden as we think they are, and that leaves us even less of an excuse to cut them off than we already had.

How do we act toward a family who comes to church only one service a week? We back away from them because they must be very unspiritual if they don’t come every time the doors are open, and maybe we can make them feel their need to come more if we ostracize them. But if we would choose to understand this family instead of pull away from them, we might find reasons behind their choice - maybe the father works hard all week and wants to spend Sundays with his family. That would be a very good reason to attend only one church service. Why do we forsake people for things like this? Think. Is it because these are utterly wicked people who will corrupt whoever spends time with them? Or is it a pride issue, thinking that we are better than they because we go to every church service and they don’t?

“You nicely set aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition…thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down; and you do many things such as that” (vv. 9. 12-13). Whether we realize it or not, we as fundamentalists have altered the command of God so we don’t have to love people the hard way. It’s easier to operate on the principle that love ignores people “for their own good” than love continues to reach out to them. We don’t want our children to be tainted by association with “the sinner”; we don’t want ourselves to be tainted by association; we don’t feel like getting our hands dirty in trying to understand the person’s reasons behind their actions. We would pull back and say it is none of our business rather than recognize and help a hurting heart. No person sins without reason. Every person has a heart, a soul, and a hurt and a reason buried deep inside. Jesus goes to the bottom of a person’s need – He isn’t afraid to dirty His hands to wash our hearts. If our Lord and Master can set aside the clutter of baggage, the pressure of popular opinion, and even the importance of His own reputation, what is to keep us from doing the same?

Think of the parable of the prodigal son. He wished his father dead, he took his father’s money when it wasn’t his yet, he spent it all on harlots, and he finally ended up taking the most unclean job a Jew could take – caring for pigs. According to Jewish law, he was unclean and a rebel. By the law, he should have been stoned upon entering the town. His father had every right to have him executed when he returned home. But did he exercise that right? No – in fact, he was waiting every minute for his son to return, because he knew what would happen if the village found him first. And when the son did return, his father was so happy that he didn’t even let him finish his apology. This parable isn’t about the need to repent and return to God, though it carries that concept. The real point is the love of God.

Without knowing it, we have fallen into the same trap the Pharisees were in. They may have honestly believed they were serving God by staying away from and condemning the wicked people in their world, but Jesus said to them, “But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” In our zeal to do the right thing, we skip over what is truly the right thing – to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

You know the story of the Good Samaritan – how the Pharisee and the Levite avoided the hurt man for reasons of their own, and it was only the outsider who had enough compassion to stop and help a complete stranger. We praise him for what he did, and repeat Jesus’ words, “Go and do thou likewise.” Yet how often do we pass by the hurt people in our lives?

Perhaps we choose not to help people and love people the way God loves them because we’re concerned about association. After all, if we let ourselves get involved with these people, then we will be guilty by association and will ruin our reputations. If we’re going to take a side, then we’re going to be silent and side with popular opinion because it’s easier for us. What idiots we are. Did Jesus care about what anybody thought? The only person whose opinion He cared about was His Father’s. He died to free us to follow His Father like He did. What a slap in the face it must then be to Him for our biggest concern to be keeping ceremonially clean.

Another trap we fall into is having a superior attitude towards those whom we feel to be in the wrong. We probably don’t even notice it, but it’s there in this attitude: “You’re wrong, but I’ll extend grace to you anyway.” That attitude shouldn’t even come across on anybody’s radar – your grace should just be there. Jesus was better than everyone else; He was God! But He didn’t go around with an attitude of superiority or condescension – His position was nothing to Him, because His people were what He cared about.

The root of the mindset that we need to “mark the unbeliever” and stay away is pride. In his book, James writes, “Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother or judges a brother speaks against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law, but a judge of it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; who are you to judge your neighbor?” God is the only one worthy to judge the law or to judge any person. It is not our place to decide if someone needs to be put out of our lives. Jesus said the same thing in the Sermon on the Mount – “Judge not, that you be not judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you again.” Judging a person’s spirituality is such a delicate business that only God Himself can handle that responsibility. It does not belong to us. What does belong to us is discernment, caution, and true love.

You might have an amazing spiritual gift. You might be powerful in your presentation of God’s Word. You might be the most generous person in the world. But if you don’t have Christ’s true love, it is worth nothing. The world can be amazing and powerful and generous – what do you have that they need? The love they need to see is a love like Christ’s. Love that is patient - Jesus was patient with the disciples (and is with us!) when they didn’t understand His words, no matter how many times He explained to them. Love that is kind – Jesus fed the multitudes, healed the sick, and provided wine for a feast. Love that isn’t arrogant or jealous, that behaves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, that actively seeks the good of other people. Love that continues to reach out and doesn’t let people get under its skin, love that doesn’t hold grudges or require penance of people. Love that isn’t afraid to speak the truth or rejoice when it is spoken, upheld, and lived. Love that works and waits for change – doesn’t push it, doesn’t neglect it, but does its work and waits. Love that acts on and believes in the power of God in people’s lives, and has a positive outlook, knowing that God is powerful enough to change hearts; love that hopes, and in hoping has the strength to keep on working to make a difference in people’s lives. No matter whether the people refuse help, or whether love feels like they don’t deserve help, love endures it all and never gives up, because God is love, and love never fails.

The answer is never, ever to leave someone to their own devices. That is God’s business, not ours. Jesus left us on earth to be Him to His people. How sad do you think He is when He sees us trying to usurp the Father’s place of judgment instead of doing what He told us to do? “This command I give to you, that you love one another, as I have loved you.”

We are the body of Christ. “For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one spirit.” We are all equal in Christ, and all a part of Him. We are one, like all the parts of our body make up our body. By the same token, when we love each other as Christ wants us to, the body is made stronger. But when we cut off different members from ourselves, it’s the same thing as cutting off one of our hands or feet – the body is hurt, wounded, bleeding. This is more serious than just choosing not to be friends with so-and-so anymore “for their own good” – this is like ripping up the body of Christ with a knife that doesn’t even belong to us. It is harmful and it is wrong.

What I’m trying to say is that Jesus is the standard for our actions, including when people appear to be sinning against us and against the Lord. When people receive our treatment of them, what do they see about Jesus? A superior attitude, probation, shunning, attacking and cutting down, ignorance of pain? Or do they see help, friendly contact, unpretentious forgiveness, the second mile?

I’ve been writing mainly with the theme of our actions towards unbelievers and towards believers who have sinned against us. But if it is so wrong to treat in an unloving manner those who have sinned against us, how much more wrong is it to treat in an unloving manner those who have not sinned against us – those with whom we just don’t agree? It is presumptuous of us to assume that someone is unbiblical when their opinion on or application of something not specifically addressed in Scripture doesn’t agree with ours. God is the one who knows the hearts. We don’t, and to assume that we know exactly what God is doing in their hearts is to in effect say that we know God’s will for them better than God Himself does. It is bad enough that we put ourselves in God’s place of judgment towards those who have sinned against us, but it is even worse when we condemn someone for following God’s will in their own lives. God leads us all individually, and we each are responsible for our own lives and our own stands on issues. We answer to Him individually. When you assume that someone is wrong and then try to actually punish them or make them change, you have stepped out of that realm of personal responsibility before God by meddling in other people’s lives and trying to take responsibility for people other than yourself. This is dangerous.

If someone else is doing something differently than we are, or takes a different stand than we do, it doesn’t mean that he is wrong. We can ask them about it and try to get a feel for their reasoning behind their choices, but in the end, whether or not we agree, we need to let them follow God for themselves. True love will continue to accept them, not cut them off because of a disagreement of opinion.

I am not saying that we don’t love the Lord, or are terrible Christians, or aren’t trying to honor God; after all, God is the only one who knows the hearts. But living in this world, we have a huge range of influence. Every day, we see people, we interact with people. With so many lives in our reach, we need to have a clear understanding of the love of Christ. We must seek for the truth about this, forgetting what we have been taught and going to God’s Word as though we’ve never seen it before. We will find the truth if we look for it, and the truth will set us free to love like we never knew we could.

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