Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Overemphasizing Love

I've heard it said that some people "overemphasize love". So, I asked myself the question, "Is it possible to overemphasize love?" I suppose it depends on what is meant by that. It is possible to distort any message by omitting some topic that is part of the message. So, if what is meant by that is "You omit the fear of judgment," or "You omit obedience," then there could be some validity to the suggestion that the message of Christ is being distorted. However, the criticism should be stated more specifically to be useful. It seems to me that saying that one is "overemphasizing love" indicates either a misunderstanding of love or a misunderstanding of the message of Christ.

I think that it is impossible to overemphasize love when talking about the teachings of Christ. I have stated here and elsewhere that love is at the center of all of God's communication with us. I sincerely believe that. Love is not just the most important principle in God's word, it is the whole of God's word. Love is the essence of who God is.

In thinking about this, I did a quick look through the New Testament and I realized that I have not begun to understand love's importance. To think that someone is overemphasizing love is either to misunderstand love or to misunderstand the Bible. Consider the following passages with me.

Mat 22:37-40  And he said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  (38)  This is the great and first commandment.  (39)  And a second like unto it is this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.  (40)  On these two commandments the whole law hangeth, and the prophets.

Rom 13:8-10  Owe no man anything, save to love one another: for he that loveth his neighbor hath fulfilled the law.  (9)  For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not covet, and if there be any other commandment, it is summed up in this word, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.  (10)  Love worketh no ill to his neighbor: love therefore is the fulfilment of the law.

Gal 5:14  For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.

Jas 2:8  Howbeit if ye fulfil the royal law, according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, ye do well:

1Jn 4:7-11  Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is begotten of God, and knoweth God.  (8)  He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.  (9)  Herein was the love of God manifested in us, that God hath sent his only begotten Son into the world that we might live through him.  (10)  Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.  (11)  Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

1Jn 4:20-21  If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, cannot love God whom he hath not seen.  (21)  And this commandment have we from him, that he who loveth God love his brother also.

And, perhaps the most famous of all passages about love is 1 Corinthians 13, the love chapter. Paul uses hyperbole to state the importance of love. Tongues of angels, perfect knowledge, faith to move mountains, and extreme generosity and altruism are nothing without love. Love is greater than any virtue, including faith and hope. How could Paul have placed any more emphasis on love than he did in this chapter? Did he overemphasize love?

And this is only a beginning. There are many more passages that say essentially the same thing. I could easily list 10 more verses. All of God's communication with us is centered around love. Love is such a radical virtue that I don't begin to understand. I struggle with the commandment to love my brethren (let alone my enemies) while Jesus said on the cross about those responsible for torturing him to death, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."

So, I don't think it's possible to overemphasize love. God is love. He loves even His enemies.

And He commands us to love our enemies. Who is my enemy? Is it someone who disagrees with me doctrinally? Is it someone who has slandered me? Is it an addict? Is it a homosexual? Is it an atheist? Is it someone who disagrees with me politically? Who is it that I believe is my enemy? I need to seek them out and actively love them. I need to seek those who cannot possibly return my service to them and serve them, expecting nothing in return. Love and serve sacrificially. When they treat me harshly and do not appreciate what I am doing for them, I need to continue loving them. Continue serving them. When they hurt and betray me, I should pray for their forgiveness. I need to show this love while they are still my enemy. That is the love of Jesus.

And the goal of God's love is to improve us. Likewise the goal of our love to our enemies is to help them. And He helped us by doing for us what we could not do. He loved us first. He showed us sacrificial, unselfish, generous, benevolent love. He sacrificed for and served us first. Likewise, for our enemies,we are to love them first with true, sacrificial love that seeks their best interest, that seeks to lead them to Christ for their own good. Love that only rebukes and chastens without serving and sacrificing is not love at all.

And in addition to loving our enemies, Christians should love one another in an extreme way. Jesus said in John 13:35, "By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another." How are Christians known by all men? Is it "They are the ones who hate homosexuals"? Or is it "They are the ones who hate President Obama?" Or is it "They are the ones who think they're the only ones"? Or  is it "They are the ones who talk about hell all the time"? Or is it "They are the ones who reject evolution"? Or is it, "They are the ones who eat Chick-Fil-A"? If we, as Christians, are primarily known as anything other than, "They are the ones who love one another the way that Jesus loves them," then we don't love enough. We need to love more and more.

And since I mentioned Chick-Fil-A, I'll digress for a moment. The Chick-Fil-A in my town has been great for the community. They have donated money to worthy charities to support awareness for and research into serious diseases such as Meningitis. They have been active in raising awareness and funds for adoption of underprivileged children. They donated much food, water, and labor when a natural disaster struck our community. They close on Sundays in support of balance in their employees lives. Mr. Cathy has now stated clearly when asked his unsurprising beliefs about marriage. (I regret that the single latter action has gotten so much more attention than the multiple former ones.) I support all of that and I support them for those reasons more than because I like their chicken and milkshakes.

The first step for me to realizing how much I have to grow in love was to realize that I don't love like God loves. God loves perfectly and unconditionally. I attach strings and love selfishly. I pray that He will teach me to love my brethren and my enemies, more like Him.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

What Did God Say?

One time I was teaching a Bible class to junior high students. It was a very good class of good hearted 6th through 8th graders. I would have been proud to have called any one of those students my own son or daughter. They were lovely young men and women.

During one of the classes, we were studying the Genesis account of Adam and Eve in the garden and the sin of the eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. You can read about this story in Genesis 2:15-3:19. It is a well known story and it includes a very interesting dialog between the serpent (whom many, myself included, believe to be Satan) and Eve. Let's look at that dialog and talk about an observation that 6th - 8th graders made about that story.

I posed the question to the class, "What did the serpent say that God said?" The good students referred to Genesis 3:1 and said, "You shall not eat of every tree of the garden." Then, I asked, "Is that really what God said?" They answered, "No." Easy question. Of course Satan did not accurately represent God. He is the father of lies.

Next, I asked, "What did Eve say that God said?" Again, they referred to Genesis 3, this time verses 2-3, and said, "You shall not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and you shall not even touch it, lest you die." Very good. Then, I repeated the question, "Is that really what God said?" Much more quickly than I expected, they said, "NO!" Then, they referred me to Genesis 2:16-17 to see what God really said. God's commandment was simple. They were allowed to eat of every tree in the garden except for the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Eating of that tree would cause death.

Neither the serpent nor Eve accurately restated the commandment from God. The serpent seemed to be persuading Eve that God was holding back something that would be good for her. It's a similar lie that Satan tells us today. "God really wants to hold you back. You could be so much better without His commandments. God doesn't really want what's best for you. He only wants what's best for Him and to keep you from being as good as you could be." What a lie! God's commandments are for our good always! Any doubt about that fact comes from our own lusts or from the adversary.

Eve seemed to think that God's commandment wasn't restrictive enough, so she added the restriction "neither shall you touch it."

Sometimes, when faced with temptation, I have done exactly what Eve did. I have added restrictions that God did not add. If I want to impose those restrictions on myself, that is fine. Eve would not have sinned if she had never touched the tree. However, God hadn't forbidden her from touching it. She was condemned for eating, not for touching. One of the students in that class made this observation. "God's commandment was better than what Eve said because they could have cut that tree down and burned it or buried it so that they wouldn't have been tempted to eat its fruit. God didn't say, 'Don't touch it.'" I had never thought of that! I'm not sure whether cutting down the tree would have been acceptable to God or not, but I do know this: there were two strong points of truth in the student's observation.

  1. The student's genuine wish was that sin had never entered the world. He/she wanted badly for things to have happened differently in the Garden of Eden. I admired that and commended that!
  2. God's commandment was better than what Eve said. AMEN!
How many times have I done what Eve did? How many times have I made my own restrictions or followed my traditions, and then tried to enforce those traditions and restrictions on others as if they were God's commandment? We need wisdom and humility to avoid elevating our traditions and restrictions to the level of God's commandments.

A final question about this story... What good did Eve's additional restriction do her? NONE! We can't legislate away temptation. We can set wise boundaries, for sure. I have several of those boundaries for myself. But the boundaries I set for myself may not be the boundaries that others have set. I must be careful not to condemn others if their boundaries are not  the same as mine. As evidenced by the young student's comment on cutting down the tree, others may have an equal or greater hatred for sin that allowed them not to set the same boundary that I set. I need not legislate where God has not. 

The way to avoid sin is to set one's heart on good, to truly love what is good and hate what is evil. Legislating restrictions that God did not legislate has not proven to be very helpful in the effort to avoid sin. It's futile to attempt to win an internal battle with an external rule. The ultimate determination of what is right and wrong is, "What did God say?"