The following is an adaptation of the sermon ‘God Is Love’ preached by Pastor Michael White on Sunday, 3/1/2020, at CityLight Church. To listen to the full podcast please click

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Loving Others Well

Jesus outlines a responsibility for every Christian to love other people well: 

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” – Jn. 13:34-35

We have a responsibility to “love” others. It’s not a suggestion; it’s a commandment! And we know that those who love Jesus keep His commandments.[1] So if we want to love Jesus, we have to love others.

Jesus is not lowering His standard of love under the New Covenant; He is raising the bar. Under the Old Covenant, the commandment was, “…you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). That was hard enough! But under the New Covenant, the standard is now, “…love one another; as I have loved you…” (Jn. 13:34). How did Jesus love us? He died for us. He laid down His life for people who would reject Him and kill him!

This is our new commandment: to adopt a posture where we willingly lay down our lives for people every day, even if they reject us and persecute us. Our mandate is to love other people unconditionally, no matter what it costs. Sounds like a terrifying requirement doesn’t it? And that’s the point: you cannot love other people without the Holy Spirit’s help. You need to rely on Him fully and completely to love other people through you.

What Is Love?

What does “love” mean anyway? Is it a feeling? Is it an action? How do we know if we “love” God? How do we know if we are doing our job of “loving “others?

The Greek language[2] has four words for love:

  • Storge refers to kinship or family relationships
  • Philia designates friendship or friendly love
  • Eros references romantic love
  • Agape is the term used for divine, unconditional love

Imagine how confusing “love” can be when there are so many competing definitions? Because their concept of “love” was so complicated, many Greek thinkers disdained the concept of love. Plato said, “Love is a serious mental disease.” Socrates wrote, “Love is madness.” And how could you blame them, when talking about “love” could mean so many different things?

And this is where we are in our contemporary society. Love has become so complicated that we have given up on it altogether. There is something deeply ingrained in every human being that knows we are supposed to “love” each other! But many of us have different definitions of love. To some people, “love” means supporting someone else when he does whatever he wants. To others, “love” means saying no! To some, “love” means sharing an experience or spending time together. So given Jesus’ command to “love one another” (Jn. 13:34), what are we supposed to do?

Susan Gadoua a licensed therapist, best-selling author, and founder of the Transition Institute of Marin, which specializes in coaching couples through various stages of marital dissolution. She had the following reflection about the vastly different definitions of love that two people can have, even within the context of marriage.

“Because people define love differently, a common trap is for couples is to assume they are speaking about the same thing. And because people define love differently, they show it differently and have different expectations of what it should look and feel like. Many, if not most, of the problems couples experience is a result of a miscommunicated love or a dashed expectation around love and connection.

 

“Many of us show love in the ways we hope to receive love (the golden rule of doing unto others as you would have others do unto you) but this assumes your partner defines love the same way you do. In fact, the couples who come in to see me for therapy have been missing the mark for years. By the time they come to therapy, they have had years of pain and hurt because they have made too many assumptions about love.

 

“One wanted physical connection, the other wanted to go on a walk together; one wanted to buy gifts to show affection but the other would rather have had him or her do the dishes, pick up the dry cleaning or even put money into the savings account rather than spend it, because that’s their definition of love.”[3]

Do you see our problem? Even within marriages, we all want to love each other, but we don’t know how! Many of us don’t even have a personal definition of love; so we are helpless when it comes to asking for what we need from other people.

But there is hope in Scripture. When Jesus tells us to “love one another,” He is using the Greek word agape.[4] Agape refers to the unconditional love a Father has for a Son. God loves Jesus unconditionally; and Jesus showed that unconditional love to us! He came and died on a Cross in our place – not just for our sin, but as our sin – to prove just how much He loves us. He chose to love us to the death, even though He knew we would reject and scorn Him. And this is how He asks us to love other people.

Jesus doesn’t ask us to storge everyone (“kinship” love). He doesn’t ask us to philia everyone (“friendship” love). Isn’t that a relief that you don’t have to be best friends with everyone, even in church? You’re going to naturally click with some people, and you just won’t gel with others; and that’s fine, because Jesus isn’t looking for philia love. We don’t have to eros everyone (“romantic” love), which would be super awkward. Jesus, having shown us unconditional, agape love, is looking for us to love other people the same way!

So now we have some clarity on what Jesus means by “loving” others. But we’re not out of the woods yet. I don’t know about you, but I don’t go around easily sacrificing my life for other people on a daily basis. I understand that Jesus did it for me! But the honest truth is that my life is not always a living reflection of unconditional, agape love. I have a hard time loving my friends and family! Much less loving people I don’t even know, along with those who even reject me and want me dead!

So we know what Jesus expects. But how does He expect us to do it?

Love Is A Person

If you want to love others well, here is what you really need to know:

Love is a person.

Love is not an emotion. Love is not a concept or a theoretical construct! Love is a Person; and His name is Jesus Christ.

Aren’t you glad you don’t have to worry about nailing down a mutually-agreeable definition of love with everyone you encounter? Aren’t you happy you don’t have to run every relationship in your life through the “love languages” framework?[5] Your only responsibility is to know Jesus – LOVE! – and to reflect Him to everyone you meet.

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. – 1 Jn. 4:7-8 

God is love! And Jesus is God.[6] Love was personified as Jesus, the “express image” of His Father (Heb. 1:3), died on the Cross in your place:

In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. – 1 Jn. 4:9-11

Love is not measured by our level of emotional and physical commitment to God! It is defined by His act of sending Jesus as propitiation – or punishment – for our sins.

Verse 11 explains that if we want to ever have a fighting chance of loving other people well, we first have to understand just how much God loves us! And if you want to know love, you have to know Jesus.

Your job is not to conjure up some sort of subjective emotional goodwill towards other people in an effort to “love them” on a daily basis. Your only role is to know Jesus, who is love. Once you know Him for yourself, you will start to show Him to others. Do you see it? If you want to know love, you have to know Him! And if you want to love other people well, you first have to be loved by Jesus.

Here is our problem. We get a mandate from God to love other people, and we try to go out and do it without first receiving love from Jesus! And the result is a world of heartache and fear. We end up tired and burned out trying to love other people, because we’re not even sure if God loves us!

But there is a better way! If we would just stop in the midst of our daily routine to love Jesus and to be loved by Him, we would have no problem loving other people. If we would spend moments that stretch into hours in His presence, we would have no issues fulfilling Jesus’ great command! If we would stare at Jesus’ face and gaze into His eyes, we would be, “…transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18)!

If you want to love others well, you have to first love and be loved by Jesus. If you try to go out and show love to the world without first being shown love by Jesus, you will buckle under the weight of the responsibility of Jesus’ command. But if you would first learn to be loved by Jesus, loving others would go from being an impossible command to an infinite joy.

What you are missing is intimacy with Jesus. You don’t have a problem loving other people! You just have yet to place a priority on meeting love face to face.

The Power of Intimacy

Can I help you in your efforts to build intimacy with Jesus? In 1997, a psychologist by the name of Arthur Aron[7] set out to answer one central question: can intimacy between two people, even if they are absolute strangers, be accelerated by having them ask each other a series of specific questions?

Aron and his team gathered a group of men and women, and paired them into heterosexual couples. Each couple was given the same list of 36 questions, separated into three groups of 12 questions each. These were not easy surface-level questions. These were deep, probing questions: the type of questions that make you squirm just to ask them, let alone provide an answer! The core hypothesis that Aron and his team set out to support was this: “The idea is that mutual vulnerability fosters closeness. According to the study’s authors, ‘One key pattern associated with the development of a close relationship among peers is sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personal self-disclosure.’” [8]

The results were astounding. As a result of sitting face-to-face and asking each other probing questions, the couples reported feeling a deepened sense of intimacy with each other. They reported feeling emotions that felt like love. In fact, one couple got so close during the experiment that they got married six months later, and invited the entire lab full of participants to the ceremony!

This speaks to the incredible power of building intimacy through questions. Jesus spoke to the masses in parables;[9] but He spoke in a whole different way to His friends in private.[10] Many of the interactions recorded in the Gospels between Jesus and the disciples consist of the disciples approaching Jesus after a big church service and asking Him to clarify what He meant.[11] In other words, if the disciples hadn’t been comfortable asking Jesus questions, they would have lacked the clarity they needed to love and serve Him well!

Are you comfortable asking Jesus questions? Are you comfortable approaching Him and meeting with Him face to face? When the Holy Spirit whispers something to you about your destiny and your future, are you willing to go back to Jesus and follow up? Or are you too afraid to ask Jesus questions because you don’t know if you’ll want to hear the answers? Are you too fearful of finding out what Jesus really wants for you, because it might mean giving up what you think you want for yourself?

Questions build intimacy! Ask Jesus what He wants for you. And allow Him to ask you questions back! Spend time in His presence and invite Jesus to ask you whatever He wants. Bare your heart and soul in front of Him, and watch how much closer you feel to Him as a result!

Mandy Len Catron, an author and professor, replicated Aron’s experiment in 2015 and wrote an article about it for the New York Times. She went on a date, and she and her date started to talk about love. She mentioned the experiment to her date, and wondered out loud if it would really work. Her date was intrigued; so they Googled Aron’s list of 36 deep, probing questions, and re-enacted the experiment in the middle of a bar.

Hours passed in what felt like minutes. The exercise was much less awkward than Len Catron had feared. But it was also much more effective than she had hoped! She told her date how happy she was that it had been fun; but then told him that if they really wanted to complete Aron’s experiment, they had one final step: staring into each others’ eyes for four minutes straight. Her date was game. But they didn’t want to do it at the bar; so they went and found a bridge. And for four minutes, they stared right into each others’ eyes.

Here is what Len Catron had to say about the experience:

“Staring into each others’ eyes: I’ve skied steep slopes and hung from a rock face by a short length of rope, but staring into someone’s eyes for four silent minutes was one of the more thrilling and terrifying experiences of my life. I spent the first couple of minutes just trying to breathe properly. There was a lot of nervous smiling until, eventually, we settled in.

 

“I know the eyes are the windows to the soul or whatever, but the real crux of the moment was not just that I was really seeing someone, but that I was seeing someone really seeing me. Once I embraced the terror of this realization and gave it time to subside, I arrived somewhere unexpected.

 

“I felt brave, and in a state of wonder.”[12]

I wonder what your relationship with Jesus would be like if you took time every day to stare into His eyes. What if you took even four minutes to look into His face?! I wonder if you would enter that encounter struggling to breathe, but leave it, “…brave, and in a state of wonder.” What if what you really need most to love other people well is more time with Jesus face to face?

Casting Out Fear

Intimacy with Jesus is so important. If you want to fall in love with Him, you have to spend time in His presence. And I know what’s holding you back! I know what’s stopping you from taking time every day just to stare at His face. Because it’s the same thing that keeps me from Him.

Fear. We’re afraid to enter Jesus’ presence because we’re afraid that if He finally sees us for who we really are, He won’t like what He sees.

But did you know that Jesus already sees you? Did you know that He already knows you, inside and out? Did you know that when He chose to come to Earth and die for you on the Cross, He knew exactly what He was getting into? 

But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. – Rom. 5:8

Jesus didn’t die for you when you were perfect! He died for you when you were still a mess. And that is what makes intimacy with Him so infinitely beautiful! He sees you and He knows you – faults, insecurities, fears and all – and He still loves you more than you could ever imagine.

If you’re afraid to spend time with Jesus, know this: the remedy to your fear is only found in His presence:

Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love. We love Him because He first loved us. – 1 Jn. 4:17-19

If you are afraid of anything in life, it means you have, “…not been made perfect in love” (v 18). If you really knew how much Jesus loves you and understood that He died for you, you would have nothing to fear. If you were really “hidden” in Him (Col. 3:3), there would be no fear in your life, because there is no fear in His love.

Loving Fearlessly

God wants you to live fearlessly. He wants you to love fearlessly!

If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also. – 1 Jn. 4:20-21

But you cannot live and love the way God wants until you first know Jesus. When you know Jesus and receive His love, loving others will no longer be a challenge; it will be the greatest joy you have ever known.

© Michael D. White, 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michael D. White with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

[1] “If you love Me, keep My commandments.” – Jn. 14:15

[2] This is the original language of the New Testament.

[3] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/contemplating-divorce/201502/how-do-you-define-love

[4] Strong’s G26

[5] Chapman, G. (2015). The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts. Chigao: Northfield Publishing.

[6] “I and My Father are one.” – Jn. 10:30

[7] Aron, A., Melinat, E., Aron, E. N., Vallone, R. D., & Bator, R. J. (1997). The experimental generation of interpersonal closeness: a procedure and some preliminary findings. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin4, 363.

[8] https://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/11/style/36-questions-that-lead-to-love.html

[9] “But without a parable He did not speak to them…” – Mk. 4:34a

[10] “…And when they were alone, He explained all things to His disciples.” – Mk. 4:34b

[11]“Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, ‘Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?’” – Matt. 24:3

[12] https://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/11/style/modern-love-to-fall-in-love-with-anyone-do-this.html