In America, just after Christmas concludes, holiday sale merchandise is moved out to make room for heart-shaped gifts making proclamations of love.
Stuffed bears hold hearts emblazoned with the words “I love you.” Flowers and candy fill check-out counter racks to celebrate love. And, of course, school children get in on the activity by giving each other cards that say things like “You’re swell” and “I dig you.”
It’s all so, well—sentimental. And sweet. Like a sugar high.
Before I come off sounding anti-Valentine’s day, let me clarify that I think the holiday can be a meaningful time to express love to people around you. It can be an opportunity for couples to reaffirm their love for each other in a world where we forget to express deep and life-giving words.
Yet, I do wonder if the “trappings” of love that are found during the month of February (and elsewhere in Western culture) confuse us and get in the way of taking love seriously as Christians.
1 John 4:8 says, “God is love.” How bold for the Apostle John to describe God with one word!
Likewise, in 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul writes that many, many things in our world are going to pass away, but three things remain: faith, hope, and love. Then he adds that the greatest is love.
If you think about it, when we see God face-to-face we will no longer need faith or hope. But love will remain. Perhaps that’s why Paul said it is the greatest.
If love will remain, if it is the greatest, it seems a subject worthy of our focused contemplation. With that said, a contemplation of love—like a contemplation of God who is love—could fill volumes. So, with the below, I offer a few meager thoughts as I consider love as one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit.
The Idea of Loving in General
In his book The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, “The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular.” In other words, it’s easy to love humanity in general, but it’s hard to love individual human beings. Can I get an Amen?
We’re all for love, right? No one is against the idea. But once we get our wings all puffed up and ready to fly into this thing called love, we run into barriers. We feel like a bird that swiftly flies from its perch toward the outdoors, but hits a closed glass window instead.
We launch out to love and find ourselves battered, with a headache from a run-in, sitting defeated on the front stoop of life.
Because love is so difficult in our world, as Christians, we really must see love as a fruit of the Spirit that grows in our lives—yes, supernaturally—as we are grafted into the vine that is Jesus Christ.
Setting Out to Love will Expose your Heart
Recently, I came across a book on the topic of repentance that was subtitled Renewing the Power to Love. Combining the practice of repentance with love is actually very powerful.
If, in our loving, we are like birds who set out to fly and strike a barrier mid-flight, that barrier often is our own inability—our need. Our need frequently is tied into our own sin patterns that we must repent from: impatience, prejudice, selfishness, even scorn.
I’ll never forget a time decades ago when I spoke with a church planter who was struggling to love the people in his new congregation. He quoted C.S. Lewis, who wrote in the preface to The Screwtape Letters: “Even in human life we have seen the passion to dominate, almost to digest, one’s fellow…On Earth this desire is often called ‘love.’ In Hell I feign that they recognize it as hunger.”
Lewis is saying—as was the church planter—that love can be a very mixed up thing. When fallen human beings set out to love—or, for instance, to plant a church for the glory of God and the sake of others—very soon, our own selfish desires and needs get involved. It’s hard to separate those needs and desires—or hungers—from actual love.
We see this in our families, our romantic relationships, our churches, and our workplaces. How do I distinguish between my hunger and my love? My need and my love? In a fallen world, it’s complicated!
I’ve recently been going through Serge’s Discipler Training. Jeff McMullen, who is co-teaching the course, said, “Being in relationships is going to expose your heart.” Likewise, setting out to love someone—a person in particular—is going to expose your heart. Fortunately, as believers in Jesus, we are not left exposed and alone.
What About Loving “Them”?
The complications of our own hearts are one factor in our quest to love—but what about the complications in other people? Going back to the analogy of the bird in flight who barrels into the window, there are few things as pain-producing as setting out to love someone and hitting the barrier of another’s unloving-ness. These run-ins can leave us dazed, confused, defensive, and unsure if it is really possible to walk in love.
Another concept we covered in our Discipler Training cohort is the complex nature of human beings. Jeff helpfully pointed us to a model developed by Michael Emlet in his book CrossTalk. The model helps us see that, even as people are made in the image of God, they are sinners and they have been sinned against.
That means that, on the path of love, you will not only face your own sin, but also the sin of others.
With all of this in view, it’s easy to understand how we live in a world that seems as filled with self-protection mechanisms as it is filled with love.
It’s also easy to see why Dostoyevsky highlighted the ease of loving humanity in general and the difficulty of loving people in particular.
I see this vividly in my own life. In my role with Serge, my job is to paint the broad strokes of how Serge staff and ministry initiatives are reaching people with the love of God all over the world. It’s so great! We’ve got amazing photos, cool stories, and a great motto: “grace at the fray.”
But wait. Another email from a colleague just landed in my inbox. Or I get a poorly timed knock at my front door. Or that family member lets me down. I have no strength to love. Apparently, I only have the strength to talk about love.
And then I strategize—not about ways to love others, but about ways to protect myself from the vulnerability and cost of loving others.
But then I look at Jesus and visualize Him vulnerable and seemingly unprotected on the cross saying, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” And I know “they” includes me! And, once more, I am given a gift of love. Perhaps I can share it with others.
The Room of Love
Japanese-American painter Makoto Fujimura teaches about 16th-century tea rooms in Japan designed by Sen no Rikyu. Rikyu was informed by his Christian faith (at that time, 10 percent of Japan was Christian). When he set out to design tea rooms, he stepped away from creating rooms that were like banquet halls. He made the rooms small—only big enough for a few people.
These tea rooms had doorways so low that one could only enter by bowing. And the doorways were so narrow that one had to take off any weapons in order to pass through. I think they could be called tea rooms of love.
It is not with great hubris and bold proclamations that we can step out onto the way of love. Rather, it is only with humility, recognizing our own need for God’s love and mercy. We must lay down our weapons and trust God to protect us in this journey of vulnerability.
When the end comes, and love remains, I hope love is something we recognize and find familiar. I hope love is something we know well, something we have experienced and offered to others. More than a sentimental, second-hand emotion, I hope that love—made known to us by the Holy Spirit—can develop into real, substantial, fortifying fruit. That fruit will provide a feast when we gather with God and our brothers and sisters for eternity. It will be like the tea room, but better.