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Love – Christianity’s Elephant in the Room.

Christian LoveWhat is Love?

What is Christian love?  Have we studied it carefully or do we just assume we understand it?  Is Christian love different from worldly love?  Do we recognise the true implications of love?  I believe the Bible says something different to what most people appear to think.

Christianity is firmly based upon the bedrock of love.  I must love my brothers and sisters in Christ (Rom 12:10), my neighbours (Gal 5:4), my enemies (Matt 5:44), my saviour (John 14:24) and my God (Deut 6:5).  Jesus just assumes that I love myself.  God, I am told, does not only love me (Psa 136:26), or demand love from me (Matt 22:37), but that He is love itself (1 John 4:8).  If Christ expresses the nature of God (Heb 1:3), then He too is love.   I am told to search out this love by seeking the face of God (2 Chron 7:14) and that knowledge of God is salvation (1 Tim 2:4).  If I do not love, I cannot know God.  The message is loud and clear: in the words of the Lennon song, “All you need is love.”

I have read many sermons, listened to many Christians and read many web pages all attesting to the unswerving, unconditional love of God.  Yet I have a nagging doubt.  No, it is more than that; in fact it is much more than that.  It seems to me that love is “the elephant in the room” of Christianity.

It is because love is so foundational in Christian doctrine that it is simply assumed that everyone knows what it means, everyone gives it and everyone is a recipient of it, both from our brothers and sisters, and from God.  That is not my experience.   John Lennon’s love is not the love of the Bible.

In the year that I attended a mainstream church after I submitted myself to Christ in 2015, the subject of love never came up.  I can only assume that either my brothers and sisters are comfortable with their knowledge of love, or they are so uncomfortable that they dare not broach the subject – at least beyond using the word.

I fear that if I cannot achieve a settled perspective on love, it could lead me to give up.  I might feel so unworthy and unacceptable that any hope of salvation for me is just a fantasy.  If knowing God is to know love, then I need to understand love in God’s terms, not mine.

It seemed easy at first.  I’m not keen on dogs, but seeing any injured animal instantly prompts a desire to help.  I empathise with the bored check-out girl and the road sweeper in the pouring rain.  I give a five pound note to an open, homeless hand.   I pity the poor child dying of starvation on an African plain and give a customary donation to charity.  I feel my children’s pain when their lives are not going well.  I stand ready to do whatever I can to help my sister if she is in need.  I yearn for the world exemplified by Christ and I am utterly grateful to God for His patience, guidance and offer of salvation.  I pray that God will give me opportunities to do more.  I look out for people in need and get a good feeling, knowing that I’m ready to help.  Are these love?

As I read and reread the Bible those nagging doubts gain strength.   In this “letter to self” I’ll begin with the simpler questions before tackling the elephant in the room itself.

The Good Samaritan

My sister tells a story that dates back to her childhood.  Every Sunday my father would drive her 10 miles across South London to a church belonging to an esoteric denomination where, as a lay preacher, he sometimes gave the Sunday morning sermon.  On one occasion, whilst travelling down an empty suburban street, they noticed a man clinging to a post box and clutching his chest.  Everyone in the car thought he was having a heart attack and was in need of assistance.  My father said that he could not stop as that would make him late to church, and he simply drove on.  My now adult sister believes he was wrong and had fundamentally misunderstood Christ’s message.  Until recently I agreed with her without question.  Now, I doubt.

The obvious Biblical source for guidance is the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Christian LoveAnd, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou? And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself. And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live. But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour? And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee. Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves? And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.
Luke 10:25-37

When asked, Jesus told the lawyer that love is the most important commandment: love of God first and his neighbour second.  Leaving aside for a moment the meaning of love, I ask, as the lawyer did, who is my neighbour?  Jesus provided the answer with this parable.  The man lying by the roadside is presumed to be a Jew.

He is found first by a Jewish priest and then by a Levite (the group designated as guardians of the Jewish faith in ancient Israel) and finally by a non-Jew; a Samaritan.  The first two gave the man a wide berth, but the Samaritan had compassion and took him to an inn and paid for his care.

Jesus asks the lawyer which of the three passers-by was a neighbour to the man.  By juxtaposing him with the Samaritan He turned the question from the identity of any particular group, to the lawyer himself and so, by implication, to us.  He showed us that it is not about places or religions, groups, races, creeds or colours: it about our attitude to the needs of our fellow human beings.   The injured man was not inherently a neighbour of anyone – or to any of the three on the road.  He became a neighbour to the three passers-by at the moment he was in need of their help. The lawyer agreed that it was only the Samaritan that rose to the challenge.

If I accept that the injured Jew qualifies as my neighbour, what exactly is the nature of the love that I should feel for this total stranger?  Is love just a feeling, or does the parable tell us that it must also be an action?  Does my sense of love ensure an appropriate action?  If I don’t feel love, how do I determine the appropriate action?  Are some people undeserving of love?  How does the love that the Samaritan demonstrates for the injured man compare to our love for God and His for us?  How could my father drive past a dying man?

I suspect that the average Christian believes that all these questions have simple answers.  Yet none that I have spoken to can explain many of God’s actions in the Old Testament.  If God is love, how can that be?  Could it be that we really don’t understand love as much as we think we do?

Rather than try to answer all these questions individually I will try to point to the scriptures that provide the answers.

Defining Love

Love GodThe English language is full of synonyms that enable us to convey every idea or feeling with pinpoint accuracy.  To convey speed, we can choose between:  fast, speedy, swift, quick, rapid and many, many more.  We might choose nimble to describe a speeding person, but fast for a speeding car for example.  A nimble car doesn’t quite work, as doesn’t a fast person.  Yet, I can love; ice cream, indigo, my girlfriend, surfing, my cat, Beethoven, your shoes, my toaster, your dog’s nose, Jerusalem and God.  In modern parlance they all sound perfectly acceptable.  The word ‘love’ carries so many meanings that it almost has no meaning.

Ancient Greek is far more discriminating.  There is no all-embracing word; instead there are numerous ways of expressing the different elements of what we call love. Here are just some of those:

  • Philautia – self-love, either in a positive or negative sense
  • Mania – obsessive love
  • Meraki – to do something with passion, with absolute devotion, with undivided attention
  • Xenia – to show hospitality, principally to strangers
  • Eros – erotic or sexual love directed toward a particular individual
  • Ludus – playful, flirtatious love, void of commitment, infatuation, promiscuity
  • Pragma – committed, companionate love.  The basis of a happy, mature marriage
  • Storgē – natural or instinctual affection, as of a parent for a child
  • Phileo – brotherly or sisterly love as between best friends. Exemplified by David and Jonathan. As in Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love.
  • Agápe – love for others that is inclusive of a love for God, nature, strangers, or the less fortunate.  It is an empathetic love toward humanity itself and is sometimes connected to altruism since it involves caring for and loving others without expecting anything in return.  It is the selfless compassionate love that makes us sympathize with, and help us connect to, people we don’t know.

(Strong’s dictionary gives confusing definitions and after much research of Greek scholars’ definitions, I have settled on the above.)

The primary expression that the New Testament uses for love is agápe.  It is used by the lawyer in his question to Jesus, but not by Jesus in His response.  Instead Jesus tells us that the Samaritan, “had compassion”.  The Greek word is splagchnizomai.  It means, to be moved as to one’s bowels, hence to be moved with compassion (for the bowels were thought to be the seat of love and pity).  Although He doesn’t use the word, it seems Jesus is describing the empathetic, unidirectional characteristics of agápe.  The implication is that the Priest and the Levite lacked agápe.

In Matt 5:46 Jesus goes beyond expecting compassion for a deserving stranger, to demanding it even for our enemies.  Using agápe, he says, “If you love [only] those that love you, what reward do you have?  Do not even the tax collectors do the same?”

In the Matt 25:35-36 Jesus is speaking in the context of the Kingdom of God and those who will inherit it.  He appears to be describing agápe love when he tells us that good works toward others are counted as if they were done for Christ Himself.

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.
Matthew 25:35-36

A slightly less common word for love found in the Bible is phileo.  Jesus says that the hypocrites love (phileo) to stand on street corners to pray where they can be seen.

In Matt 10:37 Jesus says, “He that loveth (phileo) father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.”  (Note that here Jesus does not use the term for familial love, storgē but phileo, brotherly love).

In Luke 20:46 Jesus warns of scribes who avail themselves of the finest food and clothes and love (phileo) to be greeted in the markets.

Judging by the first three Gospels, we might conclude that Jesus takes a lesser view of phileo love, but in John 5:20 he says that the Father loveth (phileo) the Son and in John 16:27 he says, “For the Father himself loveth (phileo) you, because ye have loved (phileo) me, and have believed that I came out from God.”  Finally in John 20:2 John uses phileo to describe the love Jesus felt for the “other” disciple.

Is the difference this: phileo results from our emotions, whereas agápe is intellectual in nature?

Phileo is my love of chocolate; the scribe’s feeling of importance as he is greeted; my emotional reaction to hearing the opening bars of Beethoven’s 5th; the sense of warmth I feel when a street cat rubs against my leg and yes, also my emotional attachment to God.  Phileo can be also negative emotions: a love of alcohol; next door’s wife and driving at 100 mph.

Agápe requires effort.  We cannot naturally love a terrorist that has just butchered a dozen people in front of our eyes or the individual that has ransacked our house and ruined a precious possession [irony noted (Matt 6:19)].  This kind of love takes thought, rather than emotion – and intellect.  It requires empathy derived from consideration and perspective.  Agápe demands that we set emotion aside.  In fact it is enmity to emotion.  I suspect that we cannot fully achieve this kind of love without help.  Agápe is God’s love and only His Spirit in us can truly manifest it.

Much has been made by some, of the exchange between Jesus and Peter in John 21:15-17.  Peter has, as Jesus predicted, denied Christ three times before His crucifixion.  Now, the risen Jesus asks Peter if he loves him.

So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest (agápe) thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love (phileo) thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs. He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest (agápe) thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love (phileo) thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep. He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest (phileo) thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest (phileo) thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love (phileo) thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.
Jn 21:15 — Jn 21:17

Whilst agápe and phileo have been used seemingly interchangeably elsewhere in John’s Gospel, the choice of words here surely cannot be accidental.   Jesus is asking about the higher form of love – agápe.  Peter, presumably still suffering from his recent failure, seems unable to attest to such commitment and affirms only his brotherly love for Jesus.  Jesus tries again but ultimately appears to settle for Peter’s assurance of brotherly love.

It makes perfect sense that both agápe and phileo forms of love are necessary elements in the coming Kingdom for which Jesus came to prepare the Jews.  God’s agápe for His people is heartfelt, but also the subject of a solemn promise.  The Kingdom of God is a place of love, in which all are bound in common, non-judgemental, peaceful brotherly phileo as members of God’s family.  This is surely the thrust of all the teachings both of Jesus and Paul (1 Cor 13:4).

Temporal Love

What then of storgē, familial love?

family loveIt seems to me illuminating that storgē is not used even once in the Bible, except (presumably as a concatenation designed to merge two dissimilar ideas) in Romans 12:10 where Paul tells us to love one another with brotherly love (philostorgos).  However there may be good reason why storgē is absent and, if I am right, it tells us a lot about what love means to God.   The following three Biblical stories are instructive.

Luke 2:41-52 tells us that Jesus’s entire family went to Jerusalem annually for the Passover.  When Jesus was just 12-years-old, his parents assumed that He was among the large group returning to Nazareth at the end of that year’s festival.  Having not seen him for a whole day, they began to panic and started a search which ended after three days, back in Jerusalem.  There, they eventually discovered Jesus debating with the teachers in the temple.

Mary and Joseph admonished the boy for his thoughtlessness and told him that they had been worried sick.  Jesus’s response displays no empathy for His parents and no contrition for His actions: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be doing my Father’s work?”

Later, as Jesus began His ministry he called various people to become His disciples.  In Matt 8:21-22 one of them wanted first to bury his father before leaving with Jesus (we are not told whether the man was near death or had actually died), but Jesus responded, “Follow me and let the dead bury the dead.”  I don’t think I misrepresent Jesus if I rephrase this response in modern English thus: “Never mind your feelings or your dad’s, you’ve heard my offer – take it or leave it.”  (Jesus’s version might have been more kindly put.)

Matt 12:46-50 records how a man interrupted Jesus whilst he was teaching his disciples and told Him that his mother and brothers were outside waiting to speak to Him.  Jesus again demonstrated his indifference to His human family when He said, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?  Here are my mother and my brothers!  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

These three incidents suggest to me that storgē or familial love has no, or a very low, meaning for Christ.  Storgē is instinctive love.  Perhaps we might say, inevitable love.  My sister described it perfectly when she wrote, “Love of a sibling starts before it’s even recognised or acknowledged.  It builds with shared experiences good and bad.”  Storgē is primeval, temporal love.  It is the love of attachment that causes an orphaned animal to bond with a human rescuer.  I don’t disparage it: storgē is bonding and comforting in a human family.  That though is the point; a human family is not God’s family.

Jesus acknowledges (Matt 10:37) that a deeper love can exist alongside storgē within the family, but he appears to reserve that deeper emotional attachment for His spiritual brothers.

It seems to me that Christ’s example is sending us a message. This kind of familial love is firmly rooted in the darkness of our worldly relationships and has no place in the spiritual light.  If we are to follow Christ then our family must be true travelers on the walk with us, or they must be discarded. I know that many Christians will tell me I have got it wrong, that I’m taking it to extremes. Jesus however, will not let us off so easily:

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.
Luke 14:26

Again, many will seek to water it down.  Hate doesn’t really mean hate, they will say.  (Strong’s dictionary does offer the alternative, detest!)  Let’s not kid ourselves.  However hard it may be for us, Jesus is saying that we should hate anything and anyone that stands as an obstacle to our unconditional love of God.  In fact, is that not the only justification for hate?  If we have built a true relationship with God, relinquishing the things of this world, including our own life, should not be hard and hate is unnecessary.  Jesus did not hate His family, they were simply irrelevant when compared to His love of God.

Directing Love

In another revealing incident, a Canaanite woman cried out to Jesus,

“Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Matthew 15:22-28

Jesus's loveCompare this last story with the parable of the Samaritan which, we should remember, was intended to demonstrate agápe – selfless love.  The woman was in need of help, but because she was not a Jew, Jesus initially passed her by.  The Samaritan was lauded because he took no account of race or any other attribute of the stranger; he simply acted upon his compassion.  Christ’s actions, on the other hand, are initially discriminating by race.  Or are they?

The true message in this story is revealed in Christ’s response “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  Jesus had been given a job to do and His focus could not be shaken.  Just as He had said to His family, twenty or so years previously, He was here on His Father’s business – purely and simply to serve God.  That business did not allow for emotion, sentimentality or personal interpretation.

Jesus was a man (1 Tim 2:5).  We know that He was a loving, caring man (Luke 13:34-35, John 11:35).  It is impossible to think that He lacked empathy for the woman, but He set any such feelings aside.  Unbelieving gentiles, regardless of their suffering, were not included in the task that He had been assigned.  However, the woman convinced Him that she was indeed a Jew, a spiritual Jew (see Rom 2:28-29), and by doing so offered Him an alternative opportunity to serve God.  Only then did Jesus relent and heal her child.

That the service of God is paramount is underlined in another incident.  When Mary anointed Jesus’s feet with expensive oil (Matt 26:11), Judas complained that it could have been sold for the benefit of the poor.  Jesus responded that the poor would always be with them, but they did not always have Him.

The Christian love that determines Jesus’s actions is never emotional or unfocused.   Jesus purposely directs His love for one single objective: to glorify God.  He came in love to persuade sinners and unbelievers to join the Kingdom of God.  Those that rejected His invitation proved unworthy of His love and He rejected them.

He told the disciples:

But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, ​‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this; that the kingdom of God has come near.’ I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town.
Luke 10:10-12

Jesus tells us how we should deal with unbelievers:

Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.
Matthew 7:6

The “Elephant in the Room”

What then of the much quoted John 3:16?  What does God mean when He says that He loves the world?  This is the big question that is rarely tackled – the elephant in the room of Christianity.  In the first book of Samuel we find this:

Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.
1 Samuel 15:3

In an interview on Irish television a while ago, UK broadcaster and committed atheist Stephen Fry explained why he didn’t share a Christian belief in God.  He said, “This God, who claims to love us, has created a world of suffering, abject misery and horror.”

Asked what would he say if he were proved wrong about the existence of God and found himself facing Him on Judgement Day, Fry replied, “Bone cancer in children?  What’s that about?  How dare you?  What loving God would create an insect whose whole life-cycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind?  Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god that has created a world of injustice and pain?  It’s not our fault.”

In Genesis we find God “regretting” that He made the earth because of the wickedness of mankind.

And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.  So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.”  But Noah found favour in the eyes of the Lord.

Genesis 6:6-8

[I take “regret” to mean that the circumstances were unpleasant to God, not that he could not have foreseen them.  For example, we might regret the mess and noise of a building site, but recognise their necessity if we are to create a wonderful building.]

This passage tells me that it is not the whole world that God loves, nor even all human beings.  In fact, of all the people on earth at that time, God appears to have loved only Noah and his family.  He creates a flood to destroy all but a tiny remnant of humanity and representatives of other forms of life.

For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you.
The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers.
You destroy those who speak lies; the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.
Psalms 5:4-6

A similar situation occurred later when, at the pleading of Abraham, only Lot and his daughters were saved from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.  God clearly did not love the people of those towns.  Even Lot’s wife was killed when she failed in her commitment and faith in God.

So it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the valley, God remembered Abraham and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow when he overthrew the cities in which Lot had lived.
Genesis 19:29

The truth of God’s love is revealed in the story of Jonah and Nineveh.  When the people of Nineveh sinned against God He determined to destroy them as He had Sodom.  On this occasion He had Jonah give them the opportunity to repent and save themselves.

Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”  And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.
Jonah 3:4-5

Ninevah directed their love and devotion toward God in a conscious act of contrition.  This is faith.  Jonah was clearly a type of the yet-to-appear Christ and Ninevah an example for Jerusalem.  Ninevah was saved by the repentance of its population.

Jesus was sent to Israel to warn the Jews.  His focus was clear.  His mission was to offer the Jews the Kingdom of God, if only, like Ninevah, they would turn from their sinful ways.  Jesus came to the one race of people who should have known God.  These were the people with whom God had time and again sought a relationship.  Jesus did not expect to find faith amongst the Gentiles, but when He did, it was only their faith that mattered, not their race or even their past sins.  Jesus acknowledged the Canaanite “dog” of Matt 15:22ff only because of the faith she held.

Whilst His own people were under occupation by the Romans, it was a Roman Centurion to whom Jesus gave a place at the table with the nation’s forefathers (Matt 8:5-13).  Whilst the soldier’s faith was to save him, God’s own people would be “thrown into outer darkness.”

“Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.  I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness.  In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Matthew 8:10-12

Most of the people of Jerusalem rejected Christ and stood by whilst they crucified Him.  Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 CE.

Fry’s Logical Fallacy

I believe we are getting to the core of matter.  God does not love this world.  In fact He detests it so much that He plans to completely repurpose it.

Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.
Matthew 24:35

God does not love this world because it is not the world He created; the beauty of which we can only imagine.  No, the world we live in is the one we created for ourselves.

We greedy, ungrateful, gluttonous human beings sought the grass on the other side that God had warned would lead to death.  Eve perfectly represented the human race when she ignored His warnings and ate from the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. I can only imagine God’s pain when His perfect gift was thrown back in His face.

God however, is patient and has no pleasure in our destruction or our pain (Eze 33:11).  The offer He now makes to us is the one He has always made.  It is not a different offer, but rather the only offer: the one rejected by Adam and Eve – a perfect world full of goodness and light.  They chose to be enticed by imperfection, evil and darkness.  God simply granted their request.  This world is full of great beauty, joy and light along with ugliness, pain and darkness.  We experience Knowledge of both Good and Evil.

This is where Mr Fry’s comprehension falls so pathetically short.  Quite apart from the absurdity and arrogance of his tantrum when he finds himself in the presence of his creator, he fails to see his own culpability.  The first step, were he to seek salvation, would be not to accuse God for his condition, but to repent for it.  Stephen needs to understand that it is absolutely his fault.  Yes, the world is full of evil and God detests it more than any of us can ever imagine, but it is exactly and precisely what we requested.

Now we have a choice.  That is what we wanted.  It is our nature to perceive the grass to be greener on the other side – often until we get there.  Now we know both sides, which grass shall we choose?  The choice is unambiguous and absolute.  As this world ends, we can choose a death or life,  darkness or light, for eternity.

If we choose the latter it must be on God’s terms, not ours.  There must be no attachment to this life, no regret, no doubt.  Lot’s wife was allowed not even a glance over her shoulder at what she left behind.  If we are to escape the hell we have created for ourselves, God requires our focused, undivided, intelligent love.  

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.
Matthew 22:37

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart (emotion) and with all your soul (spirit) and with all your mind (intellect).  This is heartfelt, thoughtful, empathetic, compassionate, focused, intelligent love.

God’s love is not sentimental, rash or unpredictable.  As Jesus exemplified, it is sharp-edged and disciplined.  It is the source of God’s punishments of mankind which are intended to correct us and help us make the right choices.  It is unbending and fearful.

Fearing the unsentimental nature of God, His immense power and unchanging stability is the first step towards a proper understanding of Christian love. 

This is another absurdity of Stephen Fry’s position.  He stands before God asking how He dare set the rules for His creation.  Fry feels able to dictate to God what is good and what is evil.  He has no understanding of God’s power and perfection and thus no fear.  Fry is a boastful, stupid man in God’s eyes, entirely lacking wisdom.

And unto man he said, Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.
Job 28:28

The choice between good and evil is more than an idea.  It must be manifested in our lives as obedience to God’s laws, following the example of Christ.

As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love. If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love.
John 15:9-10

Our faith in God is demonstrated by our single-minded, utterly devoted love for Him.  Our love is demonstrated by our continuing obedience.

And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.
Acts 5:32

God’s recognition of our faith is His gift of the Holy Spirit to us as one of His elect.

And this is love, that we walk after his commandments. This is the commandment, That, as ye have heard from the beginning, ye should walk in it.
2 John 1:6

Time and again we are warned to obey.  Obedience is the demonstration of our love and sin a demonstration of our lack of it.

I fear that the modern Christian message has utterly distorted the meaning of Christian love.  Today’s love is emotional, undisciplined and self-serving.  It is all about feeling rather than thought.  It demands the love of God as a right in return for utterance of a few perfunctory words.  Verses that support a superficial belief like John 3:16 and Rom 10:9-10 have become the mantra, whilst dozens of verses that tell us that we must prove our belief through obedience and works are ignored.

If a simple expression of contrition and faith is all that is required, how is it that only a few make it through the narrow gate to life (Matt 7:13)?

God’s love is intelligent, focused and absolutely conditional.  It bears no relation to the storgē love of man.  It is difficult, unselfish, conscious and directed.  God proved His love for us by giving us His Son.

Jesus provided the training tools to enable us to learn God’s love.  He tells us how to practice it through love of our enemies, our neighbours and our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Ultimately, our love for God must replace all other considerations.  He demands complete sacrifice of our temporal loves: possessions and family.

So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.
Luke 14:33

How hard this is and how different from the easy-going messages of today’s churches, to whom Jesus said:

“‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”
Revelation 3:15-22

Jesus tells us that there is no greater love than to give your life for a friend (John 15:13).  Why?  Such love cannot be selfish or seeking repayment.  It ends our presence in this world and propels us into the light.  Jesus calls himself a friend in the same passage and demands our lives.

For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.
Mark 8:35

The example and message that Jesus brought to us is, so far as I can see, studiously and willfully ignored – or worse, deliberately misrepresented – by the Christian establishment.  If the truth about love was thoroughly inculcated by the superficial congregations of today’s churches, the seats would lie vacant in an instant.  Would-be Christians are being deceived about what is required of them!

When the Pharisees tried to trap Jesus with questions about their temporal relationships, Jesus told them:

… “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God?
Mark 12:24

The Test of Love

Is my sister right when she says my father should have acted as the Good Samaritan?

In support of her own view she says, “I once heard a preacher recount the day he had passed an elderly couple on his way to lead a service.  They had broken down on a freezing day on a quiet country road.  After passing them he reconsidered and turned around.  He phoned the church, explained the situation and the congregation drank tea.  The service was an hour late.”

This has been my “letter to self”.  I have sought to be a Berean (Acts17:11) and to seek Biblical truth. The judgements I have made are for myself, not for others.  I cannot judge the preacher but I can offer Jesus’s example.  A preacher effectively takes the place of Jesus for his congregation in that he is both teacher and example.  When faced with a Gentile in need, Jesus initially ignored her because she would have proved a distraction from His work for God.  Jesus though had another instruction for His disciples:

No one after lighting a lamp covers it with a jar or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a stand, so that those who enter may see the light.
Luke 8:16

As a teacher, the preacher must decide which is the better message.  Should he heed Jesus’s instruction to love our neighbours, light his lamp and stop for the couple, or use the situation as an example to show his congregation that whatever our earthly lives throw at us, God must come first.

My sister also argues that Jesus interrupted His preaching to accommodate children brought to Him so that He could lay His hands on them:

But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 19:14

I would say that Jesus used the children to drive home a crucial message to His audience: we must find their unquestioning faith and childlike trust if we are to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  Therefore Jesus’s interaction with the children was very much in the service of God.

I cannot judge what motivated my father.  I believe that Jesus’s example showed us that we should not be directed by our emotions, but by the glorification of God.  If, in the same situation I believed I was genuinely putting God first by going to church, then I hope I would have the courage to accept the inevitable, lifelong pain of driving by.  I fear that I would instead find a justification to stop and help the man – or worse, stop without any consideration for God.  If this was a God-given test, God will decide whether my father passed or failed.

When I consider my own position in all of these tests that I have applied to myself, I think only of the words of Paul:

Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
Romans 7:24

Thank you for reading my thoughts.  If you disagree or have any comment to make, please do so below.

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