A LIFE OF LOVE
Love is not about what we feel for others — it's about what we do for others.
Who gets married on a Tuesday?
That's what family and friends of Kim and Scotti Madison wondered when they opened their invitations to the couple's Tuesday wedding. But to Kim and Scotti, it made perfect sense.
Kim lived in Nashville, where she'd raised her five children after a tough divorce. Scotti, also divorced, traveled to Nashville on business. Friends introduced them, and from the day they met, they shared a commitment to taking things slowly and making sure any relationship that developed would be prayerfully considered.
"When I was navigating the dating world after my divorce, my pastor said, 'Kim, the right man for you is the one who would be serving the homeless whether you are there or not,'" Kim recalled.
Sure enough, the night Scotti traveled to Nashville to ask Kim to consider dating him seriously was also the night she'd committed to overseeing midweek worship at the Nashville Women's Mission. She said yes to the date, on the condition that Scotti join her at the mission. And, she added, since he'd be coming anyway, would he be her guest speaker?
Scotti agreed, and that night he spoke from his heart to the women about losing his son to heroin and about living a strong life in the aftermath of such a tragedy.
"I heard his heart for Jesus, and I saw his desire to serve others," Kim said. "I knew that night God wanted us to be together."
Not long after that night, they were invited to volunteer at the Bridge Ministry, a thirteen-year-old ministry serving the homeless under the Jefferson Street Bridge in Nashville.
"This was a sector of our society I used to look through and around," Scotti says. "Now I look into the eyes and souls of those who are hurting. Jesus said, 'They will know you by your love.' Serving, listening, hugging, and praying with these special people alongside Kim is where I am the happiest and most fulfilled."
By Christmas, Scotti made it clear he wanted to marry Kim, and she felt the same way about him. Over the following month, the couple prayed about God's timing for the wedding and the details. Of course, Nashville offered plenty of beautiful venues, and there were a number of Fridays and Saturdays that would have worked just fine.
But that's not what God showed them. Both Kim and Scotti felt the Lord showed them the same location and time: under the Jefferson Street Bridge, on a Tuesday night, when they could celebrate with and serve the homeless.
"It was a real destination wedding," Scotti says, smiling. "And we shared it with our special guests — those whom Jesus wanted invited to the wedding banquet: 'the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.'"
"We'd reached a point in our lives where we recognized Christ's love is centered around serving," Kim adds. "We wanted our friends and family to know and hear, 'This is who we are. Will you now serve alongside us?'"
And so, on May 9, 2017, they gathered with their guests, including more than two hundred of their homeless friends. Everyone enjoyed an amazing meal, a worship service and a heartfelt ceremony. Knowing that to the homeless a slice of wedding cake meant they were truly guests who mattered, Kim and Scotti made sure everyone had all the wedding cake they wanted. When Kim and Scotti were pronounced man and wife, they went down every aisle and greeted their guests individually.
No one who attended that wedding left unmoved or unchanged. Why? Because Kim and Scotti took the love that filled their hearts when they served the homeless, and they gave it back — bestowing it abundantly and permanently on every one of their wedding guests.
WHAT IS LOVE?
Is there a more complex word than love? I don't think so. We talk about loving God, loving football, loving pizza, receiving love, giving love, and making love. At church we sing about the love of God that's "greater far than tongue or pen can ever tell."
Then we get in the car and head home, radio on, listening to songs about love: selfish and self-centered love; one-sided, hopeless love; deceit and cruelty masquerading as love; and once in a while, a mature, other-centered love that stands the test of time.
No wonder we take the word love for granted! We're obsessed with it, yet rarely do we witness or hear what love truly is in the world around us.
If true love is so unfamiliar, why do people write, talk, text, and sing about it so much?
Because there's a hole in the human heart. We're desperate for the experience of genuine love. Within intimate relationships and in our daily interactions with others, every one of us needs reassurance, affection, and fellowship — all forms of love. Love is oxygen for the soul; we have to have it. The first thing an infant needs at birth is to be held tenderly, to literally feel loved. This manifestation of love brings a lifetime of blessings.
The Bible has a lot to say about love. In the New International Version of the Bible, the word love occurs 567 times. From the book of Genesis to the book of Revelation, the story of the Bible is the story of God's unconditional and relentless love for mankind. Love is the foundation of everything good, which is why I chose it to be the first chapter in this book. Quite simply, love is what makes every other part of a life beyond amazing possible.
The love that appears at the top of almost every list of virtues in the Bible is not just God's love for us, but also our love for one another. To become a Christian means the very love of God is poured into your heart; it grows within you just as grapes grow on a vine, for the fruit of the Spirit is love.
This love isn't just a spiritual sensation. This love wears work gloves and handles the everyday nuts and bolts of life. It's highly practical. It hugs the lonely, feeds the hungry, tends the sick, comforts the sorrowful, and puts up with the insufferable. It is kind and long-suffering, pure and perceptive, positive in outlook. It is truly the key ingredient of a life beyond amazing.
THE HIGHEST FORM OF LOVE
Until Jesus came to earth, this kind of love was unknown. The world's concept of love was self-centered, love that demanded something in return. But when God sent His Son as a love-gift to this world, His special, other-centered love was put on display for all to see. And this love was so different from anything anyone had seen before that it was given a special name. They called it agape.
Agape is unconditional, divine love, the kind of love God exercises toward mankind. At the heart of agape is sacrifice. It is not the spontaneous, impulsive love we see on television and in the movies. It is the reasoning, esteeming, and choosing type of love. Agape is the highest form of love — the love everyone wants to receive but few seem ready to give because of the sacrifice involved.
Most of us know the story of Beauty and the Beast, but you may not have considered the kind of love it describes. The eighteenth-century fairy tale tells of a handsome young prince made ugly by a fairy after he refused hospitality to her during a storm. Trapped in the form of a hideous beast, he lives alone, desperate to avoid the disgust on the faces of those who see him. The Beast can only be restored to his original form if someone loves him truly, in spite of his horrible appearance. One day Beauty appears and, ultimately, offers him that kind of redeeming, transforming love.
G. K. Chesterton wrote that the great lesson of Beauty and the Beast is that "a thing must be loved before it is lovable."
This is a wonderful, familiar example of God's agape — the highest form of love. We are made unlovely by our sin, yet God's love sees beneath it the person He created. When we open ourselves to His love, it transforms us back into what we were meant to be.
One of the best definitions of agape I've ever heard is this: "It is the power to move us toward another person with no expectation of reward."
Wouldn't it be amazing if Christians were as obsessed with God's brand of love as society is obsessed with the world's concept of love? In this chapter we will learn much about God's love for us, and we will see how God's love for us is the key to our loving one another.
THE COMMAND TO LOVE
I heard about a teenager who was asked what she thought love was and she answered, "Love is a feeling you feel when you feel that what you feel is a feeling you never felt before." That's how most of us think of love. As a feeling. A feeling is something that just happens to us, brought on by circumstances beyond our control. We can't help who we love — and, by extension, who we don't love.
But in the Bible, love is not just a feeling. It's not just one option among many. It's a command. Jesus says: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another" (John 13:34) and "This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you" (John 15:12).
Over and over in the New Testament, God's people are commanded to love, in different contexts and different settings, and as parents, children, and individuals. And on thirteen occasions Christians are commanded to "love one another." Why is that? We shouldn't have to be commanded to love our brothers and sisters in Christ; it should just come naturally, right? And who would really know if we didn't love one another? Of course, God would know, but the Bible tells us that the world will also know: "By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35).
The world is watching us, waiting to see if this Jesus thing really makes a difference. And when the world senses hypocrisy, it will pounce.
How do we know if we're truly loving one another? Because love is not about what we feel for others — it's about what we do for others. The true power of love is found in selfless attitudes and actions that seek the best for another person without expecting anything in return. When we act in that way, the feeling of love follows close behind.
When the apostle John records Jesus' indictment against the church in Ephesus in Revelation 2, we see this concept at work: "Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love" (v. 4).
This dynamic, first-century church had started out with such passion for the Lord Jesus and such determination to make a difference in their city. Along the way, something happened. Their passion diminished, and they developed indifference toward the Lord and His purposes for their lives.
What solution did Jesus offer? Among other things, He told them to go back and "do the first works" (v. 5). They were told to return to the actions of their early experience, and in doing so they would recover their passion. In other words, act as though they were filled with passion for the Lord, act as if they were determined to make a difference in their city through the love of Jesus Christ.
The world constantly tells us to follow our hearts. What they really mean is to follow our feelings. But God's kind of love — agape — doesn't follow. It leads by example. Love is a verb. It acts. It leads our hearts and changes lives.
In his book Caring and Commitment, Lewis Smedes told the story of James Ettison's love for his wife, Alice:
They got married, and settled snugly ... into happiness. But about two years later, on a cold November night before the snow had come, Alice's car skidded on a stretch of ice that had formed unnoticed beneath a bridge on a two-way stretch of highway, and she ran head on, full speed, into a car coming from the other direction.
Alice survived. After tilting toward death for a year, she gave signs of living again, and she did. But she was never the same. She was all but paralyzed from the hips downward. Her memory was spotty and selective, and she uttered sounds that James had to learn to translate the way a person learns a new language. As months slithered into years, the past crept back with fits and starts into Alice's memory, which, in some ways, made life harder for her, because then she became that much more conscious of her other handicaps. She bore them like a smiling angel most of the time, but unpredictably, out of the blue, she sometimes, for weeks on end, was smothered by depression.
James quit his traveling job right after the accident, got some work near home, and made a nearly full-time vocation of taking care of Alice. ... Nobody ever heard a discouraging word from his corner....
Alice died fifteen years or so after that one terrible November night, and somebody asked James how he had done it all so patiently when he had gotten such a poor smidgen of everything he had hoped Alice would give to him. He said he had never thought to ask, though he had sometimes asked God why Alice was stuck with living and got nothing back from it.
But, pressed a little, he said it: "I just loved her."
A GIFT THAT REQUIRES HARD WORK
The concept of love poses a major question for those of us who follow Christ. Is this love a gift from God we receive when we experience salvation, or is it something we're responsible for developing after we believe? The answer to both questions is yes. Yes, this love is a gift from God, imparted to us by the Holy Spirit:
"The love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us" (Rom. 5:5).
"For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind" (2 Tim. 1:7).
And yes, Christians are called to cultivate love with determination and diligence.
Paul summarized his description of love in 1 Corinthians 13 with this: "And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love" (v. 13). Because of the chapter divisions we find in our modern Bibles (added in the thirteenth century for ease of use), we assume at this point that Paul has finished his discussion of love, but he hasn't.
The first words of chapter 14?
Two simple words summarize one of the toughest assignments we're given as followers of Christ:
Loving people is about the most difficult thing that some of us do. We can be patient with people and even just and charitable, but how are we supposed to conjure up in our hearts that warm, effervescent sentiment of goodwill which the New Testament calls "love"? Some people are so miserably unlovable. That odorous person with the nasty cough who sat next to you in the train, shoving his newspaper into your face, those crude louts in the neighborhood with the barking dog, that smooth liar who took you in so completely last week — by what magic are you supposed to feel toward these people anything but revulsion, distrust and resentment, and justified desire to have nothing to do with them?
But the command is not ambiguous. We are called to love. "Here we have a prime example of that seeming paradox that stands at the center of the Christian life the fruit is always a gift, but it still requires hard work."
Since love is both a gift and a task, what is the work we need to do if we desire to live this life beyond amazing? How can we become more loving people?
PURSUE GENUINE LOVE
Henry Drummond preached a classic message on love, titled "The Greatest Thing in the World," in which he said, "If a piece of ordinary steel is attached to a magnet and left there, after a while the magnetism of the magnet passes into the steel so that it too becomes a magnet." As we stay attached to Jesus, His love will pass into us and out to others.
When we receive God's love into our hearts, it creates a reservoir of love we can draw from when we need to love someone. In other words, we love others with the same love with which we ourselves have been loved!
That reservoir of love is pure, and when we "do the first things" and act as if we love, it fills our hearts. Acting as though we love others and then sincerely opening ourselves to be filled with God's pure love is different from just pretending we love everyone. Don't fake it and tell yourself you're done. That kind of so-called love is not what God requires of us, and He sees through it, even when we're blind to it.
With tongue in cheek, Pastor Ray Ortlund wrote:
The beautiful "one another" commands of the New Testament are famous. But it is also striking to notice the "one anothers" that do not appear there.
For example, sanctify one another, humble one another, scrutinize one another, pressure one another, embarrass one another, corner one another, interrupt one another, defeat one another, sacrifice one another, shame one another, marginalize one another, exclude one another, judge one another, run one another's lives, confess one another's sins....
Our relationships with one another reveal to us what we really believe as opposed to what we think we believe, our convictions as opposed to our opinions. It is possible for the gospel to remain at the shallow level of opinion, even sincere opinion, without penetrating to the deeper level of conviction. But when the gospel grips us down in our convictions, we embrace its implications whole-heartedly. Therefore, when we mistreat one another, our problem is not a lack of surface niceness but a lack of gospel depth. What we need is not only better manners but, far more, true faith.