There has never in history been a word whose meaning has been more confused than this word. The one exception might be “god,” but even then, 1 John 4:8, 16 says, “God is love,” so that might be partly to blame for the confusion here.
As Christians, we are called to love. We are called to love God (Matthew 22:37). We are called to love one another (1 John 3:10-18). We are called to love the poor (James 2:15-17, Matthew 25:31-46, Galatians 2:10). And it is worth pointing out that the poor can be either believers or unbelievers. The Bible doesn’t make a hard and fast rule that the only poor we are supposed to love are believers, but even if it did, the list of those we are called to love goes on. We are called to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-47). And enemies are almost certainly unbelievers (though it is certainly possible to have “enemies” within the context of our local churches, though we should work hard to keep this from being a reality).
But you know what’s interesting about all of these calls to love? There’s no biblical text that lays out how you are to love each group. There’s no text that says, “For a believer, love them like this,” or, “For an unbeliever, love them like that.” Rather, the Bible simply calls us to love. It calls us to love everybody equally.
John tells us in 1 John 4:8 and 16 that “God is love.” The Greek word for love there is agape. The word love (any of the Greek terms for it) technically does not arise in any of the passages previously mentioned relating to the poor, but if we look more closely at other contexts in which the word agape is used, it becomes quickly clear that we are called to love the poor in the same way.
And look further at 1 John 4:16. “The one who lives in love lives in God.” The word here for love is the same word used to describe God. Agape. God is agape. Christians are to live in God.
But this does not mean that Christians are just supposed to walk around with their heads in the clouds contemplating God all the time, throwing out Christian truisms, and commenting on current events with phrases like, “God’s in control.” No. If God is agape, and if Christians are to live in agape, then Christians are to act like God. If God is agape, then when it says to love God (to agape God), it means to join in Divine communion.
And when it says to love brothers and sisters, the poor, and even our enemies, it means demonstrating the love of God to the world. We are called to agape both our fellow Christians and our enemies (even non-Christians).
But what does it mean to agape someone?
Ultimately it means to love them the way God loved you. “This is how we have come to know love: He laid down His life for us . . . We love because He first loved us” (1 John 3:16, 4:19). If you ever have the question, “How should I love this person?” the answer can be found by remembering how God loved you.
- God gives you air to breathe every day–even when you cursed Him with your every breath. Provide for their needs.
- God forgave your sins–even your unbelief and rebellion. Truly forgive them and thus cover their sins (cf. 1 Peter 4:8).
- God cares about you in the good times and the bad–allowing you to vent your emotions. Mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice.
When we do this, we will show the world a beautiful picture of God. If you’re interested in more examples of how God loves, read the Gospels to see Jesus in action. He is God in the flesh. He loved like no one else has ever loved or can ever love.
And lest you think that it’s enough to just throw money at the poor or (even worse) to just preach the Gospel at them (claiming “spiritual needs are more important than physical needs”), you should know that both of these are possible to do entirely absent from love:
If I speak human or angelic languages1 Corinthians 13:1-3
but do not have love,
I am a sounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
If I have the gift of prophecy
and understand all mysteries
and all knowledge,
and if I have all faith
so that I can move mountains
but do not have love, I am nothing.
And if I donate all my goods to feed the poor,
and if I give my body in order to boast
but do not have love, I gain nothing.
You can speak better than Spurgeon and utterly fail in your love. You can have more faith than Abraham and utterly fail in your love. You can donate more to the poor than Mother Theresa and utterly fail in your love.
Love is critical. Love is the ingredient that gives us assurance of our status before God. “By this we have confidence in the Day of Judgment because we are as He is in the world” (1 John 4:17).
It’s great to know theology–but it’s not enough.
It’s great to preach the Gospel–but it’s not enough.
It’s great to have faith and pray multiple times a day–but it’s not enough.
It’s great to donate to the poor–but it’s not enough.
Do you have love?
Anselm said, “The human soul that always strives to love the supreme life never loses its life” (Monologion 69). However, his argument continues later, proving that it’s not enough to simply “love God.” He explains, “Therefore, however strong one’s faith in this supremely great reality is, unless it lives and thrives by love, it is sterile, and is, as it were, quite dead. Faith accompanied by love is not idle. Given opportunity it produces a whole host of works. This it cannot do without love. This can be proved from the following alone: that which loves supreme justice cannot despise what is just nor allow what is unjust” (Monologion 78, emphasis added).
This is why John explains regarding true love: “Little children, we must not love with word or speech, but with truth and action” (1 John 3:18).
It is important to note that John does not say, “To truly love, we must practice what we preach,” even though this is often how we take it. No. Actually, John tells us that our love must not even use words.
As Saint Francis of Assisi supposedly said, “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” There is truth to this statement. Granted, no one will be saved if we fail to open our mouths and preach the verbal Gospel, but I’d like to pose a syllogism real quick:
- If God is the Gospel (a book by John Piper), and
- If God is love (1 John 4:16), and
- If Christians are to live in love and display God to the world (1 John 4:17), then
- It follows that we do preach the Gospel with our lives.
Unfortunately, many so-called Christians are preaching a false Gospel by the way they live their lives. And preaching a false gospel is damnable. It’s no wonder that people are fleeing the Church in droves.
The Church is the people, and the people are lying to the world about who God is and what He’s like when they fail to properly love the world (not 1 John 2:15 style, but John 3:16 style).
I pray that the Church’s love would be rekindled for the Lord, for the lost, and for the least of these (Matthew 24:12-14, 25:31-46). Maybe when our walk matches our talk, we’ll see a reformation and revival in the world.
It’s what I pray for every day!
In this with you.
Soli Deo Gloria
Thanks for reading.