Do you love God?
A while back, Paul and I arrived at 1 John in our nightly Scripture reading. It's a familiar book and I rather assumed I knew what it had to say. But reading aloud, hearing the words as they came out of my mouth, I became perplexed. I didn't understand it. Oh, the words were clear, but the train of thought - the logic of it entirely escaped me. John seemed to me to be talking in circles. (Paul said he ended up feeling the same way.) I guess when I've read it before, I haven't slowed down enough to notice I didn't understand, just grabbed at the famous passages and skimmed the rest (a horrible habit). I'd love to say I immediately set myself to find out what that letter is all about, but instead I filed it in my brain under, "something to think about later".
So, now it's later, and I'm thinking about what it means to love God; and of course 1 John comes immediately to mind:
"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. Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves Him who begot also loves him who is begotten of Him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome. For whatever is born of God overcomes the world…" 1 John 4:20 - 5:4a
"We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death. Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us, and we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren….My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth." 1 John 3:14-16
And so it goes with John, around in circles, with love for God being displayed by obedience to God's command, God's command being to love the brethren. It seems quite clear from all I've read that the main test of one's love for God is his love for the brethren - the ones begotten of God (Christ and those who are in Christ). Much as "faith without works is dead", "love" for the Father in the absence of love for the brethren is dead as well. Like faith, love is an elusory thing, and a thing easily claimed and easily feigned. Where is the proof of your faith? In your works. Where is the proof of your love for God, in your love for the brethren. If we cannot love the brethren, it could be that what we love is not really God, but the idea of God or the idea of love itself - both abstractions.The clearest way to express our love for God is to love the brethren, to lay down our lives for them. When Christ restored Peter, He told him as much, "Do you love me?" - "Feed my sheep". So, what is the God-ordained way to show our love for our Saviour? Love the brethren.
For some time after my conversion I attended a rather large church, with no membership roll. There were multiple services every Sunday, and a few other fellowships available throughout the week. In that setting there was little accountability and my love for the brethren was not much tested, though, having no frame of reference, I wasn't aware of it at the time. Now I am a member of a small and recently planted church, a necessarily close-knit group. The small size means we are all heavily depended upon to be reliable, to be flexible, and to be there consistently. We can't just bail out when things get difficult - and they do. We've committed ourselves to this body of believers. This ongoing close proximity has meant that we've begun to see each other's warts. We've begun stepping on one another's toes, offending one another, usually unintentionally, but painfully nonetheless. Loving each other no longer seems so easy. It’s much easier to loftily say, "I love God!", than to be there with a warm heart and willing hands for my brother or sister, whose attitudes or opinions I may find tiresome at the moment, or whose needs inconvenience me. So I have found membership in a local church body to be a means of sanctification. It has been a trial and an immense treasure. It has been a proving ground for my faith, and love for God. It has been a refining fire, bringing up one layer after another of foul dross from my heart.
But now I'll move beyond personal sanctification; because there is much more at stake here than proving to myself, that I really love God. Shortly before His death, our Lord prayed these words:
"I am praying for them; I am not praying for the world but for those whom thou hast given me, for they are thine; all mine are thine, and thine are mine, and I am glorified in them....I do not pray for these only, but also for those who are to believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou has sent me. The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me. John 17: 9, 20-23
Our love for one another within the body of Christ is a presentation of the gospel to the world - a testimony to its truth. When the world sees us laying down our lives for one another, they see Christ.
So, what does this look like? Here I'd like to quote at some length from Robert Rothwell's convicting, and practically helpful article in Aug. 2008 Tabletalk Magazine, entitled: "United in Truth and Love":
"...how will the world know we are Christians by our love (John 13:35) when we are lobbing insults at each other because we do not like anyone to disagree with us over baptism, the Sabbath, eschatology, and so on? Believe me, the pagan does not see us as one in the Spirit when we all confess the Nicene Creed and then tear down each other over the time of the rapture. The unbeliever also has difficulty understanding how Christians can possibly love one another when we are dispersed across many different denominations....I...want to be someone who, without sacrificing truth, embraces the spirit of love and unity....To that end I have made several commitments:
"First, I will strive not to disrupt the unity of the individual church of which I am a member. This means that I will endeavor never to grumble to my leaders nor join with other members who might disparage them behind their backs (Heb. 13:17). I will submit to the elders in every decision until the day they deny the Gospel itself, which, Lord willing, shall never happen. In other words, I will not make my opinions the standard by which I evaluate my church.
"Second, I will maintain contact with my Christian friends who do not attend my church....May I never be unconcerned with how God is moving in other parts of the body of Christ."
"Third, I will seek to understand the nonessential doctrines found in other traditions in order that I might respect them and not dismiss them outright. If all believers did this, our thoughts and discussions would be more civil. We might even learn from each other and find a new consensus on issues that might promote visible unity."
"My fourth commitment is to pray for peace and purity of the church. My heart is not yet as broken as it should be over the disunity of the church, and only the Holy Spirit can make me long truly and deeply for Christians to be one again. Without such longing, I will not be motivated to work for unity of the church."
I would like to commit my heart to these things as well. May my heart and yours long for the love and unity in the church which will display the gospel of Christ to the world.