Christian love

Our topic today is Christian love – how we are to love our neighbors, our fellow church members, our spouses, our kids, our parents, our co-workers – and whatever other relationships you want to add in here, including any enemies you have. I want to talk about what Christian love is, what it looks like, some of the core components of it and how it’s different than what the world calls love.

Let me set the stage for all this by making the point up front – 

Love is the most important thing of all

Paul talks about this in 1 Corinthians 13. Here he says that:

  • You can exercise spiritual gifts, like speaking in tongues, but if you don’t have love for others, you’re just a “clanging cymbal” – v. 1.
  • You can be prophetic and have all knowledge, but if you don’t have love for others, Paul says, you are “nothing” – v. 2.
  • You can work amazing miracles, but if you don’t have love for others, you are “nothing” – v. 2.
  • You can even sacrifice greatly giving away wealth or dying for a cause, but if you don’t have love for others in this, you “gain nothing” – v. 3.

We can add any number of other examples: what you accomplish with your career, your life achievements, your reputation, your wealth, your relationships with your family and friends, your volunteer work, the roles you have filled in church. The point is the same: without love, you are nothing.

Paul is saying in this passage that these other things are partial and will pass away in the age to come. But “love never ends” – v. 8. It goes on into eternity.

So, for instance, if I come to God on the final day saying, “look at all the knowledge I have!” God could say to me, “the least in the eternal kingdom knows a thousand times more than you.” It’s like I’m boastfully bringing a brick of gold to a kingdom that has so much gold that it uses it to pave its streets.  

Love is what’s all important in God’s kingdom. Love for God for sure, and our topic here – love for others. So here’s some questions to consider: Have you loved others in this life? Have you made loving others the focus of your life? Have you shaped everything you do in life toward the end of loving others?

Now, since love is the most important thing of all, it’s extremely important to ask and then answer the question –

What is Christian love?

1. Love is about actions. Love begins within; in our hearts. But it must come to fruition in deeds of love. 1 John 3:18 says, “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” Good thoughts or even good words aren’t enough. When there’s a need and you can help, to love “in truth,” as John says, is to act.

The example from this context is helping someone who lacks basic material needs. 1 John 3:16 says, “if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his sister or brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” It’s not enough to say good things, “Oh, you don’t have food and clothing?” “Go in peace, be warmed and filled” (James 2:16). Love requires action.

Now if we ask, what kind of actions, the answer is – 2. Love acts for the well-being of others. We are to “do good” to all, even if they harm us, as Jesus teaches in Luke 6:27 and Paul teaches in 1 Thessalonians 5:15. Let’s look at some specifics:

  • God loves us in that he feeds us, giving rain and sunshine to all so that our crops grow – Matthew 5:45
  • God loves us in that he gave his only Son to die for our salvation – John 3:16; Romans 5:8
  • Jesus teaches us to pray for, bless others, even if they mistreat us – Luke 6:28
  • Jesus healed the ear of the one who arrested him – Luke 22:50; and he prayed for those who crucified him – Luke 23:34

These are all good actions, aimed at doing what is best for another.

Now, if love truly means doing what is best for another then we can’t just go around being nice. We can’t reduce love to niceness. Being nice and keeping up good social etiquette is often more about staying out of people’s problems and needs. For example quickly giving money to a homeless person, hoping they go away. Or not saying anything to a fellow believer who is involved in sin, lest you make waves.

We keep up social etiquette so that we can feel good about ourselves, but we get ourselves off the hook of actually having to love them. Love, however, means doing what is best for the person. And so sometimes love has to be tough and deal with issues, precisely because this is what is in the best interests of the person.

Also, if love means doing what’s best for another, if they harm us,  we can’t just harm them back. Even if you have the legal right to have the person punished, love calls us to a higher standard. Yes, make sure that you and others are safe, but also consider what’s best for your enemy. 

Love acts for the well-being of others.

3. Love is an enduring commitment to act for the well-being of others. This is where our culture is so wrong. Love is not based on feelings. It may involve certain feelings, but these can waver or even go away for a time.

This might be one reason there is so much divorce today, and you see this especially in celebrity culture, the feeling leaves and so the relationship ends. But Christian love is based on a deep commitment to the other person and their good. It’s a choice that we make. That’s why God can command us to love others. You can’t command a feeling, but you can a choice.

This kind of love is a defining characteristic of God. As God says about himself in Exodus 34:6, the LORD is a God “abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness . . . keeping steadfast love to the thousandth generation.” The word here “steadfast love” has to do with unchanging love. It’s God’s sustained covenant loyalty to his people. It’s based on his commitment to our well-being.

Think of God’s love for his people throughout the centuries, calling us, teaching us, walking with us, bearing with us – his love isn’t based on warm feelings. It’s based on this firm commitment to us and for what is best for us. And so as well, Christian love is based on an enduring commitment to act for the good of another.

4. Love involves sacrifice, laying down our lives for others. As Jesus said about himself in Mark 10:45, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” 1 John 3:16 speaks of Jesus’ love in this way, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for” others.

Often the world portrays love as focused on finding personal fulfillment, you know, for yourself. It’s about what you get out of the relationship. But Christian love is about what you give to the one you love, or what you give up for them – serving and sacrificing.

In the world if you’re not feeling fulfilled in the relationship you leave. But Christian love teaches us that true fulfillment only comes when we move past self-centered love and learn to serve and sacrifice for the one we love.

5. Christian loves includes all people. It is always easier to limit our love to a certain subset of people, but Jesus teaches us that all are included.

  • It’s easy to love those who like us, but we are to love those who don’t love us; those who harm us. Jesus said, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” – Matthew 5:46.
  • It’s easy to love those who are similar to us, but we are to love those who are different than us – different race, nationality, economic or social status. Jesus said, “And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” – Matthew 5:47.

Jesus teaches that our love is to be perfect or “complete,” like the Father’s love is perfect or complete. The word here in Matthew 5:48 can be translated either way. This is a love which is complete because it includes both the “evil and the good” and the “just and the unjust” – Matthew 5:45.

Let me end by saying –

This kind of love only comes from God

It doesn’t come from our flesh, our self-centered existence apart from God. In the flesh we want what’s best and easiest for us. Christian love!? What!?

  • Good words and thoughts aren’t enough, I have to something?
  • I can’t just be nice or payback wrong, I have to act for their well-being?
  • It’s not based on feelings? I have to hang in through thick and thin? When I don’t feel like it?
  • It’s not about me? I have to focus on giving, even sacrificing?
  • I can’t limit it to people who like me, or who are like me?

The flesh doesn’t want anything to do with Christian love.

No, this kind of love only comes from God, who is love. As 1 John 4:7 says, “God is love.” And only God can produce this kind of love in our hearts. Christian love is “the fruit of the Spirit” who is at work within us (Galatians 5:22) empowering us and enabling us to love in all these ways.

The purpose & the problem of Psalm 139

The literary structure of Psalm 139

We’re back again in Psalm 139. Last week we covered the first 18 verses highlighting the theme that God knows all about us. The first thing I want us to do today is step back and take a big picture look at the Psalm as a whole – all 24 verses. And I want us to think about why it was written, or what the point of the Psalm is.

You have a handout that shows how it’s put together. I won’t go into this, but I do invite you to keep this at hand as we look at

The purpose of Psalm 139

Let me give you the situation that I think is going on here right up front. David has been accused of not being loyal to God. Why? I don’t know. Maybe someone thought he was too sympathetic to someone they saw as a wicked person. Just a speculation.  In any case, there’s an accusation and it’s one that David considers false. And from reading this Psalm, this accusation  must have been a painful thing for him to deal with.

What does he do? He takes it up in prayer with God:

  • 1 – “Lord, you have searched and known me.”
  • 2-3 – God knows all that he does and thinks, his thoughts and ways.
  • 4 – God knows all his words.
  • 5 – God is all around, with his hand on him.  God knows all that goes on in his life.
  • And then in v. 6 – he pauses to ponder such knowledge that is beyond him.
  • In vs. 7-12 – he points out that even if he wanted to “flee” and hide somewhere and secretly sin, he can’t. God would see and know him everywhere, for God is everywhere.
  • In vs. 13-16 – he points out that God formed him and his days from beginning to end. Nothing is hidden from God.
  • In vs. 17-18 – he again pauses to ponder the amazing sum of God’s thoughts

– So in all this, in vs. 1-18, David offers up an appeal to God, God you know whether I am loyal or not.  You know all about me, right? You know my commitment to you.

– And then starting in vs. 19-22 David offers up several expressions of his loyalty to God. This section is key to understanding this Psalm because it’s here we see that his loyalty has been challenged.

First in v. 19 – he prays, “Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God!” And he says, “O men of blood, depart from me!” Then we have the words of the wicked in v. 20, which obviously disgust David – “They speak against you with malicious intent; your enemies take your name in vain!” And then we have some clear statements of David’s loyalty to God in vs. 21-22 – “Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.”

We’ll talk in a moment about his language, but the point here in context is that – “Hey God, I’m on your side.” I hate evil and I love the good. From his point of view there is no question about his loyalty to God.

– And then finally, in vs. 23-24 he gives an open ended invitation for God to keep searching and knowing him. He wants to make sure that he’s right before God in his heart and actions; that he’s not guilty of the accusation made against him; that he’s not missing something.

So the purpose of the Psalm is David’s prayerful working through of an accusation made against him. And as we see at the end, even though he’s open to God’s searching, he believes that his loyalty is clear. And let me just say that this is a good practice for us to emulate – processing things in prayer with God: accusations, difficulties and hardships – whatever we are facing. We see this all the time happening in the Psalms as the writers struggle with God and find faith and peace.

This brings us to what I’m calling –

The problem of Psalm 139: David’s prayer of hatred

It’s David’s expressions of loyalty to God, and specifically his prayer in v. 19, so central to the Psalm, that cause Christians discomfort. And, I believe, rightly so.

The prayer is straight forward, v. 19 – “Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God!” Kill them, God. And this prayer springs forth from his heart-felt and self-confessed hatred of God’s enemies, found in vs. 21-22 – “Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.”

Now, this is certainly not the only place in Scripture or in the Psalms where there are expressions of hatred for enemies and calls for God to judge enemies. Let me give one other brief example from Psalm 109:8-9. David prays this concerning his enemy, “May his days be few . . .. May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow!” He prays for his enemy’s death. Then he prays that the man’s children, now orphans, would be beggars and that no one would help them. And he goes on to pray that all his resources would be seized by creditors, and that the man’s parents would be judged by God. I could give you more examples, but this will do.

The problem for Christians in all this should be clear:

  • We are called not to curse, but to bless – Luke 6:28; Romans 12:14; 1 Peter 3:9
  • We are called not to condemn, but to give mercy – Luke 6:36-37; Romans 2:1-5
  • We are called not to hate, but to love enemies – Matthew 5:44; Romans 12:20
  • We are called not to return harm for harm, but to return good for harm – Romans 12:17, 21; 1 Peter 3:9

We are agents of God’s grace, not judgment.

So this raises several very specific, and practical questions for us: What should we think of Psalm 139:19-22? Can we pray the prayer of v. 19 as it stands? And how should we pray regarding enemies?

Let me share several reflections with you:

It’s right to oppose evildoers and injustice. As we saw, in context, what David says is an expression of loyalty to God, “I’m on your side, God. I want what’s right.” This sentiment is correct. In this case David is speaking of people who are murderers, “men of blood” (v. 19). They despise God, possibly even using God’s name to accomplish their evil by swearing oaths to deceive people or to bear false witness against the innocent in court (v. 20).

It’s also true that in the end Evildoers must be judged, if God’s peace and justice is to be established. Those who refuse God’s grace cannot be allowed to continue to do evil indefinitely. There has to be a time of reckoning. The innocent must be rescued. Justice must be established.

But there are some differences between how David prays and how we should pray:

Difference #1 – Christian prayers must be governed by love. David’s prayer was rooted in “complete hatred” of enemies, as he himself says. Our prayers must be rooted in love for enemies. And this is really a difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament. This is Jesus – “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” This is the Old Testament. “But I say to you, love your enemies” – Matthew 5:43-44. This is the new. In the Old Testament, God commanded love for neighbors, fellow people of the covenant. But not God’s enemies. In the New Testament, God tells us to have perfect or complete love – that is, love that includes everyone; the good and the evil, the just and the unjust, as Jesus said in Matthew 5:45. Our prayers must reflect this love and mercy for all people.

And since this is true, this leads us to Difference #2 – Christian prayers shouldn’t ask for non-redemptive judgment. What’s this? The clearest example of non-redemptive judgment is when God takes someone’s life. Because when this happens there is no more grace, no more chance to be redeemed. This is what David prayed for. I do not believe that Christians can pray for this. This would be an expression of harm for harm, hatred, cursing and condemnation – not love.

Indeed, Jesus rebuked his disciples for this when they sought to call down fire on the Samaritan town that rejected Jesus in Luke 9:54-55. As Jesus said in Luke 19:10, “the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Why then should we seek their destruction in prayer? And also, how could we ask for this since we are only able to stand before God by his grace? Can we ask God to act one way with others and another with us? Destructive judgment for others, mercy for us? Certainly not.

If we can’t pray for non-redemptive judgment, I do believe that we can pray for redemptive judgment. This is God’s judgment, but it still allows the person a chance to change. It’s judgment, but it’s also an act of grace, to wake them up to repentance, if they are willing. So yes, I can and have prayed that God would judge and stop an evildoer in this way. Maybe God would take away their political power, or use the legal system, or put difficult circumstances in their lives that cause them to stop. I believe that this is in accord with both God’s mercy and God’s justice.

But beyond this we have to leave things in God’s hands. Only God can decide when the time of grace is up and it’s time for non-redemptive judgment – in an individual’s life and for the world as a whole.

Let’s end with a responsive reading from –

Romans 12:14-21

– that demonstrates how we are to live our lives as followers of Jesus.

L: 14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.

P: 15Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

L: 16Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.

P: 17Repay no one harm for harm, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.

L: 18If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

P: 20To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”

All: 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

How to overcome evil with good. Romans 12:19-21

When someone wrongs us a struggle is unleashed within us to see whether we will be overcome by it so that we respond in kind, or whether we will overcome the desire for payback and choose love. This is what we’re talking about this morning.

According to the world there’s really only one way to respond – we should strike back; we should harm our enemies in return. Now God put a limit on this when Moses taught in the Old Testament, ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’ (Exodus 21:23-25, Leviticus 24:17-2, Deuteronomy 19:19-21 in contrast to Genesis 4:23-24) That is, the payback has to be in proportion to the injury suffered. But still there is in our world an endless cycle of people harming each other through personal vengeance, the justice system and warfare.

But Jesus shows us another way; the way of love. For when Jesus’ enemies sought to kill him he endured the harm and suffering of the cross and returned good for evil. And in doing so he shows us how to overcome evil with good. He wasn’t overcome so that he did harm back to his enemies. He overcame through the power of love.

Paul speaks of this in –

Romans 12:19-21

And I want us to look more closely at this passage today.

“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

First we look at the negative side of this –

Being overcome by evil

This comes from the phrase in v. 21 – “do not be overcome by evil.”

This is how it works. Someone harms you. This can happen on a small scale, for instance, someone insults you. Or it can be something truly terrible – for instance, someone kills a loved one of yours.

How will we respond? It’s natural to be angry and to want justice; in fact, we usually want more than “an eye for and eye;” we want to give back much more harm than we got. Evil is very powerful. Once we fall victim to it, it gets into our system and tries to replicate itself through our anger so that we start doing evil as well; so that we start harming people.

The question is, ‘What will we do with our anger?’ 1. Usually we give in to our anger to one degree or another; our desire for justice. And when we do this 2. we return harm for harm. In various ways through our words and our deeds we seek to hurt and destroy our enemy.

How to overcome evil with good 1

The result is that you are now harming another person, just as your enemy harmed you. You are doing the same thing. You have been overcome. You are now caught up in the cycle of evil for evil; harm for harm just responding to others based on how they’ve treated you.

But harm for harm never truly satisfies, even, for instance, if someone kills your family member and the criminal is executed. It doesn’t restore what was taken away from us. It doesn’t give us peace.

You may even the balances and that might feel good on a certain level, but you will never overcome the evil done to you with more harm. So we should set this response aside. As Paul says in Romans 12:17 – “Do not repay anyone evil for evil,” or as it is better translated “harm for harm,” referring as it does to the teaching of “an eye for an eye.”

Let’s look now at the other side of this –

How to overcome evil with good

Paul tells us to do this in v. 21 – “overcome evil with good.” There are three steps in this process. When an enemy injures us:

1. Endure the harm without giving it back. Paul says in v. 19 – “Beloved, never avenge yourselves.”

Now, there’s a lot that we can do, within the limits of loving our enemies. That is to say, this doesn’t mean be passive and just take it. We can stand up for ourselves and for what is right. We can point out wrong. We can use force to stop an evildoer from what they’re trying to accomplish. There are redemptive things we can do in relation to our enemy. But fundamentally the point here is that we should not return evil for evil, harm for harm.

So let’s say someone breaks into my house and wants to hurt my family. If I could, I would stop them, let’s say disarm them. They have a bat and hit me hard, but I eventually take it away. What I can’t do is then take the bat and beat them. And I certainly can’t kill them because Jesus calls us to love our enemies, not destroy them.

2. Look to God for your justice. v. 19 goes on to say, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’”

It’s normal to have anger when someone harms you. This is due to our sense that an injustice has happened. This is how God made us. We are not to deny this or try to suppress it. And indeed God gives us the capacity for anger to stir us up to act to make things right.

Anger is not wrong. It’s what you do with your anger that’s the issue. Paul teaches us that we are to place our angry desire for payback in God’s hands. This is the key to overcoming evil and breaking out of the cycle of evil for evil; harm for harm – giving the agenda of justice or payback over to God.

He can fight for us and judge our enemies according to his will. This is what God says he will do, “I will repay.” Not, “you will repay,” but “I will repay, says the Lord.” So when we suffer harm from an enemy, pray something like this, “God I have been wronged. Take note of this and act for me in a way that is pleasing to you. I give it into your hands and trust you with it.”

It’s our trust in God that sets us free. We know that God can handle it. It might not happen right away; it might not happen until the final day, but all wrongs will be righted by God. We can trust God to take care of us.

3. Love and do good to your enemies.  Once we’ve placed the agenda of payback into God’s hands this frees us up to love our enemies and do good to them. We can focus on mercy, since we know that God will take care of issues of justice.

Paul says in v. 20 – “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.” Rather than harming our enemies we return good for evil.

How to overcome evil with good 2

This is counter-intuitive. It goes against what our flesh desires, for sure. But we can only overcome evil by returning good for harm; by choosing mercy and love. This releases us from being captive to the cycle of anger, hatred bitterness and harm for harm. The circuit is broken. We’re set free! Our trust in God sets us free.

Now we hope that such acts of love will lead our enemy to repent, and we should pray for this. But if not, we know that God is more than able to deal with them. Such judgment is described in v. 20 as “burning coals” coming down on their heads. 

Let me end by pointing out that Jesus modeled for us these three steps of overcoming evil with good when he died on –

 The cross

When his enemies conspired against him:

1. He endured the harm without giving it backAs 1 Peter 2:23 says, on the cross, “when he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten.”

2. He looked to God for vindication. 1 Peter 2:23 tells us that while he suffered, he “continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” He gave the agenda of payback and justice into God’s hands.

3. He continued to love his enemies doing good to them. As Luke 23:34 tells us, while he was on the cross, he prayed for his enemies, for mercy and forgiveness. While they were busy murdering him, he was dying for their sins.

Jesus models for us how to overcome evil with good on the cross. As Peter says Jesus left us an example, “so that (we) should follow in his steps” – 1 Peter 2:21.