In my last post with this title, I addressed the matter of faith in Christ’s divinity and redemption as a requisite for being a disciple of Christ. Today, I’m going to talk about the second defining characteristic of a Christian: love.
The Greatest Commandment
It never ceases to amaze me that many so-called ‘prominent Christians’ express so little regard for what the Bible calls the greatest fruit of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 13:13). Yes, even greater than faith. That’s because love sums up every Old Testament commandment:
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:34-40)
In short, if you’re loving God, you don’t have to worry about idolatry. You won’t desire to worship anything or anyone else. If you’re loving your neighbor, you won’t steal from him, murder him, or covet his spouse or possessions. If you’re loving your parents, you won’t do anything to bring shame or dishonor upon them. If you’re loving your spouse, you aren’t cheating on him or her (or even thinking about it). Love fulfills the law (Romans 13:8-10).
Love also sums up the entire gospel:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
This is nearly always the first verse people hear whenever the gospel is presented to them. Jesus’ act of redemption was one of absolute, sacrificial love.
Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:13)
The Defining Characteristic
Jesus spoke repeatedly about how people would recognize his true followers. John 13:34-35 says,
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Not known by our integrity. Not known by “family values.” Not known by our church attendance, lack of swearing, scripture quoting, tongues speaking, fasting, witnessing, gay bashing, musical choices, hair length, lack of tattoos or piercings, ability to cast out demons, or tithing record. But known first, foremost, primarily by our LOVE for God and others.
In other words, if love isn’t the first thing that springs to mind whenever someone hears the word “Christian,” we’re doing it wrong.
The Bible also says in 1 John 4,
Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. (verse 8)
Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. (verse 20)
Did you catch that? If someone claims to have accepted Christ but does not love his neighbor, the Bible says God does not know him (or her). The reverse is also true: he who hates others does not know God, despite what he may say or do otherwise. In other words, it is impossible to be a hateful Christian. It’s either one or the other.
Still, we turn on the news to hear so-called “Christian” groups rant about how others’ abominable lifestyles are destroying the country and how such people should be jailed, executed, sterilized or deported. Whenever tragedy strikes, their first reaction is not to comfort the hurting or volunteer to help, but to grab a platform and say that the victims deserved their fate. And the world considers such people “average Christians.” I shudder at the thought.
What is love, anyway?
However, those “Christians” who humiliate young single mothers, dehumanize gays and blame victims of atrocities say they are acting out of love. In the midst of all the shouting, they are communicating scriptural truth: That those who sin are lost and need salvation (or perhaps just a good whipping). That those who don’t adhere to God’s commands are destroying their lives. These fundamentalists claim they don’t have a love problem; the world just has a perception problem.
To evaluate this argument, we must first understand what love is…what it looks like and sounds like. Fortunately, 1 Corinthians 13 provides a thorough description:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (verses 4-7)
There’s a reason the world doesn’t perceive the red-faced, foaming-at-the-mouth “turn or burn” message as loving. That’s because it isn’t.
Real love exercises patience and kindness. Real love forgives others for their hesitations and shortcomings. Real love doesn’t rejoice at the thought of people being lost for eternity without God. Real love doesn’t care what color the carpet is, who parked in the last space by the door, who is getting more recognition from the pulpit, who wore it best, who’s the daddy, or whether the homeless guy on the corner ever had cable TV.
Over and over, the Bible hammers home the importance of love. When humanity stands before God, we’ll be judged not by how much we tithed or how well we kept the Sabbath; rather, we’ll be judged by how well we exhibited the love and compassion of Christ.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-46)
These words came not from the Apostle Paul or John the Baptist, but from the mouth of Jesus himself–the one who will be doing the judging! I’d say that’s worth putting in your day planner.
One of the most famous sayings about Christianity is credited to Mahatma Ghandi: “I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
True, many who wear the Christian label are unlike Christ. But I would argue that true Christians are exactly like Christ–showing love to everyone around them. Others may call themselves Christian, but that doesn’t mean God dwells within them.
This is what I tell agnostics whenever they complain about Christians who lack compassion. The Bible says God is love. Those who do not love do not know God, and God doesn’t know them, either. His Spirit does not reside in hateful hearts. Period.
Love: Difficult but Freeing
When I was involved with fundamentalism, I constantly worried about every little thing: the conversations I had at school, the people I hung out with, the clothes I wore, the music I listened to, my desire to dance (as in hip-hop), how much I prayed and read my Bible, how much I gave in the offering, how much I witnessed, how I worshiped, the guys I dated, even expressing my independent and opinionated nature. My church was constantly reminding me how a slip up in any of these areas could separate me from God. Funny how love never made the list of things I should have focused on. Yet it’s the most important commandment!
Could it be that loving–really, truly loving–is harder than adhering to the 300 man-made rules of righteousness?
Probably. It’s not easy to listen while a stranger talks about her abusive marriage. It’s not easy to get down in the gutter with the homeless man who hasn’t bathed in a week so he can know that someone in the world cares about him. It’s not easy to refrain from bringing up your spouse’s past mistakes when he (or she) is moaning about yours. Love like that requires dying to self so that Christ and his Spirit may live inside.
Love wasn’t always on my list, but you can bet it’s on there now. At the very top. I know as long as I love, I’ll always be on the side of Christ. So will anyone who loves. Let love guide your actions today.