If someone were to write in Hebrew the word "love", few of us would understand what it was they had written. If in Greek, perhaps, a few more. But in English we all would recognize the word, though its meaning would probably be different from one person or group to another.
THE ROOT OF LOVE
Linguistically, the closer one gets to the root of a word, the closer one gets to what the word is attempting to define or to describe in particular. Biblically, when it is written that God is love (1 John 4:8, 16), we could say that by studying “love” all the way down to its root, we will be able to understand something about God. We could also say that by studying God, we will be able to get to a better, clearer, and deeper understanding about love.
Yet, in getting to love through God we are not simply getting to the etymology and history or origin of a word; we’re getting to the radix or source of what love is, of who Love is.
This radix is ultimately revealed to be Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh. In Him God’s love is eternal – it is first and precedes all other love (1 John 4:19). It is historical – given at a time and in a place in this world (John 3:16). It is personal – given for you and to you (Galatians 2:20).
Moreover, God’s love in Jesus also does something to and in those who receive His love. His love becomes foundational to a new way of living, built on or born from a new way of loving, that is, a new heart (John 3:3; 2 Corinthians 5:17; 2 Peter 1:4). His eternal love becomes for us the source of, the radix of, eternal life. It transforms us, less like a violent storm that changes the surface of the land from above and more like deep rivers that change it from below.
THE GROWTH OF LOVE
Like all things that grow, love is not instant but takes time. It's a process that’s not easy, comfortable, nor free.
Martin Luther has described sinful human nature as being “deeply curved in upon itself.” It bends everything towards the self.
My wife and I are foster parents. At times you believe that you’re completely prepared to welcome a new child into your home and life. But then you get a call, and you quickly discover that the reality of welcoming and loving this little boy or girl will complicate your already busy schedule and disrupt your routines; will bring the discomfort of attending to medical needs and/or behavioral needs you feel ill equipped for; will require sacrificing anything from a night out to an empty nest.
In these moments your heart begins to calculate the costs/benefits, to make excuses, and to bend the circumstances back towards the self for why you should say no. Or, the opposite happens and you say yes, and very quickly your heart begins to seek praise and admiration from others for the great sacrifices you’re making. The heart finds a way to bend everything back to the self, overtime twisting and becoming deformed, a shapeless or misshapen love.
So how do we stop this from happening? How do we become loving instead of unloving? Bend. Bend the other way every opportunity you get. For Christians, this is not something we believe we can do on our own. The Holy Spirit seeks to remake us, to shape us, to unbend and re-bend our twisted affections towards Jesus and others.
When confronted with a kind of criminal he’s never been before, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell begins to reflect: "It has done brought me to a place in my life I would not of thought I'd come to...It ain't just bein older... I can't say that it's even what you are willin to do...I think it is more like what you are willin to become. And I think a man would have to put his soul at hazard. And I won't do that. I think now that maybe I never would.” (No Country For Old Men) We are becoming, being remade, everyday with every decision. The only question is what kind of person are you willing, wanting, to become?
THE FRUIT OF LOVE
Love is being present to and for another. To put it another way, God’s love for us, and ours for Him, has run its course through our veins when we have loved another (1 John 4:7-8). From the heights of God’s love for us, the natural flow is downward towards others; the gravity of God’s love pulls us towards another.
But it’s easy to lose sight of the other along the way of the familiar. Courtney Martin cautions us to beware “the reductive seduction of other people’s problems,” meaning, we’re moved by the problems of people far away, not because those problems don’t exist where we are, but because they do and we’ve become blind to them. The fruit of the Spirit, though, of which love is the first, appears first to those closest to it, to those closest to us: our spouse, our children, our family, our friend, our neighbor.
This fruit, or affection, of love is a whole new understanding of mind and inclination of heart. It orients us to a completely different way of living.
In the Life of Pi, the boy Pi incredulously asks a Catholic Priest about the one story Christians continually tell and repeat: “But divinity should not be blighted by death…once a dead God, always a dead God, even resurrected. The Son must have the taste of death forever in His mouth. The Trinity must be tainted by it; there must be a certain stench at the right hand of God the Father. The horror must be real. Why would God wish that upon Himself? Why not leave death to the mortals? Why make dirty what is beautiful, spoil what is perfect?” “Love,” answers Father Martin.
Jesus wasn’t afraid to love anyone nor was he afraid of what it would cost him to love. He couldn’t go everywhere, but wherever he did go he loved people fully. It was the thought, the weight, the experience of sinners rejecting and never knowing the love of God that broke his heart. And so it was for all of humanity and in their place that he was bent and broken under the weight and power of sin, to the point of death on a cross, where he experienced the full horror of being forsaken by God.
But love conquered death, and having been raised from the dead and ascended to the right hand of God, Jesus has received from the Father and given to us the promised Holy Spirit. His love is now boundless through his body, the church, and as his body, individually members of it, we each should be loving – living, moving, doing, giving, serving – beyond ourselves. Not should as in “law”, but should as in “fruit,” the life of Christ who lives in us (Galatians 2:20).