As I travel with Barnabas International I need to be rescued from time to time by guest contributors. Let me introduce Steve Mitchell with this posting: he’s a close friend and gifted writer. The subject this week is, to my mind, the central question of faith and ethics. Steve’s reflections are very strong and important. Read and enjoy!
Alcohol and regret are a volatile mixture. I spent part of a recent vacation learning that lesson when some friction between family members exploded. For a couple of hours after the blow up, I listened as a wayward brother poured out his heart’s venom. He hated everything. His circumstances. His life. And his relationships.
But he wasn’t just full of hate. He also claimed to love. At least, he spoke of his love for me, his children, and God. Even as he affirmed these loves, the relational train wreck that spread out behind him argued otherwise. I don’t believe that he was intentionally lying about who he claimed to love. It’s just that his list was incomplete. There was one love that trumped all others. He had left love of his sinful self off the list.
My brother’s case is more illustrative than unique. We all embrace loves that define our lives and our relationships. For example. I love eggs and I love God. Those are not equivalent statements with the predicate swapped out, but they both indicate some degree of bonding and relationship. When I say that I love eggs, I mean that I am, in some sense, bound to them by my enjoyment of eating eggs. When I say that I love God, I mean that I am deeply bound by a mutual affection between Jesus Christ, whom I received by faith, and myself. It’s a Spirit-led communion that defines who I am, certainly to an infinitely greater degree than my unilateral love of eggs.
This identity as a lover of God in Christ not only defines us, it also motivates what we do. In short, We do as we are, and we are what we are because of what (or whom in this case) we love. Moreover, God’s love for us is formative at a much deeper level. He changes our heart at the moment of conversion, and throughout our continuing communion changes us from the inside out, overcoming lesser un-holy loves that reside in us by nature. As we love Him more, we want to please Him more—not with any expectation of a quid pro quo, but purely and with a deepening mutual delight. This might best be described as the Fruit of the Spirit wherein everything after Paul’s citation of love in Galatians 5:22 becomes commentary on love’s outpouring. If we truly love Christ, we will be ever more joyful, exhibiting more peace, more patience, etc. (see also 1 Corinthians 13:4ƒƒ).
We see this relationship between love and behavior set forth in the Upper Room discourse of John’s Gospel where Jesus so pointedly entwines love and obedience. He bookends a paragraph in chapter fourteen with two declarations (John 14:15, 21): “If you love me, you will obey what I command …Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me.” He says essential the same thing within a very short section of the narrative, neatly reversing his syntax. Why? Why not say it more simply, and only once? Perhaps it’s for emphasis, but I believe Jesus was making a point about the relationship between loving Him and leading an obedient life. True obedience is always rooted in love, and love always issues as obedience in response to God’s offer of Himself (” He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.”).
Our response in faith to this offer is deeply rooted in a heart transformed by God’s love. “For God so loved…that He gave…that whoever believes…” As the Spirit of God communicates His loving self-offering, what Jonathan Edwards called grace, we are captivated by God’s goodness towards us. Distrust of God is replaced by living, loving faith—the relational bond that is grace’s twin. Obedience in John’s gospel is this very thing: that we believe in the One God sent, Jesus Christ. All other “obedience” flows from this response of loving trust, or faith, in God’s overwhelming goodness towards us. Who, having been truly captivated by such a good God, would not want to do all that pleases Him?
So if what I’ve described above is true of one who is a lover of God and my brother claims to love God—and we grant that he is not intentionally lying—what then is his problem? His is the problem of competing loves. It is not that he doesn’t in some sense believe that he loves God, nor is it that he doesn’t feel some affection towards God. His problem is that he loves himself all the more. Jesus stated the dichotomy flatly when He taught that no one cannot love God and anything else equally (in this context, money) without ultimately favoring one over the other. One cannot serve two masters. We will always love the one and hate the other. The sharpness of Christ’s example is indicative of the forceful exclusion of competing loves. The weaker love will ultimately always give way to the stronger love.
A careful reader will want to challenge me here, sure that I acknowledged my brother’s self confessed love for God. That’s true. I did. But one must consider, as the Apostle Peter did, that we can be carried away by the deceit of our own hearts. If my brother was completely honest, he would have to admit that his love for himself cooled all other loves. And he did when I confronted him in the course of our conversation. But his isn’t merely a question of tepid love. In a very real sense he hated those for whom he professed love as demonstrated by his repeated callousness towards them. He could do no less since he was captured by an overpowering love for sinful self. This self love, what Augustine called concupiscence, is all-consuming and the most basic sin. It stands in stark contrast to God’s self-giving, and overflowing love.
And yet through all the self-help and 12-step programs, through all the sermons he heard about holy living, no one had ever cast his problem as one of competing loves. It is no wonder. The church today is deeply influenced by a philosophy that says it is our will that is deficient in matters of pious living. And so, we must try harder and ask for God’s help, as if The Triune God who sent The Eternal Son to hang on the Cross was concerned solely to make up our lack of self-control—to fill in the gap between what we know we must do and what we cannot of ourselves do.
As a wise friend and pastor of mine says to those who see their losing struggles with sin as a weak willed problem, “How’s that workin’ out for you?” He then takes them graciously and repeatedly through the Scriptures, showing them how God’s love for them and their response, as the Holy Spirit fills their heart with His love (Romans 5:5), is the real issue in their struggles with sin. He gently confronts them over this issue of competing loves, and something remarkable begins to happen.
They repent or they rebel. He sees the same polarizing response in these that Christ stimulated during His time on earth. Those who repent fall more deeply in love with God and His Word. They begin to blossom, and it is almost like watching one of those nature programs where we see time-lapse photography of a flower opening. The sinful behaviors that once offered such powerful attraction begin to lose their savor, replaced by a hunger and thirst for God.
And as unique as this approach to ministry might seem in a contemporary Christian culture that offers endless book store aisles packed with five-, six-, or even seven-step self-help books, it isn’t unique at all. Consider Jesus ministry to Peter in John 21:15, where He asks, “…Simon son of John do you love me more than these?…” The passage is famous and frequently preached. Most reflect on the nature of love in response to John’s use of agape versus phileo. Or they’ll springboard from the obvious parallel between Peter’s three denials and Christ’s three restorative touches. But why so few engagements of Christ’s comparative clause “…more than these?”
I believe it represents the theological bias mentioned above. One that dominates the church. But my pastor friend gets John 21:15 and following. And like his Lord, he asks a simple question: “Do you love Him more than these?”