Grounded in Love
OUR MOST EXCELLENT WAY
by Jonathan R. Wilson
“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13)
This marvelous declaration is the crescendo of Paul’s poetic vision of “the most excellent way.” (1 Corinthians 12:30b) That way is the way of love.
Today, though, love seldom reaches this marvelous crescendo and most excellent way.
“LOVE” is diminished. Favourite music. Movies. Ice cream brands and flavours. Automobiles. Football teams. Leisure activities. Coffee shops. Family. Friends. God.
We “love” all these things and more. When we use the language of love in this way, we diminish the meaning of “love” instead of magnifying it. Yes, these may be good things, but should we use “love” so promiscuously?
“LOVE” is impoverished. One of our problems is that English does not have a rich variety of words for relationships. In the Old Testament, various Hebrew words may be used for different relationships that we reduce to one word – love – in English. And the deeply significant Hebrew word hesed is so rich that no one word or phrase in English can fully communicate its meaning. (We’ll return to this word later!)
In the New Testament, four different words may be used for “love”, each of which conveys differing relationships and actions: philia, storge, eros and agape. (C.S. Lewis explains the meaning of these in his book, The Four Loves.)
Since the word “love” is diminished and impoverished in our language and lives today, I have a radical proposal for recovering the magnitude and riches of LOVE:
Let’s stop using the word love!
Seriously, place a moratorium on using “love” as part of your vocabulary. Begin a 40-day fast from the word “love”. And just like a fast during Lent, only use the word on Sunday. And be very, very conscious and intentional about how you use the word on Sunday. Then, after 40 days, carefully and thoughtfully reintroduce “love” into your everyday speech. Think about alternative words and phrases for relationships that are not on the same level as your relationships of “love”. Disturb yourself and annoy your friends and neighbours by saying you have “mild affection” for pralines and cream Häagen-Dazs ice cream, that you have a “moderate commitment and loyalty” to your favourite hockey team (I don’t dare name one, because your commitment and loyalty may be more than moderate), or that the coffee shop you “tend to prefer” is Great Dane. And as you disturb yourself and annoy friends and family, affirm the deeper relationships of love that mark your life. If you really want to be annoying, you could learn and use the Hebrew and Greek words for “love”!
“LOVE” is a story. Well, really, it’s more than a story; it is the story. Israel’s gospel centres on the proclamation that Yahweh is “the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” (Exodus 34:6-7)
This proclamation is the summary of God’s relationship with Israel that we know through the God-Israel story. We know that God is “abounding in love and faithfulness,” because we know the story of God’s actions in covenant with Israel. Yahweh’s actions teach us what faithful love is.
Both hesed and ahavah (another Hebrew word that we translate as “love”) are relational, action-oriented speech. As we reclaim the word “love” after fasting from its use, these two Hebrew words can help us deepen our use of the word and our practice of love. Hesed- Love is the way Yahweh sustains his covenant with God’s people. Yahweh does so by being steadfast (thus, hesed=steadfast love or “love and faithfulness”) and by forgiving Israel’s disobedience to God and unfaithfulness to the covenant (thus, hesed=mercy).
Hesed-Love teaches us that love is not a momentary surge of emotion or affection, but persistent, sacrificial action that sustains relationships. This Hesed-Love is fulfilled in the climax of the God-Israel story – Jesus the Messiah: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” (1 John 4: 10-12)
When we read “God so loved the world” and “God is love” (John 3:16; 1 John 4:16) we are being drawn into the STORY that is love. We are being drawn into THE story that is love. We are being drawn into the story that is LOVE. Steadfast because it is who God is. Merciful because that is who God is. As Ruth Padilla DeBorst reminds us, “through . . . God’s sacrificial love, God breaks the ropes that bind us to death and sin and injustice and oppression.” (Mosaic, Spring 2018) This “freedom in hope” liberates us from our fears and divisions and rulers and authorities that oppose God, so that we may love as God loves in Jesus the Messiah.
Ahavah-Love teaches us that giving is the heartbeat of love. Again, this is action-love. But it is action-love that arises from the depths of God’s life as Father, Son and Spirit. “A mature faith is trinitarian in nature.” (Gordon King, Mosaic, Winter 2018) Although our confession of God as “triune” often seems abstract and impractical, our confession of One God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit is also our confession of “God so loved the world.”
At its deepest, the language of Father, Son and Spirit is relational. The first person of the Triune God, the “Father”, only lives in relationship to the second person of the Triune God, the “Son”. There is no “first person” apart from the “second person”. And the relationship of the first and second persons is sustained by their mutual relationships with the third person, the “Holy Spirit”. Yes, this is deep and difficult to understand – and we will never fully understand the Father, Son and Spirit. But remember three things. First, if we could fully comprehend God, then God would be “human-sized” and not God! Second, the God whom no one has seen has made Godself known to our senses in Jesus Christ: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.” (1 John 1:1) And this appearance of God’s life and love in the Word made flesh is “true God and eternal life.” (1 John 5:20)
Finally, even if we only grasp this trinitarian teaching a little bit, it enwraps us in the reality that Ahavah-Love, gift love, is simply who God is: the One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The Greek word for love that brings together Hesed-Love and Ahavah-Love is agape. But even with this word, we need to keep in mind and in practice, that this word gets its meaning and practice from the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. He, as the Messiah of Israel, Redeemer of the World and Lord of all creation, fulfills the God-Israel story and the Hesed-Love and Ahavah-Love that is Israel’s good news.
Agape-Love is Yahweh’s steadfastness and mercy in covenant with God’s people and the giving life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which frees us from death and death’s secret agents in the world, restores us to right-relationship with God and heals our alienation and woundedness. This is LOVE.
“LOVE” is life. Since love is, simply and profoundly, the life of the Father, Son and Spirit in covenant with humankind and all creation, then Love is LIFE. Indeed, since God is the Living One: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then to be in right-relationship with God is to be alive – eternally. “The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.” (1 John 1:2) Jesus is “the true God and eternal life.” (I John 5:20)
So, then, what does it mean for us to be “the disciple community” who follow Jesus and are caught up by the Spirit into the life of the triune God? To ask it differently, what does it mean for us to manifest the love of neighbour and of God – love that is Hesed-Love and Ahavah-Love and Agape-Love?
After we have fasted from our cheap and easy uses of the word “love” and carefully reintroduced love into our lives, how may we delight in the practice of love and be formed in it as those called to follow Jesus the Messiah and bear witness to the gospel?
First, we could begin right here: understanding our “love” as a continuing act of discipleship – in our love we seek to “follow” Jesus – to put into practice what he teaches us. Our practice of love is grounded in the God-Israel-Jesus story, not in our desire for power or recognition or self-fulfilment or fear and anxiety. We have been set free, let us live into that freedom.
Second, we could begin right here: understanding our (practices of) love as witness. We do not love in order to save the world or influence the world. We love in faithfulness to Jesus in order to make visible the eternal life that is ours through the love of God in Jesus Christ. It is too small a thing to think that we are called to “influence the world.” And it is too big a thing to think that we are called to “save the world.”
The One God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit has already saved the world. Jesus has defeated death and the powers that serve death. Jesus has shown us that the love that is life is stronger than death.
We, then, are disciples and witnesses: “Despite uncertainty, fear and pain, followers of Jesus continue to bear faithful witness to God’s love.” (Gordon King, Mosaic, Winter 2018).
“We are free to love God and all our neighbours, no matter what, because our hope is grounded in who God is; in Jesus’ final victory over all forms of oppression and in the Spirit’s constant presence with us.” (Ruth Padilla DeBorst, Mosaic, Spring 2018)
“We are the Revealers… We are not so much called to incarnate the good news as to reveal it… ” (Terry Smith, Mosaic, Winter 2018)
“Our hope, as Christ-followers, is rooted in the Eternal One, who is himself the hope of the world. All the cosmos cries out for the King and his rule of peace and justice to appear.” (Terry Smith, Mosaic, Spring 2018)
The greatest…is love. Love is “the greatest of these,” because LOVE is the act by which God is the Living One, because LOVE is the act by which the Living One created the cosmos; because LOVE is the act by which Creator covenants with the cosmos for its redemption; because LOVE is the act by which Christ died so that all things, including humankind, may be reconciled to God; because LOVE is the act by which God will consummate the work of Christ in new creation.
Jonathan R. Wilson is Senior Associate for Theological Integration with CBM and Teaching Fellow at Regent College. He develops some of the thoughts
in this article in his books, Gospel Virtues, chapters 7-8; God So Loved the World: A Christology for Disciples; and God’s Good World; Reclaiming the Doctrine of Creation, especially Part 2. He is also author of several other books, including Why Church Matters and Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World.