The Nature of Love in the Context of Christian Fellowship – Part One

The following message is based on John 13:31-35 and is adapted from Jonathan Leeman’s The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love. Preached Sunday Morning, February 7 by Pastor Paul Edwards at Calvary Baptist Church of Waterford, Michigan. The audio is here.


God intends for the way we interact with one another as believers to help redefine love and beauty for fallen humanity. The basis of our interaction with one another is love.

Love is an affection for another’s good, recognizing that the ultimate good is God. Love is from God as a gift as distinguished from the common way we view love: love as desire or attraction.

Love as desire or attraction says, “I love you because you are beautiful, good, rich, etc.” The Bible doesn’t deny this kind of love exists. It just doesn’t make it primary.

Love as gift (benevolence) is not prompted by the attractiveness of the one loved but rather by a quality of benevolence in the one who is showing love: “I love you because I want to do you good.” This is the primary focus of love in the Bible.

During the next two Sunday morning services we will examine both of these views of love, aiming for this conclusion: The highest expression of love is God’s love for himself and his own glory. Therefore, we ought to love God for God’s sake, our neighbors for God’s sake, and one another (in the church) for God’s sake. Jonathan Leeman:

“I should not love you for your own sake; I should love you because you are created in God’s image, because you belong to Him, because he has commanded me to. Love centered on anything other than God is the opposite of love.”

“God does not love humanity because he sensed anything intrinsically valuable in us. God loves everyone because he beholds his own handiwork, image, and glory in everyone.”

What influences our ideas about love that place them opposition to biblical ideas about love?

1. The American Concept of Individualism

The creed of American individualism is: “I am principally obligated to myself and maximizing my life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.”

Every attachment is negotiable. We are all free agents, and every relationship is a contract that can be renegotiated or canceled.

This self-actualization and self-realization has fundamentally altered the way we think about love. A romanticized love has replaced rational compassion as the ideal in all of our relationships:

Rational love (agape) or compassion is motivated by the others’ ultimate good.

Romantic love (eros) is motivated by how the other ultimately makes me feel, based not on loving the other for the sake of God, but rather on loving the other for the sake of ourselves:

“I might claim to love you, but it’s really the way that you make me feel that I love. You make me feel accepted, smart, inspired, romantic, tingly, encouraged, special, warm and fuzzy, turned on, attracted, attractive, , hot, all that I can be, hardworking, creative, full of life, intellectually edified, spiritually edified, like a hero, empowered, built up, great! As John Piper has said, we call it “love” when people “make much of us.”

When self-actualization and self-realization become the basis for our love in the church, the focus of our ministry becomes therapy and not the gospel, because how you feel is more important than any truth about what you actually are.

2. Consumerism, or maximizing purchases for my benefit

The focus on the individual ultimately leads to a consumer mindset in every area of life, including love.

Love becomes an exchange: what does this person possess in terms of character traits, external beauty, resources, etc that will serve to fulfill me and my desires.

The object of our desires becomes the deciding factor rather than the faculty (rationalizing) of desire. In other words, when the object of our desire becomes the sole focus of our desires, we never stop to ask, “Are my desires right?”

Superficiality is the normal result. We focus on externals rather than on deeper unseen qualities. Beauty more than character, income more than constancy, manners more than virtue.

How does this focus on maximizing the purchase for my benefit affect my relationship with the church? I decide whether or not I fit into a church fellowship based on superficial externals rather than on quality internals. When superficial externals have my attention more than quality internals, I evaluate my experience rather than my heart.

We might leave a worship service and say things like, “I liked the music, except that one song. The preacher wasn’t very funny. Did you see any programs for teenagers? Am I comfortable with these people – are they like me?”

We must intentionally focus our desires away from our own self-interest and rather ask hard questions about the not so readily apparent internal qualities: is the mission of this church biblical? Is it gospel-centered? Is truth valued over pragmatism?

3. A culture opposed to any kind of commitment

If the focus of my love is me and my self-actualization, I will have an aversion to making any kind of long-term or even permanent commitments to another person or organization.

“People today are generally more reluctant to enter into binding commitments and associations that will limit the options available to them in the future.”

We worship the god of options. The consumeristic mindset, the multiplicity of options, and the worry of buyer’s remorse hinders the ability to make commitments in everything from jobs, to spouses, to restaurants, to houses, and to churches.

Commitments are not based on the ultimate value derived for the individual, rather than on moral obligation or a sense of duty or a call to serve or care for the other. Relationships become a function of what is purely advantageous to one’s own well-being. Whenever a relationship becomes inconvenient or demands too much, it is left behind.

When the idea of binding commitment is removed from the definition of love, churches become places where personal sacrifices are seldom made.

How do these characteristics of our contemporary ideas about love fit with Jesus commanding us to “love one another as I have loved you”? Obviously they don’t.

The Bible says, “God is love,” not “Love is God.” We have taken our romanticized view of love and defined God by it, rather than beginning with an understanding of God and defining love by Him.

So if I am going to love you the way Jesus loves you, I need a biblical understanding of God as love, freed from the influences of the romanticized view of love, a subject we will take up next week.

Mowing the Lawn with Mars Hill

For the last four years I have paid a lawn service to mow my yard to free me up to work the three jobs I have.  After paying more than $600 per summer for the last four years I decided to forego the lawn service and do it myself.  I discovered that the time I didn’t think I had to waste on yard work has turned into a valuable investment with great returns. Mowing my own yard had some unexpected benefits.

For one, I never anticipated actually enjoying the work.  My yard is large; it takes about two hours to mow with a standard push mower.  Starting my Saturday’s early with physical work has had emotional, spiritual and physical benefits.  It feels good to be outside, under the sun, accomplishing something of value.

But the real benefit comes from something I have until now never had much use for: a portable CD player.  For several years I’ve subscribed to Mars Hill Audio Journal on CD.  Normally I will listen to the two CDs I receive every other month while commuting to work.  For the last two Saturday’s I’ve listened to them while mowing my yard, making the labor not only productive physically, but allowing me to exercise my mind, as well. Ken Myers, the host and producer of Mars Hill Audio Journal, is an excellent interviewer on wide ranging subjects. I consider his work the antidote to the scandal of the evangelical mind.

Mowing my lawn with Mars Hill has caused me to reconsider the value of the iPod. I’ve never owned one, though I’ve purchased one for each of my kids.  Maybe I’ll take half my savings from mowing the yard myself this summer  and invest it in one of those ubiquitous devices so that I, too, can be hip and cool.  Maybe my church’s attendance will begin to increase when people find out just how hip and cool I am.