The Spirit Transforms our Willing Heart Part 2
Text: John 15:1-17 (Gal. 5:22-36)
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- Often people want sermons on marriage & the home, or with advice to help us be successful at work, or that address what we consider the most important social issues, or about becoming a successful church.
- When you open the NT, you primarily find the vision of a new life in the world that develops towards a mature Christ-likeness.
- If I were a different person in Christ, my home and work life would be transformed. (Paul briefly addresses family and the harshest of work relationships, only after he patiently lays out his astonishing vision of our life in Christ in Eph. 1-5:20)
- What would happen in our families, at work, in our society and in our church, if as Christians we took seriously what the NT describes as the vision of our life in and with Christ?
- When you open the NT, you primarily find the vision of a new life in the world that develops towards a mature Christ-likeness.
- The fundamental issue: Do you work with Jesus through the Spirit to become the unique person of love you are called to be in the world?
Explore the Text
We are created in God’s Image to Know God & Work with God (Gen 1-3)
- God designed us to receive his love and to love God and others.
- A loving relationship is an essential quality of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
- To know God is to experience his love for you and to find yourself growing in your love for him and others he created in his image.
- God designed us to act with Him and for Him in the World
- You are spirit, “a never-ceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God’s great universe.” Willard
- We join God in his kingdom and work with joy for his glory as we follow Jesus and will our Father’s will.
- When we turn away from God’s design and purpose and reject his call to know and enjoy him, we damage ourselves and others.
- That life is about my kingdom & getting “my way”, I want my will done on earth and in heaven and may even think God should help that happen!
Jesus Reveals the Potential of a Loving Life with the Father and in the Father’s Kingdom, Where God’s Will is Done (see the Gospels)
- He loves his Father and people created in the image of God.
- He acts in the world with authority and power for the good of others (the essence of agape).
- His love led to his death for us so that we might be forgiven our sins, reconciled to the Father, and begin our new life in Christ—the life we were created to live.
- His thinking challenges our thinking: we must relearn how to think.
- Repentance involves rethinking things and changing our minds.
- His emotional life did not operate in the same way as ours: it was rooted in & nurtured by the Father’s love and desired the Father’s will.
- He told others that they could participate in this life with the Father.
- Jesus looked at people like me and told them the good news that if they entrust themselves to him in faith, he would teach them how to live a rich life in the world—a life designed to enjoy God forever.
Jesus Teaches Us How to Develop a Life in the Kingdom. (See Jn. 15:1-17)
- D. A. Carson points out that 15:1-8 develops and advances the metaphor of a vine that is prominent in the OT describing the life of Israel with God; 15:9-17 are a commentary on the metaphor that describes the fruit of the disciple who remains with Jesus.
- In the gospels, Jesus often addresses people in variations of “Come and follow me” ( 11:28-30 as an example)
- Jesus now addresses his disciples before the crisis of the cross unfolds & reminds them o stay with him.
- A New Life for All! Ephesians is an example of how Jesus’ teaching was elaborated to a gentile audience: it is a commentary on the metaphor of life in the vine.
- The transforming life of the kingdom of God is planted amid the kingdoms of this world through Jesus.
- That life can only flourish in an abiding relationship with Jesus.
- As I remain in Jesus, I receive the life of agape love into my life, my capacity to love others develops, & my life with Christ becomes increasingly fruitful.
- If I keep Jesus’ word, I put it into practice. See Mt. 7; John 8:31-32. (abide in my word, hold to my word)
- As I keep his commands, I abide in him, just as he kept his father’s commands and remained in him—a little later, reveals his command; love each other as he loved them. See Rom 13:8-10
- A lot of pruning is required for me to become the branch of this new life in Christ that is unique in design.
- Trying to be like someone else is constantly frustrating & will fail.
- I learn to be the person God gifted and called me to be..
- Are you a faithful apprentice of the greatest teacher the world has ever known, the brilliant teacher who teaches what he learned from his father?
An Important Reminder: Whom Jesus Asks Us to Be (Mt. 5-7), the Spirit Helps Us to Become
- Becoming a person of agape love, a person for whom keeping his commands is an expression of who I am in my heart.
- The Spirit Helps Us
- 7:37-39; 14:15-21, 26; 16:7-15
Conclusion: Borrowing DeMello’s parable of the travelers on a bus who are going through a beautiful country but with the shades of the bus pulled down.
- Some read about the country and long to experience & enjoy it.
- Others argue about the country: can something so beautiful really exist? The argument heats up and creates conflict & division.
- A few peek beneath the blinds and glimpse the beauty of the real country.
- They pull the cord and ask to get off.
- They begin their adventure in the abundance of the beautiful world that allures and invites them to explore and enjoy as their destination.
- This Life with God
- The Father created us for this life.
- Jesus calls us to share in this life.
- The Spirit cultivates this life in us.
- Do you desire the Father’s purpose? Do you accept Jesus’ invitation? Do you work with the Spirit?
- Denial of Self and Taking Your Cross means leaving some things behind, even some good things, if they have become ultimate for you.
Notes: Dallas Willard on Love from Life Without Lack
Sufficiency Completed in Love
Love seeks one thing only: the good of the one loved.—THOMAS MERTON
Faith (trust), death to self, and agape love support our Psalm 23 life as a triangle of sufficiency. Each is a precious gift of God, who, in his graciousness, gives them to us and enables us to receive them in ever increasing abundance. He gives them to the willing, seeking heart through a process in which that willing and seeking is consistent, and even that is a gift.
God loves us, and because he loves us he delights in us, focuses upon us, relates to us, and serves us. So when we hear that a person is seeking God, it is evidence that God first loved him and has already “found” him. John 15:16 says, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you.” It’s as if there were a sign on the door that leads to eternal life that said, “Whosoever will may come.” So you chose to walk through that door, and when you turned around to look back, you saw a sign above the door that said, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you.”1
God’s gracious gifts of faith, death to self, and agape love empower and enable our journey of growth into their fullness and into the abundance of eternal life we have in Jesus our Shepherd. John 3:16 beautifully captures the essence of this new life from above: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
From Faith to Death to Love
Trust in God and death to self open the floodgates for God’s agape love to flow into us. God supplies the faith you need for this to happen, and your job is to position yourself so you can receive it. We are often troubled about our faith because we are trying to have faith for a particular thing, like patience. But the faith God wants to give us is not for that thing, but for trusting him.
Remember, faith has two parts: will and vision. We must be willing to see God as he is before God can further reveal himself to us and give us more faith. This requires us to live in such a way that we are consistently seeking him and growing in our faith, and this attitude of life requires more and more death to self as we go along.
Death to self is submitting all your desires to God. This abandonment of the self to God is the way to experience abundance in God. It means that, in God’s hands, we are content for him to take charge of outcomes. And in that posture we make way for him to live in us and be with us, in order to achieve what is best for us and for others far beyond anything we can even imagine.
The more faith we have in God, the more death to self becomes the natural daily way for us. Jesus’ suffering and physical death on the cross became the extreme expression of death to self as well as the ultimate symbol of our new life. He so graced the ugly instrument on which he died that the cross has become the most widely exhibited and recognized symbol on earth. But it is more than a symbol for us; it is a new way of living in confident fullness in God and his goodness.
It is essential to remember that Jesus did not give himself up to God in death with an attitude of resignation. He gave himself up in faith, certain that he would rise again and that the kernel of wheat that fell to the ground would bring forth abundant fruit. Death to self is abandonment to God in faith. It is laying down the satisfaction of my desires with confidence in the greatness and plenitude of God.
We can practice this through spiritual disciplines such as fasting, which can help us stay sweet and strong when we do not get what we want. If we can cheerily give up Twinkies, and peanuts, and steak, and things of that sort for a while, this will bring us to the place where we can say, “Lord, you’re quite sufficient for me. If you want to take it away forever, that would be fine.” This is how we do our part to practice surrendering to God. This is very serious business. Serious enough to be included in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus teaches about surrendering our own desires and laying down our efforts to secure ourselves by storing up treasures on earth (Matt. 6). He didn’t say, “Don’t have treasures.” He didn’t say, “Don’t own things,” or, “Don’t eat steak.” He didn’t say any of that. He said, “Don’t make this your god.”
Then Comes Love
Faith has drawn us nearer to God and positioned us to receive his blessings. Death to self has made our life a willing receptacle for him, and now agape love flows into us like a river and out into a desperately thirsty world, completing the triangle to fulfill all that is needed for a life without lack.
To aid your understanding about the nature of love as it is alive in the life of a disciple, I want simply to present several passages of Scripture. Please take time to read these slowly, asking God to open your mind to receive these words as a gift that God is ready to give you. Let them be a vision of what your life is becoming as you journey in the light and easy yoke of Jesus Christ. Because, after all, God is love—and that is not an explanation of who God is; that’s an explanation of what love is. He wants to give himself to you so you can more joyfully and freely give yourself and his love to others.*
Luke 6:27–38 NLT
But to you who are willing to listen, I say, love your enemies! Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, offer the other cheek also. If someone demands your coat, offer your shirt also. Give to anyone who asks; and when things are taken away from you, don’t try to get them back. Do to others as you would like them to do to you.
If you love only those who love you, why should you get credit for that? Even sinners love those who love them! And if you do good only to those who do good to you, why should you get credit? Even sinners do that much! And if you lend money only to those who can repay you, why should you get credit? Even sinners will lend to other sinners for a full return.
Love your enemies! Do good to them. Lend to them without expecting to be repaid. Then your reward from heaven will be very great, and you will truly be acting as children of the Most High, for he is kind to those who are unthankful and wicked. You must be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.
Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn others, or it will all come back against you. Forgive others, and you will be forgiven. Give, and you will receive. Your gift will return to you in full—pressed down, shaken together to make room for more, running over, and poured into your lap. The amount you give will determine the amount you get back.
John 13:31–35 NLT
As soon as Judas left the room, Jesus said, “The time has come for the Son of Man to enter into his glory, and God will be glorified because of him. And since God receives glory because of the Son, he will give his own glory to the Son, and he will do so at once. Dear children, I will be with you only a little longer. And as I told the Jewish leaders, you will search for me, but you can’t come where I am going. So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”
Romans 12:9–10 NLT
Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other.
Romans 13:8–10 NLT
Owe nothing to anyone—except for your obligation to love one another. If you love your neighbor, you will fulfill the requirements of God’s law. For the commandments say, “You must not commit adultery. You must not murder. You must not steal. You must not covet.” These—and other such commandments—are summed up in this one commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to others, so love fulfills the requirements of God’s law.
1 John 4:11–21 NLT
Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us.
And God has given us his Spirit as proof that we live in him and he in us. Furthermore, we have seen with our own eyes and now testify that the Father sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. All who declare that Jesus is the Son of God have God living in them, and they live in God. We know how much God loves us, and we have put our trust in his love.
God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world.
Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. We love each other because he loved us first.
If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their fellow believers.
1 Corinthians 13:4–7 NLT
Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.
All You Need Is Love
While sitting in church one morning, I noticed a woman holding a little baby in her lap. The baby was looking into the woman’s face. As I watched, I could almost see the substance of love moving from the one to the other. The little child, who was only a few months old, would look for a moment and then its face would spread out in a great big grin. Of course, the woman was looking back into the eyes of the child. A little child can look endlessly into your eyes without any self-consciousness or uneasiness. The adult in that situation can do the same. As a mother or father, or a grandparent with a grandchild, we are able simply to pour ourselves into that child in love.
When people love one another like this it creates a self-contained circle within which there is complete sufficiency in human terms. Children who are deeply loved and raised within such a circle can endure almost anything. I believe there is something about little children before the world has rubbed off on them that comes from being freshly knitted together by God in the womb (Ps. 139:13). They have a glow, an innocence, and a purity of trust. I think this is why Jesus used children to illustrate so many truths, such as, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3).
The pure, unfiltered love of children is why they have such a redeeming effect on people, and why in Isaiah’s vision of the kingdom of God on earth he tells us that “a little child shall lead them” (Isa. 11:6). Little children have a way of somehow readjusting the adult world. They are not always able to do this, and many times they suffer because of that world, but in the love between a small child and a parent, we come the closest to seeing and experiencing love in its purest form.
We speak of falling or jumping headlong into love with someone. This can be harmful if understood as the source of our ultimate happiness, yet this is an expression of the unique character of love: it has within it something of that self-sufficiency and completeness of God himself. That is one reason love is such a powerful force. People who have grown up in an environment of love, even if it is only human love without a consciousness of God, will always have a tremendous resource that can never be taken away from them. If they have been loved rightly by their family, they have a treasure. Unfortunately, many people who were not loved rightly in their families enter marriage thinking, Now, at last, I am really going to be loved, but they soon find out that both they and their spouse are hampered in loving each other.
All these things direct us to the truth that perfect love is only found in God. Love is a gift from God, who is love. We can seek a gift and we can receive a gift, but we do not perform for a gift. So, when we read passages of Scripture like those above, we must remember that the call to us is not to do as much as it is to receive. We love him because he first loved us. This is why the preaching of the gospel is essential, and why there is nothing more important on the face of the earth than ministers and teachers of the gospel teaching plainly—plainly!—the love of God toward every person. That is why John 3:16 is so vital: “For God so loved the world . . .”
He First Loved Us
I love old hymns. They have a beautiful way of expressing truth, and the lyrics are often taken directly from the Scripture. These two stanzas from an eighteenth-century German hymn based on Luke 15:2 plainly illustrate the wide embrace of God’s great love:
Christ receiveth sinful men,
spread this word of grace to all
who the heavenly pathway leave,
all who linger, all who fall.
Sing it o’er and o’er again;
Christ receiveth sinful men.
Make the message clear and plain:
Christ receiveth sinful men.
One of the accusations the Pharisees made against Jesus was that he received sinners. This is very important for us to know. Jesus is the expression of the love of God for us, and in him we see the many ways God deals with people in mercy and grace. Jesus delighted in every individual; so, too, with us. He focused on what was of value in them; so, too, with us. He related to them, he associated with them, he got right down where they were and served them. So, too, with us; he meets us where we are, wherever we are. The darkest valley doesn’t frighten him away. In the gospel of Mark we find a beautiful description of his affection for his disciples:
And He went up on the mountain and called to Him those He Himself wanted. And they came to Him. Then He appointed twelve, that they might be with Him and that He might send them out to preach, and to have power to heal sicknesses and to cast out demons. (Mark 3:13–15)
Notice the love of God in action: Jesus called “those He Himself wanted.” He wanted them. Why? First and foremost, so “that they might be with him.” Yes, he had a mission for them, and that mission was to carry the love of God out into the world. But first he wanted them to be with him. He delighted in them.
The relational nature of Christ reflects the love of God, showing us what it is like and that it is for us. As we read in Romans 5:8, “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Do not miss that phrase, “while we were still sinners.” That is what God is like: “He is kind to the unthankful and evil” (Luke 6:35). That is the gift we are seeking from the God who is love.
Acting in Love, or Just Acting?
Most people know that love is not just about the things we do. Love is an attitude of the heart. We know we can act in a loving way without really loving. (Obligation, obedience, reputation, or personal benefit may be our motive.) We sense and appreciate when things are done for us because someone truly loves us.
When pastors and therapists are helping someone, they often have to overcome the individual’s attitude that says, “Well, you’re just acting in a loving way toward me because it’s your job.” Attempts to assure them that they are truly cared for are necessary, but it usually takes time for them to believe that. And during that time, the counselors naturally tend to care more and more for those they are helping.
Service to others is one of the easiest ways to begin loving someone. Helping people is something we all can do, and it allows us to grow in our ability to relate to others. There are many levels in relating to people, including choosing to be with them, being present and engaged with them, and experiencing the gift of love as we move into delighting in them. But there is also a way of not being with people when we are with them. You have probably had the experience of someone being both present and absent at the same time.
It is not easy to consistently love our families and friends at the heart level, much less our enemies. We may be able to focus on what is good and valuable in them, but delighting in them as God delights in us is a more difficult matter. Delight in those who have just cursed us or who have hurt us, who have taken something we value and scorned us and looked down upon us? It is hard to do—very hard. This is where we often give up on love.
Paul knew that when we think like this we are working at the wrong level. We should not try to love that person; we should train to become the kind of person who would love them. Only then can the ideal of love pass into a real possibility and practice. Our aim under love is not to be loving to this or that person, or in this or that kind of situation, but to be a person possessed by love as an overall character of life. Our responses to the specific occasions when we are to act flow out of our overall character. I do not come to my enemies and then try to love them; I come to them as a loving person. The good tree bearing good fruit.
What Is Love?
As you can imagine, there have been many attempts to gain a clear and precise understanding of the “many splendored thing” we call love. The primary word for love found in the New Testament is agape. One of the better efforts at describing agape love is that of Thomas Oord in his book, The Science of Love. Oord precisely defines love as “acting intentionally, in sympathetic response to others (including God), to promote overall well-being.”3Importantly, this definition distinguishes love from desire and locates it in the will, leaving room for desire and feeling to play an appropriate role in love without making them the heart of the matter.
In our cultural context, it is necessary to emphasize that love and emotion are not identical. We can act in loving ways even when we do not “feel loving.” It cannot be said too often that agape love is not the same as desire or delight, although these might accompany agape love. Desire and feelings generally have a different nature than love. To be confused about this is to remain helpless to enter into love and to receive it into ourselves.
Desire and feelings are more matters of impulse than of considering and choosing the best alternative. They are concerned with their own satisfaction, not with what is better and possibly best. If a choice is made with a vision broad enough and clarified by love, it will find what is good and right. If choice is surrendered to God, united with his will, it will be able to do what is best.
Nonetheless, I believe that Oord’s definition fails to capture central features of love, especially those presented by Jesus and Paul. For them, love is something that has three essential characteristics:
- Love arises in people whose lives are already marked by certain qualities of the whole self, chief of which are faith in our all-sufficient God and joyful embracing of death to self.
- Love involves an orientation of the whole self toward what is good and right.
- Love has amazing, supernatural power for good as it indwells the individual.
These are essential characteristics of agape love as Paul and the New Testament present it. Notice here that love is not action; it is a source of action. Love is a condition out of which actions of a certain type emerge. It is a condition that explains how the three marks of love could be true and must be true.
Love is not an abstract ideal impossible to realize in our day-to-day lives. It is an overall condition of real people, living in the real world, who are poised to promote the well-being of those within their range of influence. Such people are ready to act in ways that bring about good. But again, love is not an action or a feeling or an emotion or an intention, even though it gives rise to intentions and to actions and is associated with some “feelings” and resistant to others. Only such an understanding of agape love as an overall disposition does justice to the New Testament teachings about love and gives us a coherent idea of love that can be aimed at in practice and implemented. After all, love is meant to be lived.
Such love is holistic, not something one turns on or off for this or that person or thing. Its orientation is toward life as a whole. It dwells on good wherever it may be found and supports it in action. Love is nourished by the good and the right and the beautiful. That is why Paul wrote to his Philippian friends:
Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.” (Phil. 4:8)
Remember, deeper than the fact that God loves us is this: he is love. He wills nothing but what is good. That is his identity, and it explains why he loves individuals even when he is not pleased with them or loved by them in return. When Paul directed us to “be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us,” this is what he was talking about (Eph. 5:1–2 NRSV). We are called and enabled to love as God loves by becoming like God as loving persons.
An Anatomy of Love
When we understand that love is an overall disposition to bring about good, we can better understand some of Paul’s statements such as, “Now the purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5). Notice that the aim of Christian instruction (that is, what “commandment” refers to) is love. This love arises “from a pure heart”—one that is not wallowing in fantasies of sensual gratification or malice—and “from a good conscience”—one unburdened with guilt from the failure to do the good and the right—and “from sincere faith”—genuine confidence in God’s goodness and care for us, a love from which nothing can separate us.* We do not achieve the disposition of agape love by direct effort, but by training: attending to and putting into place the conditions out of which it arises. This is where the regular practice of the spiritual disciplines comes strongly into play.5 Once again, the goal is not to be people who do loving things but to become the kind of people who naturally, joyfully, and easily love.
The law is not the source of righteousness, but it is always the way of the righteous. It guides people into actions that conform to what is good and right. Love seeks the same result but from the innermost place from which our actions come (John 7:38; Luke 6:45). This is in keeping with Jeremiah’s vision of the time when God will write his law on the hearts of his people (Jer. 31:33). If we take care of the source of our action—the heart—action will take care of itself.** Then we won’t be constantly hindered or defeated by our conflicted self, which winds up doing what it “intends” not to do or not doing what it “intends” to do.*
When we read 1 Corinthians 13, it is important to understand that Paul is not issuing commands; he is not saying that we ought to be patient, kind, humble, and so forth. He is describing love itself as having these characteristics. That, after all, is what the passage actually says. So we “pursue love” by advancing our faith and dying to self through appropriate training and practice, and the love we receive from God takes care of the rest. These virtues arise from the overall disposition of love, because love, by its very nature, seeks what is good and right before God.
Love enables a person to not only refrain from hating his enemies but to instead seek what is good for them along with all others involved. This does not mean always giving in to what the enemies (or friends) want or letting them have their way. That might be the worst thing you could do to them and, therefore, cannot be the loving thing.
Love, then, is a condition of the will, embodied in the fundamental dimensions of the human personality, guiding them for the purpose of serving the good. In the deepest sense, love is not something you choose to do; it is what you become—a loving person. Your will is your capacity to bring things and events and processes into existence. It is the control center of the self: the “heart” or the human spirit. It is meant to direct all aspects of the self. When love pervades your will, all these other dimensions—your mind (with its thoughts, images and feelings, desires and emotions), your body, your social relationships, indeed your whole soul**—work in harmony with and in service to the kingdom of God, and your life becomes a testimony to the God who meets your every need.
The Heart of a Servant
One of the hallmarks of those who live a life without lack is the freedom to serve others. From Jesus’ perspective, there is no greater calling than to be a servant.* And whatever our place in life, as love fills and flows through us we will be engaged in caring for the welfare of others. The Shepherd Psalm portrays this as it poetically describes the abundance of God’s provision in the language of a feast at which the psalmist is an honored guest.
Speaking to God, he says, “You prepare a table before me” (v. 5). On this table is a full banquet, including a cup that is overflowing. But that’s not all. Surprise guests are in the room—the psalmist’s enemies! The Lord has prepared this meal “in the presence of my enemies” (v. 5). We do not know if they are sitting at the table with him, but they are in his presence. I imagine that David, lacking nothing, and realizing that he certainly does not deserve this kind of divine accommodation, stops and serves his enemies, offering them food and drink and inviting them into the fellowship of the Shepherd’s sufficiency. Having been served, he is free to serve.
Jesus, of course, is our master and model in this regard. Next to the passion events that led up to and included his crucifixion, there may be no clearer and more powerful expression of Jesus’ servant heart than what took place at another feast, in an Upper Room hours before his passion began.
The scene is described in the thirteenth chapter of the gospel of John, which begins with these words: “Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour had come that He should depart from this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end” (v. 1). Clearly, John is preparing his readers for a lesson in how Jesus “loved them to the end.”
For Jesus, this meal was the beginning of that end. He recognized that the hour had come in which he was going to be killed. He knew that in just a few hours he would be taken by the Roman soldiers and the priests who were guiding them, and he would lay down his life. A normal person would be preoccupied with this knowledge. But when Jesus came to this moment he was thinking, What would be the most important lesson for me to leave my friends?John’s narrative continues:
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper and laid aside His garments, took a towel and girded Himself. After that, He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded. (John 13:3–5)
This is faith. Everything was in his hands. Everything! Yet he was free to give it up, for he was secure in his knowledge that “he had come from God and was going to God.” It was in that confidence that he was prepared to do what he did—in the Upper Room with his disciples, then later in the garden, in Pilate’s hall, and on the cross.
As he was washing the disciples’ feet he came to Peter who, obviously troubled by what Jesus was doing, exclaimed, “Master, you shouldn’t be washing our feet like this.” Jesus was not surprised at this response. He had observed the dynamics of this little group and had chosen to answer the question on everyone’s mind: “Who is going to wash our feet?” Their unspoken answer had unanimously been, “Not me! I’m not going to wash any feet.” We can be sure this question had been on their minds because at this particular meal there was no host. The host normally would arrange for the foot washing.
All having answered the question by their silence; they were ready for an essential lesson about love. So Jesus engaged in serving them by meeting their needs. First, the need for clean feet. In those days feet really needed to be washed. It should have been done before the meal, because in that time they ate lying down, so noses and feet were not all that far apart. It would have been nice if the feet had been washed and anointed before the meal. But the disciples were unwilling to stoop (literally) to do that, which proved they had a far deeper need than dirty feet; they needed to learn about the servant heart of love. Apparently even after Jesus showed them, they still did not understand. So he made sure they got the point:
So when He had washed their feet, taken His garments, and sat down again, He said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you. Most assuredly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. (vv. 12–17)
One way we have responded to this story is to have foot-washing ceremonies, often on Maundy Thursday of Holy Week.* While these services can be meaningful, often the main benefit is bestowed upon the person who is doing the washing, rather than on the one receiving it. This is because there is no unmet need being addressed; the recipient’s feet are not in need of cleaning. Foot washing is symbolic of a duty to be humble, which, while certainly a praiseworthy virtue, is not the only point Jesus was making. He was actually helping people, delighting in them, relating to them in meaningful ways to meet a need and promote their well-being. In this sense we should hear him say, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34–35).
The Brand-New Old Commandment
What was “new” about this commandment? Certainly it was not new in the sense that it had never been heard before. John used similar language in his first epistle when he wrote, “An old commandment I give to you,” and then he said, “No, it’s a new commandment” (1 John 2:7–8 PAR). So which is it, old or new? Jesus was essentially saying, “Listen, you have heard about love ever since Moses told you to love your neighbor as yourself. I am showing you what that really means. You are to love one another with the same concern with which I have loved you. Do that and it will be obvious that you are my disciples.” The newness of the commandment lies in the kind of love Jesus was demonstrating, a love flowing freely and easily from his God-rooted resources. When we love like this it is not the result of human effort, but of the radical with-God-ness we have in him. It is a gift of God.
If you look at Mohammed, or Buddha, or Confucius, or any other leaders, you will never find anyone who loved his disciples the way Jesus did. Not one of them. Some people, in an attempt to prove the superiority of Christ, focus on the fact that only he rose from the dead. That is true. But deeper still, the very character of Jesus stands out in how he related to his followers. None of these other leaders were willing to die for their disciples. And when you read their teachings, you can clearly see that Jesus was the only one living in the realm of agape love.
Within the academic world there are those, like the late John Hick, who seek to grade world religions by comparing their power to transform and fulfill human personality.7 On this basis, every religion in the world flunks except Christianity. Only Jesus passes that test. Only Jesus enables his followers to live a life of selfless, joyful, anxiety-free, loving service on behalf of others. Having said that, the sad truth is that our churches today do not preach this as themessage of the gospel. They have not offered this matchless life to people. They have not asked, “Would you actually like to live like this? Would you like to be possessed by this kind of love?”
You can be. God will give it to you, and when he does, these things that Jesus and Paul say about love will be realized in your life, not because you did it, but because you welcomed love in and let it take possession of you. You will be able to say with the old hymn, “I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore . . .” but “Love lifted me.”
While it is good to remember that love saves us, it is equally true that love is meant to enter our lives, our bodies, and our hearts. We are to be temples of the Holy Spirit, sacred spaces in which God dwells. He is the Spirit of Love who desires to reside within us and empower us to love as he loves. When the gospel of Jesus Christ is fully proclaimed, it includes offering this kind of life to people. The opportunity to be able to love people—all people—like Jesus does must be clearly presented, and then we must decide if that is something we want. If we truly want love like that, God will give it to us. But if we do not choose to become as loving as Jesus, we will never know a life without lack. For such a life is realized through love filling our lives. Faith is only completed in love, because our faith is in a God of love—no other. The more this faith grows in us, the more we will experience the carefree joy of Christ’s love.
How to Love Somebody (But Not Everybody)
You might be saying, “Well, you don’t know the people in my life. If you did, you’d realize how hard it is to love them. I’ve tried, and it just doesn’t work!” Without denying that it can be tough, the reality is that these are just the kind of people we need to love, and whom God can enable us to love. Of course, we must want to love people, and we need to be willing to think about it in practical ways. More precisely, we need to decide who we are going to love and how we are going to do it. This is something the Lord must lead us into, and there are some simple steps we can take as we seek to enter a life of love.
First, we must realize that we are not called to love everybody. We are called to love people, but “everybody” is not a living, flesh-and-blood person (which is one of the things that makes the thought of loving “everybody” so delightful!). If you are going to love at all, you are going to love “somebody,” not “everybody.” To be sure, love is inclusive. God’s embrace is meant for all people. God loves everybody, but God has bigger arms and a bigger heart than we do. You are not infinite, and you cannot pick up the slack for other people who are not fulfilling their obligations to love those around them.
We are called to love our neighbor. Neighbor is an old English word that means, literally, “the boor who is neigh thee,” that is, nearby. Not the bore who is nearby! A boor is a farmer, and a neigh-boor is the farmer nearby. You are called to love those who are neigh thee—your family, your friends, your coworkers, the folks in your neighborhood, and, yes, even the “enemies” in your life, the ones who irritate, demean, frustrate, and mistreat you.
I have neighbors who come to my door and want to borrow my tools. That’s where the rubber meets the road for me. I like my tools. You may know what that’s like. You like your tools, and you like to have them there when you need them; they are a part of your power to cope with life! So here comes my neighbor who says, “I want to borrow your crescent wrench.” And I pull it out of the toolbox—kiss it!—and hand it to him. That is loving my neighbor, dying to self, and trusting in God (for the return of my wrench)—all wrapped up in one simple act of obedience.
Finding That Special Somebody to Love
It is important for us to get away from the idea of loving everyone. We cannot love everyone; it is not physically possible. When I was a child, my dear father would tip his hat to every car he met as we drove down the road. Imagine tipping your hat to all the cars you meet today. You would wear out your hat, and your head! You cannot love every-body. Only some-body.
The question is then, “which somebody?” Who are you going to choose for your experiment in love? You will likely do better if you begin with people who are not your closest friends and family. Of course, God may have gifted you such that you truly do love those who are close to you. But perhaps these are the relationships you find the most difficult, and you need to start elsewhere. There could be someone at the office or someone at work whom it will be easier to love. Eventually you will be ready to focus on the more difficult, and probably more important, relationships. God desires to heal our souls, and then we are better able to love the people he brings into our lives.
Jesus said, “Love your enemies” (Matt. 5:44), and I take that to include a promise. It is a promise that the burden of hatred and enmity can be lifted from me toward that person. He also said, “Forgive” (Mark 11:25). That, too, is a promise that I can escape the burden of unforgiveness. He will help me do that. But it will take time, training, and grace, and it is a good expression of proper humility that we not begin with the hard cases. Everyone has heard, “Love your enemies,” but usually when we try to do that we fail because it does not work the way we thought it would. So select someone with whom you have a fairly good relationship, and practice loving that person.
Next, set a time frame. Focus on that one person for one week. Remember, this does not mean you try to have pleasant feelings about them. It is fine to have such feelings, but that is not the goal of loving them, nor are these feelings necessary in order to love. Loving them means caring for them, and it starts with your decision to love them. You will not drift into love; you must decide to love. And then ask God to help you, because you will only be able to love as God assists you in the realities of that concrete relationship. Ask God to show you something in this person that is good and for which you can be thankful. Let the Lord show you a good thing about them, and then love them by being thankful for them.
It is likely that you will want to do something for the person for whom you are thankful. Gratitude calls forth a response. Since love involves service, you will want to think about ways you can help your chosen someone. Is there a need you can supply? Is there a hardship you can help relieve? Is there a load you can lighten? Think of things you can actually do to help them. Love always involves the use of your own resources and abilities—the gifts God has given you—for the purpose of serving his kingdom by serving others. If a friend needs legal help, and you are a computer engineer, you may not be able to help her in that particular need. But you may be able to refer her to an honest and experienced lawyer whom you know. Or you may be able to offer financial assistance. You certainly can pray for her. Indeed, prayer should always be involved. The point is that love is expressed in service that truly helps someone by the use of our abilities and resources.
Because love seeks to be helpful in practical ways, you may have to be secretive in your plan. If your friend finds out you are doing this, she may become very uneasy about it, and the result might be that you are unable to improve her life in any way. While you do not want to lie about it, neither do you just walk up to someone and announce, “I’m going to love you by doing this helpful thing for you.” Just begin to work toward her good. The aim is to be a loving person, not just to be seen as a loving person. We are not trying to prove anything to anyone. Love does not force itself upon others. If a neighbor asks to borrow your lawnmower because his is broken, do not tell him, “Yes, you can borrow my lawnmower, and you must also borrow all my other tools, since I am supposed to go the extra mile, like Jesus said.” If you do this, you are serving yourself, not your neighbor.
Love Means Being Able to Say No
One more practical matter: because love seeks the well-being of the beloved, at times saying no may be the loving thing to do. When such an occasion arises, it is best to prayerfully sit and talk with the person, explaining the reasons for your noncooperation. A child, for example, might ask his parents to lie for him for a “good” reason. That is something you just cannot do in love. You serve a child in that circumstance by explaining to him that truth is extremely important. If he has been led into fellowship with Jesus and has understood some truths from the Bible, you might even teach him how the foundation of the kingdom of evil is based upon lies, as we discussed in chapter 3. You could ask him how he would like being lied to and say, “If I lie to them for you, how will you ever trust me, since you know I lie for people?” Of course, you would have to be prepared for the child—and for adults as well—to be very unhappy with you. You need to receive that response patiently and lovingly and be firm without irritation. With children that is often the primary challenge.
If you need to resist a neighbor’s request for his own good—or yours—remember this important truth from the last chapter: true death to self means we do not allow others to exalt their desires to the ultimate place and then expect us to conform to those desires. This is very important, and it may cause them to say, “Well, you don’t really love me.” We, in turn, must be prepared to respond, “No, I really do love you, and that is why I cannot do as you ask.” We must be very firm on this, again trusting God to be at work in the neighbor’s life and having a firm place to stand in the midst of his upset response.
In all this we must be careful not to get our egos involved. We are not serving people to prove something about ourselves. If you find yourself in that position, just lay it down before God.* It is a spiritual problem that you and God need to work out together. Since this is an internal issue of the heart, not visible to others, you may be able to continue to help them, but you will need to address it.
Another reason we must keep our egos in check is that some people, especially those with severe emotional problems, will make us a god in their lives. This is a situation where the church or our fellowship can be of tremendous help when great demands are being placed upon us. We should come to our brothers and sisters and talk to them about such a situation, asking for guidance and prayer and possibly for others to share the load. Helping people can include a lot of traps for you and for those being helped.
As you see, effective, loving service requires deep maturity. The only thing that can guide us well is faith in God, a genuine concern for the well-being of others, and an unwillingness to do or cooperate with what is wrong. Some things can be quite complex, such as addictions or marriage problems or involvement in illegal activities. You need to know your own limitations in helping directly and when it is best to connect someone with organizations qualified to deal with the more significant issues. You must be careful.
The Joy of Loving
As you grow in your capacity to love, something is going to happen to you: you will find that you have great joy. One of the greatest things in the world is to love people. It is so much better than hatred or indifference. We were created for love. This is the source of the attractive power of the great prayer called “The Sower” or “The Peace Prayer,” often attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi.*
Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
Oh, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled, as to console.
To be understood as to understand.
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.
It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
“It is in giving that we receive.” Jesus taught what we may call the reciprocity of goodness:
Judge not, and you shall not be judged. Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you. (Luke 6:37–38)
As you give love, you receive love and experience joy. Joy in turn will increase your capacity to love, and you will become capable of being kind to the “hard-to-loves” in your life.
They may be those in your family. Parents often have hard times with their children because, if mine are anything representative, they do not always do what we believe they should do. We are wounded by this and tend to feel that they are walking evidence that we have been wrong, that we are not good people. Or the reverse may be true for a child having to deal with a difficult parent.
In either case we begin by asking God to help us delight in them, focus on what is good for them, and celebrate what is valuable within them. This may involve going back in our memories, and saying, “Lord, help me to remember the good.” Because it may be that things have been so bad that you are unable to see anything good or valuable. No one is only an unvarnished lump of bad. We must seek to see them, to relate to them, to be with them as it is appropriate and good. Set your mind to be with them, and pay attention to them. Do what is good for them. Look into their eyes, and talk to them and listen to them; serve them, help them, give to them. Enjoy them. Praise God for them.
Love Means Getting to Say, “I Forgive You”
This kind of response has all the power of God in it for dealing with other people. If there is any hope for people, it is that they can be redeemed through love. As Peter learned firsthand, “love will cover a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). Love can redeem. While we must not assume the responsibility of redeeming our enemies—that is God’s business—we can be set free from bondage to our enemies. The person who has the most power over your life is the person you have not forgiven. That person holds a part of you in bondage. To forgive is to regain your self.
Forgiveness is a special kind of relationship, which, if you do not dwell in it fully, you cannot dwell in it at all. This is why Jesus said that unless you forgive, you will not be forgiven. You cannot receive forgiveness if you do not give forgiveness, because you will never understand the heart of God unless you see that mercy should govern all our relationships to one another. Forgiveness is not like a spigot you can turn on for one person and turn off for another. It is much deeper than that.
When you set out to forgive someone, it will help you greatly if you can set aside three common errors that have been attached to forgiveness in our society. First, forgiveness does not require reconciliation with your enemy. Reconciliation is two-sided, and both sides must be willing participants. Even God himself will not steamroll over the will of another person. If a person is sufficiently resolute in his heart and resistant to the Spirit of God, there can be no reconciliation.
Second, forgiveness does not require you to forget what happened. It is simply wrong to say to another person, “Oh, come on, if you really forgave me, you would have forgotten it.” You may never forget what a person did, and you may find that you treat them differently because you have learned something about their character that you didn’t know before, but you can choose to love them for who you now know them to be and support their efforts to grow. Forgiveness lets people off the hook and frees us to love them.
Third, forgiveness does not mean you stop hurting. This is a common issue between a husband and wife when one has been unfaithful. The offending party may ask forgiveness, and the wounded one says, “Yes, I’ll forgive you,” but remains deeply wounded. The guilty one, who becomes offended and hurt because the other person is still in pain, says in effect, “Stop hurting so I can stop hurting! If you don’t stop hurting, that means you haven’t forgiven me!” Forgiveness is the choice not to punish or seek revenge. It is not—it cannot be—the choice to stop hurting. Forgiveness can come long before the healing is complete.
Once we make that choice to forgive we will need God’s help. Like love and faith and death to self, we cannot fully forgive without God’s supply of forgiveness (Col. 3:13). We can, however, choose not to punish the one who has hurt us, and we can ask God to help us be aware when we start to entertain the idea of possible punishment or revenge. Those ideas are often coming down the track long before they go into play, and we can see them growing larger in the corner of our mental eye. That’s the way temptation works. Temptation never hits you without announcing itself beforehand and giving you a choice. You must be prepared to call out for God’s help to find the way of escape (1 Cor. 10:13). It also helps to remember this: to forgive is to love is to be set free . . . and to know deep joy.
A Dynamic Life Without Lack
Faith. Death to self. Agape love. I have described these as the three points of the triangle of sufficiency at the heart of the life without lack. They are not in a static, but a dynamic relationship to each other. There is a divine synergism between them, as each one nourishes the other. Faith feeds death to self, death to self feeds love, love feeds faith, and on it gloriously goes.
When these are fundamental realities in your life, you are exactly where David was when he said, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” You will find yourself saying, “What about that thing I was wishing for? I thought I needed it. But now, I find that I am just fine without it!” When you get to that point, your life is so full of good that you are prepared to take the absence of something from your life as sufficient proof that you do not need it. Not because you are trying to make it happen, but because it simply happens to those who know the all-sufficiency of God. This is not something you can make happen, but God can . . . and will. The ultimate freedom that comes to the one whose life is characterized by faith, death to self, and love is the assurance that you have everything you need in God.
 Willard, D. (2018). Life without lack: living in the fullness of psalm 23. Thomas Nelson