Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Serial Cereal-eating, God's Love and Christian Love (Part II)

Curry PowderKeropokPumpkins at Cold Storage
It's been a mad few weeks with parties and dinners and birthdays and weddings and CLOBS and DGs and makeup Bible studies and friends' performances and friends' recitals and writing talks together and planning camps and restaurant openings and deal closings and housewarmings and new babies to visit and late-night discussions (accompanied by pen-twirling and spreadsheets on laptops) over coffee and wine that descend into series of non sequiturs:
"30's too much."
"A coleman?"
"We can have crocker. With the baby's basketball."
"I only have a tennis one."
"No good. We want big for ice."
"We're having a party on New Year's Eve."
"How can a birthday party be evangelistic if the very essence of a birthday celebration is ME, ME, ME?"
"Coconuts." (Very persistent, that one.)

Strawberry Crunch from Marks & Sparks
And past midnight one...err...day, there was serial cereal-eating going on: there was Trix, unashamedly, proudly even, choked enriched with refined sugar, artificial colours and flavours; there was Strawberry & Almond Crunch from Marks & Spencer; there were good old Milo pops out of the box. Then there was singing, in a poorthing Mexican accent, to the tune of "On Top of Spaghetti":
On top of my Bible, all covered with crumbs
I lost my poor cocoa ball when somebody bumped

He rolled off the table, and onto the floor
And then my poor cocoa ball, he roll out the door.
Milo Breakfast Cereal
And as yet another Milo pop made a hasty getaway, there appeared a bowl for effective containment and some cold milk for drowning potential escapees.
Choc Chill
Cereal-fuelled and awash with chocolate milk, there were brains bouncing off the walls and a great number of flowcharts drawn and some handwaving and loads of Scripture-sifting through the night, until some lacklustre grey light, trying to pass off as dawn, made a shamefaced appearance in the sky.

"The sun!" she exclaimed optimistically, even as the birds chirped hesitantly, suspiciously; the tentative scattered applause of an audience unsure if an unfamiliar piece had ended and there was fresh bit about to start, or if it was just more of the same. For breakfast, because we were out of breakfast cereal, there was meringue with the last of the Northern Hemisphere's raspberries.
Vanilla Meringue and Raspberries
(Beloved, John the Apostle might have said, this is how you may know you are Singaporean: that you eat breakfast cereal for dessert and dessert for breakfast.)

But enough with ribbing poor old John. For all his apparent garrulousness, his letters are still the word of God.

Love and the Kingdom of God
John tells us that even though we do not earn admission into the kingdom of God by our acts of love towards our neighbours, there is an unbreakable connection between the existence of love in a Christian and his entrance into the kingdom. God's sheep follow his voice and his commandments, and love of neighbour is the second part of God's great double commandment of loving the LORD our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind and with all our strength (Mark 12:28-34). Love is the characteristic mark of those who are already in the kingdom (John 13:34-35, 1 John 2:3-6, 3:10b - 18, 4:7-21).

As in Part I, I don't suppose it is possible for any one post to be able to encompass the absolute enormity of the concept of love. However, since D.A. Carson has had a pretty decent go in "Love in Hard Places", most of what follows is quoted at length from it, with some rearrangement, editing and interjection:
Evangelical Clichés
Love is niceness
The sentimental view of love, when applied to a deity, renders God with all the awesome holiness of a cuddly toy and all the moral integrity of a marshmallow.

Applied to Christians, the sentimental view breeds expectations of transcendental niceness. This view says that whatever else Christians should be, they should be nice, where "niceness" usually means smiling a lot and never ever hinting that anyone may be wrong about anything (hey, that isn't nice). In the local church, it means abandoning church discipline (it isn't nice to be judgemental), and in many contexts it means restoring adulterers (for instance) to pastoral office at the mere whimper of broken repentance. After all, isn't the church about forgiveness? Aren't we supposed to love one another? Aren't we just called to be really nice people?

Similarly with respect to doctrine: the word/law kills, while the Spirit gives life, and everyone knows, of course, that the Spirit is Mr. Nice. So let us love one another and refrain from becoming upright and uptight about this divisive thing called "doctrine" and this other thing called "truth".

Our surrounding culture's sophomoric reduction of love, even Christian love, into niceness is far from biblical, for the Bible speaks firstly of the overarching responsibility of the Christian to speak the truth in all circumstances and the need to deal seriously with error and sin by, in some instances, church discipline. Scripture also speaks of a diversity of ways in which one ought to express Christian love and a diversity of contexts that demand something a great deal more profound than sentimental niceness.

It is not easy to think clearly with exegetical evenhandedness when you are being told, by outsiders or even other Christians, that you are not nice, that you are not displaying Christian love, that infact, you are a hypocrite because you have politely pointed out that the God someone worships is not the true God that the Bible presents. All of us know with shame that the church has generated its share of hypocrites, don't we? So hearing the scorn, not knowing quite how to answer, we are tempted to hunker down in our holes and resolve to be a little nicer - to smile a bit more, to crinkle the eyes and to hold that tongue even on matters of the gospel.

But we must remember that our ways are not to be the ways of the world, and our behaviour, not what is right in the eyes of the world or pleasing to them but in the eyes of God and pleasing to him.

Loving someone doesn't mean you need to like him
It is sometimes objected that love cannot be commanded: one falls in love, or one surges with love, or love grows cold but the affections cannot be commanded. Which is why some defend the false view of agapic love (discussed previously). That gives people scope for willing the good of the scoundrel whom they emotionally detest - a nice dodge. Love your neighbour but hate his guts. But we have already seen that such a view of agapic love is erroneous. In any case, it is dismissed by Paul's warning in 1 Corinthians 13 that even the kind of willed philanthropy and self-sacrifice that causes one to cast one's body to the flames can be loveless. Such a compartmentalised view of love cannot prevail. We are not allowed off the hook so easily.

(At this stage, the MumblyOne pointed out that we need not necessarily hang out and attempt to enjoy each other's sinful reformed nature, but we still fellowship in love and stand alongside our brothers who are in need, in the knowledge that we will be spending eternity together. And God cuts away our petty dislikes for the furtherance of his kingdom.)

Our failure to respond wholly to the double commandment is a function not of some alleged inherent incapacity of the affections but our sinful weakness, a function of the Fall. Just as the law functions, in part to expose our lostness, our moral inability and culpability and thus to multiply our explicit transgressions, so also here these two great commands expose our lostness, our moral inability and culpability and thus multiply our explicit transgressions.
Pardon me, is that your dog pawing at my Bible
Why love?
From 1 John, we know that we find assurance of our status as children of God by the fact that we do, in practice, love our brothers. But this is not so much a reason to love as a consequence, an effect, of loving. So why do we love? Because God first loved us (1 John 4:19) and he demonstrated this by sending his Son to die in our place, that we might have eternal life.

As a young Christian, I struggled to see the nexus between God's love and our love. Why should God's love translate into love for him and for others? Was the command some sort of emotional blackmail, like how many Asian parents wave about their acts of sacrificial love to lay claim to their right to filial piety from their children? Or the sort of guilt trip laid on by politicians who say,"Look how much I did for you: I built this nation from nothing, I upgraded your housing estate, but you were ungrateful enough not to love me by voting for me at the elections"?

The parable of the debtor was most educational:
...the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

"The servant fell on his knees before him. 'Be patient with me,' he begged, 'and I will pay back everything.' The servant's master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

"But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. 'Pay back what you owe me!' he demanded.

"His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.'

"But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.

"Then the master called the servant in. 'You wicked servant,' he said, 'I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?' In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

"This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart." (Matthew 18:23-35)
And so Jesus instructs his disciples to pray "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors" (Matthew 6:13), for if we grasp the enormity of the forgiveness and mercy that is shown by God to us in the giving of his Son for us, if we are so filled with this extraordinarily bighearted display of love, then it cannot help but overflow into our other relationships. Why love? Because we cannot help ourselves but love, and it is unthinkable that we nurse our little petty grudges against our brothers and perpetuate silly quarrels with our sisters. (Unthinkable, but our sinful selves sometimes have no qualms in indulging in such things.)

If we have established that our love as Christians is certainly derivative of God's own love, what should be the nature of a Christian's love for God and for brother and neighbour?

A Christian's Love for God: No Exact Reciprocation
Naturally, there cannot be an exact parallel between speaking of God's love and speaking of a Christian's love, for the simple reason that there are, to put it mildly, rather significant differences between God and his image-bearers. Our creatureliness and our fallenness necessarily means that our love can neither reciprocate his exactly nor emulate it entirely.

God's love for us is the love of Creator for creature; ours is the love of creature for the Creator. In some instances, the descriptions of his love for us are clearly redemptive, the love of a holy but a redeeming God for sinners; our love for him is never redemptive, but the response of hearts grateful for being loved. Our love is properly centered on him, with heart and soul and strength and mind, because he alone is God. When his love is fastened on us, it is most certainly not because we are God, but because he is God - that kind of God.

Christian's Love for Neighbour: Attempt at Emulation
Of our love for other Christians, a redeemed fallen man's love for a fellow redeemed fallen man, the Bible expressly urges emulation of the different facets of God's love.

(1) God's Intra-Trinitarian Love
Christians are to love each other (1 Thessalonions 5:15; Galatians 6:10) because they are indeed truly and organically one, like the Trinity is one. So God's intra-Trinitarian love is to be mirrored in the peculiar love that binds Christian to Christian. "I have made you known to them," Jesus tells his Father,"and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them" (John 17:26).

Unity, however, is not an intrinsic good. There is good unity, and there is bad unity. Bad unity occurs in Genesis 11 when rebellious humankind unites to build a tower to heaven to defy God. Good unity occurs around the throne of God, which is surrounded by people bought by the blood of the Lamb of God, people drawn "from every tribe and language and people and nation" (Revelation 5:9). Good unity is found among the disciples of Jesus, those for whom he prays in John 17:23:"May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me".

If this intra-church inter-Christian love commanded by God is to manifest in unity amongst Christians, the echo and extension of God's intra-Trinitarian love and unity, then this unity is to be a gospel unity and those who deny the fundamentals of the gospel are to be regarded as outside of the locus of this fold.

And however flawed the church is, the unity for which Jesus prayed for is real, deep and partially-realised on this side of the consummation. And we do see this in our experience, don't we? Despite substantial differences, we see genuine believers reach across cultural, linguistic, organisational, denominational, racial and economic barriers, and by their love they promote the gospel of Jesus Christ.

(2) God's Providential Love
As sons of God (Matthew 5:9), we are to love our enemies in imitation of our Father who shows universal and undifferentiated love in his providential provision for the righteous and the unrighteous alike. God evenhandedly sends his sun and rain upon both the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45b).

If God himself is so generous and gracious, should we not act similarly?

However, just as we cannot absolutize passages that speak of God's providential love and thereby domesticate or eliminate other ways the Bible has of speaking of God's love (for there is also God's wrath and God's judgement upon his enemies), so also one cannot responsibly absolutize this moral demand on Jesus' followers and eliminate other thing we should be imitating in God, for instance, in hating his enemies and being holy because he is holy (Leviticus 11:44-45, 1 Peter 1:15).

(3) God's Salvific Love
God's yearning love to see men and women saved is to be repeated in us: the God who loved the world now commands us to preach the gospel to every creature, driven by the same love to implore a dying world,"Be reconciled to God!"

And we are given another reason to love our enemies: Romans 12 urges us to love our enemies by appealing to God's mercies in redemption. After all, in redemption, God has given us the supreme example of loving enemies:"God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). Similarly, the ethical appeal in 1 Peter 3:9 - 12 finds itself under the explosion of praise in 1 Peter 1:3: it was in God's great mercy that he gave us new birth and thus empowered us to live in a certain way.

We have been called to follow Jesus and if Jesus suffered reproach and hate, then his followers must surely expect the same, since a disciple is not above his master (John 15:18 - 16:4). 1 Peter says that Christians are called to a life in which we do not repay evil with evil, insult with insult, but rather with blessing. Paul tells the Philippians: it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him (Philippians 1:29).

(It flies in the face of our inbuilt selfishness to bless those who persecute us and seems terribly unfair and unjust. Surely there must be justice. Surely those who defy God and blaspheme his name and hate his people should be treated harshly. But we are not to respond in kind, even when such response might be just, because at the end of the day, God himself will exact justice. We are to "leave room" for God's wrath (Romans 12:19). All sins are sins against God himself so the forgiveness and punishment of sins are God's prerogative and he will exercise this prerogative in due time.)

The demonstration of Christian love within the body and the demonstration of Christian love for those who are on the outside combine to drive us toward evangelism. Jesus said,"to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me". It is Christ's love that compels the ambassadors of the new covenant to exercise their ministry of reconciliation, imploring men and women on Christ's behalf,"Be reconciled to God" (2 Corinthians 5:14, 20). Christ's love for us reminds us that we did not deserve this wonderful salvation. Because we have been objects of Christ's seeking and redeeming love, so we become the mediators of that love to others.

(4) God's Choosing/Selective Love
God's sovereign love for the elect is reflected not only in Christian love within the community of faith, but also in Christian marriages: as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her, so the Christian husband is to love his wife and give himself for her (Ephesians 5:25) - and that, too is a restrictive and selective love, even as it is sacrificial and seeks the other's good.

If the love of Christ for the church is the standard of the husband's love for his wife, the least that this standard means is that the love must be self-sacrificial and for her good, for that is the way Christ loved the church. Always, therefore, the Christian husband must be thinking of expressing his love for his wife not only in terms of the characteristics found in 1 Corinthians 13, but with these two immensely practical tests: in what ways am I diligently seeking her good? And how is this pursuit of her good costing me something, promipting me to sacrifice something, as an expression of my love for her - in exactly the same way that the Saviour sought the church's good at the cost of his life?

The PatientOne thought that in the case of a life partner, liking the person would probably help with the lifetime commitment to love them. But regardless of whether the husband's heart still pounds within his chest upon setting his eyes on his wife, God's love for his people never allows them to forget that when he set his love on them, they were enemies (eg. Romans 5:8-11), for we are all by nature "objects of wrath" (Ephesians 2:3). So the husband is to love sacrificially his wife whether or not she is likeable or even deserving of his love.

(5) God's Conditional Love
If in some contexts God's love is made conditional on obedience, in some contexts ours is too: as we rear our children, exercise discipline in the church, deal with evil in a fallen and broken world. Indeed, just as the Bible's diverse ways of talking about God's love cannot responsibly be deployed to eradicate other things of which the Bible speaks (God's wrath, his judgement, his jealousy, his perfect holiness, his justice, his mercy), so the Bible's diverse ways of talking about the Christian's love cannot responsibly be deployed to eradicate or domesticate the fullness and complexity of what the Bible says about our dealings with sin, injustice, war, brokenness and judgement in this life and in the life to come.
If one of the dangers of this discussion has been to focus on and differentiate between the myriad ways the Bible has of talking about the love Christians should display, then the corrective is to focus on the motive for loving: a very important reality - the reality of God's love. "We love," John writes,"because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19). Love is so inherent in God's nature that love is a ncessary mark of every person who is born of God:"Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love" (1 John 4:7-8). If we grasp something of the spectacular way in which God has shown his love for us in the giving of his only Son to die for us, if we understand the enormous richness of this love in our lives, that is to say, if we have knowledge leading to salvation, it cannot but spill over into all our relationships whether with our spouse, our friends, our churchmates or our enemies. There is an unbreakable and inevitable connection between entrance into the kingdom of God and our love for others.

But we know too well that in this world, in this life, despite all the pleasure and healing it could bring, Christian love will always be a matter of loving in hard places. But none of it as hard as what God himself did:"God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us...For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!" (Romans 5:8,10).

The commandment to love our neighbours, even our enemies, surfaces in diverse and colourful ways in the New Testament. All of these diverse forms of expression are deeply challenging, greatly burdensome in time and energy, and might sometimes be hurtful and painful, but we know that none is naïve.

And we can be sure, as David Jackman says in "The Message of John's Letters", that his commands are no more burdensome than wings are to a bird. They are the means by which we live in freedom and fulfilment, as God intended us to do. We would hardly be commanded to love God and our neighbour if love were not a function of God's will and if we were unable to do so or if this was not God's optimal design for humans. But this does not mean that it is easy to fulfil God's commandment and God's design.

A Christian does not go on habitually practicing sin (1 John 3:9) but he certainly sins (1 John 1:8) and he is not happy to remain in any state of sin. And he thanks God that God has provided forgiveness in the person of Jesus Christ our advocate (1 John 2:1).

One day, the hard places will be gone. But the love will remain, unalloyed, immensely rich, reflecting in small but glorious ways the immeasurable love we have received. There, we will be able to love and be love perfectly.

The Haze, God's Love and Christian Love (Part I)

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At November 06, 2006 2:27 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow...thanks that's really hit the spot.... You're right that this post doesn't cover all the aspects of Christian love but it's a very very good beginning....


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