Spiritual Love

“Therefore, spiritual love will prove successful insofar as it commends Christ to the other in all that it says and does. It will not seek to agitate another by exerting all too personal, direct influence or by crudely interfering in one’s life. It will not take pleasure in pious, emotional fervor and excitement. Rather, it will encounter the other with the clear word of God and be prepared to leave the other alone with this word for a long time. It will be willing to release others again so that Christ may deal with them. It will respect the other as the boundary that Christ establishes between us; and it will find full community with the other in the Christ who alone binds us together.

“This spiritual love will thus speak to Christ about the other Christian more than to the other Christian about Christ. It knows that the most direct way to others is always through prayer to Christ and that love of the other is completely tied to the truth found in Christ.”

—Dietrich Bonhoeffer; Life Together
(emphasis mine)

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“Love is not affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained.”

—C. S. Lewis

Love

Releasing the Lover

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I had a conversation last month with someone trying to explain his rekindled passion for following Christ. He talked with fervor, “Life just works better when you do it God’s way. He is the answer to my deepest longings and needs. I feel most fulfilled, peaceful, and happy when I am obedient to Him.”

I heard him, but wanted to challenge him to take things a step further. “But as we grow in relationship with God,” I countered, “hopefully we fall more in love with Him, and begin obeying out of love for who He is, and a desire not to cause Him pain, rather than for what we get out of it.”

My friend looked at me blankly. “Yeah,” he responded, “That’s what I said.”

I didn’t press the point, but I left the conversation slightly dissatisfied that I hadn’t helped him see the difference between obedience that flows out of self-gratification, and obedience that is motivated by reverence for God.

I was reminded of our exchange this past week as I talked with a pastor friend and his wife. “Many in my profession,” he explained, “think our job is to impose a set of rules or a certain lifestyle on our congregations. To teach them how to behave according to certain standards. But the way I see it, every Christian is, at the core, a lover of Christ, and my job is to help them grow in this relationship, and release them to love Him.”

Now, I struggled with this a bit, pointing out that I have been a lover of myself since I was born. This goes pretty deep. Even my decision to follow Jesus was out of a sense of self-preservation, because I had heard about hell and didn’t want to go there.

As the conversation continued, however, we talked about how Paul, in his letters, called the Christians “saints” even though they were behaving in very un-saintly ways. It’s that “old self/new self”, “already-accomplished-although-it’s-still-in-process” type of thing. While we must acknowledge, grieve, and repent every time the old self-lover rears its ugly head, it is important to live out our true identity as passionate lovers of Christ.

The more I thought about it, the more the concept captured my imagination. Better yet, it thrilled my heart. How refreshing not to think of Christianity as a set of rules, expectations, and duties. How liberating to move beyond the obedience that expects God to reward us for our good behavior. To stop approaching God for what He does for us, and begin to truly love Him for the breath-taking Being that He is.

I am, at the deepest core of my being, a love-sick seeker of God. What a difference it would make if I woke up every day with this truth firmly entrenched in my mind and my heart. What joy, as I overflowed with the experience of being loved and loving in return. Moving past external performance, I would look for new and spontaneous ways to pour out the fullness of my heart to my Beloved.

The truest thing about you and about me is that we are lovers of God. It’s what we were made for. And once we truly believe this, it changes everything.

May you, may I, be swept up in this passionate relationship, and find the freedom and courage to release the lover inside.

Question: How does it affect you to think of yourself as a lover of God?

Loving Her

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I spent the month of August living with and caring for my grandma, who is in the early stages of dementia. It was a bittersweet time as I grieved to see how this disease was robbing someone I loved of reason and functionality, while at the same time enjoying the moments when her old spark and personality shone through.

I grew up near my grandparents, and we were very close. In their presence I always felt completely loved and secure; they showed me what a healthy marriage looked like; they impressed on me so many of the life values that I carry to this day. My grandpa, even more than my grandma, played a vital part in my formation as he stepped in and took on roles that my own father left unfilled. Grandpa has been gone six years now and we all miss him. Especially grandma. We can trace the beginnings of her decline to the dark days after my grandpa died.

As I cared for grandma I did it in honor of the person she has been, and in love for the ways she touched my life. But some days were more difficult than others. Sometimes she was unreasonable. Sometimes she was despondent. Sometimes—out of her confusion and growing inability to regulate her emotions—she became angry and hurtful. At those times I felt my patience and resolve wearing thin.

But then I thought of my grandpa. I thought of how he had worked hard to provide for her. How he had shielded her from some of the harsher realities of life. How he had loved her tenderly as a soul mate and friend. I thought of how he would grieve to see her present decline and I could picture how gently he would treat her if he were here. And in those difficult moments I could still care for her because I loved him. Because I honored him. I would think, “This one is for you, grandpa.”

As time went by, I began to realize a deeper application for this lesson. You see, I have been struggling with the church for a while. With growing alarm I am coming to see that the body of Christ is sick. Disease and dysfunction rob it of reason and vitality. It can be viciously hurtful to both insiders and outsiders alike. And my response has been to become disillusioned and distant.

But in that month with my grandma, I heard Jesus asking me to love the church, His bride.

I must first of all love her because I am her offspring. There are still glimmers of life—still hope—because something dead could never reproduce. And, as imperfect as she might be, I have been formed and shaped by her.

But even more than that, I must love her because I love Him. He who is so dear to my soul gave Himself for her existence. She is His cherished and precious bride, who He longs for and continually nurtures. With eyes of love He sees her potential beauty, even when she is being downright ugly.

So many questions remain as I consider loving the bride of Christ. What is the essence of the church? How do I recognize it? Is it a building? An event? An institution? No way. Is it the individuals, is it the group? Yes and yes, but… ???

And what does love actually look like? How do I love this schizophrenic, harsh and healing, deeply damaging and sometimes life-giving entity that I can’t even define? Is love tough? Is love tender? Yes and yes, but… ???

I am at a loss for answers. But I do know that as I sat by the pond behind my grandparents’ house I found myself walking along another shore with my Lord and Lover, and I heard Him asking quietly, earnestly:

“Do you love Me? …Tend My lambs.”

“Do you love Me? …Shepherd my sheep.”

“Do you love Me? …Take care of my bride. Love her.”