Charles Wesley opens two of his hymns with the question, “What shall I do my God to love?” His way of living and his entire life is his attempt to answer. It is a difficult question which I can’t answer for you and one I am still struggling with. Love is such a vague concept made worse today by the total misuse and distortion of the word. Words are valuable, but this one has been encrusted with such sordid, glamourous, casual, illegitimate usage we need to be circumspect when linking it with God. What do we mean and how is it possible?
The bible tells us it was a command of God given to a people surrounded by other gods. Our reaction is “How can you command love, isn’t it something that that just happens?” Deuteronomy puts it in correct perspective; before God tells the people what to do, he tells them what he has done for them. If we fast forward to the incarnation and crucifixion – what God has done for us is incomprehensible, immeasurable. John’s simple explanation is ‘We love him because he first loved us’ that is the sole reason for learning to love him. God took the initiative. We respond. We do not and cannot earn it. Love is God’s free gift to us because that is who God is. Charles Wesley knew this to be true, but the essence of his question is – how do I respond? How can I show my love to God who has done so much for me?
If we turn to the prophets they answer in unison believing in God is expressed not solely in ceremony, creed and ritual, but in the way we live with and treat others. They wrestled with a people who had completely gone off track and become involved in practices which contradicted their covenant with God. Each prophet tried to remind the people to love God has social implications which was summed up succinctly by Micah ‘Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God. (Micah).
If we turn to Jesus he clearly links love of God with love of our neighbour. He did not only argue with the religious leaders he opposed their misinterpretation of the Law by his actions. In their eyes he was breaking the Law, but in his eyes he was fulfilling the Law – by his inclusive behavior – dining with sinners, ignoring the embargo against Samaritans, healing a centurion’s daughter, loving his enemies and in the end giving his life to demonstrate God’s unconditional love. His life, teaching and ministry was all about love.
If we listen to his disciple John, who knew Jesus in the flesh, he tells us love is a relational act, ‘The person who refuses to love doesn’t know the first thing about God, because God is love…. No one has seen God, ever. But if we love one another, God dwells deeply within us’ (1 Jn. 4) TM. If we listen to another disciple, Paul, who never knew Christ in the flesh, but who was arrested and changed by his experience of Christ’s love for him, his letters interpret how we can love God. He gives us the finest ever description of what love is (1 Cor.13), he reminds them that God works for love in everything that happens, saying love builds them up, he says the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love, he prays they will be rooted and established in love, he says love binds all other virtues in unity, expressed in compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience, he gives thanks to God for their growth in love for one another urging them to go deeper. Love, love, love is his endless theme – being practiced in the community without reserve and at every social level. That was the arena in which their love for God was being proven.
On learning how to love God we come back to Jesus for the clearest instruction of all, first in his demonstrations – he does not condemn, he sees everyone in God’s light, he shows no prejudice or discrimination, he readily forgives, he is gentle, kind and merciful, he opposes injustice and untruth. This is strongly supported by his teaching and by his final request to his followers, ‘Love one another as I have loved you”. He asked Peter, “Do you love me?” This is his question to everyone who wants to be a follower. Eugene Peterson writes, ‘Love is not a sentimental way of feeling, but a sanctified way of living’.
Love is poured into our heart by God’s own Spirit who is our Helper. Our relationship to Jesus is a personal matter (no one can stand in as our substitute), but it cannot be a private, individualistic matter separating us from the world and from life with others, we are interconnected. In his prayer time Pierre de Chardin made two discoveries, one ‘The entire universe is sacred’ and two, ‘When you invite Jesus into your heart he brings all his friends with him’. It is a life-time learning curve for us as we seek to interpret and apply it consistently to our time, our situation and among those with who we live. It is as simple and as difficult as that, but there is no better reason for living.