Christmas is definitely in the air and it is now only three days away. I was out and about with the crowds yesterday, and it was quite festive even if the traffic was massive especially around the malls. I lucked out twice by getting a fairly close parking spot, and I was happy to give it away to the next eager shopper when I left, too. Despite the crowds, everyone seems to be in a great mood. In fact, it spurred me on to think about a new blog post.
The idea for this post this morning actually came from two sources. The title of this post came from the cover of a journal full of blank pages ready to fill that I purchased three weeks ago, and the second spark came from a reading in a devotional book I just bought for 50% off a few days ago. Both are quite appropriate topics for Christmas and the coming New Year.
The devotional reading that I read this morning comes from a devotional book titled, “Experience the Power of God’s Names: A Life-Giving Devotional” (2017), by Dr. Tony Evans, author, speaker, founder and senior pastor of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship, and founder and president of The Urban Alternative. He has served as chaplain for the NFL‘s Dallas Cowboys, and he is currently the longest serving NBA chaplain serving the Dallas Mavericks for over 30 years (source here). His devotional book includes “many names of God revealing His characteristics and powerful promises to you as a believer. Each of these 85 devotions introduces you to one of God’s unique names and includes a key Scripture, practical application, and encouragement to help you in your everyday life” (quote source here).
The devotion I read this morning is found on pages 102-103 and it is focused on God’s name, Elohim Chasdi, which means “God of lovingkindness.” It opens with Nehemiah 9:17(b)–“You are a God of forgiveness, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness; and You did not forsake them.” Here is that devotion:
I think everyone would agree that our world is in need of more love and more kindness, and while we should do our best to put others first and live for others, we also need to make God our focal point. That’s because He is Elohim Chasdi, God of lovingkindness, and if we are going to have any hope of changing our world, it’s going to be through the Lord.
The Bible tells us that God is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in love. These aren’t just admirable attributes–they’re a recipe for how to live life in His image. And even if we do our utmost to live out these characteristics, we’re still going to slip up. People are still going to disappoint us. And we’re going to disappoint ourselves. But if we focus on His lovingkindness, we’ll be inspired to show more love and more kindness, which can be contagious in a very good way.
In a world of anger and retaliation and negativity, it can be challenging to see where God is and understand what He’s doing. But He is always operating in the midst of it all, filling us with the strength of His lovingkindness each day.
More love. More kindness. the Lord’s lovingkindness endures forever, and when we turn to Him in faith, we’ll be equipped to change our world. (Quote source, “Experience the Power of God’s Names,” pp. 102-103.)
More love. More kindness. Yes, the world can use a lot more of both, and not just from others… but also from us. I ran across a short blog post titled, “The Apologetic of Love,” by Preston Sprinkle, Ph.D., a New York Times bestselling author, speaker, professor, blogger at Grace/Truth 2.0, and previously Vice President for Eternity Bible College’s Boise extension. He opens his post with these words from Jesus found in John 17:21 (NLT)–“I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.” Here is what he wrote in his post published on The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute:
When I was in seminary, my professors taught me how to defend the faith. I learned how to navigate questions about the apparent contradictions in the Bible and how to respond to scientific and historical problems related to the Christian faith. I became skilled at proving Jesus’s resurrection and the superiority of the Christian worldview over other religious views. I studied the history of the Bible and could prove that it was true. I became an apologist—a defender of the Christian faith.
Over the years I’ve found that my analytical arguments don’t carry as much power as they used to (or, perhaps, as much as I thought they did). People aren’t as compelled by intellectual reasons for Christianity. I’ve seen people shrug their shoulders after I’ve proven that the Bible doesn’t contradict itself. Logic has its place, and Christianity will always be a logical religion. But there’s something more powerful than logical apologetics. I call it the apologetic of love.
Everyone knows that Jesus was big on love. It’s one of his favorite subjects, and one can hardly be a follower of Jesus without pursuing love. But there’s a certain apologetic to love. Love is the greatest defense of Christianity. Jesus says that the world will believe that the Father has sent him if his followers are unified (“that they will all be one, just as you and I are one…” John 17:21). And love is the ultimate bond of unity.
Christians don’t have to agree on everything. We don’t have to love the same hobbies, or foods, or sports, or music bands. We don’t even have to like the same Christian authors or preachers or worship leaders. We don’t have to belong to the same local church and our denominations could look very different. Christianity is a religion of difference; beautified diversity. After all, “unity” doesn’t mean “uniformity.” We don’t need to become cookie-cutter Christians to be unified, since it’s our love that binds us as one. Love of Christ, love of neighbor, love of enemy, and an unconditionally committed love of one another. “This is his commandment,” John says, “that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another” (1 John 3:23). And “he who does not love his brother…cannot love God” (1 John 4:20).
All of our analytical apologetics and robust defenses of the faith will be vindicated by our love. (Quote source here.)
The importance of love can never be overstated. While we often hear the words of 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 (the most famous love chapter in the Bible) that starts off with “Love is patient, love is kind,” we don’t often hear the first four verses that precede them:
If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing. (1 Cor. 13:1-4, NLT)
Probably the most famous and most quoted verse in the Bible is John 3:16:
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son [Jesus Christ], that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.
And in 1 John 4:19-21 we read:
We love because he [God] first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.
Jesus took love one step further when he stated in Matthew 5:43-48:
You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.
Love in vital and necessary–it is not just an option. In an article titled “What does the Bible Really Say About Love?” by Dr. David Lose, senior pastor at Mount Olivet Lutheran Church, and former president at The Lutheran Theological Seminary, he provides definitions of the three types of love found in the Bible:
Describing a biblical view of love turns out to be no simple matter. First off, the Bible was written in both Hebrew and Greek, and each of these languages has multiple words that we translate as “love.” (On this count, Hebrew wins out with about a dozen words expressing a range of emotions from sexual desire to intimate friendship, and from covenantal fidelity to acts of mercy and kindness.)
There are also understandings of love floating around among different authors. So what the author of the Song of Solomon says about love isn’t the same as what the author(s) of Genesis say, which isn’t the same as what John says, which isn’t the same as Paul … and so on. All of which means that not only is there no single view of love in the Bible but any larger scheme you propose by which to organize these various treatises on love will inevitably fall short.
Nevertheless it may still be a useful, if far from perfect, endeavor. To get at it, I’ll borrow the classic formula that distinguishes between three Greek words: eros, romantic, passionate love, from which we get our word “erotic”; phileo, the love of great friends and siblings, from which we get “Philadelphia,” the “city of brotherly love”; and agape, parental, self-sacrificing love that seeks only the welfare of the other. All three kinds of love are represented in the Bible, which means that all three are considered to be created and blessed by God.
Eros is the emotion we probably think of first when thinking of love, especially the love of Valentine’s Day and pop music. While the word itself is not present in the Greek New Testament, it depicts the passionate desire that unites lover and beloved praised in the Song of Solomon. Its presence in the Bible testifies not only that humans are moved by beauty and desire, but also that passion, romance, and sexual intimacy are an essential element of God’s good creation and the human experience.
Phileo, in contrast, is a more stable and constant emotion. Constancy not withstanding, however, phileo is also a powerful emotion that captures the love of great friends. Jesus weeps for Lazarus, whom he loved (phileo) (John 11:35), while Jonathan and David share a bond so strong that it induces Jonathan to forsake allegiance to his father in support of his beloved friend. Phileo is ultimately not about passion as much as it is about commitment, the love that binds one to another in enduring friendship.
Agape dominates the New Testament but is more rare in contemporary literature of the Greek-speaking world of the first century. Scholars agree that it best captures what we might call “Christian love.” Agape depicts the self-sacrificing love of a parent for a child and describes both God’s love for the world as shown in Christ and the love Christians should show each other and all people. As to the former, think of Tim Tebow’s – and, indeed, the world’s – favorite Bible verse: “For God so loved – agape – the world that he gave his only Son…” (John 3:16). As to the latter, think of Paul’s great hymn to love: “Love – agape – is patient and kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends” (1 Cor. 13:4-8a).
As nice and neat as these distinctions are, however, as soon as you make them you begin to watch them unravel. For many have wondered if Jonathan’s friendship with David was not tinged with a hint of eros even as it also embodies the self-sacrificing love of agape. And, truth be told, agape and phileo are often used interchangeably in the New Testament. Jesus, as it turns out, loves Lazarus in terms of both phileo (John 11:35) and agape (11:5). And while Paul at points depicts marriage as a remedy for the consuming, burning passions of sexual desire we associate with eros (1 Cor. 7:9), he – or at least his disciples – also expect husbands and wives to exhibit agape for each other by being subject to each other as Christ loved and sacrificed himself for the Church (Ephesians 5). What, then, are we to make of “love” in the Bible?
But maybe this somewhat blurry picture of love suits the complicated nature of the subject at hand. I mean, even Valentine’s Day itself has a peculiar and complex history. Originally named for a saint (or saints, depending on the tradition) that were martyred for their commitment to their faith, over the centuries Valentine’s Day came to epitomize the romantic ardor of lovers represented by the Roman god of desire, Cupid (the Romanized version of the Greek god Eros). And today one might be forgiven for thinking that V-Day is mainly about love for chocolate and lingerie.
Perhaps, then, the Bible’s convoluted treatment is fitting. After all, isn’t this mixture of emotions and motivations pretty representative of our experience? We love our partners and our children and our pets and friend and, if we’re lucky, our jobs and hobbies and much more, but not all in the same way. And even our love for a single person varies and changes, not just over the years, but over the span of moments, as passion can turn to tenderness, which can turn to a desire to protect and serve, and then turn back to desire, all between the beats of a simultaneously fickle and courageous heart. In light of this, maybe the best we can say is that love in the Bible, like love in our everyday lives, is important, complicated, and at times a bit squishy. That is, it is too powerful and mysterious to be fully defined or grasped by any of us.
So perhaps for now it’s enough to recognize that all the different kinds of love we have explored are part and parcel of our life in this world, that God created and blessed them for our nurture, and that behind and beyond all of our expressions of love is God’s love for each of us. That’s not everything we could say, of course, but I think that if we get that much straight we’ve probably gotten the heart of what the Bible has to say about love. (Quote source here.)
Obviously, love can be complicated when defining it; nevertheless, we as Christians are commanded to love brothers and sisters in Christ, family, friends, neighbors, strangers, enemies… in fact, everyone. And love is the perfect gift to give this Christmas and throughout the New Year, too.
I’ll end this post with the words from 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a—Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth . . .
It always protects, always trusts . . .
Always hopes, always perseveres . . .
Love never fails . . . .
YouTube Video: “Put A Little Love in Your Heart” by Al Green and Annie Lennox: