“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35)
“‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’… ‘And who is my neighbor?’” (from Luke 28: 27, 29)
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you…” (Luke 6:27)
The primary distinguishing feature of a Christian should be how they love those who agree with them…and those who don’t. Christians should easily recognizable by their mind-boggling love for those who despise them. It shouldn’t be difficult to tell who the Christians are in the neighborhood or at work.
So, why are Christians in America not known for their love? Instead, studies consistently show that Christians are seen by most as judgmental, by many as hateful, and by only a few as readily identifiable in a crowd.
What Should Love Look Like?
Scripture characterizes love as a verb. Love is something we do – not just something we feel. Biblical love is hard – it is not passive or lazy. 1 Corinthians 13 and 1 John 4 describe a love that is quite the opposite of our natural, human inclination toward self-preservation. Jesus modeled a love that defies explanation – a script written from the beginning of time where the Author dies an excruciating death to save everyone from imminent peril. The Lord could have chosen 1,000 easier ways for Christ to shed His blood to atone for our sins, but He revealed a plan to the prophets well in advance that involved His own Son being “pierced for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities” to demonstrate His overwhelming love for us. Christ’s love, which the Great Commandment calls us to emulate, entails:
- Sacrifice – What if a friend died to save you? How would you live differently from that point on? How would you act toward your (deceased) friend’s family to show your appreciation? In that light, the fact that Christ died for us should spur Christians to a life of radical generosity, showing our love for Him and His children.
- Mercy – Jesus healed, fed and forgave at every opportunity. Jesus continually emphasized the importance of compassion toward the poor, sick and lost – not just in words, but in actions.
- Obedience – Jesus states plainly in John 14 that “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching.… Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching”. Obedience and love are joined at the hip. We obey out of love for Christ and never in a futile, conditional attempt to “earn” or “deserve” salvation.
- Selflessness – Philippians 2 associates love with putting the interests of others above our own, a concept so counter to our natures that it may require a lifetime of sanctification to learn to “love our neighbors as ourselves”.
- Unity – Philippians 2 also joins the call in John 17 for absolute, complete unity of all believers in mind and spirit. “Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:23)
- Forgiveness – Jesus linked love and forgiveness inextricably in His encounter with the woman who washed His feet with perfume at the dinner. “Whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” (Luke 7:47) If we realized just how many sins Jesus has forgiven for us, we would not be so quick to judge others. “’Now which of them will love him more?’…Simon replied, ‘I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.’” (Luke 7:42-43)
- Unconditional – Agape love is love for God and others with no expectations or strings attached. Given our sinful natures, the purity of Agape isn’t possible apart from Christ through the Holy Spirit.
How Does Today’s Culture Define “Love”?
In American culture today, love is viewed less as a verb and more as a noun. Rather than something we do, it’s something we feel. Because Agape is unattainable for non-believers, they settle for love in lesser forms:
- Phileo – This brotherly love is found in the warmth and affection between friends. Companionship provides the sense of community that so many desire, but Phileo can be conditional and never extends to those we do not like. Mark Zuckerberg thinks Facebook can replace churches because he sees the Church’s role reduced to providing community.
- Storge – “Suburbia” values providing for our families at the expense of all others. Parents have no time to care for poor because they’re working late nights all week to finance a desired quality of life for their families, and then run from soccer games to cheerleading practice all weekend. It is hard to argue with this family-oriented form of love, but it leaves little room for Agape.
- Eros – Our TV, radio and Internet “airwaves” are filled with references to this sexually-charged form of love, which is better coined “infatuation” in a society that endorses and encourages premarital sex.
- Tolerance – Under the guise of love, compassion and justice, society vehemently defends the right of each and every individual to determine his/her own moral compass and rejects anyone who defers to a higher moral authority than themselves. Deifying each other’s false god of “self” is not love – it’s idol worship (worship of the creation and not the Creator).
- Freedom – In America today, any attempts by Christians to point out sin is seen as judgmental or fear-mongering – a form of hate, not love. Although enslaved to sin, non-believers demand to remain free from the imposition of Christian values, truth or morality. In the name of “love” (by their definition), they love and defend self at all costs.
- Emotions – Ask most non-Christians in the U.S. to define “love” and you are likely to hear descriptions of feelings and human emotions, not the action-oriented version in 1 Corinthians.
- Social Justice – One area where Millennials view love as a verb is in fighting for human rights, which they believe Christians frequently violate (by advocating Biblical standards of behavior).
Love comes from the one true God, not from the world. “We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) Apart from Christ, society can only conjure up counterfeit, cheap imitations.
Why Doesn’t Society See Christians as Loving?
Yes, the world has a distorted view of love. Christians do not live according to the secular definition of love, so we don’t appear loving when looked at through that filter. However, there is merit to certain aspects of society’s perception of love – like Phileo, Tolerance and Social Justice. Those correspond loosely to the Biblical principles of Unity, Forgiveness and Mercy. Are Christians doing those components of love well? If not, then we’re not living out society’s definition of love – or ours.
The Bible says our love for one another should shock, amaze and attract non-believers to Christ. Yet if what once was attractive about Christianity when we treated love as a verb (i.e. action and compassion toward all men and women, even “enemies) is no longer distinguishable from society’s view of love as a noun (i.e. positive feelings and emotions toward those who are like-minded), then Christianity will repel non-believers. That’s the situation our faith finds itself in today – one where culture has impacted the Church more than churches are impacting culture.
In other words, society expects Christians to love like them or to show them what true love looks like. But if believers don’t exhibit either the version of “love” that society espouses or that Christ modeled, then they will be loving in a way that others do not understand or appreciate. In that event, we can expect a continued decline in Church growth, influence, impact and perception in our nation. The segue away from the Biblical definition of love began as institution-building replaced disciple-building in recent decades. “Church” came to be known as a place with evangelism entrusted primarily to “professionals” and members tasked only with inviting people to come to an “event”. To attract and retain members, church leaders lowered expectations and no longer held members to the Great Commission mandate. Rather than equipping disciples to go out (and follow Jesus’ example of leading with compassion and then telling them who He is), the focus shifted internally – as did the objects of our “love”.
Accordingly, society observes the allegiance Christians have to their particular church, pastor and fellow members, but not their Unity (as one universal body), Forgiveness (of those who think differently) or Mercy (for those in need or oppressed):
- Are We United? – The world sees our splits, factions and denominations. However, it is not seeing much collaboration across churches around causes of great importance within our cities. Nor are we demonstrating love for our persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering around the globe.
- Are We Forgiving? – Our lack of unity spills over into a perceived self-righteousness and judgmentalism toward those outside of our immediate congregation, inadvertently redefining “neighbor” by confining love to a narrower audience than Jesus intended.
- Are We Merciful? – Even within our church families, we aren’t modeling the love and sacrifice that led the church in Acts to sell their possessions to ensure no one suffered for lack of food or clothes. Churches in America no longer lead the way in caring for the poor outside of their “4 walls” as they did for 1900 years when churches were the food bank and homeless shelter.
Love is action, not just words. Love is the essence of our faith. The perception of Christians will change when our love of God extends and overflows naturally and unconditionally beyond our fellow believers to all mankind. The culture war raging in America today can only be won when churches stop building institutions that tend to fight an air war (dropping verbal bombs) and start building disciples who engage in a ground war using love and compassion as their chosen weapons.
It’s Your Turn…
Are there any other reasons why you believe society does not associate church or Christians with the word “love”? What can be done to restore that reputation and lead more people back toward Jesus?