What does it mean to love? I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. We love naturally without being taught. Watch a child with a puppy, or a new mother or father staring down at their child. They give love without thinking almost as if it’s ingrained in them. Everyone, whether they know it or not, wants to love and be loved. When we don’t have that need satisfied, it doesn’t just go away. We find other ways, often unhealthy ways, to satisfy the desire. Much of our selfish behavior ultimately stems from areas of our lives where we’ve felt unloved or underappreciated. There’s a psychological drive, which often leads to selfish behavior when these needs go unfulfilled. We try to meet our own desires in areas where we feel neglected; and what is neglect if not the act of withholding loving kindness from another?
I was sitting in the living room one evening, and I went in to check on my wife Jill. I asked her if she’d watch a movie with me. She was tired and wanted to read to wind down. I wandered into the living room sulking a bit because she didn’t do what I wanted to do. After a few minutes of pouting, I had a moment of clarity. I was bothered because I wanted what I wanted. I didn’t care that Jill had gotten up early that morning to take care of me and the boys and to help get the family ready for the day. Those of you who don’t know my wife might not understand how much she gives to others. She gives relentlessly, and it can be exhausting for her. She wanted some time to rest, and I wanted her to set aside her needs for mine. In that moment, I realized that I needed to look inward in order to support her more. I need to love her more selflessly than I do. I need to do the same for my kids, and frankly everyone with whom I have contact.
Since that night, I’ve been pondering what it means to love. I don’t mean the Hallmark cliché version of love, or the ‘love’ we casually toss around in reference to possessions we have or want. I mean the kind of love that genuinely wants the best for others – including what some people call tough love – because it’s ultimately for the best. The kind of love that helps build up and creates a strong foundation in our relationships with others. As I said from the beginning, love is a hardwired need in all of us. We desire to have it and to give it. None of us are perfect at it because we’re human, but can you imagine what it would mean to love perfectly? Would it even be possible to love perfectly? If one could love perfectly, what would it look like? Well, I think it would look like Jesus.
Perfect love would require a perfect person, which is paradoxical. We are by our very nature imperfect. However, Jesus was simultaneously God and man – the human incarnation of God on Earth, and as such, He was perfect. That can be a little hard to grasp, but it’s not so difficult when you spend time thinking about it. God is perfection. In every aspect, God is perfect. God in physical human form would by his very nature have to be a perfect human. Out of necessity then, Jesus would have lived perfectly and he would have loved perfectly.
Jesus was asked by religious leaders and scholars of his day what the greatest commandment was. His response? “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 22:37-40).” He boils the Bible down to loving God and loving others. If these are the greatest commandments and our Christian lives rest upon them, then to fall short would be to sin wouldn’t it? It would take a perfect person to love God and others in this way. What gives though? These commandments aren’t even explicitly stated in the list of rules that even non-Christian and non-Jewish people know as the Ten Commandments, are they? Well, not exactly, but in reality these Commandments neatly fit into two buckets. One bucket tells us to love God above all else. The other bucket tells us how to treat others – or you could say – how to love your neighbors. Jesus went beyond a list of rules and got to the heart of what it means to follow the commandments. They’re about love, not about following a list of ‘thou shalt nots.’
As Christians, the goal for our lives should be to love God first above all else, and then to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. If there was any confusion at all about what Jesus was telling us here, the Apostle Paul (who may be the one person we have to thank most beyond Jesus for the growth and spread of Christianity) told us that no matter what we do and give, up to including bodily self-sacrifice, it is meaningless if we do it without love (1 Corinthians 13:3). Jesus tells us to love, and the Apostle Paul confirms it. He says none of our good behavior matters if it’s not rooted in love. To love like Jesus loves means to put God first, and we can do that by following his command to love others selflessly.
We study Jesus’ life and words in the Bible because it teaches us about God and his message for us. It teaches us to love others like He loves us. Jesus told us over and over in word and deed that He came to serve. If we’re to love like Jesus, then we need to serve and love others – not ourselves. So, as I sat there on the couch that evening lamenting the fact that I wasn’t getting my way, it occurred to me that I need to love Jill better; and I need to love my sons Levi and Asher better. I’ll never do it perfectly, but I’m going to try to do it. I’ll fail, but the more I focus on trying to live like Christ and love like Christ, the more I show God I love him; and the more I’ll show my wife and kids and the people around me that I love them too.
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