Tag Archives: love of neighbor

“How Can I Experience God As Real?” (The Highfield Letters #1)

Over the years I’ve received many letters asking my opinion on various issues or requesting my help with a troublesome concern. I take these inquiries as occasions not only to do something good for others but also to think about an issue of interest. I received a letter a few years back in which the correspondent asked this compound question: “Why does God seem so distant to me, and how can I experience God as real?” Perhaps you’ve also felt this absence and asked this question. I know I have. I was so happy to receive this note, because it gave me an occasion to think about my own experience. Here is the essence of what I wrote in response:

Dear God-Seeker:

God is not a physical object we can experience through the five senses. God is not merely a concept we can think in a clear and simple way. Nor is God an idea or image we can picture in our imaginations. How then can we experience God, if God is not like anything else we experience? Let’s not give up hope. God can be real and active without being real and active in the same way that other things are. I know you believe that God exists, creates, and takes care of us and our world. And because of Jesus, you believe that God loves the whole world and you. Hence you know that God is everywhere active and loving. But we don’t experience God’s omnipresent action in the way we experience the local acts of people and animals and the forces of nature. Why? Local acts stand out from their backgrounds and call attention to themselves, but God’s action—except in the case of miracles, which we are not discussing—touches everything at once. As the most universal agent, God’s actions are undetectable in the ways we notice other actions. So, we should not be surprised that we feel God’s absence from the array of our ordinary experiences. But we are not satisfied with this. Is there another way to experience God as really real?

We crave experience because experiencing gives us immediate certainty, which beliefs, thoughts, and ideas do not. To experience something is to be changed by that thing so as to become in some way like it. In our awareness of ourselves—in what we call our feelings—we also experience the other thing. I know you believe that God is active and loving. The idea of God is clear in your mind. What you want now is experience. Here is my opinion on how to attain what you seek: In this life, we can experience God best by becoming like God in his activity. God is present in our world in his loving, self-giving action. Hence when we join with God in loving what God loves in the way God loves it, we will experience God in action in us. We will experience ourselves as changed and formed by God’s loving action on us and through us. As in all experience, we receive an immediate certainty of the presence of the thing we are experiencing; we know that the changes in us don’t come from us alone.

And perhaps you have guessed already that I am speaking here of the action of the Holy Spirit, which is the cause of all human experience of God. As Paul promises, “And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5). Notice also how John connects our confidence, our immediate certainty, with the action of the Spirit working in our actions of loving others in imitation of God’s love for us:

 We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other…This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters…Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us (1 John 3:14-24).

By the witness of creation and Word we come to believe that God is real and that he loves us. And by the action of the Spirit we are prompted and empowered to respond to God’s love with our love. God’s love frees us to love him in return and to love what God loves in the way he loves it. In our acts of love we experience a taste of God’s own feelings of love for us and the world. What joy and certainty can be ours if only we will heed the Spirit’s prompting, follow Jesus’ example, and dive into the flow of God’s love.

I hope these thoughts help.

In Jesus,

Ron

 

SEX, LOVE, AND THE WAY OF THE WORLD

In the post made on October 16, 2016, I defined “the world” as “sin in its organizing mode.” The world is the way our lives individually, socially, and in culture become organized when sin is given space to work out its chaotic logic.  First John 2:15-17 lists “the lust of the flesh” as one of the three organizing principles of “the world.” Today I want to ask how the lust of the flesh orders, that is, disorders, the world. The lust of the flesh refers to any desire to experience pleasure by means of one of the five senses, though usually we narrow it to taste and touch. Specifically, we will deal with the lust for sexual intercourse, which is the first thing that comes to mind when we hear the term “lust.”

Every human society from the most primitive to the most civilized legislates rules for who may have sex with whom and under what conditions. Such acts as incest, child molestation, adultery, and rape may be defined differently than modern western societies define them, but properly defined they are forbidden in all societies. Warrior societies may permit engaging in forced sex with slaves or conquered enemies. In some tribal societies, giving your wife for sex with a male visitor of the same status is understood not as facilitating adultery but as an act of hospitality. Prostitution is permitted or overlooked in many societies, ancient and modern. And in many cultures the rules for men are much looser that those governing daughters and wives.

As we can see, even “the world” regulates sex. Why? Because sex is a powerful and irrational force! And unregulated by reason it can destroy individuals, families, and societies. It often provokes jealously, inflicts emotional wounds, evokes anger, and sometimes ends in violence. But the world is not stupid and suicidal. It insists on some order. It will not allow individuals to pursue their lusts without restraint.

Why then does John criticize the world for ordering itself according to “the lust of the flesh”? Clearly, John is not implying that “the lust of the flesh” is the only ordering principle the world uses. He lists two others, “the lust of the eye and the pride of life.” And we should not take John’s list of three ordering principles as exclusive of others. Everyone wants to live, be safe, and have friends. Nor is John saying that there is no light and nothing good in the world. The flickering light of reason keeps the world from falling into complete moral chaos. But as John looks at the world from the perspective of the bright light of Jesus Christ, he can see that the world orders itself to accommodate “the lust of the flesh” as much as it can without destroying the social fabric.

In other words, the dominant restraining principle that sets limits on the two lusts and pride is social survival, that is, the traditional and legal order that enables a society to function economically, culturally, and militarily. What makes a social order “the world” in John’s sense is that its principles of order have validity only for this life. Everything is organized to provide maximum pleasure, comfort, and safety in this world. A society can exist and thrive economically, culturally, and militarily, even if it allows individuals to engage in prostitution, promiscuous sex, homosexuality, adultery, pornography or any other avenue of sexual pleasure, as long as these activities do not lead to violence or in other obvious ways threaten the integrity of society. This is the bottom line of the world. And it is this order that John rejects.

But John—and the New Testament as a whole—insists that Christians must order their lives by a higher principle. The Christian rules for who can have sex with whom and under what conditions are not designed simply to enable the social and political order to function culturally, economically, and militarily in ways that provide maximum pleasure, comfort, and safety in this world. That higher principle is love of neighbor enlightened by God’s self-giving love as shown in Jesus Christ. When we see how much God loved our neighbors and us, we will love God in return. And we will love our neighbors in the same way God loved us. Who is our neighbor? Every human being we meet! Love gives only what is good for the beloved, and we learn what is good for our neighbors from God.

Sex is powerful, and, if it is not ordered and disciplined by a higher principle, it is destructive, very destructive. Christianity insists that the drive for sex be subordinated to the principle of love of neighbor, as defined by the quality of God’s love.  In this light, you can see why Christianity limits sexual union to marriage. Marriage in the Christian sense is a life-long bond, made before God and human witnesses. It surrounds sexual union with promises of exclusive love and loyalty. It welcomes children and provides stability for them. Marriage is not merely contract agreeing to keep each other satisfied sexually. It is a multidimensional partnership for all of life. The marriage promises to protect husband and wife from the pains of jealously and insecurity. Sex becomes more than a means of pleasure or pride or power. In marriage, the power of sex is turned to a constructive use. It becomes a means of reinforcing and deepening the bond of love and of giving us the emotional certainty that we are loved and will never willingly be abandoned. It protects each person from superficial physical attractions to other people.

Perhaps a society that allows prostitution, promiscuous sex, adultery, pornography or other avenues of sexual pleasure can continue to perform its basic functions. Perhaps it can function even if it aborts (kills) millions of unborn children every year. Perhaps it can deal with diseases spread by promiscuous sex. I don’t deny it. But such societies and the individuals within them follow the way of “the world.” “The love of the Father is not in them.” No one who has sex with a prostitute seeks her highest good. You don’t have sex with a prostitute because she needs the money or love. You cannot be seeking to love people as God has loved you if you “hook up” with them for mutual exploitation. Nor do you love yourself as God’s has loved you when you do such things. You have to disengage sex from love to engage in promiscuous relationships. Instead of expressing deep and lasting love, sex becomes an occasion for hurt, jealously, cruelty, emptiness, and insecurity. Society may survive, but many individuals will not.

Christianity is much stricter than the world in its rules for sex. And it is often ridiculed as being sexually repressed or obsessed or both at the same time. The next time you hear this tired refrain, you will know how to respond. Christianity has a “stricter” view of sex because has a higher view of sex, and of human beings and their dignity. The world expects less because it thinks less of us. We are valued only as means to the survival of the society. Beyond that, we can live as self-destructively as we please and pursue our irrational lusts as we wish. The world doesn’t care. But Jesus teaches us that we should not use each other as mere occasions for pleasure or pride or power. We are to love others in the way God loved us. You should not toy with the most tender and vulnerable sphere of  another person’s heart with the powerful and dangerous force of sex unless you love them truly and they love you truly and you have made this known in formal, binding promises.

Finding True Love in a Me-Centered Culture

In the last post, I wrote about the nature and logic of hatred. Hatred is seething anger at perceived insults. And the logic of hatred is “you are like what you hate.” Jesus demands that we replace anger with kindness and hatred with love. In this post I want to ask about the nature and logic of love.

What is Love?

What is love, Christianly understood? Let’s begin by defining love in opposition to hatred. True love is deep and habitual desire for the supreme good of another. It’s so deep you could almost call it a “longing.” Hate is deep and habitual desire for harm to come on another in response to harm cause by the other. Notice that I have included the cause of hatred in its definition but I did not mention a cause for love in its definition. Hateful people hate those who insult them. In contrast, loving people love others whatever they do or say. Hence the “cause” of love does reside in the deeds and words of the loved one. Christianity teaches clearly that the “cause” of love is God’s love, which is made known in his action for us and in us. John summarizes the message of the entire New Testament when he says:

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us…

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them…

19 We love because he first loved us. 20 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. 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister (1 John 4:7-19).

John grounds our love for others in God’s eternal nature and in his loving act of sending his Son for our salvation. Our love for others is not merely a dutiful imitation of God’s love for others. John makes this interpretation impossible when he says, “God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (verse 12). That is to say, through Christ and the Spirit, God unites his loving heart with ours and changes us from the inside out. We not only act like God in our external acts but become like him in the depths of our being. We love because it is now our nature to love. Because “God is love” and we are united to God, we are in a derived sense love as well. What God is in his eternal nature, we become by grace. Resonating in harmony with God’s love, we love others for the same reason God’s loves others. In loving us, God bestows on us the supreme good, that is, himself. And in our love for others we desire for them that same supreme good, which is God. Allow me to quote again one of my favorite passages from Kierkegaard:

Christianity teaches that love is a relationship between: man-God-man,  that is, that God is the middle term…For to love God is to love oneself in truth; to help another human being to love God is to love another man; to be helped by another to love God is to be loved (Kierkegaard, Works of Love, pp. 112-113).

 

How Does Love Act?

How does love act? What does it do and what does it avoid doing? In Paul’s justly famous hymn about love in the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, rather than attempting to define love as I have done, he describes how it acts:

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.

For most people, it is not enough to explain that true love is deep and habitual desire for the supreme good of another. Most people are not very clear about what the “supreme good” is or how a person who desires it for others would act in various situations. Paul lists 15 things love does or does not do. This list is not meant to be exhaustive but illustrative. We could add many more. In each case, the loving person seeks something good for others or avoids doing harm to others. We are a bit fuzzy at times about what is good and bad for others. Listing ways of doing good and harm in specific ways helps us get a feel for what love would do or not do in other situations.

Counterfeit Love

However, there is much confusion in contemporary culture about the nature of love, and there are many counterfeits. Love, in the Christian understanding of it, is grounded in truth, guided by wisdom, and aimed at good. Love, Paul asserts, “does not rejoice in evil but rejoices with the truth” (verse 6). Only a superficial love hides from the truth and reinforces another person’s ignorance and self-deception—or you own. Compassion that concerns itself only with how people feel and doesn’t bother itself with their true condition is cowardly and selfish, concerned with its own feelings more than with the genuine welfare of others. You do not love others truly when you rejoice with them in the harm they do to others or to themselves. True love knows that the supreme good for every person they meet is fellowship with God. Wisdom informed by Jesus’ example and teaching guides us to those goods and activities that further others on their journey toward God.

The Real Thing

Jesus Christ is the act and revelation of the love of God. He is the wisdom that teaches us how to love and power that moves us to love others in truth. In him, the supreme good and final end of human life is made known. I will say it again: True love is deep and habitual desire for the supreme good of another. And, in the Christian understanding of it, love is grounded in truth, guided by wisdom, and aimed at good.