Chapter 19: Love as the Life of Faith

God in the New World
by Lloyd Geering

Chapter 19: Love as the Life of Faith

One of the most inspired chapters in all of Paul’s letters is that in which, as if in a sudden mood of wild abandon, he sets aside all his theological argument and goes straight to the heart of the Christian life in what has been called a magnificent hymn of love. It is at the end of this that he links together the three basic realities of human experience, in which man senses that which is eternal. There are three things, he says, which abide, or last for ever. They are faith, hope and love, but the greatest of the three is love.

We have already seen that faith and hope are closely related. But even these, so far as their Christian expression is concerned, lose their intrinsic value unless they are directed by, and expressed in love. As in the case of both faith and hope, we must recognize that the Christian heritage has no monopoly of the practice of love, for it, too, is basic to the human condition. It is out of the love of a man and a woman that the human being receives his very existence. (The fact that sexual attraction may, in some cases, contain no element of love in it at all, but be only an act of lust, must not be allowed to blind us to the love that can be, and indeed ought to be, in the marriage relationship.) This is important because it makes it clear that the family, or basic human community, in which the newly born infant learns to take the first steps in faith and hope, is itself created by love and should continue to be a community visibly demonstrating love. The family setting shows us the human situation in miniature. From this setting each person receives his humanity, including the ingredients essential for human existence, namely, faith, hope and love.

Wherever humanity reaches some maturity of expression, a high value comes to be placed on love. And wherever love is to be found, and at whatever level it is expressed, it is to be recognized for what it is and valued. It is false, and indeed presumptuous, to suggest, as too frequently it has been done, that only Christians know anything about love. Jesus himself is reported to have acknowledged that even the despised tax-collectors of his day loved those who were close to them and who loved them in return. It is a matter for rejoicing that love is so basic to our humanity, that it has often come to light in unexpected places and caused faith and hope to be born again.

No one who knows anything at all about Christianity will want to deny that love holds the central place in it. It is the subject of the only two commandments recorded as coming from the lips of Jesus, and finally the New Testament makes the rather astounding affirmation that "God is love". But it is wrong to suppose that Christianity has created love where there was none at all before. What the Christian heritage has done is to focus attention upon it, and then declare that something happened in the advent of Christ which allows love to reach its highest level and full potential.

To see how the Judeo-Christian heritage has come to center man’s attention upon love, we must go a long way back. One of the earliest descriptions of it in Israelite tradition has now become quite proverbial. The quality of the relationship that developed between David and Jonathan was unusual, because, in their situation, ordinary family loyalty, coupled with Saul’s intense jealousy of David, should have spelled the end to their friendship. Instead, however, the love of these two for one another attained an eternal quality, and was cemented in a covenant. "And Jonathan made David swear again by his love for him; for he loved him as he loved his own soul."

When Jonathan was later tragically killed in battle, the love of David in mourning is expressed in one of the finest war laments ever written, "I am distressed for you my brother Jonathan; very pleasant have you been to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women". Even in those early days of Israelite tradition, the level to which human love could ascend was being recognized, and already it was being linked with the love of God. This has not always come out as clearly as it should have done in English translations of the Old Testament, since there is no real equivalent in English for the key word used for it in the Hebrew. It is the word found in the mouth of Jonathan, and rendered in the R.S.V. as "Show me the loyal love of YHWH that I may not die."

The prophet Hosea stands out as a milestone in the growing concern for love found in Israelite tradition. Although we cannot be quite certain about the nature of Hosea’s relationship with his Wife Gomer, it was probably out of the pain of his own broken marriage, that he came to see that the love of a faithful partner could redeem a situation shattered by infidelity. From the quality of this kind of love in the human situation, Hosea came to discern the nature of the love of YHWH for his people, Israel. As well as using the analogy from marriage, Hosea applied to God the metaphor of fatherly concern, in a way which prefigured the father’s love in the parable of the prodigal son. "When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son . . . it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms . . . I led them with cords of compassion, with the bands of love . . ."

A century later the Deuteronomic scholars, living under the impact of prophets like Hosea, set love at the center of all that should mark the life of obedience to which YHWH called Israel. The words of the Jewish Shema, quoted earlier, are immediately followed by the great commandment, "You shall love YHWH your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might."

These are but a few of the stepping-stones to be found in the developing tradition of Israel which was destined to lead to the vibrant concern with love manifested in the New Testament. In both the teaching and the person of Jesus, love came out clearly into the center and at the same time rose to an unprecedented level. Out of the Old Testament Jesus took the two basic commandments about love: the one just quoted from Deuteronomy, and the other which lies hidden in Leviticus among a multitude of lesser injunctions both moral and ceremonial, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself". Jesus showed that these two commandments belong together. The love of God and the love of one’s fellowmen, which already possessed an incipient association in the Old Testament, were now explicitly linked together as one. One cannot love God unless one also loves one’s fellowmen, and one cannot love one’s fellowmen without loving God. A later New Testament writer put it quite strongly; "If anyone says, ‘I love God’, and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen."

But Jesus further showed that love does not consist simply in loving those who respond in love, or in fulfilling certain clearly defined duties of a loving character. Love can be of such a quality that it knows no limits at all. Love reaches out beyond duty, and of its own freewill goes the second mile. It continues even when there is no response. It is prepared to forgive not just seven times, but seventy times seven. It transcends all human barriers and reaches out even to one’s fiercest enemies. The love of one’s enemies, perhaps more than anything else, vividly demonstrates the unique quality of love to which the Christian heritage points.

Paul’s hymn of love brings out this quality in the words which Moffatt rendered as: "Love is very patient, very kind. Love knows no jealousy; love makes no parade, gives itself no airs, is never rude, never selfish, never irritated, never resentful; love is never glad when others go wrong, love is gladdened by goodness, always slow to expose, always eager to believe the best, always hopeful, always patient. Love never disappears."

The parables of the prodigal son and the good Samaritan have long been treasured as the clearest examples used by Jesus to teach the love of God in the one, and the way in which a man should love his neighbor in the other. But Jesus did much more than bring new insights into the nature of love by means of teaching. He lived the love of which he spoke in such a way that the story of his ministry, passion and death has become the classic expression of what love means. That which first became manifest in the human situation, and which was reaching out to higher levels in the lives of David and Jonathan and of Hosea, came to breathtaking expression in Jesus.

So powerful was the impact made by the advent of Jesus that men came quickly to believe that in Jesus the love of God for man, and the love of man for God and his fellows, had become fused together in one and the same human life. The tendency there has been in Christian thought, from quite near the beginning, to depreciate the true humanity of Jesus and to turn him into a divine being, appearing temporarily in the form of man, fails to do justice to the magnificence, indeed the perfection, of that portrayal of love in the human scene. The New Testament holds together in a fine balance the love of God and the love of man. The same Gospel which says, "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son", also puts into the mouth of Jesus, "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." The Johannine writings of the New Testament bring love clearly to the forefront as the theme of the Gospel. The first letter of John speaks of love more than anything else, including this finely worded exhortation:

Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No man has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.

Now while we have maintained that the love which is central to the Christian heritage must not be regarded as wholly different in kind from the love which is basic to the human situation, it must at the same time be said that the advent of Jesus Christ not only demonstrated the highest level to which the activity of love can rise, but actually introduced into the human scene an impetus in the direction of love which was not there before. It is the testimony of the New Testament and of the Christian community through the ages that the Christian Gospel delivers the man of faith from the inertia which so often prevents him from loving his fellows. Christians have always been ready to affirm that this in fact happens, more confidently than they have been able to give reasons to explain it.

Part of the reason is that the Christian faith takes seriously what has been traditionally called the fallen nature of man, namely, that man is a sinful creature, who does not find in himself the power to bring to fulfillment the ideals which attract him. When he repeatedly fails, he is often inclined to give up the struggle. It must be admitted that a certain amount of traditional Christian talk about man’s sinfulness has led to an unhealthy and morbid obsession with man’s weakness. But even when we allow for this, there still remains to be made an essential self-assessment of our human frailty, and we ignore or evade this at our peril. Whether we like it or not, we must in honesty confess that we fall short of what we see we ought to be; and if we are not too ready to confess this about ourselves, we are usually quick to see it in other people. There is no need to elaborate here the various features of the human scene, such as war, race-riots, family friction, crime, drugs and all the rest, which make it eminently clear that the world of men as a whole stands in need of renewal.

Because of this something in the heart of man, traditionally known as sin, it is unrealistic simply to exhort men to love one another, saying, "If only all men loved one another then all our problems would be solved". Any humanist remedy which relies upon calling man to reform himself, and to live up to the ideal of love, may not be wholly without success, but it still leaves man struggling in the chains of his own inadequacy and sheer willful cussedness. To set before him ideals which he cannot reach, virtually reduces his attempt to a failure before it has begun. The Johannine exhortation quoted above does not do this. It specifically points to something which happened. In the language of faith this is simply that "God sent his only Son in the world, so that we might live through him".

If children ever learn to love their parents, their love is not self-initiated. They love because their parents (or someone in loco parentis) first loved them, and, as it were, drew love out of them. What parents do in the family setting, God has done for the human race in the Christ-event which consummated the growing heritage of Israel. So the New Testament says, "We love, because he first loved us". Just how and why the advent of Christ is to be understood as the manifestation of the love of God, and just how it succeeds in drawing the response of love out of men, are questions which will continue to engage the minds of men until the end of time. The fact remains that it did, and still continues to do it. And nothing on earth, in the present or in the future, has the power to obliterate this thing that happened, for the Christ-event is embedded in history.

The whole complex of events to which the Bible bears witness is not something of man’s own engineering, but something in which man finds himself encountered by that deepest reality whom he calls God. In this encounter man finds himself, not condemned as he might have expected, but accepted, just as he is, sins and all. The love of God does not say to us, "Reform yourself and all will be forgiven." It simply says, "Son, your sins are forgiven." The advent of Christ, an historical event which is none of our doing, says to us that, even before we are reformed, even before we have faith, even before we show penitence, we are accepted. This is something of what it means to say that love is the deepest reality we encounter, and that this love that is God has searched us out.

But now we must face one last question. Some may want to say that the only test of the truth of the Christian proclamation that the advent of Jesus Christ is the manifestation of the love of God, is to be seen in the kind of response which it brings forth from men. Do those, who take to themselves the name of Christian, actually and always demonstrate in their own lives the response of love about which we have been speaking? Here Christians would like to answer with a resounding "Yes!" But most of us know that an unqualified answer would be a piece of hypocrisy. In the long story of the church there is much which seems to belie the claim that love is central to the Christian faith. The New Testament quite frankly recognizes this, but seems also quite clearly to imply, that wherever in the Christian scene we do not see love to be central, clear and unambiguous, then we are not really looking at Christianity. All the rest that goes by the name of Christianity is pseudo-Christianity, hiding the real Gospel from men, and the sooner it fades out of the human picture the better.

Yet perhaps out of Christian love itself, we must learn to refrain from setting ourselves up as judges, particularly on past generations, and look amid the tremendous conglomeration of things that have been said and done in the name of Christianity, for those places and those men and women, where the response of love has come forth and shone in an amazing way. That there have been and still are such, there is absolutely no doubt.

If the present challenge that the new world is bringing to the Christian movement is going to give it the greatest shaking it has had in its two thousand years of history, perhaps we can rejoice. There is much in popular Christianity today that needs to be shaken off, in the form of superstition, hypocrisy, pseudo-piety and spiritual self-centeredness. No Christian need fear for the ark of the Lord. In the day of reckoning only those things will remain which have in them the power to remain because they come of God, and those things are faith, hope and love, and the greatest of the three is love.