This is the second article in the series on Foundations for Community. In this article we will focus on love as one of the main foundation stones for community. Of all the foundation stones, this has to be the first and foremost among them.
I recall a time when I was having dinner with a friend in an open air restaurant. I was going through a hard time at work. My friend was a good listener. After listening for a while to my woes, he said, “You know what, I bet you if we were to go around this restaurant and hear what people are talking about, the conversation at nearly every table will probably be someone complaining about someone else at work, or in their family. Problems with computers and cars and other mechanical things do not really bug us so much. It is people that bug us.” Just out of curiosity, I actually took a walk around the restaurant and casually eavesdropped on conversations at every table. My friend was right. I estimated that more than 70% of conversations were complaints by someone about someone else giving him/her a hard time.
Later, I reflected on this. Why is it that in the entire universe of trillions and gazillions of planets, we humans are found on only this one planet? I mean can you imagine if all of us were spread out over the universe and each one was alone on a planet .. how lonely we would be .. how we would long for company. But here we are, all together on one planet, and yet we have such a hard time getting along with one another.
In my earlier article, the Introduction, I talked about the purpose of life. Why did God create us? Gen.1:26 tells us He created us to be like Him. And what is God’s end goal? The apostle Paul gave us the answer – God wants us to become like Christ (Rom.8:29). Since Christ is the image of the Father (Col.1:15), that tells me God really has only one agenda – right from the beginning to the very end – He wants us to become like Him. Well, what does it mean to be like Him? There are many aspects to God’s character – His holiness, His righteousness, etc. but the one that stands out most of all, especially in relation to community, is that God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is a community, and God is love. So to be like God is to be a community of love. Love is the glue that binds us together and makes us a community.
If it can be said that there are certain core truths in the Bible, I believe one of them must be that God is love and that we were made to be like Him, meaning we were made to love. We become most like Him, most alive, and find our greatest joy and fulfilment when we love – when we feel for others, when we give, and when we bring joy to others and serve others. Not when we are immersed in ourselves, and accumulate, and hoard and serve ourselves. This is a paradox but the more we seek fulfilment for ourselves, the further we will be from finding it, because the further we will be from what we were created to be. But the more we turn our gaze away from ourselves and love and give and serve, the closer we will be to what we were created to be, and the more we will experience fulfilment.
Blessed indeed are those who discover that. However, it is quite apparent that few do. It seems that most people live and die without ever discovering or experiencing it. Most people go through life very self-absorbed and unhappy. There doesn’t seem to be anything naturally in us humans that compel or motivate us to love people. Why? Because we have a self-centered sin nature that we inherited from Adam. We are naturally focused on ourselves. Because of that, to love others is not a natural thing. Nor is it an easy thing. It is in fact a very hard thing. It might be easy to love those who love us. It might also not be difficult to love those who are “lovable”. But for everyone else, hmm .. is there anything in them that draws us to them, or that gives us reason to love them? Even with people who love us and with “lovable” people, we also occasionally get into misunderstandings with them. Each of us will no doubt recall times when we were misunderstood and had very upsetting altercations with those whom we love, and who love us.
Many years ago, I once asked God this question, “Why is there so much misunderstanding in this world? Even with the best of intentions, we are prone to misunderstanding each other. Why is it Lord, that You have made it so difficult for us to understand each other? What if you made us in such a way that we could hear each other’s thoughts and sense what each other is feeling, wouldn’t there be less misunderstanding among people?” Have you ever asked God this question or ever wondered about it? Of course some may say, as one of my friends said, “Horrors! Thankfully we can’t hear each other’s thoughts or sense what others are feeling. If we did, we might kill each other and all life on planet earth would cease!” I am told there was such a movie about a man who could hear the thoughts of people around him. He became mad.
Well jokes aside, I believe God answered my question one day when I was reading 1 Cor.13, the chapter on love. The chapter has 3 parts. Most of us are familiar with the first part where Paul says, “Though I may have this or that .. or be this or that .. but have not love, I am nothing”, and the second part where he describes to us what love is. The third part of the chapter is where my question is answered. Paul says that we now live in a limited dimension. We know in part and see in part. But when the perfect comes, everything will be revealed. Everything will become transparent. Meanwhile, on this side of heaven, or before Jesus comes again, because of our limitations, we are in the crucible where we are tested. That’s where faith, hope and love can be, and needs to be, exercised. In heaven, where nothing will be hidden and where everything is revealed, no effort will be required from us to try and understand each other. Nor will there be a need for faith in heaven, nor anything to hope for, right?
It is here and now, when things are difficult because we are limited in our ability to perceive and understand each other, that we are tested. This is where we are challenged to give others the benefit of the doubt, to try and understand what the other person is going through, to forgive and to seek reconciliation. Despite being misunderstood, this is where we are challenged to die to self in preference to others. Here is where we have been given the opportunity to learn to love. This accords with Rom.8:16-39 where Paul talks about God having subjected the whole of creation to futility and decay so that through the decay, through the trials and suffering, we can be shaped to become like Christ.
I also mentioned this in the previous Introduction, that by the very fact that we were born into a world with other people, that alone, should tell us that one of the main purposes of life must be for us to learn to live together. Not just put up with each other. Going further, since God is love, and there is nothing greater than love (1 Cor.13), and love is the greatest commandment of all (Mk.12:30-31), then surely our main purpose in life must be to love God and to learn to love each other more and more. In fact, I believe that all of life is really a test, and each and every moment we are being tested how much we would love and overcome, and become like God. Will we turn inward and focus on ourselves or will we look out and share, give, forgive, die to self, go the extra mile and extend grace to others? This, I believe, is what it really means to be like Christ.
The common mistake that many make in their understanding of spirituality is well illustrated by the dialogue between a legal expert and Jesus in Lk.10:25-37. The legal expert wanted to know what he needed to do in order to have eternal life. He wanted to make sure he was spiritual enough to qualify. He wanted to make sure he fulfilled whatever duty or obligation was required of him to be saved. If he had to love his neighbor as himself, he wanted to be clear about that. So he asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” In response, Jesus told him the parable of the Good Samaritan, and asked him in return, “Who do you think was a neighbor to the man in need?” Stop and reflect on this for a moment. What is the difference between the lawyer’s question and Jesus’ question? I believe it reveals two paradigms of spirituality – the false is contrasted with the true. This rough sketch might perhaps help us see it more clearly
Why did the lawyer ask the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Was the lawyer concerned about others around him? No he was not. He was focused on his own salvation. If he had to love his neighbour, it was in order that he might be saved. It was about gaining merits for his own salvation. It was not about the welfare of his neighbour. He was focused on himself, on his own “spirituality”. But Jesus approached the question of salvation from another paradigm – from the point of view of the man in need. Instead of defining his legal obligations and his religious duties, Jesus put the man in need in the center and focused on the man in need – who was a neighbor to him?
Why didn’t the priest and Levite stop to help? The man who was robbed was going from Jerusalem to Jericho. The priest and Levite passed by on the other side, meaning they were probably going in the opposite direction. Where else would a priest and Levite be going anyway? They were probably on their way to worship in Jerusalem and did not want to be late for their worship. For them, that was more important than stopping to help the man in need. Obviously Jesus told the parable to expose this wrong understanding that the lawyer had, and indeed many Christians have, of salvation and of spirituality. To them spirituality is about fulfilling obligations and religious duties, or an inward focus on one’s “spirituality”, like what is taught in eastern mysticism.
The self-centeredness of human nature is so terrible. And deceptive. We are so self-centered and self-focused even in what we think is spiritual. Like the expert in the law, and the priest and Levite, we too can have a false understanding of spirituality. To many Christians spirituality is an inward focus on oneself. So we focus on building ourselves up spiritually with prayer, worship, Bible study, attending church meetings, etc. Through the parable, however, Jesus tells us that true spirituality is exemplified in the love showed by the non-religious Samaritan. True spirituality is not a focus on oneself, but a focus and concern for others. To be truly spiritual is to be like Jesus who laid down His life for us. True spirituality is love. And it is those who love who have eternal life (Lk.10:28, 1 Jn.3:14). Jesus described eternal life not as living forever in heaven but as knowing God and knowing Him (Jn.17:3). The word “know” that He used is ginosko in the original Greek. It is the same word that was used in the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament that Jesus constantly quoted from, in Gen.4:1 where it says Adam knew Eve his wife and she gave birth to Cain. In other words, eternal life is being united with God and becoming one with Him (1 Cor.6:17), and that happens only as we love (1 Jn.4:7-8, 12).1
So what shall we do about this? Paul cried out to God to be delivered from this terrible grip of the self. The answer he discovered and shared with us in Romans 6, 7 and 8 is to be identified with Christ in His death and to have His Spirit live in us. It is only as we live by the Spirit’s power that we will be able to overcome the sinful self-nature in us. But the decision is ours. God cannot and will not decide for us. We are left to decide whether we choose to love, or choose to be self-focused. When we choose to love, then God will give us His Spirit that will enable us to love. That was Jesus’ promise : if we obey Him then He and the Father will love us and make Their home in us (Jn.14:23).
Here’s something else to think about. Doesn’t the question “Who is my neighbor?” sound very much like the question that many ask of God, “What do you want me to do?” or “What is your will for my life?” Our desire to serve God may not be in doubt, but the question is still predicated on and approached from a paradigm of self. Instead of asking this question within the 4 walls of our church buildings or within the confines of our comfortable homes, why not get out there to see the needs around us? And ask God to give us eyes to see. And then ask ourselves, “Am I being a neighbor to those in need?”
To be community is to share all the resources that God gives to us with others. My intelligence and skills and ability were not given to me by God just to bless “I, me and myself” and my family, but they are meant to be shared especially with those in need (2 Cor.8:13-14). When we know His love, and when His love rules in our hearts, not only would there be no fear (1 Jn.4:18), it would be a joy to give. Furthermore, God’s promise is that it is more blessed to give than to receive, because the one who gives will get more in return. Jesus prayed that we would be one just as He and the Father are one, so that by this love (not by our preaching, or talk about love, but actual love) people would be drawn to Him (Jn.13:34-35, Jn.17:21-23). May we be filled with His love, and like the first church, truly love and be community with one another and with others around us (Acts 2:44-45, 4:32-35). The world is waiting to see true community.