Something you may not know about me: I’m obsessed with the Beatles.
Yes, that’s right – the band that, statistically speaking, increasingly less high-school/college students are aware ever existed. I’ve been a fan since I was 10 years old (which tells you something about the kind of kid I was. HINT: I WORE A BEATLES BUTTON). I owned all of the cassettes – yes, cassettes – and watched the music videos, which now that I think about it, is probably why I continue to have nightmares about magical buses rolling me up into some sort of tube-shaped smoke machine….OH. Oh, I get it now. Right.
Two weeks ago, I spotted an article that claimed to have dug up a “lost” George Harrison solo, which is industry speak for: it-stunk-but-we-can-make-money-on-it-now-because-he’s-dead. Well, it sent me down a rabbit trail of Beatles Youtube Mania, and along the way, I stumbled across a few videos detailing the Beatles’ breakup.
As I scrolled through, a funny thought occurred to me: “These guys spent all their time talking about love, and peace, and justice. But…they broke up. THEY. BROKE. UP.” In other words: for all of the talk about love, and peace, and justice, they had yet to figure in one simple calculation: they didn’t know how love worked. Yes, they wanted it. We all do. But they just couldn’t get there.
It’s kind of like that old Peanuts cartoon: “I love humanity. It’s people I can’t stand.”
How Love Doesn’t Work.
Typically, when we talk about love, or “fixing” world problems, we talk about ways in which WE can make love work. In other words, we think the way to love others is to MAKE people love others. It’s to MANDATE love toward others. This was Karl Marx’s idea sprung in the mid 19th century: we don’t need God to love other people. We need government.
Most Americans today, knowingly or not, embrace this materialistic ideology. David Wells in his book “Turning to God” writes:
“Materialists are of two kinds. Some, like the Marxists, are philosophical; others, like most Westerners, are unthinking. Marxists are theoretical atheists whereas secular Westerners are practical atheists.”
(I know, I know. That’s a pretty blanket statement. But think about it: deep down, most of us believe our best possible good is wrapped up in some experience of the material world. Think about the way you choose a church, for example. Be honest, now: do you choose a church based on content, or experience? That will tell you a lot about how you perceive your highest good.)
Now, what’s the problem with this? The problem is: love doesn’t work that way. Think about it: if the connection line between me and my neighbor is broken, then the solution can hardly be an intermediary neighbor. Why? Because the connection line between me and intermediary neighbor, as well as neighbor and intermediary neighbor, are also broken! So when intermediary neighbor (let’s say the government) tries to repair the connection line, he ends up with three broken connections, instead of one.
How does that work? This is how, and put on your seatbelt and read twice, because it’s pretty heady, but profound:
“When God is ignored, and change is predicated on human authority alone, moral relativism is inevitable because the power of moral determination is given to individuals or select groups who easily confuse moral standards with their interests. Even in the loftiest of cases, dishonesty for the sake of the cause can become dishonesty for the sake of some personal goal. And then no redress is possible. Moral relativism also means the end of moral discourse between all concerned.”
So, let’s take what he’s saying down to a micro-scale. If I’m in a traditional family, and I’m the “head of my household”, but I don’t believe in God, then my authority is ultimate authority. Now, technically, my job as “Dad” is to create a structure that supports an ideal mini-society, AKA: a family. The problem is, one night while I’m watching the Detroit Red Wings pummel the Boston Bruins (sorry, had to do), my kids are being too loud. So, with all of the self-righteous authoritarian dignity I can muster, I pronounce a new rule: “KIDS, NO PLAYING WHILE DADDY IS WATCHING THE HOCKEY GAME!”
Now, you see what happened there?
I’ve just confused “an ideal family” with “MY ideal family”. Which means: I just confused a “just” mini-society for a “self-serving” mini-society. Now imagine that times ten, and you can see what Wells is saying: in a society (or mini-society, as it were) where I am the highest authority, and there is no God, no one can do ANYTHING about my self-serving rules. In other words, if God isn’t the TRUE head of my household, then my wife can’t come up to me and say, “Sweety, you’re not actually creating rules that help us have an ideal family. Look here.” There’s no course of redress. My morals, as the “mediator”, become absolute.
So, the idea of US MANDATING love for neighbor isn’t going to fix the problem. If the way we love others doesn’t begin and end with God, then in trying to repair the broken connection line between the rich and poor, the haves and have-nots, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, we just perpetuate the cycle, and, actually, make it worse, because human intermediaries will always confuse self-interest with world-interest.
So, the human solution doesn’t work. But how does love work? In the book of 1 John (As in, “The first letter of John”, not as in “1 John the android prototype”), tells us: it works like a Rube Goldberg Machine (See footage below)
Love, says John, is a spring loaded mechanism, which has two major cogs, and several triggers within said cogs. Here they go, in order, first to last:
Cog #1: Assurance of God’s love.
If I’m not sure God loves me, then I’m not sure God loves you, which means, I’m not sure I love you, either. So, how can I be sure God loves me? This is how:
Spring #1: The Holy Spirit (1 John 3:13). If I’m going to be sure of God’s love, I need God’s help. Why? Because knowing God’s love isn’t something we “figure out”. If I live my life colorblind, I can’t “figure out” color. And if we spend our lives color-blind to God’s love, we don’t need a lecture in theology, we need new DNA: Aka, God’s DNA. AKA: The Holy Spirit.
Spring #2: The Spirit’s Message about Jesus (1 John 3:14-15). The Holy Spirit gets a lot of flack, because he’s kind of like the Hippie Guru of the Trinity. He shows up at the party, does some freaky stuff like plant fire flowerpots on people’s heads and gives them a free Rosetta Stone course in “everyone’s own tongue”.
Weird, right? Actually, not so much. Here’s a crash course in pneumatology, ready? The Holy Spirit’s job is to tell us about Jesus (John 15:26). That’s it. Think of it this way: when Taylor Swift is getting a photo shoot, everyone in the room has a job: get out of the way. The camera-man, the lighting crew, the grip, the editor: everyone. If you see them, or think about them, that’s because somebody screwed up. It’s the same with the Holy Spirit: His job is to communicate Jesus. He’s the lighting crew, the camera crew, everything. That’s why John says the sign that you have the Holy Spirit isn’t the ability to speak gibberish in church, or pass out when Benny Hinn slaps you on the forehead. The proof of the Holy Spirit is that you believe in Jesus.
Spring #3: Knowing God’s nature (1 John 4:15-16). So the Holy Spirit shows us Jesus. And Jesus’ life, death and resurrection communicate something to us: The nature of God. What is the nature of God? It’s this: “God is love”. Love is God’s DNA. It’s His thing.
Which means God loves us, not because:
- We go to church, tithe, and do our devotions.
- We have perfect theology, a good family, or a high GPA.
- Because we’re in ministry, we broke a bad habit, we sing in the choir.
- Because of our race, our gender, or our sexuality.
- Because of our successful career, our healthy family, our rapport with others.
- Because we have a great marriage, and orderly life, and live by principles.
- Because of our intellect, or morality, or even because of our faith.
Fill in this blank: God loves me because ________. Come on, be honest. Why does God love you? The answer is this: God loves you because God is love. If you think God loves you for any other reason, it’s because you’re trying to make God’s love like your love. It’s not. Too often, I’m like the munchkins at the end of the Wizard of Oz – I’m trying to pull down the balloon of God’s love to my level. But God’s love is higher, wider, deeper, different than mine. God doesn’t love me because I DO something for Him. He loves me because He. Is. Love.
Cog #2: God’s Love Casts Out Fear.
When we understand the nature of God – that He is love – this produces an internal and an external result:
Spring #4: The Internal change – our fear of God is replaced with love for God (1 John 4:17-18). What’s the opposite of love? Go ahead. Hate, right? Wrong – the opposite of love is FEAR. Fear that God will punish me. Fear of messing up. Fear that I’m not good enough.
In the words of an old, shriveled, green, pistachio-like saint: “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate…leads to the dark side” (Again, see clip below):
The reason we can’t love God is this: we’re afraid of Him. If you’re at school, or you work, then you know what it’s like to have a FEARFUL relationship. Probably the first thing you think every day isn’t, “BOY, I can’t WAIT to see my BOSS/TEACHER/SUPERVISOR today!” Why? Because that’s a relationship of fear: it’s based on your performance. Good things happen if you do good. Bad things happen if you don’t.
But the gospel isn’t like that. The gospel isn’t based on YOUR performance. It’s based on Jesus’ performance for you. So you can’t mess up. You can’t do better than anyone, either. The gospel says: God loves you because He loves you because He loves you because He loves you. So there’s nothing to fear.
And when you understand that, you start to see God for who He is. It’s not about you, anymore, and what you will and won’t get from God. It’s about God – you just get to enjoy Him. Charles Spurgeon once wrote about Christian growth this way:
Ask a young Christian why he loves Christ, and he will tell you, I love Christ because he has bought me with his blood! Why do you love God the Father? I love God the Father because he gave his Son for me. And why do you love God the Spirit? I love him because he has renewed my heart. That is to say we love God for what he has given to us. Our first love feeds just on the simple food of a grateful recollection of mercies received. And mark, however much we grow in grace this will always constitute a great part of the food of our love.
Then he goes on to detail how a Christian’s love changes, as he/she grows:
But when the Christian grows older and has more grace, he loves Christ for another reason. He loves Christ because he feels Christ deserves to be loved. (Great saints) did not merely love Christ because of what he had done for them; but you will find in their sonnets and in their letters—that their motive of love was, that he had communed with them, he had showed them his hands and his side; they had walked with him in the villages; they had lain with him on the beds of spices; they had entered into the mystic circle of communion; and they felt that they loved Christ, because he was all over glorious, and was so divinely fair, that if all nations could behold him, sure they must be constrained to love him too.
In other words, when we GET OVER fearing God, we start to SEE HIM for who He is: He’s beautiful, because He is love. And then we start to love Him, not because of what He’s done for us, but just because He’s lovely.
Spring #5: Our fear of others is replaced with love for others (1 John 4:19-21). Finally: when we understand God’s unconditional love for us, we can unconditionally love the people around us. The truth is, most of us walk around trying to be assured of God’s love…through other people. So, you’re not a person who I care about: you’re my Bible. I need you to tell me what God thinks about me, because I don’t know.
I love the way C.S. Lewis depicts this in “The Great Divorce”. A woman named Pam is looking for her dead son, Michael, and one of the spirits in heaven tells her she’s not ready. She doesn’t love him, yet. When Pam objects, the spirit says:
“Pam, Pam-no natural feelings are high or low, holy or unholy, in themselves. They are all holy when God’s hand is on the rein. They all go bad when they set up on their own and make themselves into false gods.”
In other words: you can’t love Michael as long as you need him. You can’t love him as long as he’s your Bible. You can’t love him, until you love God.
Most of us go through life “loving” other people, but what we really mean by “love” is “need.” And if I NEED you, it’s because I FEAR you. And if I FEAR you, I don’t LOVE you. But when we learn that God is love, and He loves us because He loves us because He loves us, we learn what true love is: it’s not needing others. It’s giving to them, not because of anything they’ve done to earn it, but simply because: God. Is. Love.
Connecting the dots.
A few weeks ago, Dr. David Murray posted “10 Ways we can hate our neighbor”. Here’s what he wrote: “We hate our neighbors when we:
- Grudge their success.
- Blacken their name.
- Desire their failure.
- Ignore their graces and gifts.
- Suspect their motives.
- Rejoice when they fall or fail.
- Refuse their confession.
- Highlight only their defects.
- Despise their callings and roles.
- Take vengeance upon them.
Do you feel any of those things?
I know I do. What John is telling us is this: the reason I still fear my neighbors (or, hate them) is this: I don’t fully believe the gospel. I don’t fully understand that God is love.
Famous Preacher Martin Lloyd Jones once said he had a simple test for knowing whether someone was a Christian. He’d ask, “Are you a Christian?”, and if they said ‘yes’, that was a good sign (or delusional). If they said, “No”, that was a bad sign. If they said, “I’m trying”, that was a bad sign, too. Why? Because the people who said “I’m trying” were still in a FEARFUL relationship with God – their faith was based on their performance, not God’s nature. Which meant: they didn’t understand the gospel.
But when we do understand the gospel – when we understand the beautiful truth that God loves us because He loves us because He loves us – we stop trying to earn God’s love. And we stop trying to earn love from others. We love them God’s loveliness compels us to do so.
A couple of weeks ago, my friend Zach offered to watch my kids for me. It occurred to me that, even though Zach doesn’t know my kids, or hang out with them regularly, I knew that I could trust my kids with Zach. Why? Because I know that my friend Zach loves ME. And that’s how love works. When we understand that we’re children of God, not employees, we start to love God for who He is. And as we come to love God for who He is, we start to love His children as well. Not because they do anything for us. Not because they earn us a reputation. Not because they’re the same color as us, or they’re smart like us, or because they dress nicely, or because they have the same moral standards as us, or even because they’re nice to us.
We love them because of a simple fact the Apostle John pronounced (so it’s said) in his last, and shortest sermon ever, as his frail body settled into the pulpit for the last time: “Brothers and sisters, let us love one another. For God. is. love.” You want to know how love works? Look at the cross. Jesus pours out His love toward us, so we can pour it out toward others.
That, my friends, is how love works.