It has been suggested that the unique ability to form conceptual ideas and to express them in speech separates mankind from all lower creatures by a chasm that no evolutionary process could ever span. Although that is true, there is another capacity that separates man even further from animals. Paul explained it thus: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity [love], I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal” (1 Corinthians:13:1). To put it in a contemporary context, without love man is a robot—a computer programmed to meaningless reactions. In a word, it is love that makes a human being.
God has given mankind marvelous abilities. Think of the great scientists and philosophers who have probed the mysteries of life; and the poets, novelists, and musicians who have expressed the depth of human experience in compelling ways. We don’t need to argue the absurdity of evolution to be convinced that the ability to look into the mysteries of the atom or to compose or appreciate an opera involves qualities that no animal could acquire by developing a larger brain and a more advanced nervous system. Marvelous as these capabilities are, however, they are not primarily what differentiates between human and animal life. It is love.
What do we mean by love? Certainly not the popular notion portrayed in today’s media. The bumper stickers, “Make love, not war,” reflect an all-too-common trivialization of man’s highest capacity. Love is far more than sex. Animals can enjoy that. And if real love is missing, then sex becomes a mere gratification of animal instincts that cannot satisfy the spirit of man.
Yes, there are similarities between human beings and animals as long as we live in bodies of flesh and blood on this planet. We have certain basic needs for food, warmth, and water. We know hunger and thirst, as do animals. We also experience powerful sexual desires and other fleshly cravings, but God intended these passions to be controlled by love. The will is no match for lust, but God’s love working in man can conquer evil with pure desires.
A failure to be motivated by God’s love brings defeat into our personal lives. There are those who can, for selfish motives such as the praise of others, seemingly conquer physical desires and remain faithful to God. True victory, however, is not necessarily won by those who, from outward appearances, seem to be victorious. If love—which Paul reminds us is the essential ingredient—is missing, then even a fiery death at the stake would be of no value in God’s sight.
Without love, Paul reminds us, we are nothing. That “nothing” doesn’t mean we don’t exist but that we are not what we were intended to be by our Creator. We are not fully human without love, no matter how much knowledge we have or how clever we are. It should be clear why this is the case. We are made in the image of God, who, speaking of Himself, has said, “God is love.” Thus, the very essence of the Creator who made man in His image must be the essence of man in the creature. And it is in the perversion of that essence that we have ample proof that something went horribly wrong.
We do not need to know Greek and the difference between the types of love (for which Greek has separate words) to realize that the love that Paul goes on to describe in 1 Corinthians 13 is beyond anything mankind usually experiences or expresses. There is a divine quality that shines through, a quality that rings true to conscience and condemns us. We cannot quarrel with the standard Paul sets. We know that true love ought to be precisely what he depicts, but at the same time we hang our heads in shameful admission that such love is beyond us. Nevertheless, we also know that somehow we were made for that very kind of love and that our failure to experience it is a defect for which we are responsible and for lack of which we feel a deep loss.
Paul is depicting a love that is not of this world. It is additional evidence that we were made for another world. We recognize it for what real love ought to be, and it strikes a chord in us like the description of a land we have never seen but to which we somehow feel we belong. We need read no other part of the Bible than this “love chapter” to know that man is a fallen creature. We can say, “I love you!” and perhaps not even realize that deep inside we really mean “I love me, and I want you!” Such is the tragedy of present human experience.
Nevertheless, those words, “I love you,” have the power to wonderfully transform both the person who speaks them and the one to whom they are spoken. They are the highest expression of which man is capable, as a creature made in the image of God. Some people find these words difficult to speak, and other people find them embarrassing to hear. What we all find nearly impossible to believe is that the God who created the universe has spoken these wonderful words personally and intimately to each of us. And He has done it in a way that no one else could: by entering into humanity and dying for our sins upon the cross. He has thus so fully proved His love that there is no excuse for our ever doubting it.
It is this unparalleled manifestation of God’s love that makes Christianity what it is. There are many facets of our life in Christ that make it totally unique. Among the most wonderful distinctives is the relationship that each Christian is intended to enjoy with Christ himself—an intimate personal relationship that is not only unmatched by any other faith but is absolutely essential if someone is to be a Christian.
In contrast, for a Buddhist to have a personal relationship with Buddha is neither possible nor necessary. Nor is the practice of Islam impaired because Muhammad is in the grave. It is no hindrance at all to any of the world’s historic religions that their founders are dead and gone. Not so with Christianity. If Jesus Christ were not alive today there would be no Christian faith because He is all that it offers. Christianity is not a mass religion but a personal relationship.
At the heart of this relationship is a fact so astonishing that most Christians, including those who have known the Lord for many years, seldom live in its full enjoyment. It isn’t that we don’t believe it intellectually but that we find it too wonderful to accept its implications into our moment-by-moment experience of daily life.
We are like a homely, small-town girl from a very poor family who is being wooed by the most handsome, wealthiest, most powerful, most intelligent, and in every way most desirable man who ever lived. She enjoys the things he gives to her but is not able to fully give herself to him and really get to know him because she finds it too much to believe that he, with all the far more attractive women in the world, really loves her. And to leave the familiar surroundings of her childhood—the friends and family that have been all she has known and loved—to go off with this one who seems to love her so much and to become a part of another world so foreign and even inconceivable to her is all too overwhelming.
Some of us grew up as children singing, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” and found a certain amount of childish comfort in its simple assurance at the time. We never matured in that love, however, because we were not taught to do so. Meanwhile, other loves entered into our lives and were given priority over the love of God.
To be sure, we still read the love chapter (1 Corinthians 13) now and then and sing lustily (and at times even with great feeling) such classics as “The love of God is greater far than tongue or pen can ever tell. . . .” But we are no longer children, and the simple fact that “Jesus loves me” has somehow lost its power for us. Not because it is intellectually too shallow but because its deeper implications, which we now begin dimly to perceive, are spiritually and emotionally too wonderful.
Like the small-town girl, each of us finds it very difficult to believe that Jesus really loves us. Although we appreciate His blessings, we find it difficult to become intimate with our heavenly Suitor, because it seems so inappropriate that the Lord of the universe should be wooing us. That He loves everyone and that we are included in that great love is too marvelous. My response falls far short of the joy that He intends for me.
Thus the essence of the Christian life—its true source of joy and confidence and power—is missing in so much that calls itself Christian. We can be very fundamental, evangelistic, and biblical, yet not realize that the heart of our faith is missing. This sad fact is then reflected in the way we present Christ to the world.
Unfortunately, as we have seen, the church, early in its history, departed so far from the fundamentals of the faith that the essential personal relationship with Christ lost its importance and meaning. Eventually it was even denied to those who needed it by those who claimed to represent Him. Christ says, “Come unto me . . . I am the door . . . the way, the truth, the life.” The Church, however began to claim that it was the means of salvation and called the world to itself instead of to the One of whom Peter had said, “Neither is there salvation in any other” (Acts:4:12).
Not only for Catholics but for many Protestants today as well, joining the church has become a substitute for an essential saving relationship with Christ. Although the Reformation repudiated a host of heresies, it left intact a great deal of “churchianity.” From that base, forms and formulas and attitudes have grown until, within much of Protestantism today, the affection and honor that Christ himself deserves is directed toward pastors and denominational loyalties. The passionate love that the bride ought to have for the Bridegroom is all too often deficient, if not lacking.
The love of God creates love for others whom He loves, thus providing the only true motivation for fulfilling the Great Commission. In preaching the gospel, we are to be messengers of God’s love, expressing and sharing it with the world. In making disciples, we are bringing others into a love relationship with Him. We’re not calling them back under the law but into the freedom of God’s grace. It is love that motivates us to obey in a way that legal obligation and fear of judgment could never do. As Jesus told His disciples: “He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me; and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him. . . . If a man love me, he will keep my words, and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him. He that loveth me not keepth not my sayings . . .” (John:14:21, 23, 24).
It is a tragedy that we so easily forget the glory and wonder of God’s love, not only as the joy of our lives and the motivation for obedience but also in its relationship to the gospel as well. We can present the truth of John:3:16, for example, as a judicial act on the part of God and forget that the verse begins, “For God so loved the world. . . .” The work of salvation was conceived and executed by divine love. We can present the gospel correctly and remain true to its basics concerning the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ in our place for our sins, and forget—and thus not convey to others—the heart of God, which is the very heart of the message.
Some of the classic old hymns expressed it so well: “Son of God ’twas love that made Thee die, our ruined souls to save. . . .” Another exults, “O love that will not let me go, I rest my weary soul on Thee. . . .” “O, the wonder of it all!” exclaims yet another. Charles Wesley put it so powerfully:
And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain?
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love, how can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me!
Many preachers attempt to entice the world to “come to Christ” with the popular offer of lesser rewards: health, prosperity, an improved society, and long life upon earth, when the real essence of salvation is to know God and to be partakers of His love and life. A rejection of the gospel, therefore, is the rejection of God himself and His love.
Man’s problem is not that he was driven from an earthly paradise, but that he was separated from God’s presence. That is the great tragedy. Those who seek to recover the physical benefits of Eden, to restore paradise without the missing Presence, to establish a kingdom without the King himself reigning in power and glory, have misunderstood both problem and solution. Our purpose is to reawaken a hunger for God himself and to stimulate the wonder, worship, and love we ought to have for Him.
Knowing that He loves us not because of anything in us but because He is love tells us something else that is very important: God loves all mankind with the same love. There is no special reason why He should love one of us more than another. He is no respecter of persons; there is no favoritism with God. And here we see another reason for rejecting the view that God does not love all mankind enough to want everyone to be in heaven. There is no basis in man (all have sinned and the hearts of all are the same) for God to love some and not others—but neither is there any basis in God for His loving one but not another. Thus we are told that He “so loved the world” that He sent His Son into the world “that the world through Him might be saved.” There is no greater love anywhere!