“By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us…” 1 John 3:16a
Love is a common theme for the Christian life. The scriptures are brimming with instructions to love one another, to love God, and to love our neighbour as ourselves.
Yet, as so often happens, when something becomes “common”, when something becomes routine or expected, before we know it we find ourselves sharing common misunderstandings; sometimes we need to step back and unpack those ideas that appear simple and which we’ve taken for granted, and when we do, we usually find there’s a lot more there than we thought.
Love is an action.
If I asked you “what is love?” – to give a definition of love – what would you come up with? Think about that just for a second: what is love?
It’s a good exercise, taking something that is common and just assumed, and unpacking it to see if there’s more to the story.
For most adults, if we were pressed into coming up with a definition of love, we’d waffle around with a few ideas and probably land somewhere in the realm of “a feeling of deep affection”, but, anyone who loves or has been loved would be quick to add “…but that definition doesn’t quite do it”. What is love?
If I asked the kids, though, do you know what we’d get? “Love is when Mom hugs me and makes me feel better when I cut my finger.” “Love is when me and Dad made cookies together for Mommy”. One kid – you can probably guess which one – told me “love is when you play on my Minecraft server with me, because I love Minecraft”.
But, you know what? As limited as those children’s definitions might be, they understand something that almost every adult definition of love fundamentally misses: love is an action.
And this isn’t some lofty church idea: our language tells us that love isn’t a feeling or an emotion; love is a verb, an action word. Think about it: we say “I love you”, or “you love me”. We don’t say “I happy you” or “you sad me” – those are feelings; our language lets us say “I love you” because ‘love’ is a verb, an action word.
The kids are right, you know: to love someone or something isn’t to feel something about them, though affection certainly has something to do with it. Love isn’t a feeling we exchange. To love is to do something; if love isn’t an action, we’ve slipped into a misunderstanding that is everywhere in our society today.
How to ‘do’ love.
So, if love is an action word – not a feeling or emotion – then how do we do it?
Like any action, there are clear, definite, purposeful steps required: if it’s walking, I have to get up off my butt, pick a direction, lift up one foot, swing it forward, put it down, and repeat over and over, one step at a time, until my walk is done. If the action is cleaning, I have to find a mess, get some cleaner, and put in some elbow grease. …believe me, if walking or cleaning were just feelings, I’d be a whole lot healthier and my house would be a whole lot tidier! But they’re actions, and so is love, so there are definite steps required to do that action.
I want to suggest that there are three components, three parts required to “do” love. The action of love requires, first, making something your priority. Second, to do love requires a desire. And third, to make love happen requires sacrifice. Priority. Desire. Sacrifice.
First: Priority. We all know words are cheap. It’s easy to say something, to throw a few words out there. But actions speak louder than words not least because they require effort. Or, to put it as St. James does, “faith without works is dead”. There’s no life or lasting value to be found in merely saying, thinking, or feeling something without the effort to follow through to the best of our ability.
To love someone or something – to take the action of loving them – means making them a priority in your life, and showing that in your actions.
It’s amazing: the kids know this, even if they don’t have the words for it. “Love is when me and Dad made cookies together for Mommy”. All of us adults would know from experience that, when Saturday afternoon rolls around after all week with both parents working, there are a dozen high-priority things that need to be done around the house. Laundry to be washed, groceries to be picked up, a squeaky door to be fixed, a flat tire on a bike that needs to be fixed, online banking to be done – the endless list that goes with being responsible for a household.
But if love is more than a feeling – which it has be to – then the first thing love requires is Priority. Loving you, loving my family, loving my neighbour, loving God means, first, prioritizing the one who is loved. The kid knows that Mom or Dad is busy, but the kid sees that they are loved when they are bumped ahead of bills or laundry or things around the house, even for half-an-hour. The first step in the action of love is priority.
The next step, I want to suggest, is desire. Now, when I say desire, I mean it in it’s broadest sense: love as an action requires a strong want or wish for something to happen.
Or, in other words, love requires a goal being worked towards, to love someone or something is to want it to become the best it can be, to picture that person as the best that they can be, and to want to get there together.
It’s not enough – it’s not really love – just to prioritize something. If I prioritize someone or something because it makes me feel good, or I get something from it, that’s not love (that’s pleasure – another action word). Love requires prioritizing someone because of the hope, the deep desire you have for their yet-more-glorious future. If I love my wife just because she makes me laugh – or if I love God because He’s good to me, that really isn’t love; love is looking forward to being better together, having the hope for what you and them together can become, and desiring, deeply and strongly wanting it to happen.
Love as a verb, as an action, first takes priority and then desire for that more glorious future.
And then the action of love requires sacrifice. It takes offering yourself to take the steps necessary to make that future a reality.
This is where the modern misunderstanding of love as an emotion throws us off the rails.
It’s one thing for me to say “I like my dog, I should take her for a walk”. I can even have that good desire for my dog’s future, that good desire for her to have a good life, for her – and me – to be fit and to enjoy that wonderful time out in the sun, out in the beauty of God’s creation, rejuvenated by the fresh air. I can have the desire to be a good and responsible dog owner, to want to be in the sort of relationship you see on TV where the happy dog runs to the door with its tail wagging, leash in its mouth, asking to go for a walk together.
I can think highly of my dog, prioritizing her; I can want to be a good dog owner who takes her for walks… but does that priority or desire produce any action? No.
No, the priority and desire require follow-through with sacrifice.
Now, sacrifice takes different forms. Some are very costly, and the greatest love that can ever be shown, scripture says, is the laying down – the sacrifice – of life itself. But all love requires sacrifice, and not as a one-time thing. The action of love, the action of loving someone or something, requires sacrifice.
And this is where we so often go wrong.
You know 1 Corinthians 13, “the love chapter” read at almost every wedding? For your homework this week, give that a read… but recognize that each of those descriptions of love is actually a description of sacrifice. “Love is patient, love is kind; it does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud, … it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.” You know the list; but these aren’t feelings – they’re costly sacrifices, steps to be taken for one who is prioritized and for whom you have the hope of a more glorious future. Patience is a sacrifice; kindness is a sacrifice; putting aside pride, biting your tongue when you have every right to be angry, giving second chances if and when the person recognizes they were wrong and turns from it: those aren’t feelings. That’s what it takes to do love. It might be as simple as a parent patiently trying to be interested in Minecraft on a rare day off; or it might be as humbling as helping a parent or an ailing spouse get to the bathroom and then get dressed again when they can no longer do it for themselves, but one thing is sure: it’s only love if we set that priority, have that desire, and work towards it with sacrifice.
On these two commandments…
Love is costly. Love is involved. Love is an action. And yet, all of the commandments of God are summarized in these two greatest commandments (say it with me): you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and you shall love your neighbour as yourself.
So, let’s ask ourselves: do you love God?
Is God a priority, not just on Sunday, but every day that He gives you, and every night that He lets you sleep in safety and peace? Is God your desire – do you desire a better future together with God, is that a goal that defines your life? And then sacrifice: do you, will you take the steps to patiently, humbly make that love an action: as “the love chapter” says, love always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres until the end. If love is an action, do you love God?
And then, the other side of that commandment, and perhaps the more challenging of the two. Do I love my neighbour? And my neighbour isn’t just my family or my friends, but every single person made in God’s Image whom God has placed in my path; those who drive me nuts, those with whom I disagree on just about everything imaginable, and those who are just plain rude and make me feel like dirt. Do I love them?
It’s not a feeling. And let me tell you, that’s a good thing! Because we all have plenty of people we don’t feel happy to be around.
But do I love my neighbour? Whoever they are, good or bad, kind and generous people, or rude and ignorant people, do I love them? Do I prioritize them? Huh. Because that’s what God expects… will I put that rude man who doesn’t know how to speak to anyone ahead of myself and my own desires? Talk is cheap. And I can say all the words there are, but if I have not love, I’m a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
Do I desire my neighbour to have a yet-more-glorious future? Do I want them to know true love, do I want them to experience true hope and mercy and forgiveness, do I want them to know God and to live with me forever, do I want them to be better for having known and lived alongside me, such as I am. Think of the rudest, most grating neighbour you know. Do you want him or her to know mercy? Do you want them to know love, to be cleaned up by the grace of God just as we will be, and to spend eternity redeemed with you? Because, if that’s not your desire for even your rudest neighbour, then no matter what we might tell ourselves, God says no, we don’t yet know love.
And, as if that wasn’t enough, love requires sacrifice. Are you willing to take the steps so that your neighbour can have that yet-more-glorious future, both in this life, and in the life to come.
My friends, this is why the church isn’t a voluntary organization. If anyone ever told you that Christians volunteer their time to teach Sunday School, or help at the food bank, or help people with their taxes and paperwork, or to teach young moms to cook for their families, or to visit those who are sick or alone, or to make the church building clean and ready to welcome those who come in, or to greet our brothers and sisters as they gather, they’re wrong. Those are not good deeds, and they’re not optional. They’re the sacrifices that love requires.
If you say you love your neighbour, but you won’t fill his belly; if you say you love your neighbour but you won’t share her pain and do your part to life them out of despair and set them on the path to glory, then we’re nothing but a noisy cymbal.
Love is action.
My friends, lets make this a church where everyone learns to love God, and learns to love their neighbour as themselves: not thinking good thoughts or feeling happy feelings about God and our neighbour, but making God and our neighbour a priority every day; having that earnest desire for a better future with God, and wanting our neighbours to share that hope; and then making the sacrifices that true love requires. That’s a church that will grow, that’s a church that will change the world around us; but it’s got to start with love, and it’s got to start with each one of us, loving God, and loving our neighbour as ourselves.
To God be the glory, now and forevermore. Amen.