The first and great commandment, as expressed by Christ in response to a lawyer’s question, was ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ Christ did not stop there but added, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 22:37-38). Christ linked these two commandments together and they become the ‘nail’ upon which hang the law and the prophets. Take it away and the teaching of the Old and New Testaments are made void.
The lawyer then asked a second question, which logically followed his first: ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Christ’s reply was the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37). In this parable Christ taught that every person is our ‘neighbour’, even those who consider us to be their enemies. Everyone has a claim upon our compassion.
The love spoken of by Christ is foreign to the natural man. It is not the tender affection that exists between friends or lovers. It does not emanate from emotional feelings, nor is it directed only towards those who have a loveable nature. Christian love is contrary to the natural inclination of the heart. Loving God is the consequence of a heart renewed by the Holy Spirit, as is the godly love to our neighbour. Christian love is that love which is ‘the fruit of the Spirit’ (Galatians 5:22). It is only the Christian who recognizes the remnants of God’s image in all people, even the most depraved.
Philanthropy is not love
We live in a world where the majority of people are motivated by the love of self, pleasure, money and power. Their philosophy is, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’ (1 Corinthians 15:32). God has no place in their lives.
There are philanthropists who reach out to help good causes and needy people, but this is not because they love God and obey his command to ‘love your neighbour’. They do so for personal and public reasons. Some enjoy the praise of men that such actions bring, while others do good to salve their conscience or just to feel good. The Scriptures teach that just as saving faith is the gift of God, so also is a godly love for our neighbour. The apostle John wrote: ‘Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God’ (1 John 4:7). Then he entwined loving God and loving our fellow man so that they cannot be separated: ‘If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from him: that he who loves God must love his brother also’ (1 John 4:20-21).
The world has little difficulty in loving ‘nice’ people, but God has commanded us to love everyone. Jesus said, ‘But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you’ (Matthew 5:44).
God-given love seeks to benefit everyone. This was succinctly stated by the apostle Paul: ‘Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith’ (Galatians 6:10). The drunken driver who has knocked down your child has nothing to commend him to you. But Christ has commanded that you show him love.
Christian love does no harm to a neighbour. Rather, it is seen in our actions of goodwill towards others. It is a love that is willing to spend and be spent. Christ proclaimed such a love in both words and actions: ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends’ (John 15:12-13). It is Christ’s sacrificial love which we are called to emulate.
Probably the most explicit statement of what is meant by Christian love is found in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8. Here the apostle Paul explains that Christian love is a patient, tolerant attitude in the face of provocation. This is the love that resides in God as he deals with sinful humanity. Despite the greatest provocation, he expressed his love by choosing and saving in Christ a people for himself – a people who once were careless and indifferent towards God; who even shook their fist in anger and refused to repent of their sins, cursing his offer of salvation in Christ. In spite of this, God gave the Son of his love to bear the sins of his people and die in their place upon the accursed cross.
Love does not envy
Christian love does not envy the success of others, but rejoices when they are successful. And when God’s people perform acts of love, they do not boast or seek the accolades of the world. Their satisfaction comes from the knowledge that they have obeyed the God they love. They long to hear Christ’s words on judgement day: ‘Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’ (Matthew 25:34). They long to hear those words, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant … enter into the joy of your lord’ (Matthew 25:21). Many people today rejoice when they see ‘tall poppies’ knocked off their perch. How often we hear the words, ‘It serves them right!’ Such a sentiment is no more than a boast: ‘I’m not like that person. I don’t commit such terrible sins!’
God’s love in the heart bears up under the taunts of cruel and thoughtless people. There is no personal retaliation, but a patient, humble resting in the words of the God they love: ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay!’ (Romans 12:19). Christian love declares: ‘Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse’ (Romans 12:14). Love, which is the fruit of the Spirit, believes the best about others, hopes in God, and longs for fellowship with the God of love.
When we are hurt
What then should be the reaction of a broken-hearted Christian who has been hurt by the words and actions of another? The injunction of the apostle Paul will be obeyed: ‘Repay no one evil for evil’ (Romans 12:17). We must always reflect on the example set for us by the Lord Jesus who, when whipped, mocked and physically abused by Roman soldiers, practised what he had always preached. It was Peter who said of his Saviour, ‘When he was reviled [he] did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but committed himself to him who judges righteously’ (1 Peter 2:23). His example is to be followed by all his people.
There are times when, suffering for Christ’s sake, we must turn the other cheek. There must also be a readiness to forgive those who ask forgiveness: ‘For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses’ (Matthew 6:14-15). In the Christian community, we are not to publish the blemishes and faults of others. We should rather adhere to the command of God through Peter: love covers ‘a multitude of sins’ (1 Peter 4:8).
Loving that neighbour who causes you distress means that every effort must be made to achieve reconciliation. Christ said: ‘If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained a brother’ (Matthew 18:15). If reconciliation cannot be achieved using the means outlined in Scripture we are told, ‘Let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector’ (Matthew 18:17). Even then we wish the person no harm, and are always ready to lift him up when he falls. In so doing we ‘heap coals of fire on his head’, as long as he rejects our offer of friendship (Romans 12:20). Thus we leave the matter in the hands of God who always does what is right.
This God-given love is ‘the fulfilment of the law’ (Romans 12:10). May we show this love in our dealings with every person, friend and enemy alike, because this love ‘never fails’ (1 Corinthians 13:8).