Defining Characteristic

A few years ago, I had a strange experience. I had met up with a parishioner for a meal. Our conversation was wide-ranging, but somewhere along the way, they began to share how much they appreciated me. Now, for those that don't know me, stick with it... I'm not going for vanity here...

They shared about how they appreciated my ministry, my authenticity, and my transparency. The meeting had been incredibly gratifying; I will never get tired of hearing how God has worked through my ministry to impact a life. It's incredible.

But after talking about it for perhaps 20 minutes, the tone of the conversation took a hard pivot. Because after all fo this, they had some grievances... not for me... but for another pastor they knew.

Not just any other pastor, though, one of my good friends and colleagues. What had been an encouraging, edifying conversation became a half-hour diatribe about how THAT person was practically the opposite of me. They were, in fact, the worst. Their ministry was a sham. They had no authenticity; in fact, they were hypocrites- the worst kind of hypocrite: a narcissistic, cocky, impersonal, spiteful hypocrite.

Needless to say, that didn't sit well with me. At all. 

Obviously. It's stuck with me after all these years. 

And, if I'm honest, that hurt our relationship. Because what does it say to me when they were so eager... to disparage my good friend, somebody I care for deeply?

How intimate of a relationship can be forged when there is such anger and resentment in their heart, even if it's not targeted at me directly? 

How much can somebody love me if they hate somebody that I love?

Parents, have you ever had somebody bad-mouth your kids? I'm not talking about people who bring up legitimate issues, but people who treat your children poorly. 

How have you received that? 

Spouses, how do you feel when you hear somebody mistreat your partner? 

I can't imagine I'm alone when I say that I go into a complete, full-court press, take no prisoners defense.

You want to get me angry, disparage my wife. 

You'll meet the angry Frenchman...and you won't like the angry Frenchman!

It's probably unsurprising, then, that we who are made in the image of God, are not so different from our heavenly Father. 

One of Jesus' inner circle puts it well in 1 John 4 when he lets us in on God's thought process: "If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their fellow believers."

See, so many of us can get on board with the idea of loving God. I mean, he's God after all. Especially when we had experienced his overwhelming, never-ending, insurmountable, sacrificial love. When we recognize just how far God was willing to go to win my heart, it's not surprising that we choose to return such love with adoration of our own. 

In fact, for much of the history of humanity's relationship with God, this was the primary thing that mattered. The measure of your devotion to Yahweh was measured by how faithful you were to obeying his commands or by the level of sacrifice to which you were willing to commit.

In fact, the definitive statement of God's people throughout the Hebrew Scriptures is called the Shema and is found in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength."

The main thing in the eyes of God's people was their faithful love of God. And while they were called to honor the people around them by their actions, that was a distant second to the original command to love God.

And if you were to look around so many of our churches today, you would be forgiven for thinking that this is still the case today. A common saying that you might hear in a church in America today goes something like this: "My covenant is between me and God, not me and man." 

The implication is clear: as long my relationship with God is okay, it doesn't matter what my relationship with you look like. So long as I love God with my heart, soul, and strength- perhaps throw in mind as Jesus did in Matthew 22. Heart, soul, mind, and strength. Done. 

Andy Stanley calls this a vertical focus, one where we look only to God, understanding our morality to be just that which impacts my direct relationship with God and vice versa.

People, in this thinking, are incidental, as long as God and I are good. 

But in much the same way that you can't bad-mouth my beloved and be cool with me, John reminds us that there's no such thing as loving God and hating his beloved. And just to drive this home, remember that the Greek word translated as "hate" in most of our translations can be translated with disregard, disrespect, detest, or dismiss as unimportant. So you can't claim innocence on a technicality. 

In fact, John says that the metric that God uses to determine who is and is not a child of God has shockingly little to do with your deference of God alone. In fact, while observing and honoring God's commands are critical, it becomes increasingly clear that you might as well ignore them if you are unwilling to embrace this new means of measurement. 

1 John 4:7-8 says, "Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. 8 But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love."

And don't think this is an invention of Jesus' disciple John. While he certainly hammers it home while removing any ambiguity, Jesus makes a habit of standing on this principle throughout his ministry. 

In Matthew 22, when addressing the greatest commandment, Jesus affirms the Shema's directive, but quickly adds a twist. He declares: “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.”

This can't be overstated. The entirety of Jewish society hung on this principle: Loving God with the core of their being. Not just their worship, but their entire culture. So when Jesus says that Loving God with your heart, soul, mind, and strength isn't enough, it is revolutionary. While there are directives in the Hebrew Scriptures to love your brother, this is the first time in the history of God's relationship with humanity where they are placed together in such a way, that they are given equal importance, that one is said to be not only equally important but equally indispensable. You can't have one without the other.

So important is this command that Jesus spends a significant portion of his final days with his disciples continually reiterating its importance. 

Perhaps nowhere is it more noticeable than in the hours following Jesus' final meal with his followers. In John 13, Jesus is preparing them one more time for the events that await them: of his pending betrayal, torture, and death. 

In verse 33, he says, "Dear children, I will be with you only a little longer. And as I told the Jewish leaders, you will search for me, but you can’t come where I am going. 34 So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. 35 Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”

Jesus could have chosen any number of attributes to be the distinguishing mark of his followers. In the past, it had been piety, sacrifice, fasting, and circumcision. But Jesus flips the script, saying that life would be different from now on. Because the command that he gives them would define their life. It would be the critical piece of evidence proving their identity.

Love would make all of the difference. 

In John 15, Jesus continues this theme as he challenges, pleads even, with his disciples to abide in him- to reorient their lives on receiving life and nourishment from him. He invites them to abide in his love, to forcefully, intentionally choose to root themselves in his love. And that the fundamental way to do this was to do what he says. And what is his commandment? Well, he's glad you asked: "This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you. 13 There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command."

Again, Jesus points out the distinguishing mark of his followers. You could pursue any number of religious directives that reveal your commitment to God, but if you don't do what he commands, viz-a-viz, loving one another, the implication is that you are NOT, in fact, friends of God... just as John said that those who do not love are not children of God. 

Jesus is calling us to rethink what it means to love God. For too many of us, we see it as a vertical, me and God kind of love. But Jesus invites us to a new way of thinking, a new understanding of what it means to love God. 

And in embracing this paradigm shift, we will find a whole new level of intimacy with God. Loving others doesn't come at the expense of loving God, it expands your capacity to love God. You pour out love on others and are given a greater ability to love in return. You are filled up to pour out. And each time you pour out love, you receive love in greater and greater measures. 

So abide in Christ's love today by pouring out love on those around you, demonstrating the counterintuitive, sacrificial, life-changing nature of God's relationship with us. 

And discover the life-changing results of a life poured out. 

Jordon LeBlanc