Sunday, November 22, 2009

Learning to Love

I've been reflecting a lot lately on love, what it means to love and what it means to receive love. I began reading 1 Corinthians 13 again, intending to read a small portion and meditate on it. Well, I didn't get very far before the Spirit called specific issues to my attention.

In the first verse we read (following the New Living Translation): "If I could speak in any language in heaven or on earth but didn't love others, I would only be making meaningless noise like a loud gong or a clanging cymbal." My area of specialty for the past several years has been language learning, so when I read these words what struck me was that this verse speaks about that topic. If I, or any other person, undertakes the learn another language, particularly for the sake of communicating the Good News, but I do so without love, then my efforts are pointless and my ability to communicate in that other language will be meaningless, no matter how proficient I may become. In other words, if I don't love the people who speak that language, then there is no point in my learning the language to begin with. This brought me to the place of asking God to renew or fuel in my heart a love for the people whose language I am learning. I believe that this love already exists, but I also realize that it can certainly grow and increase.

Reflecting on this further I see that loving a people group can be quite a different thing from loving specific members of that group. I can (perhaps) easily say "I love the X people" and picture them in my mind as an abstract concept, an image I have in my mind of this group of people. That is not a bad thing, but it is only a first step. In some cases that step alone can be quite difficult. For example, I think many American Christians would find it difficult to say with all their heart that they love Arab people, because we have developed some very strong cultural biases against them. But loving a people group as a concept remains rather nebulous, until you find yourself confronted with the reality of loving particular members of that group. Sometimes this can make it easier to love, because the concept becomes a concrete reality with flesh and bones, with needs and emotions. But sometimes this reality can make it more difficult to express love from the heart, because some people are not very lovable. I may say "I love the X people," but can I love the specific X person who is crowded next to me on the bus, smelling like he or she hasn't bathed in several days? Or can I love the X person who is complicating my life by demands to do something for him or her? Can I love the person who has done things to hurt me or those I love? Confronted with these questions, I can only pray "Jesus, teach me to love."

I think that both of these aspects of loving others are useful. We as believers should ask God to give us a love for the different people groups of the world, particularly those for whom we currently feel enmity. But in order to express that love in action, we need to take the next step and love the members of a group as individuals, entering into their lives and listening to them, seeing them as Jesus does--as precious people uniquely and individually created and loved by him. In the end both of these aspects can only be done out of the overflow of Jesus' love in our hearts. I can manufacture love towards others to a certain point. I can seek to develop feelings of sympathy and humanity towards others and that's not a bad thing. But I cannot sustain it nor can I truly love others simply from my own understanding of human love. The well is simply not deep enough.

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