Love: The Most Important Virtue
I think one of the most difficult subjects to preach about is love. It’s not difficult in the same way as it is difficult to talk about the deity of Christ or the Holy Spirit, or God’s choosing us before we were born. Talking about love is difficult because so much has been said about “love” people have a tendency to put their minds in neutral when it is discussed. They have heard everything they want to hear about love. I hope you won’t do that today.
Love is an important subject to the Christian. When Jesus was asked what the most important commandment was he responded with, “love the Lord your God with all you heart, soul, mind and strength. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.”
In Romans 12:9, 10 the apostle Paul writes, “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves.”
In 1 John 4:20-21 notice what John says, “If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.” In other words, John tells us that the true measure of whether we love God or not is shown in how well we love our brother.
So this morning, I focus on just this one verse in Colossians 3:14, “And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” What should we know about love?
LOVE IS THE CHIEF VIRTUE
Again, this comes as no surprise to us. Paul tells us to “over all” put on love. This is the characteristic by which a Christian should be known above all else. How are you known by others? Are you theologically sound? A good speaker? An active member of the church? An involved member of the community? Maybe people know you for the gifts you have. Maybe you are known as a person with a beautiful voice, or as one who is a talented craftsman, or a person of uncommon wisdom, or one who has experienced God’s power in spectacular ways. But the Lord asks: “But do you love?”
Paul writes to the Corinthians not about marriage, but about their relationship with each other when he writes about love.
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Cor. 13:1-3)
Do you see it? All these experiences, all these abilities are empty without love being present. True faith has a practical expression.
Jerry Bridges, in his book, The Pursuit of Godliness points out that love is the foundation of all the other virtues. He shows this by taking the familiar words of 1 Corinthians 13 and writing them as positive statements. As you listen to these words, ask if they describe how you feel toward others.
- I am patient with you because I love you and want to forgive you.
- I am kind to you because I love you and want to help you.
- I do not envy your possessions or your gifts because I love you and want you to have the best.
- I do not boast about my attainments because I love you and want to hear about yours.
- I am not proud because I love you and want to esteem you before myself.
- I am not rude because I love you and care about your feelings
- I am not self-seeking because I love you and want to meet your needs
- I am not easily angered by you because I love you and want to overlook your offenses
- I do not keep a record of wrongs because I love you , and “love covers a multitude of sins.” [Practice of Godliness p. 246,247]
I think it is easily established that love is supposed to be the predominant characteristic of Christians. Unfortunately, in practice love is often absent.
I’ve mentioned Philip Yancey’s book, What’s So Amazing About Grace, he refers to a meeting he and other media people had with President Clinton. The President was talking to the group of media people and remarked, “I’ve been in politics long enough to expect criticism and hostility. But I was unprepared for the hatred I get from Christians. Why do Christians hate so much?” (p. 206) Ouch!
This is not the only negative image of Christians. We sometimes think of Christians.
- expressing hatred toward the homosexual
- having violent demonstrations at abortion clinics
- putting together mass mailings designed to demonstrate the power of the Christian lobby in Congress
- preaching politics from the pulpit
- giving the “silent treatment” to those who have gotten divorced
- Ostracizing those convicted of crimes
Where has the love gone? When you ask someone today to tell you what they think of when they think of an evangelical Christian they will usually respond by describing a political position. Or sometimes they will talk about all the things we are AGAINST! We’re not sending the right message.
Gordan MacDonald makes the important statement that the world can do everything the church can do . . . . and better. . . except for one thing. Only the church can extend grace. Our specialty is supposed to be extending love. We need to have our priorities straight.
LOVE MUST BE DEVELOPED
Notice, that Paul tells us to “put on” love. It is something we are required to DO. We can become more loving. In order for that to happen we must understand what love means practically.
It means defining love as God defines it. If we want to be loving we must study what God says love is. We must compare ourselves, not to others . . . but to the standard of love that God gives us. In other words we must ask, “Am I patient, kind, and without envy in my relationships? Am I seeking to help those who have a need? Am I desiring the best for those that God has brought into my life? Am I seeking to build up others or only to build up myself through others?
It means to accept people where they are. If we are going to love people, we cannot require them to meet certain prerequisites before we love them. Nobody thinks, understands, and believes exactly as we do. That’s life. This is a fact we must accept before we will ever be able to love other people. Love starts where the other person is not where we would like them to be.
We see this trait in Jesus. He met the fishermen, the tax-collector, the adulterer, the military leader, the worried women, where they were. He longed to cleanse them and make them holy, but he started this process at the point at which he found each individual. He spoke their language and started with what they could understand. He worked to meet their unique needs.
Love does not demand that everyone be like us. It doesn’t demand that people have the same experience, the same tastes, the same background. True love embraces people as they are.
It means overlooking small irritations. Everyone of us has blemishes. There is not a day that goes by that we don’t do something stupid, inappropriate, or foolish. There is not a day when we don’t say something we shouldn’t have or react when we should have shrugged something off. If we are going to fight about every little irritation in life then we are going to be fighting all the time.
Let me give you an illustration. You walk up to the check-out person at Wal-Mart and they respond to you in somewhat of a gruff manner. At this point you have a choice: shall I respond “in kind” or shall I extend love? To respond in kind would be to say, “I don’t know why you are being so huffy. Isn’t it your job to ‘serve me’?” Or something equally as loving like, “Well you’re a friendly one, aren’t you?” Loving is responding to these irritations with understanding and love, “rough day?”
Or maybe more to the point. We’re sitting in church and someone walks by us and doesn’t acknowledge us! We can be offended at how arrogant and snooty they are or we can shrug it off and assume that they didn’t see us, or were thinking about something else. Someone doesn’t ask us to help or participate in something. We can get made and feel we have been deliberately excluded or we can conclude that they are not aware of our interest in helping or being involved.
We’ve talked about this before. If we spend our lives looking for offenses we will find them. Loving people resolve to see the irritations in life as bumps in the road heading to spiritual maturity.
It means Looking for Potential rather than Problems. Some of us (including myself) are really good at seeing potential problems. This is what makes us good detail persons. We prepare for contingencies. However, what is a strength in management and programming is a liability in relationships. These same people also tend to see the problems in people rather than the potential.
Tony Campolo tells about growing up in his neighborhood. One friend was Jewish. He comments on how wonderful Jewish mothers are. They believe their children are geniuses. If their child gets a bad grade they conclude that the teacher just can’t relate to a genius. Campolo says in his good Italian family when he left home for school mom always asked, “Tony, do you have your lunch?” In his friends family as he was leaving home his mom always asked, “Sydney, do you have your books.” It was a difference in perspective. The one was looking at a lifetime of learning the other was looking at lunchtime.
We need to be more like Jewish mothers in our relationship to each other. We need to see the genius, the beauty, the potential in those around us. We need to remember that each person is created in the image of God. Each one has been made for a particular purpose. Learning to love means learning to spotlight potential and strengths rather than problems. Love demands we learn to build up, rather than tear down.
It means diligently rooting out unloving behavior from our lives. Love is important. We also need to realize that the Devil and our sinful nature will quickly get sidetracked. We do not love naturally. We must be on guard for cancers that eat away at love. Jonathan Edwards wrote,
A Christian should at all times keep a strong guard against everything that tends to overthrow or corrupt or undermine a spirit of love…If love is the sum of Christianity, surely those things which overthrow love are exceedingly unbecoming Christians. An envious Christian, a malicious Christian, a cold and hard-hearted Christian, is the greatest absurdity and contradiction. It is as if one should speak of dark brightness, or a false truth! [CHARITY AND ITS FRUITS p. 23 Banner of Truth edition]
Love does not happen naturally. We must focus on love. We must remind ourselves over and over, day in and day out that love is the characteristic that is to define our relationships and our dealings with others. When we see unloving feelings beginning to creep in, we must stand against them. We must repent of our attitude and return to love.
We must eliminate the harmful “buts . . .” from our lives. You know: “he’s a nice person but . . . ” “He works hard but . . . “; “I like him, but . . . ” The loving person knows that there are no “buts” about love.
LOVE BRINGS PEOPLE TOGETHER
Paul argues that love is the trait that makes all the other godly traits effective. But love does not only bring the virtues of godliness together . . . Love brings people together. Patrick Morely writes, “Love is the glue that holds us together and the oil that keeps us from rubbing each other the wrong way.
Love Brings Christians Together
Love unites the body of Christ. It draws people close rather than pushes them away. Love tears down walls of division rather than builds them. Love understands rather than condemns. Love picks up those who have fallen rather than kicks the one who is down. Love causes us to work together rather than competing against each other.
Jesus tells us that we are to love one another as He has loved us. Then he tells us that “by this will all men know that you are my disciples.” The trait that SHOULD characterize the church is love. Unfortunately what has happened in the church is that we are bringing the tactics and attitudes of the world inside our fellowships. We rely on power and manipulation. We compete as churches and individuals rather than cooperate. We pretend rather than dare authenticity.
The greatest need in the church today is not some great demonstration of power. It is not even a more solid theology. What is needed most today is the practical outworking of our faith which is seen in our love for each other. This is the only way to energize the body of Christ. This is the only way for the church to become a family.
Love Draws People to Christ
John Trent, a popular conference speaker writes,
When I led a Young Life group, I did my best to round up kids who really needed to hear the gospel when we went to summer camp. Mark was one of those kids.
Bob Mitchell, the main speaker that week, called most of the shots–including when meals would be served. So “Mitch” was always talking with the cook.
The cook loved her work, but it was exhausting. She always looked tired. Whenever she talked to Mitch, he got up and gave her his chair–and a moment’s rest–while they discussed meal plans.
Nobody noticed Mitch doing this … except Mark.
Mark hadn’t come to hear about Jesus. But when he saw Jesus’ love lived out in that simple act of kindness by the camp speaker, he began to listen to his talks. Later that week, Mark asked Jesus to be his Savior.
It wasn’t because of the messages, Mark said, but because of the love he saw in Mitch. “If that’s what it means to be a Christian,” Mark said, “I want to be one.”
The greatest way to reach the world is to show them Jesus by the compassion and love we show. True Christianity has a practical effect. Even in our hard-hearted world . . . especially in our hard-hearted world, demonstrations of love arrest the attention of the world around us.
Yancey quotes Andy Rooney, the popular commentator as saying, “I’ve decided I’m against abortion. I think it’s murder. But I have a dilemma in that I much prefer the pro-choice to the pro-life people. I’d much rather eat dinner with a group of the former.” Yancey concludes, “it matters little who Andy Rooney dines with, but it matters a lot whether Andy Rooney misses encountering the grace of God from Christians in their pro-life zeal.’ (p.209)
The easiest thing in the world this morning is to listen to this message and begin to criticize the way you are being loved. It’s easy to see how others are missing the mark. But I challenge you to look no further than your own heart. You cannot change someone else . . . but you can make a change in your own life.
So let me ask you some questions to help you evaluate your own attitudes,
- How would others describe your attitude toward them: Loving, harsh, angry, indifferent?
- What are you relying on to bring change in the world around you: political clout, loud protests, subtle manipulation, intimidation, or love?
- Which of these approaches speaks most powerfully when others approach you?
- Where do you need to be more loving? How can you begin today?
And now some suggestions,
- This week, every time you start to complain about someone (a political figure or a family member) pause to pray for that person and the needs that fill their lives.
- When you hear yourself saying “he’s a nice person, but . . . ” stop yourself.
- Do something to affirm and show love to someone today. Perhaps you can begin with a note of encouragement to someone who is alone, or serves faithfully in the shadows, or one who struggles intensely.
- Take the time to learn something new about someone today . . . not by talking about them but by talking with them.
Every one of us wants to be loved. We want to be part of what the Bible says the church is to be. But if that is to happen we must recognize that we each have a responsibility to “put on love” in our own lives. And if we will endeavor to give of ourselves, and reach beyond that which is comfortable and easy, we will find that we will get love in return. And even more importantly: the world will see Jesus as the great Savior that He truly is.