“I don’t unquestioningly believe something just because my pastor tells me its true. I only unquestioningly believe something because my Gender Studies professor tells me its true.”
Do you love God? If we consider ourselves Christian, we know we ought to. Greatest commandment and all…
But if we say we love God we could be lying. After all, “God” is just a four letter word. Almost like a junk drawer in the kitchen we can insert whatever we want and call that “God”. We’re always in danger of this – inventing God for ourselves.
This danger – idolatry to be technical about it – is forever with us. So we need some kind of test in order to know whether the God we say we love and believe in is the True God. Do we really love God?
The Apostle John gives us such a test. It’s not a theological exam like we might expect (although theological knowledge is important and helpful). It’s not whether we can recollect certain Bible verses (although familiarity with the Scriptures is essential). It’s far more simple and concrete than that.
If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. 1 John 4:20-21
The test is whether we love our brother (sisters). It’s whether we’ll keep going to church and loving those we go to Church with.
God we can’t see. Therefore our devotion to Him is always in danger of becoming abstracted. Love can often become abstract – thus rendering it not love at all but merely an idea about love. The peace activist may be motivated by a supposed “love for humanity” but when it comes to the real people she’s in contact with, she can’t stand them. Humanity is abstract, humans are not. Love for humanity is great but we don’t know if it real unless we love the humans who make up that great abstract of humanity.
It is the same with love for other Christian. Sometimes people have very highfaluting talk about appreciation for “the Bride” or “the Body”. But these are mere theoretical constructs unless we actually appreciate the people who make up such. John doesn’t let us have abstractions or theories. He wants to know if we love the brother that we can see. That’s the person we go to church with.
This is why, although not mentioned explicitly, local church participation is so vital for following John’s logic. Local churches, filled with imperfect and sometimes unattractive people, are the laboratory is which we test whether our love for God is real. God I can’t see. These people I do see, week in – week out as we pursue congregational life together. They let me know whether I’m lying or not when I say I love God.*
- I’m indebted to Mark Dever here for this logic. Credit given where credit is due.
“Christians are still persecuted but nowadays not usually overtly on the ground that they are Christians. They are persecuted because they do not hold the approved political views; or one church is recognized and controlled, and those Christians are persecuted who belong to the wrong church; or being Christians, they are denounced for having collaborated with the Germans during the war, or perhaps with the British or the Americans after it. In the West these things do not yet happen. But persecution is only the extreme limit of discrimination. People prefer to associate with the like-minded to themselves; those who rise to power tend to favor and to promote those who resemble themselves; and when a man who is not a Christian has an appointment to make, or a favor to bestow, he may genuinely believe that the candidate who is of his own kidney is more worthy than another candidate who is a Christian.
Thus the profession of Christianity might become, if not exactly dangerous, at least disadvantageous; and it is sometimes harder to endure disadvantage than to face danger, harder to live meanly than to die as a martyr. Already, we say, we are a minority. We cannot impose our standards upon that majority when it explicitly rejects them; too often, mingling with that majority, we fail to observe them ourselves. Like every minority, we compound with necessity, learning to speak the language of the dominant culture because those whose language it is will not speak ours; and in speaking their language, we are always in danger of thinking their thoughts and behaving according to their code. In this perpetual compromise, we are seldom in a position to pass judgment on other Christians, in their peculiar individual temptations: it is hard enough, reviewing our own behavior, to be sure when we have done the right or the wrong thing. But we can and should be severe in our judgment of ourselves.
For most of us the occasion of the great betrayal on the clear issue will never come: what I fear for myself is the constant, daily, petty pusillanimity. I shall no doubt do and say the wrong thing again and again; but the important thing is to be conscious of the error or weakness and of its nature, and then to be sorry about it. For penitence and humility, as is suitable to remember at Mid-Lent, are the foundation of the Christian life.”
— T. S. Eliot, sermon preached at Magdalene College, Cambridge, in 1948; as quoted by Maurice Cowling in the first volume of Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England.
(thanks to Alan Jacobs for the source)
Whoever has tasted the love of Christ, and has known, by his own experience, the need and the worth of redemption, is enabled, Yea, he is constrained, to love his fellow creatures. He loves them at first sight; and, if the providence of God commits a dispensation of the gospel, and care of souls to him, he will feel the warmest emotions of friendship and tenderness, while he beseeches them by the tender mercies of God, and even while he warns them by his terrors…
John Newton, The Works of the Rev. John Newton, vol. 5
A friend (also named Steve) has just returned from Iraq/Syria working on a documentary on the refugee crisis there.
I recommend watching and letting it fuel your prayers.
The late E. Stanley Jones (1884-1973) was a Methodist theologian and missionary. He often talked about 7 of what he called “capital sins”. These being foundational moral failures that eroded human life. (these aren’t intended to compete with the medieval 7 Deadly Sins – wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony – thanks to Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt for teaching those).
Jones’ list could also be titled: 7 ways to destroy society, as these sins erode the very foundations of justice and virtue she amongst us.
1.) Policies without Principles
2.) Wealth without work
3.) Pleasure without awareness
4.) Knowledge without character
5.) Business without morality
6.) Science without humanity
7.) Worship without sacrifice
We have been told that we have to make the Church attractive to the man outside, and the idea is to become as much like him as we can… yet… the glory of the gospel is that when the Church is absolutely different for the world, she invariably attracts it…
Every revival proves that men who are outside the Church always become attracted when the Church begins to function truly as the Christian Church, and as individual Christians approximate to the description here given in these beatitudes.
Studies in the Sermon on the Mount
In a world of attraction and promotion we’re often tempted to become like the culture around us in order to attract people to God and his Church. This can be stylistic: “if we only look like this, or feel like this experience…” Or moral: “if only we could ditch this unattractive teaching about sex or money…”
The paradoxical reality is that church actually attracts more when it is different. This was true for me in my early twenties. There were probably churches that could have offered sexual ethics or views on truth that would have already agreed with what I was swimming in in my culture. But it was the church that did not cater or cave, the one that was not afraid of being different or strange, that I found most real and life-giving. It was not by removing controversy or even in spite of it, but because of it that I came to God.