Valentine’s Day is upon us and whether you cherish the day, despise any such holidays, or are simply apathetic to the whole thing, February 14th is the date when we as a nation are told to celebrate love. It is the day to celebrate by telling the special people in our lives of our fond and enduring affection for them. On this day, many will get engaged to be married and with odds any gambler would be ecstatic to take in Las Vegas, many more will most likely not, inevitably leading to disappointment and heart-ache. Untold dollars will be spent on candy of questionable quality, cheesy cards, and stuffed animals. School children will stress over which current set of characters will grace the valentines they will take to school to distribute to all in their respective classes. Husbands will stress over what to do for their wives; especially those who have waited until early the morning of February 14th! Many will spend the day in sadness over seemingly being forgotten or disregarded.
More than celebrating love (which SHOULD be celebrated, of course), we need to live it. Our lives need to be defined by it. The lack of genuine, intentional love drives the darkness we all face. There is nothing more basic than love. Yet, there is nothing so complicated, misunderstood, misappropriated, and, well, messy than love. In the Bible, it is the simplest command, yet the most challenging to heed. Even still, with all that as the context during this time of year, let’s look at love, the essential elements. It is there, in the foundational essence of love where we will find our way forward.
It is here we must begin. The Bible teaches us that “…love is from God…for God is love” (1st John 4:7-8). Two verses later the writer, the Apostle John, gives us the defining image of love, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation [the satisfaction of God’s holy justice] for our sins” (1st John 4:10).
Approximately 60 years prior to John so eloquently penning the inspired words on love, Jesus was publicly questioned on what the foremost command of God was. The response of Jesus, while making complete sense in the context of the history of Israel, becomes even clearer upon reading the words of John. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, “YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND” (Matthew 22:36).
The greatest commandment in the Bible, given centuries earlier, immediately proceeding the Jews exodus from Egypt, was to love the One who loves us to the full. The call to love God is the call to an adoring, trusting, and faithful devotion to Him who is our Creator and would one day be our Savior.
Jesus didn’t leave it there, though. To love God, is to love what He loves and to love WHO He loves. Thus, we are also to…
Love our neighbor
“The second is like it, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF’” (Matthew 22:39).
Jesus’ simple response of “love God” is quickly joined together with “love your neighbor”. In giving His answer Jesus wants all to understand that loving God is inseparable from loving your neighbor. It is to this truth to which John continued to write on the topic of love.
Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1st John 4:11).
Two principles here shine forth like the proverbial lighthouse on a dark night. The first is that the love God has for us individually must compel us to unquestionably love all others. God loved us in all our ugly awfulness which leaves us not only without excuse for not loving others but also should motivate us to be loving towards all others. Secondly, it gives us two salient qualifiers for HOW to love others. John states with crystal clarity that we are to love the way God loved us; that is, with grace, humility, mercy, kindness, and self-sacrifice without any foundational worthiness of deserving such love. Jesus in His answer to the question of the greatest commandment, instructs us to love as we love ourselves. Interesting that God AND us as individuals (in a sense) set the standard for what love is to look like. To understand how we fit into this almost contradictory sounding statement made by Jesus we need to look a little deeper.
Let’s say I love bacon (which I do!). On the surface, “loving my neighbor as myself” could look something like this: I love bacon for breakfast with my eggs, bacon for lunch on my Black Forest ham sandwich, and then bacon cheeseburgers for dinner. For dessert, I might as well finish the day with bacon dipped in a rich dark chocolate. Wow, that does sound good! So, in keeping with loving my neighbor as myself, that is what I make for them to show them how much I love them. Which would be so loving of me.
Unless my neighbors were devout, orthodox Jews, of course. Then my efforts wouldn’t really be all that loving. They would actually be offensive to them. It would be one thing to do that in ignorance, another thing completely if I had full knowledge of their convictions and beliefs. It is in “knowledge” where loving others as we love ourselves comes into play.
We love ourselves by doing, seeking, working, and providing what we believe is best for us, what is most enjoyable to us, and what provides for our needs. To love as we love ourselves is to be fully committed to the needs, desires, and burdens of others. Peter captures the idea well in 1st Peter 3:7 when he instructs husbands to live with their wives in an understanding way, that is, literally, to live according to knowledge; knowledge of who their wife is, what SHE loves, what SHE needs, what HER triggers and stressors are, etc.
The two basic principles of love have nothing to do with loving myself. They are exclusively outward in focus and are inseparably connected; love God and love who He loves.
So, what’s a great way to celebrate Valentine’s Day this year as well as make it a celebration of a lifestyle?
Devote yourself to learning how to love
Not too many years before his death, the Apostle Paul wrote, “But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1st Timothy 1:4).
The Apostle Paul wrote more volumes in the New Testament than any other writer. His writings entail some of the deepest theology imaginable. The depths he explores regarding the nature and work of God is beyond compare outside of the Psalms. Yet, in spite of that, he reduces the goals of all his weighty thinking and teaching to one thing: Love. The great apostle had one goal to all of his teaching, that those who learned from him would love from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith.
A pure heart relates to the purity resulting from having our sins cleansed by the Savior. A good conscience is mind free from guilt and shame because of a live lived in righteousness. A sincere faith relates to the outworking of a life lived in submission and trusting devotion to God. If our hearts have been purified by Christ, if we live obedient lives, and we live in full conviction of trust in God, we will be the most loving people the world has ever seen. To be a follower of Jesus is to be a learner of Jesus. To be a learner of Jesus is to learn His ways and purposes. Want to obey the most important commandment? Devote yourself to being a learner of Jesus.
By extension, be a learner of others as well. We can’t truly love them as we love ourselves if we don’t know who they are, what their story is, what it means to be “them”. That is how to honor what Valentine’s Day is supposed to stand for. Love God and love your neighbor.
In 1983 Tina Turner asked, “What’s love got to do with it?” The answer is very simple. Everything.