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“Perfect love casts out fear.”
We learn early that some people seem to get the idea of love better than others. I’m not suggesting that I have met anyone who is perfect at loving God, themselves, or others, but it does seem some are very committed to perfecting the way they love. They seem to know that loving others well is essential to the good life—good for them and others. Good love becomes increasingly important to us as we refine our understanding of love. Bad love can make us leery and weary of relationships, but it will not quench our hunger for good love. I can’t count the people I’ve heard “give up on love” only to yearn for love again. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but we are at least looking for love that is in the process of perfecting. We want love that is intentionally getting better.
But how does perfect love take shape? How is our capacity to love first perfected? Are there some conditions that signal when God’s love is being perfected—coming to maturity—in us? Thankfully the Bible gives us just such a description. And, although we should examine the entirety of Scripture to breathe in the fullness of God’s love, the Apostle Paul gives us the Cliffs Notes in his first letter to the Christians in Corinth. After reminding us that authentic love is a non-negotiable, Paul outlines the essential characteristics of godly love. He starts and ends with what true love must be, and in the middle, he clarifies what must go! For example, love is patient, kind and never gives up, but it is not rude, self-seeking, or easily angered.
I wrote the book Love First: Ending Hate Before It’s Too Late because I realized the world is still hungry for the real thing. Bad love is literally everywhere—like a virus that is killing us. But we keep fighting. We keep hoping. We keep trying. We don’t want to give in to hate. Even when our hearts are broken and our spirits are crushed, we can’t stand the thought of hate winning. We won’t let go of the belief that good love is still possible, so what does this love look like?
In the Bible, the love we are looking for is called love first. The Apostle of Love writes in one of his letters:
“God is love. We know and rely on his love for us. Perfect love casts out fear. We love because He first loved us.” (Selected readings from 1st John 4:7-19)
God is love. Love begins with God. God leads with love. Love is who God is and what God does… first. The most famous passage from the Bible is John 3:16, which begins, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son…” One doesn’t have to know much to be touched by the ethos and pathos in these fourteen syllables, but what is the logos—the word—behind them? We begin by noting that God’s love is climactically demonstrated in the giving of his son, but scripture testifies that “Jesus is the lamb slain before the creation of the world.” In him we were chosen before creation. He shared life and glory before creation. Are you catching this? If God gave his son before the creation of the world as an ultimate demonstration of his love, then God loved us before he created us, commissioned us, commanded us, and called us into account for breaking his commands. God loves humanity before he does anything else. This is God’s preemptive love.
But love first is also responsive. Jesus models this love for us as he steps into broken lives and offers them forgiveness, healing and hope. Jesus is willing to engage everyone. He converses with a Pharisee in the dead of night and challenges another in the light of day. Jesus stands with moral train wrecks. He openly abandons a socially acceptable reputation. He makes no effort to downplay his association with insiders and outcasts, the powerful and the marginal, those who will literally kill him and those who know they can’t live a day without him. Samaritans are heroes in his stories, but religious leaders who come to Jesus are received with an open heart and open arms. Jesus preemptively and responsively loves everyone.
I believe Jesus is calling us individually and as his church to live like him—like his body. But, offering love first—in every situation—is counterintuitive. We are taught that true love is always reciprocal, but this only accounts for responsive love. Jesus’s love is also preemptive, and it is this expression of love that opens doors when no one is knocking and offers forgiveness when no one is repenting. Loving first means hoping for something that is not yet seen and trusting that love has the power to initiate change. God models this love for us. God loved the world prior to creation. Loving first means loving others preemptively—before they do anything to “earn,” our love, but it also means loving others responsively even after they have done something that tests our love. We love because he first loved us.
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