Discipleship and spiritual formation curriculum for new believers, new Christians

5. Love - The Core of Christianity

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
 

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New believer joyful at the idea of God's love  

If you were to believe some people, they would say that Christianity is based on guilt and fear. They are wrong.

World religions conceive of God in various ways -- Creator, just Judge, Merciful One, impersonal Force, Essence of Truth, Ultimate Reality, Omnipotent One, and the list goes on.

But the Christian faith is unique in understanding God as love -- and the implications of this are profound!

God Is Love

When you peel the God of Christianity down to his very core, you find love. Consider this Bible passage (which is your memory verse for this lesson):

"Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love." (1 John 4:7-8)

What does "God is love" mean? Yes, the Bible teaches that God is just and omnipotent and merciful. But the trademark characteristic of God is love. God is love.

God Is the First Lover

God is the source and inspiration for our own love.

"We love because he first loved us." (1 John 4:19)

Any kind of love that we experience for friends, for family, for that someone special -- all of it had its root in God, since the Bible teaches that we are made in God's image (Genesis 1:27). We are designed according to his own "template."

God Loves Us

Perhaps the most wonderful and profound truth that you can grasp is that the God of the universe knows you individually and loves you personally and abundantly. The most famous verse in the New Testament spells this out:

"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16)

Jesus' prime motivation to come to our world was love.

God Loves Us in Spite of Ourselves

A second truth is this: God loves us in spite of ourselves. It is very common to think that because of your sins, God does not love you anymore. That may be the way you feel about yourself, but it does not describe God's feelings toward you. Consider:

"But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Romans 5:8)

"But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions -- it is by grace you have been saved." (Ephesians 2:4-5)

And another verse that we have seen already:

"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith -- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God -- not by works, so that no one can boast." (Ephesians 2:8-9)

God does not love us because we are good and worth loving. No, he loved us when we were still rebellious against him, when we were sinning, when we were despicable.

The Two Greatest Commandments

If the essence of God's nature is love, then it follows that he desires his children to love. When Jesus was asked what were the most important commands in the Bible -- out of the hundreds of instructions in the Old Testament -- Jesus singled out two:

"'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.'2This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"3(Matthew 22:37-39)

Let us look at these more closely:

1. Love God

First, we are commanded to love God supremely -- with all our heart, soul, and mind. How do you learn to love God? Through prayer and worship. By walking through your life conscious of him and seeking to please him. To love God means that we seek to obey him. Loving God is first -- not down the ladder of priorities that guide our lives, but top rung!

2. Love Our Neighbor

Second, we are commanded to love our neighbor. Who qualifies as "neighbor"? Someone asked Jesus that. In response he told the story of the Good Samaritan, where a Samaritan man (a person from a hated ethnic and religious minority) showed mercy towards an injured Jew (his natural enemy). In other words, even our enemies are to be subjects of our love; they are our neighbors (Luke 10:29-37).

We Will Experience Persecution

As you may have learned already, being a committed Christian exposes you to persecution. In some regions, the persecution is mild, but in some places persecution of Christians includes threat of physical violence. St. Paul wrote to his protege Timothy:

"In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted." (2 Timothy 3:12)

Persecution has a way of sorting out the true disciples from those who are only enthusiastic temporarily. Jesus taught in the Parable of the Sower:

"The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away." (Matthew 13:20-21)

We Are to Love Our Enemies

Nevertheless, Jesus' teaching is clear:

"I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." (Matthew 5:44)

Dear friends, this is radical! No other religion teaches that we should love our enemies! But because the core of God is love, this love extends even to God's enemies (as we once were), and must extend to our enemies, too. We are instructed:

"Bless those who persecute you; bless and don't curse." (Romans 12:14)

You see, love is the guiding principle, the engine that drives Christian living.

Love Causes Us to Forgive Those Who Sin Against Us

Jesus' first word from the cross reflected this radical love:

"Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they are doing." (Luke 23:34a)

The will to forgive flows from this love at the core of God. Forgiveness is expected of Jesus' followers, too. At the center of the Lord's Prayer we find this request:

"Forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors." (Matthew 6:12)

"Debts," of course, represent sins. We are praying that God will forgive our sins in the same way as we forgive those who have sinned against us. In the measure that we forgive, we will be forgiven. And in case his disciples did not quite get the point, Jesus stated it more clearly yet:

"For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you don't forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins." (Matthew 6:14-15)

This is a hard saying. Jesus says that if we want to be recipients of God's love and forgiveness, that we must let it flow on through us to others. We cannot receive forgiveness without giving it as well.

There are people who have hurt you -- sometimes deeply! Usually it is the people who are closest to us who are able to hurt us the most. Have you forgiven these people who have sinned deeply against you? Jesus asks you to do that.

To forgive does not mean that you now trust them and are suddenly close friends again. Nor does it excuse what they have done or minimize the hurt and destruction they have caused. But it means that you have decided in your heart to no longer hold their sin against them -- ever again. Sometimes we don't think we are able to do this -- the hurt is so fresh and the wound so tender. But pray and ask God to help you forgive, and he will.

As you have probably guessed by now, this love teaching is not just pretty and nice, it is difficult and costly. Think what it cost Jesus to die on the cross for your sin. It was not a cheap forgiveness. It cost him. Neither will it be easy and trivial for you to forgive, but God calls you to this. That is what it means to love.

Love Is Not a Sign of Weakness, but of Strength

Sometimes hard, street-wise people think that love is a sign of weakness. It is a jungle out there -- kill or be killed. There is no place for forgiveness. If you are weak, you die.

Frankly, that is a pretty shallow, naive view of love. Love is the strongest force in the world -- stronger than armies and dictators, stronger than evil, stronger than pain. When you look at Jesus' voluntary death on the cross, you don't see weakness, but strength. You see determination to love in the face of evil and hate. The Apostle Paul tells us:

"'If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink....'4Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." (Romans 12:20-21)

In the mid-twentieth century, African-Americans, especially in the American South, were discriminated against and treated as second-class citizens. And all this was supported by laws.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., led a non-violent, prayer-based movement to obtain civil rights. He was jailed many times, but persisted in praying for his persecutors and led his followers to pray for and to have love for those who opposed them. Contrast that to the race riots that flared up in cities after he was no longer there to lead. The civil rights laws in place today are a result of love, not hate, of prayer, not violence. Love is strong.

The Golden Rule

One practical way of assessing our love is by the so-called Golden Rule. It helps us separate our own selfish tendencies from the loving thing to do. Jesus taught us:

"So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets." (Matthew 7:12)

Just as the two greatest commandments sum up the teachings of the whole Bible ("the Law and the Prophets"), so does the Golden Rule. Treat other people the way you would like to be treated yourself.

The Classic Statement of Love

We will conclude this lesson by reading the classic "love chapter" in the Bible, 1 Corinthians, chapter 13. I encourage you to read it out loud and then think deeply about it this week:

"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.

"Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

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"Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

"And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love." (1 Corinthians 13:1-13)

Prayer

Father, your love is deep and strong. You loved me and rescued me from the way I was going. I can begin to see how you want me to start loving with the same consistency and power that you love. Help me to forgive the people who have hurt me. Help me to love the people around me who don't deserve love. To be like you I need you to transform my natural inclinations and help me. But I trust you to do that. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.

Memory Verse

"Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love." (1 John 4:7-8, NIV)

Questions and Discussion Points

  1. Read aloud your memory verse for this week (1 John 4:7-8). Write it on a card.
  2. Report. Did you attend a church last week? What did you like about it? What didn't you like about it? What didn't you understand?
  3. Report. How is your quiet time? Are you spending time regularly with God? What time of day is working best for you?
  4. Discuss. Why is a God of love so radically different from the gods of this world?
  5. Discuss. What happens to you when you finally understand that God loves you just the way you are?
  6. Discuss. What are the two greatest commandments? How do we fulfill the first commandment? How do we fulfill the second commandment?
  7. Discuss. Does it make any sense to love your enemies? Why should you love them? Is there a time when you were God's enemy? Is love a sign of weakness?
  8. Discuss. Why is it so important that you forgive those who have hurt you?
  9. Discuss. Does forgiving a person mean that you must trust him? Why or why not?
  10. Discuss. Who are the people who have hurt you most? Why is it so hard to forgive them? Mentor: Share how some people have hurt you and how you came to forgive them.
  11. Assignment. Make a list of the people who you have trouble forgiving. Then pray daily that God will help you forgive them.
  12. Review your memory verses from Lesson 1 (Ephesians 2:8-9), Lesson 2 (John 8:31-32), Lesson 3 (1 John 1:9), and Lesson 4 (John 13:34-35). See if you can say them more accurately than your mentor can.
  13. Pray together about the people you need to forgive. Include in your prayers any problems that you or your mentor are experiencing in your lives. If you haven't learned to pray aloud with your mentor, start today by praying a one-sentence prayer.
  14. Appointment. Set a time and place to meet and go through next week's lesson.

2. Quoting Deuteronomy 6:5.

3. Quoting Leviticus 19:18.

4. Quotation from Proverbs 25:21.


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Copyright © 1985-2017, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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