Selfless Love

There are four primary words in the Ancient Greek language that have been translated into our English word “Love” in the New Testament of the Bible. One of them is quite important to a person who calls himself or herself a “Christian”.

When Americans use the word “love” they might use it in multiple contexts, sometimes with a wry smile. In our house, if one of our children would have said “I just love this spaghetti!”, another might have responded with “Well, why don’t you marry it?” Corny but cute.

In 1995, the phrase “I love you man!” was used in a comical Bud-Light beer commercial. The son wanted a beer from his father, so he professed his love for him in what was an obvious-to-all ploy. But the commercial was funny with an endearing “Hallmark Card-like” tone. As a result, it became a huge hit in pop culture at the time.  Perhaps it hit home with some about how we profess love while actually seeking something for ourselves.

Of the words translated to “love” from the Ancient Greek language, the first three are not the subject of this article:

  • The Greek word “Eros” we translate as love, but it has sexual tones of passion.  Our word “erotic” comes from this.
  • The Greek word “Philia” means love, but it is the love of friendship.  The city we know as Philadelphia was named by William Penn, and the name means “brotherly love”.  As an aside, among the many historically signficant accomplishments of that city, it was the birthplace of the United States Marines, to whom I have the greatest respect.
  • The Greek word “Storge” also means love, but it is the type of love that parents have for their children.

Yet the Greeks used one other word for love that signifies an even greater love, a “selfless love”. The word is “Agape”. What is agape love or selfless love? It is a love in which one intentionally puts the good of others ahead of oneself. Such love was demonstrated in its ultimate form by Jesus Christ. It was His intentional willingness to suffer, to be crucified and to die for the good of mankind.

Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.
~ John 15:13

To be a Christian, one believes that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and that He bore the sins of man on His shoulders on a cross at Calvary.  Also, that He rose again on the third day and sits at the right hand of the Father.  Such faith is a saving faith. But a Christian is to not just believe, but also to follow the example of Jesus by loving God and loving others selflessly.  That is the difficult part.  It requires work, diligence, and agape love for others.

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.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
~ Matthew 22:37-39

You might respond “Love my neighbor as myself!? How is that possible? You clearly haven’t met my neighbors!”

Yet when we look at the love that Jesus brought into the world, we see such love. It was the poor and downtrodden that He came to save. He didn’t reach out to the rich, the beautiful or the powerful of that time in history, but to the destitute, the leper, the tax-collector that most people shunned or despised. He led by example. We are to follow His example, to follow Him.

One of the most quoted verses in the New Testament is this one –
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”
~ John 3:16

This verse describes God’s action of “giving” His Son, Jesus, for all who would believe in Him. That takes “selfless” to a new level. We would almost certainly be more willing to die for someone than to sacrifice one of our children for them. Can we even begin to understand the love of God?

It frankly isn’t possible for a man to achieve such perfect, selfless love, but Jesus promised His followers that He would send a “Helper” in the person of “The Holy Spirit” to them. Through the study of His word in the Bible, through prayer and through the power of the Holy Spirit within us, we can follow the example of Jesus.

There is much darkness in this world.  We only need to do a quick scan of the latest news to see the terror and cruelty that men inflict on each other.  Yet love prevails.  Christians are to be “set apart” for the gospel of Jesus Christ.  We pray that you will believe, trust and follow Him.

Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
~ 1st Corinthians 13:4-7

Photograph by John J O’Leary

To Those Who Love God

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.

One of the most popular, most comforting, scriptures in the Bible is found in Paul’s letter to the Romans.

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.
~Romans 8:28

Some reading this may not know the Bible well and perhaps don’t know who Paul was. Imagine then, that you are a man who is highly intelligent and devout, having a set of beliefs about God that you not only cherish but defend. You are known as Saul of Tarsus by your Jewish brethren. You are a Jew and also a Roman citizen. From early childhood, you have spent your life studying the Torah, the written law of God. Your reputation is based on your beliefs. You have gone so far as to seek out heretics who are claiming that God has come in the person of a man from Nazareth, a carpenter’s son. Blasphemous! Later, you become a leader in the search for these heretics so that they can be brought to justice. You stand on the sidelines and watch as one of them is stoned to death. Then one fateful day, as you are traveling to a city called Damascus in your search, God stops you in your tracks. Literally. You are blinded. You fall from your horse into the dusty road and hear the voice of God: “Saul, Saul, why you are persecuting Me?”

Saul had been hunting disciples, or followers, of Jesus Christ, who had apparently proclaimed Himself to be the Son of God. Saul was known as “the Pharisee of Pharisees”. A Pharisee was one who was “separated from others” and they were often self-righteous and arrogant. You can imagine the outrage of such a man when confronted with people saying that this Jesus was supposedly God in the flesh.

There are 13 “Principles of Faith” that Orthodox Jews believe. The 12th states: “I believe with full faith in the coming of the Messiah. And even though he tarries, with all that, I await his arrival with every day.” There was a belief that a “Messiah” would come to liberate the Jewish people and bring world peace. He would be a powerful king, ruling here on earth! Yet when He came, instead of coming as a king here on earth, He came as a gentle, loving man who would say that His kingdom was not of this earth. Instead of being recognized as the Messiah, He would be mocked, beaten, spat upon, and crucified upon a cross. Then those who had been His disciples would be summarily hunted down and killed. And Saul was a leader of the pack of hunters pursuing them.

With that backdrop of a man who was vehemently against Jesus and His followers, how on earth is it possible that he would be the one who would risk his life innumerable times to tell the story that Jesus was, in fact, the Son of God? Wouldn’t God have struck him down with a bolt of lightning, killing him on that road to Damascus to show others what would happen to them if they persecuted and killed his followers? Wouldn’t God smite those who had killed His Son, Jesus?

God is God, and His ways are not our ways. That’s a very good thing indeed. Instead of killing Saul, He dramatically showed him the error of his ways and turned him from his path of self-righteousness and destruction to a path of true righteousness and salvation. Saul would come to be known as Paul, as his life would take a complete reversal in direction. He would go on to write many letters, revealing the story of Jesus Christ and declaring His message of love, grace, and sacrifice.

The longest of Paul’s letters would be to the Romans. It was when Nero was the Emperor. His letter to the Romans was written around 57-58 a.d., while Paul was most likely in Corinth. Paul had never met those he wrote to but knew of their faith in Christ based on the testimony of others. They were of differing backgrounds. Most likely there were Jews among them who believed in Jesus. Others would have been heathens who had also come to believe in Him. There would have been contentious beliefs about how to be a follower of Christ. Paul’s letter would be written to encourage them and instruct them on his inspired knowledge of the sinful nature of man, the sacrifice that Jesus made in our man’s behalf, and that salvation is through faith alone.

When we read that “God causes all things to work together for good”, we must recognize that this pertains to just one group of people. It is “to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” No such statement is made to those who do not love God and who are not called according to his purposes. Nor is Paul saying that we can cause things to work together for good. Only God can do this. “Looking on the bright side” may be helpful to us, but that is not what Paul is saying here.

What does the verse mean? How can we apply this in our life? First, we should love God.

There is a scripture in Mathew 22 in which Jesus had been asked a very important question by the Pharisees. When they hoped to entrap him, asking Him what the great commandment in the Jewish Law was, He replied:

“ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment.”
~ Matthew 22:37

In 2004, several months after the death of our son, Brian, I was in my car on the way to work. It was early morning and I was alone on a highway. I felt very alone indeed. My thoughts were of Brian and how much I missed him. I thought of Matthew 22. Understanding what it meant, knowing the scripture, was one thing. Being able to do it, I felt, was something altogether different.

Speaking out loud, I asked God “How is it possible for me to love you more than I love Brian, Daniel, and Katie? More than I love my wife? More than I love my mother and father, my sister? More than my friends? More than the amazing beauty of this world with its majestic mountains, rivers, ocean beaches, sunsets, and wildlife? More than starry nights, the twinkling of fireflies, the feeling when a large trout takes my fly in a Wyoming stream?” I stated emphatically “That is not possible for me God! I can’t just want to love you more than all that, it isn’t simply choosing to love. I have to really love You that much to obey that commandment!”

It would be misleading to say God answered me. More accurately, I believe He gave me a revelation that would change my understanding. I suddenly understood it as if He had said out loud to me: “John, every person and everything you just listed are gifts that I have given to you in your life. You love my gifts, can you not love Me, the One who gave you every good thing?” That was eye-opening for me. God had given me everything I had ever loved, ever cherished, throughout my entire life. And yet, here I was asking Him how I could love Him more than those people, those things. He had given me those things out of love for me. I was very appreciative of the gifts. But I had been missing the opportunity to love the Giver.

Cindy and I would see many evidences of God in our lives. We would be told that the forgiveness we had shown after Brian’s accident would be a blessing to others, and had even been shared by missionaries on trips to other countries. Cindy would tell the murderer of her brother to his face “I forgive you, I forgive you…” He would break down in tears as she said these words.  He would also go to prison for many years.  Perhaps her words would lead him one day to seek to know God, to surrender his life to the One who actually was in control of it?  We would see God working, bringing good out of the loss of our son, out of the loss of her brother. Yet the pain was also real, and the healing took a long time.

My belief is that we take so much for granted in this life and our love for God is far too shallow. We have expectations that things will go well, especially if we think we are being “good people”. We have simplistic views on the things that really matter, such as where we will spend eternity and the purpose of our very existence. We must remember that God causes all things to work for good – “to those who love God.”

Can we not cry out to God to help us out of the depths of His love?

“Lord, help me first to love You in a more profound way!”

“Open the eyes of my heart Lord!”

“Help me to see beyond the material world and the daily grind of activities and chores, so that I can see You at work in my life and the lives of others.”

“Help me to understand the depth of Your love, a love that would cause You to sacrifice Your Son to save a sinner like me.”

“Help me to love others, to extend Your love to them, and to not be focused on myself.”

“But most of all Lord, thank You! Thank you for loving me and for all the gifts you have given to me throughout my entire life. I am eternally grateful.”

My encouragement to you is that, no matter what has happened in your life prior to now, you are free to choose to follow after Jesus Christ at this very moment. Humble yourself, recognizing that you really aren’t in control of much in this life. But you can make choices! You have the freedom even in the midst of the most hostile countries in the world to choose to believe in Jesus, that He is the Son of God who came to take away the sins of the world. My sins. Your sins. You can believe that He rose from the grave after three days and sits at the right hand of God. You are free to turn from sinful ways and follow Him, trusting Him with your very soul.

Blessings in Christ,
John

Photograph by John J O’Leary

A Bittersweet Joy

Yet amazingly, we were feeling joy in the midst of our greatest sadness.

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.
~1 Corinthians 13:12

The famed writer Rudyard Kipling wrote a deeply touching story of only six pages entitled “The Gift of the Magi.” Published in 1905, it tells of a young couple’s love for each other and, most significantly, their willingness to sacrifice their most prized possessions due to that love. For they each wanted to purchase a Christmas gift for the other in secret, but they had no money to do so.

We will post a link below for you to read this story, but first a bit about why we are doing so. In early December of 2003, we lost our eighteen-year-old son Brian in an accident. The funeral was held five days later. During those five days, we had dozens of Brian’s friends share their stories of what Brian’s life had meant to them. These stories, and the emotion behind them, brought us both joy and sadness.

During the middle of the night after the funeral which had been held in the afternoon, Cindy and I were awake in bed. I believe it was around 3:00 am. We were talking and there were many tears. Yet amazingly, we were feeling joy in the midst of our greatest sadness. We know this was God’s loving hand and His Holy Spirit giving us comfort. It was at that moment when the little story of “The Gift of the Magi” came to my mind.

After remembering the story, I explained to Cindy that I felt bittersweet joy and sadness at the very same time, mixed together and flooding through me. I reminded her of Kipling’s story. Then, I explained that there was a strong correlation between what I was feeling and what the young couple must have felt. “Imagine,’ I said, ‘when they saw the gift that the other had sacrificed so very much in order to give them!”

We would encourage you to read the story as it is quite short. We believe that Kipling was able to tell stories with such powerful emotion due to the intense highs and lows of his own life, some of which is explained below.

About Rudyard Kipling

Perhaps, in this day and age, Kipling is better known for having written children’s books such as “The Jungle Books”. As this is being written, “Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle” is playing in movie theaters across America and it is based on his stories. He wrote the famous book “Kim” in 1901. He would win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907, at the age of 42. However, he also suffered great personal loss.

In 1899, on a trip to the United States, both he and his daughter Josephine developed pneumonia. It would take his daughter’s life. During World War I, his son John was killed at the age of 18. Kipling was devastated by both losses and felt personal guilt at having helped his son get accepted into the Irish Guard through personal connections.

Read “The Gift of the Magi” by Rudyard Kipling

Photograph by John J O’Leary