If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. (1 Corinthians 13:1)
What Is Love, Really?
Love is the cornerstone of all the fruits of the Spirit. When we strive to practice the fruit of love in our lives, we need to make sure we have the right messaging for the specific person we want to reach. God-given, authentic love has the capacity to transform the way we relate to and experience those far from God and the way they experience us. Getting this messaging right begins with taking a good hard look at our motives. Why do we want to evangelize? When the spiritual fruit of love is at work, it acts as a check on us, holding us accountable so that we pursue evangelization for the right reasons.
We need to guard against the desire to be right. Have you ever had an argument with someone over a bit of mindless trivia? Who was the actor in that old movie, or which artist sings that great new song? (Today, we can just turn the debate over to Google and let the gloating begin.) There is nothing wrong with this playful competitiveness when it comes to mindless trivia, but there is when it comes to sharing the gospel. We need to guard against the unhealthy desire to win faith-related arguments, especially with those who are far from God.
This can be tough for some of us. We take the time to train, to study, and to grasp the roles of logic and reason in the life of faith. We then falsely conclude that it is righteous or holy to crush others’ arguments if they disagree. It is not. Think first about the person you want to convince. It is hard enough for someone to come to Christ. Do we need to make it harder by forcing them to swallow their pride and admit we won an argument? If we really want to convince our friends to follow Jesus, one of the worst approaches we can take is to create a situation in which we might say, “I told you so.”
Another false motive that can hit pretty close to home for many of us: evangelizing in order to bring people to church because we don’t want our churches to close. Let me say that again. We should not try to convince people to come to church so that our churches won’t close. Ultimately, this is selfish and inward focused. As the Church goes through this difficult season of shifting cultural dynamics, we can be tempted to rush out and try to bring in a bunch of new people so that we can keep the legacy alive.
Don’t get me wrong. We all want to be part of something that is growing rather than dying. It is good that we love our churches, and as a secondary motivation, trying to keep them open is fine. The only appropriate reason to evangelize, however, is love—to bring people to Jesus, not to preserve our church buildings. We are enabled by the Spirit to bear the fruit of love and to extend that love to each person we encounter. Genuine love leads us to want the best for others.
Discovering the Lovability of Others
I heard about a man who attended Alpha and, as he learned to pray, began to experience profound connections to God. One week, he came back to his Alpha meeting worried that there might be something wrong with him. He told his Alpha table that he was standing in line at the post office when, all of a sudden, he felt an overwhelming sense of love for the man in front of him! He said he had never met the person before and knew nothing about him. “Is this normal?!” he asked with concern.
Maybe these days it is not, but what if it could be? This is the kind of love God feels for us all the time. As we grow in his Spirit, he may enable us to experience a little more of the love that flows through him all the time. Imagine for a moment what it might be like to see a person through God’s eyes. Think about the fact that God finds this person infinitely interesting and lovable. Think about the way God watched his mother cry tears of joy as she held him in her arms for the first time. Think about the way this person’s face would look in a moment of celebration or discouragement. Imagine what hopes and dreams, or at least what potential, is present within this individual that we think so dull. Consider what that person might someday be like in his heavenly state, glimmering, and vibrant with life and celestial beauty. This is just a splash of how God sees this person all the time.
Sharing Faith through Love
Jesus challenges us to love our enemies and to be good to those who hate us (see Matthew 5:44). This kind of heroic love doesn’t come naturally. It is superhuman and is possible only through God’s grace within us. As we become good friends with people who are far from God, they should see a difference in the way we love them compared to the way many others do. Not that we are weird or overly showy, making people uncomfortable! Rather, we are persistent, generous, and not easily shaken by disappointments.
When you consider the people in your life who are far from Jesus, would they say that there is something unique about the way you treat them? Maybe they wouldn’t call it love, but would they say that you are especially attentive, generous, and genuinely interested in them? Again, not that they experience you as over-the-top, but as comforting and reassuring. Your friendship should be constant and reliable whether or not it’s returned. If we settle for treating others only as well as anyone else, why would that attract anyone to Christianity?
I think Jesus did some of his best work in intimate settings of one to three people. The nearness of his presence radically transformed people. St. Teresa of Calcutta was a woman who clearly felt called to love as Jesus loved, and as a result, she had an enormous impact on our world. A young woman who spoke with her said that during the time the two of them were together, she felt as though she had 100 percent of Mother Teresa’s attention. It felt, for those few moments, as if she and Mother Teresa were the only two people in the universe.
I believe Jesus is inviting his disciples to practice that kind of loving attentiveness. In order to serve others well in this way, our love must be genuine. We must be transformed. If we try to fake or pretend our way through loving as Mother Teresa loved, the effort will exhaust us, and the cracks will show. Most people can spot a faker pretty quickly—they can tell when they’re being used or when they’re being loved for their own sake. Imagine, therefore, the impact on others when you allow yourself to grow in the love that is the fruit of the Holy Spirit.
A Key to Love
As with all the fruits of the Spirit, you can’t develop love simply by trying hard or thinking positive thoughts. This transformation comes about through a deep, intimate connection with Christ’s Spirit. There is nothing we can do to earn the fruit of love, but I do believe there is something we can do to properly dispose ourselves to it.
Just as those first disciples of Jesus needed time alone with him, so do we. The more time we spend with God in prayer, in the quiet of his presence, the more his love is free to work its way through us. This time should be set apart, not haphazard or occasional. My wife and I could easily sit next to each other for hours in front of a TV. Months of this might not bring us as close to one another as one afternoon spent in conversation and real effort to grow together as a married couple.
Living the Fruit of the Spirit
The importance of having a dedicated, regular, daily time in prayer became especially real for me a few years ago. I was attending an evening of praise and Adoration during a large conference in Cincinnati. As I knelt in the presence of God, I found myself beginning to feel distracted by all the upcoming events I had to plan and the expectations to succeed that I had imposed on myself. I thought of my call to care for my family, to love my wife well, and to raise our children in holiness and righteousness. There were the burdens of my job, my neighborhood, and my church community. I thought about all the long nights and early mornings that might be demanded of me. I felt so overwhelmed! In a moment of raw emotion, I cried out to God, “I don’t have enough love to do this! God, I don’t love you enough to serve your people the way you are calling me. Please, help me.” Then, I stayed in that uncomfortable place and waited upon the Lord.
Slowly but surely, I began to feel his presence warming my heart. I felt peace and God’s reassurance telling me that he would provide the grace I needed.
When we pray to God, he always answers us. Sometimes he lets us feel the warmth of his nearness as I did that day, and sometimes he does not. Yet we know he always hears and answers us in his own way. If you feel heavy and worn down, if you feel you do not have enough love to be the woman or the man that God is calling you to be, go and be alone in his presence. Return as often as you can, that he might fill you afresh with his presence.
This is a selection from Living the Fruit of the Spirit by Joshua M. Danis (The Word Among Us Press, 2020), available from www.wau.org/books.