For the past few weeks, I have been discussing the four “phase” process by which God enlarges our hearts in love. The final phase in this progression toward holy passion is learning to love others. The reason this one is last is that we are only positioned to love others well when the preceding three phases are in place, at least on some level. And interestingly, it is growing in this fourth phase that serves as a visible indication that we are also growing in the others. Jesus tells us in John 13:34-35 that loving people is the way that the world will know that we are His disciples, that we genuinely love Him and long to be like Him.
Throughout the book of I John (among other places) we are told that we do not truly love God if we do not also love those around us. This is why Jesus says that the second great commandment, to love our neighbor as ourselves, is “like” the first. They are very closely related. If we struggle with loving people, that is fairly solid evidence that our relationship with God and our love for Him is lacking. But it is equally important to realize that it is only in being energized by experiencing God’s love, loving Him in return, and experiencing the freedom to love ourselves, that we are empowered to overflow in love for others consistently and appropriately.
In my case, I began with a sincere heart and honest intentions of serving the Lord through service to those around me. However, as often happens, my ministry, rather than my relationship with God and fellowship with His Spirit, took first place in my life. It was not a conscious decision I made that allowed this to happen; in fact, it happened over a period of time without my noticing.
At least until things hit bottom.
I woke up one day and realized that the freshness of my relationship with Jesus was gone, and that I pretty well hated everything I was doing related to serving and ministering to others. It was a harsh realization that caused me to pull out of ministry almost completely for several years. Gratefully, God continued to woo my heart throughout the process, bringing awareness of my diversion before it was too late.
Because I do not want you to make the same mistakes I made, I would like to help by sharing a few truths that I have learned over the past couple of decades.
Three Truths About Loving People Biblically
First, loving people without the power of God at work in our lives is actually not love at all. While I appreciate secular humanitarian efforts, the only love that makes a lasting difference, the only love that has the power to truly set the captive heart free, is the love that proceeds from the heart of the Father. That is why it is critical that our love for others be the result of an overflow of His love within our own hearts.
There is much talk of justice and service to the poor within the Church today, and that is a very good thing. God loves justice, and He loves the poor. In fact, He loves them much more than we could ever imagine. But woe to us as the Body of Christ if we embrace “justice” and service to anyone without first allowing our hearts to be “rooted and grounded in love,” whereby we experience a thriving relationship with the Source of all true love in the secret places of our hearts. Why would we think we have anything of value to offer to anyone, unless we have received it in the context of intimacy with God, our Father?
The second truth I would like to point out is that loving people apart from first loving God is not sustainable. Trust me, as I mentioned above, I speak from experience. Human zeal will carry us to a certain point, but eventually, “burn out” and frustration are inevitable. One of Satan’s primary tactics is to simply wait patiently while we stumble around in our own strength. He does not have to intervene in any way – he knows we will fail. That failure typically leads to a rift in our relationship with God as we blame Him for not coming through for us in a situation He was never committed to in the first place.
Finally, it is important to realize that if we focus our hearts on the first great commandment (loving God), then we will automatically conform to the second (loving people). We can’t help it.
At some point you have likely heard someone make the statement, “So-and-so is too heavenly minded to be any earthly good.” This is a declaration often made by well-intentioned individuals who have embraced God’s heart for service and are concerned that someone else is spending too much time talking and praying about the problems around them without taking any action. It is based on a judgment that someone is so concerned about developing their relationship with Jesus that they have completely forgotten about loving people and confronting the issues around them.
I would argue that anyone who is truly heavenly minded and falling more in love with the Father cannot help but learn to love what He loves. The Scriptures are clear that God deeply loves people, so much that He was willing to come in the form of a man and die for the redemption of our souls. How is it possible that we could not naturally grow in true love for other people as we grow in love for God? In my estimation, such a scenario is not possible at all.
Stay Connected to the Source
Once again (yes, it is that important that we get this), Jesus’s first commandment – to love God with everything in us – must be first. It has to be in place before anything else matters. However, with our hearts set on growing in love for God, we cannot help but grow in love for others. In fact, those who genuinely love Jesus will naturally love other people far more than those who don’t have a vibrant relationship with God. The two commandments are inseparable, which is why Jesus discusses both when asked about the greatest commandment in the Law.
You cannot emphasize one while neglecting the other. The first is always first. The second can’t be first. But it also can’t be tenth. It is second. The first cannot stand alone – it is impossible to love God and not love what He loves. It is a natural progression. The second also cannot stand alone, or else it will prove empty and unsustainable, leading to frustration, bitterness, and burnout.
To focus solely on the second commandment, or even to let it become first in our lives, is to make our ministry an idol in our heart. God will have no others before Him, no matter how good our intentions might be. Conversely, to those who set their hearts to go after both commandments in the order in which they are intended, the Holy Spirit provides the anointing to walk them out in perfect harmony, which brings great delight to the Father and to our own hearts.
So now it is time to take inventory. How are you doing when it comes to loving those around you? What is your inspiration for loving and serving others? Are you being energized by a vibrant relationship with Jesus, or is there something else motivating you? Do you struggle to consistently love others well, or does it seem to come naturally? How does the love that you show to others differ from what you have seen demonstrated by people who are not followers of Jesus?
As usual, I invite you to share any questions, comments or feedback in the comments section below, or to connect with me for discussion on social media. I look forward to chatting with you soon!
(If you enjoyed this post, go back and read Part 4)