“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace…. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Galatians 5: 1-6)
We live in a consumer culture. We basically say, “If you please me, I will reward you.” If my garbage doesn’t get picked up, I’m getting a new collector. If another phone company is cheaper and better, I’m switching. It's just business. It’s entirely conditional. If I don't like the product, I move on. This is what we know – and in America we are very good at it.
This is not necessarily bad, but it becomes bad when we begin to treat people from a consumer perspective. We say to our friends, family or spouses: “If you please me, I will reward you. I’ll be good only if you provide something good. I will stick around only if you make it worth my time.” It’s a CONSUMER approach to relationships. It’s entirely conditional. If people don’t give us what we want, we dump them and move on. This leads to disaster.
• If you think you are being consumed you will never be free to openly admit failures and flaws. • If you think you are being consumed, you will feel a desperate need to impress. • If you are being consumed, you will never be sufficient. • If you are a consumer, you will never be satisfied. You will always demand more than others can give. • If you are a consumer, you will always want to be the one who has less invested in the other person. You were never here for them anyway; they were always here for you.
Part of the good news of the gospel is that we are being transformed into the image of a COVENANT GOD. Covenant brings the stabilization of commitment. Someone in covenant love does not say, “If you please me, I will stay with you.” Someone in COVENANT love says: “No matter what, I will be faithful.”
Because of this kind of love from Jesus – seen primarily in the Cross and in the Bible’s ongoing assurance that He will be faithful to us - we become a new kind of people when it comes to our ability to love. I want to talk today about how there is freedom in this kind of covenant love. Here’s the morning’s premise:
When we live in and for Christ, He frees us to live in covenantal love with others.
As we become more like Christ – as we are being transformed into the image of Jesus - we will increasingly love like He loves. In the New Testament, agape, a word which describes how Jesus loves us , is used 320 times.
Agápē is "unconditional love that is always giving and impossible to take or be a taker. It devotes total commitment… no matter how anyone may respond. This form of love is totally selfless and does not change whether the love given is returned or not."
This is the love that “has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” when we became His children (Romans 5:5; cf. Galatians 5:22). Once we experience this, we pass it on.
We will grow in our ability to become a 1 Corinthians 13 kind of person: patient, kind, not self-seeking, keeping no record of wrong, protecting, trusting. I like this quote (I don't know who said it):
“The truth is that the more intimately you know someone, the more clearly you will see their flaws. That’s just the way it is. This is why marriages fail, why children are abandoned, why friendships don’t last. You might think you love someone until you see the way they act when they are out of money or under pressure of hungry, for goodness’ sake. Love is something different. Love is choosing to serve someone and be with someone in spite of their filthy heart. Love is patient and kind, love is deliberate. Love is hard. Love is pain and sacrifice, it’s seeing the darkness in another person and denying the impulse to jump ship.”
This kind of love is not an option for Christians.
- “This is my command: love (agape) each other.” (John 15:17) - I am to love (agape) my wife like Christ loved (agape) the church (Ephesians 5:25) - “Anyone who does not love (agape) does not know God, because God is love (agape).” (1 John 4:8)
So what does this look like?
We are free to love unconditionally. When the love of Christ flows into me and through me, I’m not waiting expectantly for my wife to reciprocate when I do something really loving. She can totally overlook it and that’s fine, because I didn’t do it to be noticed. She can see it and just not think about responding, and that’s okay because I didn’t do it to get a reward. I am free from getting angry or depressed when my offering of love is misunderstood or rejected.
Living this way frees me from keeping score. There’s no more charts of how much I invested in a friend’s life. “I ask them all the time about how they are doing, and they never ask me. I always instigate getting together and they never call me first.”
Don't get me wrong: you need some people in your life who give to you, because we all need to be filled up at times or we will run out of relational fuel. But I Corinthians is clear that ‘love keeps no record of wrongs.” We are free, when we truly love with the love of Christ, to stop keeping track of the balance we have with others. Thank God that Jesus does not do that for us. We just love.
We are free from the haunting emptiness of being a consumer lover. A consumer never has enough. Nothing is good enough. There is always something better somewhere that will fill me better. It takes me forever to choose a movie to watch on Netflix. What if there is a better one? I find myself impatient for a movie to end so I can get on to something that is surely better that I have not yet found. We can do this with people if we are consumers. We are haunted by the idea that there is always better conversation, better sex, better personalities, better vacations, better humor, better listeners… There is always someone better somewhere who will complete me!!!
Covenant, agape love frees us from this restlessness. It says, “I am committed to you. You don't need to complete me because this is not based on what you can do for me. This is based on how I want to serve and love you.” An obvious example is marriage, but I think this applies in other relationships as well.
Now, the book of Proverbs is clear that we must choose our close friends wisely lest they draw us into sin. But barring the toxic people (what Proverbs might call ’perverse people” or ‘fools’) we are called to stay close:
“A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.” (Proverbs 17:7)
Speaking of adversity, here is an inescapable reality of covenantal, agape love: If you are going to serve in love, it will be demanding and intrusive and inconvenient at times. It will cost you something.
Love will be costly because it will break our hearts. It will force us to walk into the hard work of life when all we want to do is wrap ourselves carefully with hobbies and luxuries and silence and entertainment and selfishness. We are willing to be the more invested in a relationship, to offer love even when those receiving it don’t understand or appreciate it like they should. Did Jesus not model this as the ultimate example?
When we set out to love people with the love Christ showed to us, it will cost us something. Like Paul said, there will be times we are poured out like an offering (Philippians 2:17).
- I cannot love my wife without a cost to myself: conversations about hard things; household chores I don’t want to do; juggling responsibilities; talking about budgets and schedules without getting really irritable; learning how my words and my attitudes can build her up or tear her down.
- We cannot love our friends without a cost to ourselves. Sometimes it’s messy when hurtful things are said or done.
- We cannot love our neighbors without a cost to ourselves. Love – real love – will be costly as we get to know and understand, as we listen and love, as we seek to speak truth with love and grace, and we seek to represent Christ and speak the gospel with humility and boldness. Do you know how hard it is to do this with our online neighbors? The one who posts something mean or cutting about us? The one we just want to posterize for all of facebook world to see? If you want to love them with the love of Jesus, it will cost you. You will have to pray…think…retype…maybe submit your response to others to proof…search your heart to surrender your pride and anger to Christ…
- We cannot love the church, the body of Christ, without a cost. We are not perfect people. We will have to “bear each other’s burdens,” because we all bring burdens that other people will have to bear. It is not a question of if. It is a question of when. Showing the kind of love to others that God showed to me demands something of my life. Love is costly.
As our understanding of love changes - as our worldview changes - we freely become broken and spilled out for others in the same way Jesus was broken and spilled out for us.
But the cost is only part of the story. What Christ offers in exchange for that cost is transformation.
Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:22-24) When Jesus came, he offered LOVE, and in this love was the hope of transformation of the world that is also played out in individual lives all the time. It wasn’t some generic “Heal the World” campaign; it was a deeply personal offer to transform you into something new, and keep transforming you until, in eternity, all that is bad in you will be undone.
I would argue that just as we are transformed when we receive Christ’s love, we are transformed when we give Christ’s love.
• I can’t remain as proud as I once was and give agape, covenantal love, because that kind of love is not about me. • I can’t remain as self-centered as I once was and give agape, covenantal love, because that kind of love is not about me. • I can’t settle for being resentful, as short-tempered, as mean, as lustful, as calloused as I once was and give agape, covenantal love, because none of those things are about the well-being of others.
I am convinced – and I couldn’t find a specific verse for this, so you can challenge me if you think I’m off base here – that it’s in the process of showing Christ’s love that some of our greatest transformation takes place.
We weren’t meant to sit back while God waves a magic wand over our character and personality. If you ask God to make you more loving, He’s probably going to put people around you who are hard to love – just like he answered the prayer of others by sending them you.
Once again, we find freedom.
• Freedom from being trapped in the bondage of our selfishness. • Freedom from pride as we realize we are the hard-to-love person in somebody’s life. • Freedom from shame as it sinks in that letting others know we are imperfect is okay. We are all in this together, with Christ at the center, faithfully completing the good work He has already started. • Freedom from loving others on our own power. God is working in us, pouring His Holy Spirit into us, building us up with His word and His people. We are not alone.
“This is my command: love (agape) each other.” (John 15:17)