Liberated to faithful love

‘Jesus Christ stands between the lover and the others he loves’.

With this somewhat elliptic sentence, Dietrich Bonhoeffer gets to the heart of what it means for the Christian to love well, to love faithfully. In Just Love, we try to cultivate loving kindness and living justly as a way of life. But we’ve all been there in those situations where we’re trying to figure out how we can best love another person. What action is the right one, here and now? How do I really love? Quickly we can find ourselves overwhelmed, burdened by the seriousness of the situation. Trying to figure out what is loving becomes such a weight to carry, and especially when there are so many contradictory voices from within society and even within ourselves as to what constitutes the most loving course of action. The Book of Isaiah describes both what this situation is, and can often feel like:

‘So justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us. We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows. Like the blind we grope along the wall, feeling our way like men without eyes. At midday we stumble as if it were twilight; among the strong, we are like the dead. We all growl like bears, we moan mournfully like doves. We look for justice, but find none; for deliverance, but it is far away’. [1]

Thankfully, we know a God who doesn’t leave the world in this state. That chapter of Isaiah continues on to tell of how the LORD Himself acts to bring justice into the world that had altogether forsaken it, coming ‘like a pent-up flood that the breath of the Lord drives along’. Christ is the eternal Judge, who came, putting on ‘righteousness as His breastplate, and the helmet of salvation on His head’. But what about us? The LORD might show His justice, repaying ‘according to what they have done’, but how do we fit in? We know that in Christ our futures are secure in the coming Kingdom—the reality presented so beautifully in Revelation 21, Just Love’s theme for this term. But how do we actually live in the life of justice and love, the very life  of that Kingdom, now?

Isaiah 59:21 says this: “As for me, this is my covenant with them”, says the LORD. “My Spirit, who is on you, and my words that I have put in your mouth will not depart from your mouth, or from the mouths of your children, or from the mouths of their descendants from this time on and for ever,” says the LORD’.

Just as God intervenes in the world, so He doesn’t leave His people in the dark to try and figure things out for themselves. He invites us in to His own purposes, He invites us in to His mission, pointing to that Kingdom that is yet to come. And He gives us the means to be part of that: the two-fold gift of His Spirit and His words. Of course, for Christians, the struggle of knowing exactly what to do in any given situation doesn’t completely go away. There are always difficult situations, there are always times when it seems like an impossibility to choose a course of action. But every time I struggle with figuring out the right course of action, I always need to remember to check myself. Am I just trying to figure this out on my own strength, on my own conception of what justice or love is? Or am I looking to God’s word and submitting to the Spirit’s guidance? The full quote from Bonhoeffer’s Life Together goes like this:

‘Jesus Christ stands between the lover and the others he loves. I do not know in advance what love of others means on the basis of the general idea of love that grows out of my human desires—all this may rather be hatred and an insidious kind of selfishness in the eyes of Christ. What love is, only Christ tells in his word’. [2]

Rather than a set of rules that constrain an expression of real love that lives somewhere inside us, turning to Christ and His word liberates us as we learn what love really is, and what it means to love faithfully. As Bonhoeffer says, we can’t know if our action will be love at all. But the eternal Rock shows us, tells us, guides us. We just have to ask and listen. This should comfort us. If I trust that God teaches me love, then the pressure is no longer on me to figure out on my own what love looks like. Christ shows, His word teaches, His Spirit guides. By beholding Him and conforming to Him, we get drawn in to that inner life of God more and more, and our desires, our preconceptions, our prejudices, our wants, fade away as real Love takes His throne in our hearts. None of these questions are new, and none of the answers are new either. Benedict of Nursia asked the same question when writing his Rule in the 6th century about how Christians can live in the Kingdom of God on earth now. His concluding analysis may be a good challenge for us all, as we travel together on the journey of discipleship:

‘Brothers, we have questioned the Lord about the person who lives in His tabernacle, and we have heard His instructions about living there, but it is for us to fulfil the obligations of those who live there. And so we must prepare our hearts and bodies to fight by means of holy obedience to His instructions’.[3]

For, ‘if anyone obeys his word, God’s love is truly made complete in him’.[4]

David Elliott | 2nd year @ Lincoln

[1] Isaiah 59:9-11 (NIV).

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (original German: 1939, English trans. 1954), p.22.

[3] Benedict of Nursia, Regula Benedicti, c.540, trans. C. White, 2016 Penguin Classics Edn., p.5.

[4] 1 John 2:5a (NIV).