Learning the Love of Christ

Paul’s second mind-blowing prayer request for the Ephesians in 3:14-21 is that they would come to know the full extent of the love of Christ even though that love is limitless. Unfortunately, we often think that Christ’s love is something we ‘learn’ at our salvation and that’s it. Paul, at least, thinks that it is one of the main jobs of the Christian and Church to come to know Christ’s love.

But how do we come to know Christ’s love more fully? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. We learn Christ’s love by praying to know Christ’s love. “Paul points out that knowledge of the full dimensions of God’s secrete cannot be easily mastered; it requires a strength only God can give.” (M. Barth 372) If it is a strength that only God can give than we must ask for it. But this is a prayer he is eager to answer!
  2. We learn Christ’s love by loving. Love is something beset learned by doing. We come to understand CHrist’s love for us better as we try to love others with his love and encounter both the joys and challenges of loving.
  3. We learn Christ’s love by failing in love. It is not just ‘successfully’ loving that can be our instructor in the love of Christ. We can learn even by failing in love. We so often try to love others, fail, and then just beat ourselves up about it. Use your failure as a moment to point you toward the perfect love of Christ.
  4. We learn Christ’s love by receiving love in humility. Christ communicates his love to us through others. Because we don’t like to be served we often brush off others’ acts of love. But Christ’s love through them can be part of our education in his love.
  5. We learn Christ’s love by encountering it in Communion.
    The Communion table is a moment to be taught Christ’s love that is ‘built in’ to the life of the church.
  6. We learn Christ’s love by meditating on Christ’s acts of love. Not only the gospels, but certainly not less than the gospels are a source for us to learn of the various aspects of the love of Christ.

Note that much of this doesn’t just happen. It involves us prayerfully reflecting on Scripture and our experienced being love and loving. If you make no time for such ‘study’ don’t be surprised if you don’t learn much.

That ‘voice’ in my head

In his small but powerful book Your God is Too Small, J. B. Phillips addresses an all too common phenomenon–the confusing of our conscience with God. He writes:

There are many, even among professing Christians, who are made miserable by a morbidly developed conscience, which they quite wrongly consider to be the voice of God. Many a housewife overdrives herself to please some inner voice that demands perfection. The voice may be her own demands or the relics of childhood training, but it certainly is not likely to be the voice of the Power behind the Universe. (13)

Substitute ‘missionary’, ‘teacher’, ‘father’, ‘mother’, etc for “housewife” in the above paragraph and you have a pretty good description of the joyless life of many Christians trying to live out the faith in duty to their uneasy conscience mistakenly taken for the daily indictment of God.

And that’s not living by grace.

Growth by God

“What makes the Christian a strong and genuine human is according to Eph. 3:16-19 not a noble capability implanted in him (or her) at the first creation and surviving the lapse into sin, but the ongoing visitation and strengthening by God. When God’s Spirit supplies strength–and when man or woman grows toward the Messiah who is their very life–then they will live as true human.” Markus Barth, Ephesians 1-3.

What’s the big deal?

In men’s breakfast this morning we discussed the story of the woman caught in adultery from John 8. The text is often used to suggest that Jesus dismissed the woman’s sin, excusing her. If Jesus had done so it would have been in defiance of the law. Would Jesus do that?

But Jesus does not dismiss her sin. Rather, the passage ends with Jesus instructing her to “Go and sin no more.” Jesus clearly regarded her and her assailants as sinners. 

Perhaps we want to see Jesus overlooking the woman’s sin in this story because we are much more comfortable with having our sin excused than having it forgiven. C. S. Lewis once admitted: 

When I think I am asking God to forgive me I am often (unless I watch myself very carefully) asking Him to do something quite different. I am asking him not to forgive me but to excuse me. But there is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing.

What is the difference? 

We excuse people all the time with phrases like, “It’s no problem,” “No worries,” “Think nothing of it,” etc. We are communicating that there has been no offense, no violation.

When we ask God to excuse our sin we are asking him to act as though there has been no offense, as though no sin has been committed. We are asking that He see our sin as we do, as “no big deal.” 

Asking for forgiveness, on the other hand, involves our recognition that there has been offense. There has been a violation. A party has been wronged. It cannot be merely overlooked. In asking for forgiveness we see our sin as He does.

On the part of the offended party, offering forgiveness requires grace. Excusing a behavior only requires personal flexibility or moral laxity. 

Asking for forgiveness requires humility; we are at the mercy of the offended party to dispense grace or justice. Truly seeking forgiveness involves both our emotions–we are grieved over the offense–and actions–we ‘repent’, change direction. Asking for our sins to be excused includes no remorse and implies that there will be no change in behavior since “it was no big deal.”

Forgiveness is hard. It is hard to ask for; it is hard to give. No wonder we look for substitutes. But when we do, the loss is ours. Because both sin and grace are a big deal.

Prodigal Grace

rembrant prodigal
Rembrant’s Return of the Prodigal Son

The story of the prodigal son is, among other things, an amazing picture of grace. But it equally shows the varied human responses to grace.
In the prodigal son we can see the two typical ways that people relate to life. He begins by demanding what he believes himself to deserve as a son–his inheritance. His request is crass and dismissive of his father.
This is how many people approach life. They believe that they deserve or merit any good that they receive as a result of something inherent within them, within the way the universe works, or within God. Accordingly, they are demanding and offended when they don’t receive what it is they think they have coming.
After squandering his inheritance, the prodigal son swings to the other typical human response. He asks to be given what he thinks he has earned through his behavior. “I am no longer worthy to be called a son. Treat me as a servant.” Now the son is operating on a different system.
Many approach life this way as well, believing that they receive the good they have through their own effort and suffer the consequences of loss as a result of their failures. This is a strictly tit-for-tat economy.
This seems to be the way the prodigal brother believes the world works (or ought to). He believes he has earned his father’s favor and that his brother has earned his father’s dismissal.
The Father, by contrast, offers to both sons what they do not deserve nor could ever earn. He offers grace. Freely offering of himself and his substance with joy.
The sons’ final responses exemplify the two possible responses to grace. Faced with his father’s favor the prodigal son silently receives. Bowled over, perhaps, by his father’s generosity, he utters no word as he is dressed and feted. Faced with the same show of favor, the prodigal brother stridently rejects. He refuses to share in the joy of his father’s favor and at the same time refuses to receive what the father has already given him as proceeding from that same favor.

Demonic Relationship Advice

One of the things that I find so helpful about the writing of C. S. Lewis is how well he understands people, their habits, and thinking patterns. Consider these words from one demon to another in his The Screwtape Letters and see if they do not accurately depict realities that plague many relationships.

When two humans have lived together for many years it usually happens that each has tones of voice and expressions of face which are almost unendurably irritating to the other. Work on that. Bring fully into the consciousness of your patient that particular lift of his mother’s eyebrows which he learned to dislike in the nursery, and let him think how much he dislikes it. Let him assume that she knows how annoying it is and does it to annoy–if you know your job he will not notice the immense improbability of the assumption. And, of course, never let him suspect that he has tones and looks which similarly annoy her. As he cannot see or hear himself, this is easily managed.

In civilized life domestic hatred usually expresses itself by saying things which would appear harmless on paper (the words are not offensive) but in such a voice, or a such a moment, that they are not far short of a blow to the face…Your patient must demand that all his own utterances are to be taken at their face value and judged simply on the actual words, while at the same time judging all his mother’s utterances with the fullest and most over-sensitive interpretation of the tone and the context of the suspected intention. She must be encouraged to do the same to him. Hence from every quarrel they can both go away convinced, or very nearly convinced, that they are quite correct. You know the kind of thing: ‘I simply ask her what time dinner will be and she flies into a temper.’ Once this habit is well established you have the delightful situation of a human saying things with the express purpose of offending and yet having a grievance when offence is taken.