We are born lovers. It is written into our DNA as human beings. It’s not a question of whether we love, but whom we love. The object of our affection will grip our heart, no matter what we say we believe or think. Whoever holds the key to our heart will determine how we will live and die. The Apostle John says that being filled with love is the second proof of being ‘born of God’. The first proof is that we obey God (see Kill sin before it kills you). John tells us that there are two opposing forces that vie for our love. Like light and darkness, they cannot be fused and have nothing in common.
Either we will love God or we will love the world.
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life is not from the Father but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation* for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us…
16 So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him… 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.
Living and loving through Jesus
1 John 4:19 was the first Bible verse I ever learned by heart: “We love because He first loved us.” My toddler version was: “I wuv God ‘coz he first wuved me,” and I repeated that verse like a parrot because it made me feel good. God’s love is personal to me. It has made all the difference to my life, and has, over time, shaped crucial decisions and the places I seek security and joy. Every time I bump my head against sin and become aware of how lost and weak I am in myself, God’s love shines warmer and brighter as I realise just how undeserved his grace is. My Saviour’s love has freed me up to love people without worrying if there will be anything left over for me. I know He loves me today as much as He will love me on the day I take my last breath. He will love me in sickness and in health, for richer and poorer, in wise moments and in stupid ones! And death will never part us.
According to John, God’s love is what every child of God can “come to know and believe” as a fact, not just a theory (1 John 4:16). We are supposed to experience it as a reality for ourselves, because God has shown his love to us in a way that we cannot dispute (1 John 4:9-10). Because the holy God of the universe laid down his life for ours as a propitiation* for our sins, we can stake our life on this love. Even when it feels as though God is silent or has forgotten us. Even in the darkest dead-end streets of life, we can depend on it—without a shadow of doubt.
The acid test
For many years now I have led women’s Bible studies attended by ladies from a range of denominations, personalities and cultures. This week I have been with my children at university and attended my daughter’s student cell group. Beyond superficial differences in age, style and denomination, there is one quality that always arrests me in a community where God’s Spirit is alive and well: There is a tender affection for the Lord Jesus Christ. Christians who are growing and being sanctified by the Holy Spirit are eager to serve and obey God more, not out of duty or fear, but from a place of deep love and devotion. Even when they are struggling with life and have honest questions about their faith, they talk of Jesus in a personal, excited way as if He is precious and lovely to them. They are deeply offended if His name is dishonoured. For those who understand the gospel of grace, it is only natural to be completely devoted to the person who has rescued you from the precipice of disaster and death. And it is only logical that when you are gripped by God’s love, you will be moved by it to love others. It is a matter of cause and effect for Christ’s Beloved, as indeed we are if we are born again and know God (1 John 4:7).
Giving our hearts away
But even if we are God’s beloved, it is also easy for us to slip into a stale, stagnant faith over time. Love for God will always grow cold when we give the key of our heart to the world. Love of the world chokes our affection for Jesus. I do not know which is the chicken and the egg, but one thing is certain: if we are setting our hearts on things of the world, we cannot love God at the same time (1 John 2:15). These loves are always incompatible, because what the world delights in is not what our heavenly Father delights in, and vice versa (1 John 2:16). John gives you and me a serious reality check:
This world is not going to last, nor anything in it. Getting cozy with the world is like embracing a phantom in a fog.
If we are gripped by love of the world, we will stumble about aimlessly, eventually losing our way and wasting our life on stuff that is passing away—like vapour that slips through our fingers. The world has a very short shelf life and we will have nothing to show for our investment in it. By contrast, living a life to please God is making an investment that lasts for all eternity (1 John 2:17). I am not a good shopper, and whenever I have spent longer than an hour at a shopping Mall, these words of Wordsworth’s poem ring like an alarm bell in my mind!
Three ways we give our hearts away
How exactly do we give our hearts away and “lay waste our powers”? The apostle John says, “Do not love the world or the things of the world” (1 John 2:15). John is not speaking about loving nature or creation. In fact, the beauty of the universe restores us and should draw us closer to God, the Creator of everything (Ps 19:1-6). We do not give our hearts away or waste our time when we enjoy the blessings and cherish the people God has given us in this world. But John defines what he means by loving the world in 1 John 2:16:
Lust of the flesh and desire of the eyes is thirst for pleasure in things God has not designed to satisfy us. Selfish lust will always oust love, which is other-centred. Desire of the flesh and eyes is an inward-focussed striving or craving to have our needs met by whatever we have set our heart on– something which we do not have but yearn for. We give our heart away to what we desire most (Matt 6:21).
Pride of life is boasting (even silently) in things we do have– talents or things we have achieved, earned or acquired. When we give our heart away to pride, we stop loving God and others, and start serving ourselves instead. As long as we live for our own glory, we will always fear losing what the world has given us. Money can be a powerful symbol of self glory in a divided heart. That’s why Proverbs 62:10 gives us a wise warning, “If riches increase, set not your heart on them.” And the writer of Hebrews reminds us, “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).
When love grows cold
Loving the world always results in a cold heart towards Jesus. Our devotion to Him will become lukewarm and we will soon make excuses to avoid reading the Bible, praying and spending time with God’s people. It is hard enough to serve Jesus in a hostile world, but if we cling to the world’s trappings, we will lose our distinctive ‘saltiness’, becoming useless disciples (Matt 5:13). Flirting with the world is called ‘idolatry’ and is seriously offensive to God. We can no longer worship God with a full, blazing heart, in spirit and in truth. James puts it bluntly: Friendship with the world leads to enmity (hostility) with God (James 4:4).
So what should we do if our heart is growing cold towards Jesus? The only remedy is to acknowledge the false love (idol) that grips our affections and to ‘burn the ships’, seeking God’s face for forgiveness and renewal. We cannot overcome love of the world in our own strength, but Jesus says that He has overcome the world (John 16:33). If we are in Christ and God’s Spirit is breaking the power of sin in our lives, we too can overcome (1 John 5:4). But we cannot be complacent. We need to turn our eyes to Jesus and do whatever it takes to rekindle our love for our Saviour, just as we would work on a marriage where love has grown stale. We are not slaves to our feelings, but must act in love and obedience to God, and wait for our feelings to follow:
Prioritise time with the Lord, go for a long walk with Him, talk about what He has done for us, remind ourselves of our first spark of love when we were born again. Stay accountable and confess our sins to Christian brothers and sisters. In this way, we do not give the world a gap to woo us. Intimacy with God is something that is built over time, laying down one small brick of love at a time. Intimacy grows through feeding our appetites godly food and placing ourselves in the three channels of grace God has provided to keep our affections alive to Him: 1. Daily reading of Scripture. 2. Prayer. 3. Meeting with God’s people (see David Mathis’s book titled The Habits of Grace).
Who of us doesn’t struggle daily with desires of the flesh, the eyes and the pride of life? But we will only loosen the world’s grip on our heart through a more powerful devotion to Jesus, who is infinitely greater than the one who is in the world (1 John 4:4).
Do you love me?
Christian ministry is dangerous without this powerful devotion to Jesus, the Saviour. That’s why our risen Lord asks Peter three times, “Simon, son of Jonas, do you love me?” Before Peter is commissioned to feed the church, he is not asked, “Do you believe me?” or “Will you obey me?” Or “will you serve me?” Love is the foundation of our faith and our ministry. “Do you love me?” is the most searching question Jesus asks every Christian, since each of us has been sent into the world as His ambassador.
“We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). The love that grips our hearts will make the world of difference. Is it the love of Christ… or the world?
Live it out!
- What do you think of most of the time? Turn now to Jesus and ask Him to be the centre of your thoughts, your focus and your desires.
Sing this wonderful hymn to remind yourself of your Messiah, “who holds forever those he loves.” Is He worthy, by Andrew Peterson.
* Meaning of propitiation – the act of placating the wrath of God through Christ’s atoning death on the cross. “The prefix pro means “for,” so propitiation brings about a change in God’s attitude, so that He moves from being at enmity with us to being for us. Through the process of propitiation, we are restored into fellowship and favour with Him.” (see https://www.ligonier.org/blog/two-important-words-good-friday-expiation-and-propitiation/)