Real Love (part 1)

Recently, I had the privilege of performing weddings for two committed couples here at the Grove. In each of those ceremonies, I spoke about just one word. It’s a word uttered in every wedding and whispered by every couple. It’s a word the youngest child can write with crayon, yet so deep that only God’s stylus can engrave it on our hearts. It’s a concept as vast as the universe yet small enough to deposit in the humblest home. It’s the largest, broadest, deepest word in the world. It’s the theme of a thousand songs, the topic of a million letters, and the subject of countless sermons. This word occurs 544 times in the Bible and is an infinite attribute of our everlasting God. That word is—love. We talk about falling in love, being in love, staying in love, making love, and loving one another with all our hearts. Our prayers, poems, and promises are all tethered to love.

Everyone loves love! We want to be loved and we want to give love. Jesus even said that love would be the distinguishing mark of his followers: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:33 NIV). The problem is—our love is often lacking. It’s often conditional upon our own mood or our loved one’s actions, appearance or attitude. When it comes to love, all of us fall a little short, don’t we? Loving people isn’t easy—the vow-breakers, the truth-benders, the moneygrubbers, the backstabbers that we meet, work with, and even marry. How do you love people who are hard to love? Our typical strategy is to try harder, dig deeper, strain more. We’re going to love that person if it kills us! And it just might. There’s an old rhyme that puts it this way:

What joy to love the saints above

When I get home to glory.

To love below, the saints I know,

Well, that’s another story!

Do you ever feel low on love? Does your love-tank need refueling?

In all of Scripture, no one has more to say about love than the Apostle John. He’s even called the apostle of love, and I think his words about love can help us as Christians to live the love-laced life that Jesus intended for his followers. They tell us what real love looks like. Here’s what John has to say about love:


Dear friends, I am not writing a new commandment for you; rather it is an old one you have had from the very beginning. This old commandment—to love one another—is the same message you heard before. Yet it is also new. Jesus lived the truth of this commandment, and you also are living it.

For the darkness is disappearing, and the true light is already shining. If anyone claims, “I am living in the light,” but hates a Christian brother or sister, that person is still living in darkness.

Anyone who loves another brother or sister is living in the light and does not cause others to stumble. But anyone who hates another brother or sister is still living and walking in darkness. Such a person does not know the way to go, having been blinded by the darkness. (1 John 2:7-11 NLT)


John has a lot more to say about love, and he stretches his commentary on love across all five chapters of this epistle—a veritable love letter from and about God. But here in this passage John lays out some foundational principles when it comes to love.




First, John points us toward the Lord of love—Jesus. John talks about a new commandment that’s really an old commandment—love one another. And then he says, “Jesus lived the truth of this commandment” (1 John 2:8 NLT). In other words, if you want to see what real love looks like, look no further than Jesus.

Jesus is the love of God personified. His words and his actions were laced with love—unbridled, unconditional, relentless love. In fact, there is a passage of Scripture read in almost every wedding that can be used as sort of litmus test for love. It’s 1st Corinthians 13—the love chapter of the Bible. You’ve probably heard it a thousand times, but here is again:

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8 NIV).

Several years ago, a friend encouraged me to replace the word love in these verses with my own name. I did and became a liar. “Scott is patient. Scot is kind. He doesn’t envy, he doesn’t boast, he’s not proud…” Those words just aren’t true. I’m not always patient or kind. I can be rude and easily angered at times. And I fail more than I care to remember. These words describe a love that’s far more perfect than mine.

But when we replace the word love with the name of Jesus, every line still rings true: “Jesus is patient, Jesus is kind. He does not envy, He does not boast, He is not proud. He is not rude, He is not self-seeking, He is not easily angered, He keeps no record of wrongs. Jesus does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. He always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Jesus never fails.”

Rather than let these words remind us of a love we cannot produce, let it remind us of a love we cannot resist—God’s love. You see, not only is Jesus the only example of perfect love, but he makes you the object of that love.

I once heard a preacher say, “Everything I ever needed to know about theology, I learned from just one song: ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’” Do you know the origin of that song? It first appeared in the form of a poem in a children’s novel written by Anna Warner in 1859. One of the characters in the story comforts a dying child with the words, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” A couple of year later William Bradbury stumbled across it, wrote his own tune and added a chorus. Within months the melody spread across North America like wildfire. Suddenly a simple poem from an obscure novel became the most well-known hymn in the world.  Why has this children’s song become so universally known and loved? Because it expresses the single most significant and profound truth known to humanity in three easy words—Jesus loves me! And his love—if you will let it—can fill you and empower you to love with real love.




That brings us to John’s second subject, which is the light of love. John makes a peculiar statement in verse ten. He says, “Anyone who loves another brother or sister is living in the light” (1 John 2:10 NLT). What does he mean by living in the light? Well, he explains that in chapter one: “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all…if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:5-7 NIV).

If God is light, then living in the light means being in God, abiding in him, drawing near to God and experiencing closeness with him. So John is saying that our ability to love—to love one another, to love our neighbor, to love our enemies even—is evidence of our intimacy with God. If we abide in him, then his love will flow into and out of our hearts. Later in this same letter, he explains it this way: “And so we know and rely on the love God has for us…Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them” (1 John 4:16 NIV). I think this is the secret to loving unlovable people—living in God’s love for us.

By living in God’s love—communing with him in prayer and devotional time, reflecting on his infinite love for us—we are empowered to love one another. Many years ago, A.J. Gordon—a well-known pastor from Boston—took a trip to the World’s Fair in Chicago. One of the many exhibits he saw there was a unique water mill, through which flowed a remarkable rush of water. It appeared to be pumped by a big muscular guy dressed in this Oriental getup. But as he took a closer look, he realized that the strong man was actually made of wood and he wasn’t pumping the water at all. In fact, the water was flowing so strongly through the mill that it was actually causing the man to move.

That’s what happens when Christians rely on and live in the love of God. His love flows in and through us; and—through little-to-no effort of our own—into the lives of those around us.




But, if living in God’s love is the source of real love, then the flip side of that is also true. Next John talks about the lack of love. He goes on to say, “But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them” (1 John 2:11).

If the light is a metaphor for God and living in the light means drawing near to God, then obviously being in the darkness means being far, far away from God. And the farther we drift from God, the darker our hearts become; until they’re filled with nothing but hate and bitterness. Darkened hearts send desperate messages—snarling tempers, angry words, stubborn grudges and impatience.

Sometime ago, a group of graduate students did a very bizarre experiment. They took lab rats and put them in a tank of water and placed the tank in a totally dark room. Then they went into the adjoining room and monitored them with video equipment. The rats swam for almost six hours before giving up and drowning. The students then took another set of lab rats and put them in a tank of water and placed that tank in a room where there was a small lamp. Their hypothesis was that the light would give the rats hope and they would survive longer. As it turns out, the rats swam almost 17 hours—nearly three times longer than the rats in total darkness! Something about the light enabled them to keep going.

I wonder if the same happens with people. When we don’t live in the light of God’s love we begin to lose sight of everything worth loving, worth hanging onto. Imagine what the world would be like without God’s love… A dark planet hurtling through space unguided and undirected. No hope. No future. Nothing to live for. No greater purpose to our existence. Every death would be an end. Every grave a place of despair. If you feel yourself drifting in this direction, you may start to wonder, “Does anybody love me?”

Please listen to heaven’s answer. God loves you. Personally. Powerfully. Passionately. Other’s may have promised and failed. But God has promised and succeeded. He loves you with an unfailing love. And his love—if you’ll let it—can light up your heart and your home, and spill into every part of your life.




Next week we’ll dig a little deeper into 1st John to see what else he has to say about love. In the meantime, let me close with this little story.

One day Charles Spurgeon was walking through the English countryside with a friend. As they strolled along, the evangelist noticed a barn with a weather vane on its roof. At the top of the vane were the words God is Love. Spurgeon remarked to his companion that he thought this was a rather inappropriate place for such a message. “Weather vanes are always changing,” he said, “but God’s love is constant.”

“I disagree with you, Charles,” replied his friend. “I think you misunderstood the meaning. You see, that sign is indicating a truth: Regardless of which way the wind blows, God is love.”

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