Learning to Love

Posted Nov 15, 2021

Learning to Love – An Invitation to Social Holiness

Gordon T Smith

Originally published in April 2015

Gordon T. Smith is the president of Ambrose University College and Seminary, where he is also professor of systematic and spiritual theology. An ordained minister with the Christian & Missionary Alliance, he is also the author of a number of books, including The Voice of Jesus (IVP 2003) and Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Spiritual Maturity (IVP 2013). Gordon is married to Joella and together they have two adult sons.

It is never a stretch to speak of holiness and love in the same breath. The Scriptures could not be more clear: we are called to love God and neighbour; this is the human vocation Jesus, when asked about the “greatest commandment,” responds with the call to love God and to love the neighbour as one’s self (Mt 22:37-40). Then at the conclusion of His earthly ministry, in the discourse in the upper room, He insists that if His disciples are to remain in Him and in His love, they must love one another (Jn 15:17). When it comes to the apostle Paul, almost a quarter of his magisterial letter to the Romans is essentially an extended exposition of the call to love one another.

In what follows, I draw on the comprehensive teaching of Paul as found in Romans 12:9 through the end of the epistle to the Romans. That will be my primary reference in these observations, though I will draw on other New Testament sources as well. It is my abiding impression that men and women who love others display three specific characteristics in their relationships. These are not so much qualities as they are actions or practices.

Radical hospitality. First, we begin with hospitality. At the conclusion of the section of Romans that begins with 12:9 and the call to “let love be genuine,” we come to Romans 15:7, which along with 12:9 serves as a kind of bookmark to this section in which Paul is providing his readers with an exposition of the meaning of love. And the bookmark of 15:7 is an apt counterpart: “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”

First Peter also makes this link between love and hospitality. “Above all,” the author writes, “maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining” (1 Pt 4:8-9).

This welcome of the other does not discount the legitimacy of private space; it does not mean unquestioning compliance, that we can never say “no,” or that there are no boundaries. It means we welcome the other on his own terms rather than asking him or her to conform to our expectations. I say all of this within the limits, of course, of civil society and our need to share space – whether we are sharing water, food, roads or other resources.

In this I am particularly struck by the way Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks of the priority of listening as essential to this radical hospitality. He suggests:

The first service one owes to others in the community involves listening to them. Just as our love for God begins with listening to God’s Word, the beginning of love for other Christians is learning to listen to them. . . We do God’s work for our brothers and sisters when we learn to listen to them. . . Listening can be of greater service than speaking. (Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Prayer Book of the Bible, pp. 42-44.)

Those who are resolved to live in a community marked by and infused with love are those who, in the words of James 1:19, are “quick to listen, slow to speak.” They recognize that nothing so marks hospitality toward the other – nothing so takes the other seriously and gives him space – as listening to him. Listening is a fundamental means by which we honor the other and fulfill the call to honor others above ourselves (Rom 12:10).

Of course, listening means not only that a person is noticed but that he is heard; he is attended to. One is not multitasking – either with one’s hands or in one’s head – but granting undivided attention to the other, attending to what he says rather than anticipating what one will say in reply. This is surely what is intended, at least in part, by Paul’s call to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice (Rom 12: 15). Our listening includes an identification with the emotional contours of the other’s life, with the joys and sorrows that mark our shared human experience.

Multi-generation family having a delicious dinner

We all long to be heard, and there is nothing that so marks our hospitality toward the other, our concern for the other and thus our love for the other as that we listen. We love our children and we listen. As leaders we listen to our colleagues and those we are called to serve. As neighbours, we listen to the story of the one next to us. In business we listen to our clients. As doctors and dentists we listen and listen carefully before we diagnose. As government leaders we learn that our first responsibility is to listen, and this is equally as crucial for those in religious leadership: pastoral leadership is first the act of listening to God and second, as Bonhoeffer suggests, the act of listening to one’s parishioners. In families, to love is to listen – spouses find that they are heard and children know that this is a safe space where they can speak and be heard. Few things are so powerful in the formation of a child as that the child knows early on that she is given space and that her parents listen to her. For married partners, perhaps it could be said that the mark of love in marriage is that “s/ he listens to me.”

If we are marked by sincere or genuine love it is evident in this: that we listen more and talk less. Perhaps a good rule of thumb in any relationship is that we resolve to listen, at the very least, twice as much as we speak. And we listen, essentially, that we might fulfill the call of the Scriptures to welcome one another in the Lord (Rom 15:7).

Hospitality also means that we do not impose ourselves upon the other – we give the other their space. I am thinking of those who speak when the person next to them longs for silence, or of those who wear heavy and intense perfume that invades the aromatic space of the other. You might say that rather than giving space they invade the other’s space. It is not true hospitality for a church greeter to overwhelm a newcomer and demand that he feel “welcome” when all he seeks is to quietly slip in and perhaps test whether this is a place where he can worship. The true greeter-welcomer is one who can gauge what is required as a person ventures into the intimidating new space of a church building and allows him to come at his own pace and on his own terms.

The call of 1 Peter 2:17 to honour the other – indeed, Peter stresses that we are to honour everyone – is surely expressed in this radical hospitality. With enemies, with those with whom we significantly differ, indeed with those whose views are actually offensive to us, we are called to show honor. I suspect that Peter’s intent here is that we honor even those who commit evil: we honor not what they do, perhaps, but we always honor the person who has been created in the image of God.

Thus there is never any justification for torture or for despising another or for demeaning or debasing another with speech or actions. We never slander the other but always maintain a distinction between the action and the other’s inherent dignity as a human person.

Patience, forbearance, forgiveness and the resolution of wrongs. Then also we cannot love until and unless we graciously come to terms with the imperfections and failures of others. In many respects it is as simple as that. This will include at the very least that we are patient with others, that we bear with and forgive each other. This is the sequence found in Colossians 3:12-13, where we read that those loved of God and clothed with compassion and meekness are to be marked by patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, with the concluding affirmation that we are to clothe ourselves with love, patience, forbearance and forgiveness.

Patience is closely linked to hospitality, only now our hospitality is that of those who accept rather than demand, whose hope and aspirations for the other are not oppressive but grace-filled. We let God do God’s work in the life of the other in God’s time. Patience is a key indicator of our trust in God, a sign that we live by faith as we let God be God to the other.

Forbearance is the twin sister of patience, one might say. Romans 15:1 calls us to “put up with the failings of the weak.” While there is no doubt that if we love another we long for her maturity and wholeness, but in the meantime our love accepts and puts up with her limitations, weaknesses and yes, failings. This mark of compassion and generosity signals not tolerance of evil or wrongdoing but the reality that all of us are on the road to transformation and none of us has yet arrived.

Forgiveness is, of course, utterly foundational. We will be wronged. Every relationship and every community will be marked by failure, disappointment and betrayal. And just as the love of God for the world is marked most specifically by God’s resolve to forgive, to love while we were yet sinners (Rom 5:8), even so our love for others will just as surely be evident in forgiveness. Indeed, this may well be the quintessential mark of love for the other.

We will be wronged by our parents and by those in authority as we move through our youth and early adult years. We will be wronged by colleagues, by spouses, indeed by friends. Sometimes it is merely a matter of learning to bear with the other’s limitations and foibles, but often there is no other word for it: the other has wronged us and the only possible way we can respond is to realize that we are called to forgive even as God has forgiven us.

Now we must make some crucial affirmations about forgiveness. Forgiveness does not mean that we forget, necessarily. Usually that is not even possible; wrong – deep wrong, in particular – will leave its mark. And yet, it does mean that we do not rehearse in our minds again and again how we have been wronged, feeling again and again the pain of the wrong as though it happened yesterday. To forgive means we let it go; we no longer hold it against the other. We bless the other rather than cursing the one who has wronged us.

And yet, it is important to stress that forgiveness does not mean passive compliance; it does not mean we tolerate physical or emotional abuse in the home or a violation of due process or an abuse of power in the workplace or in government. Forgiveness will be accompanied by the love of justice and the pursuit of the good and the noble for the sake of each party involved, including the one who has done the wrong.

The way of patience, forbearance and forgiveness begins at home, of course. As we grow up we learn to forgive our parents; in most cases they are the ones who first wronged us. But it continues with those we live with each day. And it is so very imperative that the church community be marked by this mutual forgiveness. It is one of the premier signs of life in the kingdom of God. Christian community is a place of real people in real relationships, and this necessarily means there will be differences, even conflict.

Yes, there will be conflict. Real families and real Christian communities will have real conflict. Paul’s whole assumption in Romans 14 is that real and substantial differences exist in community, and he does not lead them to premature resolution. Learning to love means learning to live with conflict that does not divide or destroy but calls for hospitality, patience, forbearance and likely, mutual forgiveness.

Finally, one more point. To forgive is to let go of the need for vengeance. We do not repay evil for evil; we do not harm; we live peaceably with all. Indeed, if the enemy is hungry, we offer food and shelter. We respond “in Christ,” which means we respond with generous service. And this leads me to the third point – the call to service.

Generous service. To love is to serve. This is manifestly evident in the love of God and God’s self-offering in Christ, whose radical service for the world is the heart of the Gospel. This interplay between love and service is powerfully evident in two texts in particular.

In John 15:12 the call of Jesus is to love one another. This is followed quickly in the following verse with Jesus’ observation that to love is to lay down one’s life for the other. Another text where this link between love and service is evident is Ephesians 5, where the apostle is writing of the love of a husband for his wife: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He goes on to stress this fundamental meaning of love: that husbands are to love their wives as

their very own bodies, much as Christ loved the church through sacrificial self- offering. This is what it means to love: to listen, to forgive and then also to serve.

Specifically, to serve the other is
to respond to genuine, concrete need.
If I ask you how I can serve you, it is
synonymous with the question “What
do you need?” When we love we develop
discernment: what is needed by this person or by this community or by my neighborhood, and how can I respond?

We respond with generosity. This is crucial. It is not a calculated pseudo-service given with the expectation of something in return; it is not the service that leads to a feeling of entitlement or that obligates the other. Simone Weil puts it well when she observes that true service “is as instinct and immediate as it is for oneself to eat when one is hungry. And it is forgotten almost at once, just as one forgets yesterday’s meals.” (Simone Weil, Gateway to God, ed. David Roper (New York: Crossword, 1982), pp. 82-83.)

So to give some context to this “service” – just what does it mean? First, it is important to stress that our generosity is always a generosity “in Christ.” Our reference point is not so much that we serve the other as it is that we respond to the needs of the other in Christ and in His name. This means that a need does not determine a call; we cannot respond to every need that arises. Furthermore, it means that we do not necessarily respond to the demands of the other. Rather, our response is always in Christ for the other.

Second, “in Christ” also means that our acts are never to our own merit or honor; we can and must learn how to serve quietly without seeking recognition or thanks for the simple reason that we do it in Christ and for Christ. Our contributions to a charitable ministry are always done quietly, without fanfare; our service is carried out without a need for acknowledgment. The best work we do might very well be done in obscurity, but it is offered consistently as that which we do for Christ and in response to the needs of the other. True service is offered without the assumption of an obligation or debt of any kind due from the other to the one who serves.

Love and service do not create obligation or dependency. Our service on behalf of our children does not create in them an obligation toward us. Our service on behalf of the church does not establish for us a feeling of entitlement. Our service on behalf of the world is given freely without the assumption that the world now owes us something.

Third, to love is to actively seek the welfare of the other. We are called to love; therefore our way of being in the world is always one of attentiveness to the well-being of all. And thus there is a close affinity between love and justice.

But, and this is so very important, our love is not merely for those who are near. It always has universal application. I do not love my family at the expense of others, my country at the expense of other nations or my generation at the expense of generations to follow. I do not accept that my nation will know wealth at the expense of others, nor can I seek the welfare of my nation at the expense of other people. When patriotism is confused with love it is a distortion of the biblical ideal.

Fourth, one of the most powerful forms of service is intercessory prayer. We serve one another by praying for one another. It is done quietly and without fanfare; it is offered in secret as an act of service for our neighbour, our friend, our world. (Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Prayer Book of the Bible, pp. 86-87.) The church is in active service for the world when on Sunday morning through the “prayers of the people” we come before God not only with prayers for our immediate needs and ailments, but for the needs of the world, including the needs of other Christians in other denominations and women and men in other religious traditions. We serve by praying; indeed, I wonder if it could be said that we are not truly serving another if our acts of service are not accompanied by solitary, private, “secret” prayer.

Finally, to speak of service is also in the end to speak of a fundamental kindness. True service is offered in hope, patience and joy. Our service for the other is not a burden or an oppressive duty but a gift freely given such that it is a gift as much to the giver as to the one who is served. It is an honor to serve the other, for in so doing we participate in the service of Christ for the world. And so we serve with hope, with patience and with joy.

Taken from Called to Be Saints by Gordon T. Smith. Copyright (c) 2014 by Gordon T. Smith. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515, USA. www.ivpress.com. Dr. Smith was a plenary speaker at CMDA Canada’s 2015 National Conference in Calgary.