When it comes to best-known Bible passages — the ones most of us can not only quote, but readily identify by book and chapter — first prize would probably go to 1 Corinthians 13, the “Love Chapter.”
There’s a weird thing I do once in a while, and I’m wondering if I’m the only one. My guess is that I’m not.
Occasionally, I sense a message that Christians are expected to rely so totally on God that we don’t need anybody else. A self-denial, in other words, of the benefits that come from communing with another person….because God should be enough. “Go to the throne before you go to the phone”; that’s how I saw it phrased once.
That is, of course, true. People will fail us; they will give us bad advice; they will disappoint us. God, conversely, is our refuge and strength, the source of all wisdom, the one who will never leave us nor forsake us. And we should go to Him first, last, and everywhere in between.
But here’s the thing:
If you’re anything like me, it’s possible that — at times — you’ve taken this to heart so thoroughly that you feel as if connecting with a human would indicate a lack of reliance on the One who should be your all. (If you’re not like me, and you think I might be crazy, good work: you probably don’t need to read any further). And so, in times of struggling, you’ve poured out your heart to God; you’ve dived deeply into His Word; you’ve journaled; you’ve prayed through the Psalms…and it’s helped. It truly has. And yet, the answers don’t always come immediately (actually, they do so rarely), and the days go by, and although your soul has quieted somewhat, and you’ve grown closer to your Heavenly Father, you still have some lingering feelings of sadness. You try to ignore them, but there they are — and you wonder: what am I still doing wrong?!?
Friends, hear this now: GOD HAS GIVEN US OTHER PEOPLE.
Right from the beginning, God made it clear that it was not good for man to be alone. This truth is reflected in the Trinity itself; in the many beautiful friendships depicted in Scripture (e.g. David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi); and in the many injunctions throughout the book of Proverbs to seek wise counsel. In the New Testament, we see at least two powerful indications that God does, indeed, intend for us to seek out other people.
The Body of Christ
As I read through the New Testament, this theme reappears over and over, even when it’s not specifically referred to as such. The implications of this analogy are manifold, so I will focus simply on one passage — from the chapter, actually, that most of us first think of in relation to this topic. Here’s what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12:21, 24-26:
And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; or again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you” …but God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, so that there may be no divisions in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.
Did you catch that? We cannot say to another person, “Thanks, I’m fine; I can do this on my own.” In fact, we are called to both suffer and rejoice with one another…and both the rejoicing and the suffering affect the whole body, whether we notice it or not.
The Words of Christ
This is a blink-and-you-miss-it verse, but, despite its brevity, it blows me away every time I read the book of Luke. Speaking to His disciples the night before the crucifixion, amidst a discourse on servant leadership, Jesus says to His companions: “You are those who have stood by Me in My trials.” (Luke 22:28)
Jesus — God Incarnate, the second Person of the Trinity, who had a host of angels at His command — was thankful that, during His time on earth, He had people to lean on. And, in a beautiful demonstration of what it means NOT to lord it over those under one’s authority (something He’d addressed a few verses earlier), He acknowledged as much to His disciples. His flawed, argumentative, often undependable disciples.
Although they still hadn’t fully understood who Jesus was, they knew enough that they must have been bowled over by this declaration. I can’t even imagine how they must have felt. I’m just a regular guy! I’ve blown it so many times. Jesus says I’ve stood by Him in His trials? If “we’re not worthy” is ever the thing to say, this would be the time to say it.
At the end of the day, God is the One who satisfies everything in us that, ultimately, other humans will sometimes fail to provide. And yet, as long as we have these earthly bodies, we need not shrink from seeking out those who are made in God’s image. It’s how He designed us.
And I am so thankful.
Sometimes God reminds me of His goodness through the encouraging words of a friend. Other times, He reveals it in the beauty of fall sunshine. And occasionally, He uses a twisted knee.
Two days later — big shocker here — I’m still hobbling around the house, standing up very slowly, keeping my feet elevated as much as possible, and decidedly NOT working out. And I’m very, very annoyed with myself.
BUT…my kids have been amazing. Parenting has really been wearing me down recently, and I’ve seriously questioned my capacity to even be a mom, let alone a homeschooler. Though I constantly remind myself of Galatians 6:9 — “Let us not grow weary in doing good, for in due time we will reap, if we do not give up” — I have grown weary. SO weary. Will they ever learn to look outside of themselves? Will they ever give preference to others in honor? When it comes to the most important things we talk about — heart issues, character growth — am I just banging my head against the wall?
Through my messed-up knee, God has reminded me that He is at work. Both kids have asked me, over and over, what they can do to help. They’ve asked me how I’m feeling, and patted my knee sympathetically when doing so. They’ve accepted extra chores without complaint — cheerfully, in fact. In short: God has assured me that the seeds He has helped me to plant are not lying dormant.
Of course, I should know this. I’ve seen His faithfulness again and again. And yet, even though it’s really rather silly for me to feel discouraged, He knows that I am “but dust,” and when I am weak, He graciously gives me a glimpse of the work He is continually doing deep below the soil of my children’s hearts.
If a temporary limp is what it takes to remind me to keep trusting Him…well, I’ll gladly take it.
Why is it so hard for us to love perfectly?
One answer, of course, is obvious. Although I’ve known the above verses since childhood, I constantly fall short for the simple reason that sin gets in the way. It’s hard not to be self-seeking and easily angered when I am selfish and irritable. It’s hard to be patient, and always hope, when I’m naturally impatient and prone to giving up. My very nature prevents me from showing 1 Corinthians 13 love, without stumbling, every day and all the time.
While I could fill a book with the aspects of sin that hinder us from faithfully applying Paul’s prescription for godly love, I would like to propose, instead, that my initial question has another answer — one we often overlook.
Love comes from the heart.
As Christians, many of us tend to balk at such statements. We know Jeremiah 17:9, which tells us that the heart is “deceitful above all things, and desperately sick.” We know better than to trust our feelings. We’ve heard and read repeatedly that love is a verb.
The thing is, all of that rings true (especially the part from Jeremiah). Our hearts ARE corrupted by sin, which means those who use “follow your heart” as a guiding principle will soon stray far from God. After all, in that context, “heart” is essentially synonymous with “feelings,” and our feelings are surely the most fickle of counselors. Because of these truths, numerous teachers and counselors emphasize the importance of showing love through our words and actions, regardless of how we feel. Love, they say, is a verb; in fact, look at all the verbs in First Corinthians 13.
On one hand, they are absolutely correct.
On the other hand…real biblical love is so much more.
Reading Paul’s letters provides an eye-opening glimpse into the heartfelt love that motivated him to spread the Gospel throughout the world. He says of his brothers and sisters in the Philippian church: “I have you in my heart, since both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you are all partakers of grace with me. For God is my witness, how I long for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:7-8). To the Thessalonians, he writes: “Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thess. 1:7-8).
These are beautiful examples of loving from the heart; however, the Bible gives us more than just examples to indicate the kind of love that should mark us as Christians. First Peter 4:8 leaves no room for ambiguity about whether we really need to pursue deep, genuine love: “Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins” (emphasis mine).
The trouble, of course, is that this is so much more easily said than done. How can we manufacture a feeling? Especially towards people who — let’s be honest — are pretty darn difficult? If we turn again to Philippians, we find that looking to Jesus provides the perspective that will enable us to do so.
Simply put: If I look at others from my own perspective, I will love very, very few people. Sadly, I can always point to one reason or another that a given person is not worthy of my love. Each one of us stumbles every day, and if I so choose, I can easily turn a blind eye to my own shortcomings while ferreting out the failings and foibles of those around me.
But if I look at people through the eyes of Christ, all of that is turned upside down.
Despite being in the form of God, Jesus took the form of a servant. He knew that our world was broken by sin, and saw into the heart of every person He encountered. Instead of being disgusted by what He saw, however — instead of comparing His sinless perfection with the sin-stained mess inside each human being — He saw the image of God. He saw people and “felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36). He was moved, not to revulsion or a sense of smug superiority, but to pity and compassion.
Imagine if we did the same.
Imagine encountering a difficult person and remembering that Jesus feels compassion for him or her. That this person battles the same illness that you and I do — sin — though the symptoms differ from one person to another. That we are called to think even of unpleasant people as “more significant than [our]selves,” and to remember that they are — like you and I — in desperate need of grace.
Being a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17) isn’t just about having our behavior transformed. It’s about letting the Holy Spirit change us from the inside out; becoming more and more like our Savior every day; and about following Him so closely that, when we see our fellow human beings, we see them, not through our fleshly eyes, but through His grace-filled ones.
And the more we allow Him to transform our perception of others, the more we will find that we truly do love them from the heart.
“We really want to focus on the praise team, you know?” he explains. “Removing hymnals was our first step, naturally, because even non-musicians can follow a tune if they have music in front of them. Without it, congregations really had to listen to the people singing on stage.
“But still, people tried to follow along. There was usually a delay, of course, but a lot of people in the pews were singing.”
Johnson has responded by making sure to choose new songs each week, and notes that many members of the congregation now just stand there looking uncomfortable.
“But some of them still try to sing,” he says. “We finally realized that, if they don’t even have the words, they won’t feel like they have to participate, and we’ll really be able to focus on the performance.”
All regular praise team members are enthusiastic about the planned change. Says one singer, “Going forward, our only potential concern is more people wanting to join us on stage.”
A wise, wonderful lady in my church, when leading Sunday School, has a thing she says when asking for prayer requests.
“Right now, I don’t want to hear about your uncle’s broken leg or your neighbor’s friend who needs a job. Not that I don’t care about those people, or that you shouldn’t be praying for them! — but I want to know how we can pray for you. We are all carrying burdens, friends; let’s bear them together.”
For this, and for many other reasons, I love her.
• • • • • • • • •
Introverts such as myself notoriously despise small talk. We’re terrible at it, and attempting it quickly drains us of our energy, our brain cells, and eventually our will to live — but more importantly, it feels pointless: dithering on endlessly about forgettable topics when life, and people, are so much more beautiful and fascinating than what kind of carpet we’re installing in our new homes or when we’re taking our next vacation.
“But it’s necessary,” people say. “It’s part of getting to know somebody, so it’s just a skill we all need to develop.” Well, I’ve already said once that that’s baloney, and in the intervening years, nobody has proven me wrong. Some people excel at it, and even seem to enjoy it (!), but for those of us who handle small talk as deftly as a chicken trying to play piano, it simply doesn’t work.
Here’s the truth — for those of us who struggle with ice-breaking and for those who never saw a social situation they couldn’t handle: every one of us wants to be known. Moreover, every one of us bears burdens that usually lurk, hidden, behind our casual conversations and our affirmations that oh yes, things are pretty good. I’m increasingly convinced that these surface-level interactions aren’t just awkward and boring (though they certainly ARE those things); they are a disservice to those we talk to — a missed opportunity to truly meet people where they are and start to really know them. In “The Weight of Glory,” C. S. Lewis describes the sacred responsibility we each have as we mingle with the people God places in our paths:
The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it…It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.
It might border on the ridiculous to suggest that, in the spirit of taking Lewis’s words to heart, we start asking cashiers, while we’re paying for our groceries, what keeps them awake at night…or querying about the secret emotional wounds of the guests at our nephews’ and nieces’ birthday parties…or asking people in elevators about their most cherished dreams. That would be exhausting, and a little creepy. But I don’t think it’s at all ridiculous to suggest that, when amongst people we see often, or have known for a while, we try to go a little deeper.
My wise, wonderful friend understands, when she urges us to be transparent with one another, that members of the body of Christ should not try to function in isolation; that, as Paul says, “if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; [and] if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26). We are not meant to carry our burdens alone…or to leave others to carry their burdens alone.
When you encourage a brother or sister in the Lord; when you learn how you can lighten that person’s load; when you simply engage in a conversation wherein you find out what kind of thoughts occupy his or her mind — you are helping to strengthen the living, breathing body of Christ.
When you do the same for somebody who doesn’t know the Lord? You give that person a glimpse of what Jesus’ love is like.
Imagine how beautiful it would be if each of us internalized the message of 1 Corinthians 12 — if somebody is suffering, then it affects all of us, whether we realize it or not — and took seriously the oft-repeated instruction to bear one another’s burdens. Instead of small talk, and prayer time that leaves us feeling disconnected and isolated, we would come away from times of fellowship with an awakened sensitivity to the deep needs of our brothers and sisters in Christ, and a renewed commitment to bringing their cares before our great and loving God.
As they were reclining at the table and eating, Jesus said, “Truly I say to you that one of you will betray me — one who is eating with Me.” They began to be grieved and say to Him one by one, “Surely not I?” – Mark 14:17-18
And Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away…” …But Peter kept saying insistently, “Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You!” And they were all saying the same thing also. – Mark 14:27, 31
They came to a place called Gethsemane; and He said to His disciples, “Sit here until I have prayed.” …And He came and found them sleeping…. – Mark 14:32, 37
They laid hands on Him and seized Him…and [the disciples] all left Him and fled. – Mark 14:46, 50
The night before Jesus’ crucifixion reveals many of mankind’s weaknesses, but perhaps the one connecting them all, the undercurrent flowing from one weakness into another, is our fickleness.
First we see the grief and indignation in the disciples’ response to Jesus’ prediction of betrayal…”surely not I?”
Then, brash confidence…”I will not deny You!”
Next, frailty leading to self-indulgence…He came and found them sleeping.
Finally, fear and self-preservation…they all left Him and fled.
Looking into these verses, I see a vivid, uncomfortable reflection of myself. My emotions dictate my daily choices so much more than I like to admit — and my emotions vary so much in the course of a day. The amount of time I spent in quiet prayer and Bible reading; my diligence in accomplishing the tasks that will serve my family; the level of attention I give to my children when they’re telling me a joke for the dozenth time that day: all this and beyond comes much more from how I feel than from what I know to be right. If salvation depended on me, I would be on shaky ground indeed.
Today, as I approach the foot of the Cross, I am mindful of my deep need for Jesus. For the One who experienced human emotions — “My soul is deeply grieved to the point of death” (Mk. 14:34) — but who refused to be ruled by them: “….remove this cup from Me; yet not what I will, but what You will” (Mk. 14:36, emphasis mine).
Let us never fool ourselves into thinking that we can earn salvation; that we’re “good enough”; that Jesus’ teachings were useful, but His death was merely a good example of suffering in silence. Without Him, we are hopelessly lost; but with Him, we are held by One infinitely stronger than we could ever hope to be.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die — but God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)