Perfect Love

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The Path of Perfect Love
Having the Heart of God for the World

Christians are called to reflect God. To reflect God is to be godly, or more precisely, godlike. To reflect God's heart with our whole being is the pinnacle of godliness. Nothing greater can be said of a person than that he or she is a man or woman after God's own heart.

Jesus desires that all his followers would be people after God's own heart. Jesus makes this clear in his seminal sermon on Christian discipleship - the Sermon on the Mount. In this sermon, Jesus calls us to rise above mere religion and pursue the "greater righteousness" - the kind of righteousness that befits his disciples (Matthew 5:20). Jesus teaches that an exclusively external demonstration of righteousness is not what God desires.

Shema People

God wants his people to be shema people. The shema pronounces God's call to his people. "Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might" (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). God wants our entire being - body, soul, mind, and spirit - to be integrated in loving response to God's love for us. Put simply, God wants our heart - the integral center of all we are - to reflect God's own heart.

This integrity of heart - this wholeness of being - reflects the Hebrew understanding of perfection. Hebrew "perfection" has nothing to do with the way we normally use the word. Hebrew "perfection" is not the Greek ideal of the attainment of all virtues in all their fullness without possibility of growth or diminishment. For the ancient Hebrew person, perfection involves a faithful commitment to God demonstrated in integrity of relationship to God, self, and others. Hebrew perfection is "wholeness," "integrity," or "whole-heartedness" rather than "flawlessness" or "sinless perfection."

It is this wholeness that Jesus calls "the greater righteousness" - the "righteousness that surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees" (Matthew 5:20). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus attacks religion without a heart. He accuses the contemporary religious leaders of his day - the scribes and Pharisees - of distorting the very purpose of God's law while outwardly appearing to obey God's law while inwardly rebelling against the law's intent in producing a shema people. In Paul's words, they were guilty of "having a form of godliness, but denying its power" (2 Timothy 3:5).

Obedience to the law is not simply a matter of regulating one's external behavior. True obedience to God's law flows from the whole person - body, soul, mind, and spirit. If one's heart does not reflect God's heart, one's actions are impure and corrupt, no matter how "right" and "proper" they appear. One's heart is divided and not "whole." One lacks integrity. His or her acts of righteousness are half-hearted, falling short of God's intention in giving his law.

Jesus presents a number of examples to make his case. To refrain from murder while harboring anger is to live a divided life and undermine the intention of God's law. In order to be whole, one not only needs to refrain from murder, but also one needs to deal with the attitudes and passions that can result in murder (Matthew 5:21-26). Or again: to refrain from adultery while harboring lust within is to live a divided life and fail to grasp the intention of God's law. In order to be whole, one not only needs to refrain from adultery, but also one needs to curb the attitudes and passions that often lead to adultery (Matthew 5:27-32). Obedience that does not penetrate below the surface of one's actions is not the kind of obedience God's law demands. This is not to love God wholly - but to have a divided heart.

Love Your Enemy

The climax of Jesus' "greater righteousness" challenges strikes at the very crux of possessing God's heart for the world - of being a man or woman after God's own heart. Jesus reveals that we must reflect God's heart in the way we love others - especially our enemies. "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies" (Matthew 5:43-44a).

The first half of the saying ("you shall love your neighbor") is found in Leviticus 19:18. The second half ("you shall hate your enemy") does not explicitly appear anywhere in the Hebrew Bible. However, it is easy to understand why someone could come to the conclusion that the natural corollary of loving God is hating God's enemies - especially in light of many Old Testament passages that appear to affirm this stance. The Psalmists often desire to see their enemies violently destroyed (Psalm 137:7-9). In the midst of the one of the most touching Psalms of intimacy with God, David expresses his deep hatred for God's enemies and breaks out in a heated cry for them to be slain (Psalm 139:19-22). The prophet Jeremiah beseeches God to completely and utterly crush his enemies (Jeremiah 17:18). Finally, in the very passage Jesus quotes (Leviticus 19:18) the neighbor that is to be loved is clearly a fellow Israelite (Leviticus 19:17). God's people are commanded to love their Israelite neighbors. They must not "hate [their] fellow countryman [Israelite neighbor] in [their] heart" (Leviticus 19:17). The fact that they are only forbidden hating their fellow countryman holds open the possibility of limiting the idea of one's neighbor solely to fellow Israelites. This opens the door to allowing the opposite attitude - hatred - as a legitimate expression toward non-Israelites.

Jesus' original hearers would define their enemies as all pagans - whether Greek or Roman - as well as all Jews who failed to keep God's law, thus creating an obstacle to God's redemption of Israel. These "renegade Jews" - tax-collectors, prostitutes, drunks, and rebels - were held responsible for God's hesitancy in delivering his people from Gentile oppression. In popular Jewish expectation, God would only deliver a repentant and purified people. The "renegade" presence delayed God's deliverance.

These enemies - Gentile pagans and Jewish renegades - threatened Israel's existence from without and within. Because they were Israel's enemies they were also considered God's enemies as well. For this reason, the "separatists" of Jesus' day - the scribes and Pharisees - justified their neglect, abuse, and hatred of Jewish tax-collectors, prostitutes, and drunkards. Even more radical groups such as the Zealots justified their murderous violence against Gentile oppressors for the same reason.

Who is your enemy? Who do you feel justified in neglecting, abusing, or outright hating? What individual or group of people do you view as so opposed to God that you feel justified in harboring a "holy" hatred? Retain this person or group in your mind for the remainder of this article. For you, they are the enemy God wants you to love.

Jesus rejects the second half of the saying ("hate your enemy") while affirming and enlarging the first half to include all people, including one's enemies ("But I say to you, love your enemies" - Matthew 5:44a). By doing this, he calls his followers to love all people regardless of their perceived righteousness or unrighteousness, personal reciprocation or positive response. Put simply: Jesus calls us to love everyone, everywhere, all the time. If one loves one's enemies, who will not be loved? When enemies are loved, then everyone is loved.

This kind of love is foreshadowed, but not directly stated, in the Hebrew Bible. "If you meet your enemy's ox or his donkey wandering away, you shall surely return it to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying helpless under its load, you shall refrain from leaving it to him, you shall surely release it with him" (Exodus 23:4-5). The Psalmist mourned over evil doers who return evil for his good (Psalm 35:12-14). Jeremiah called the exiled people to pray for their oppressors' welfare (Jeremiah 29:7). David continually spared Saul's life, even though Saul was his avowed enemy. The Proverbs call us to give food and drink to our enemies (Proverbs 25:21-22).

If we are to reflect God's heart with our whole being and thus prove ourselves men and women after God's own heart, then God's expression of love must be our pattern. What is God's love like? How is it expressed? Jesus gives an example that sheds great light upon God's kind of love: "But I say to you, love your enemies... in order that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous... Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:44-45, 48).

Five Aspects of God's Love

With God's love as our pattern, we can identify at least five aspects of God's love alluded to in Jesus' teaching.

God loves universally. This is demonstrated in God's providential care for all creation. Jesus gives two examples of how the natural order reveals God's goodness for all: God causes his sun to shine and rain to fall on all people without distinction (cf. Psalm 145:9; Proverbs 29:13; Genesis 8:22). The Apostle Paul uses the same argument when addressing pagans in Acts 14:16-17: "In generations gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own way, and yet He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness." Providence is not limited to believers. Nothing and no one falls outside the purview of God's all-inclusive, all-embracing providence.

God loves unconditionally. Clearly God does not love based on reciprocity. God's love is universal and his care for people does not discriminate. Regardless of a person's character, God provides for his or her needs. God does not limit his providential care to believers, but displays his goodness to all. God's providence is a manifestation of God's grace shown to all people. Every good gift is from God. And God's good gifts are not only given to the righteous, but to all people. "[T]he Most High... He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men" (Luke 6:35b).

God's love is unmerited. God's love is not given only when it is deserved. Both the "good/righteous" and the "evil/unrighteous" are recipients of God's love. In the context of the Sermon on the Mount, the "evil/unrighteous" includes even those who hate believers and persecute the church (Matthew 5:11-12). From God's vantage point, he has no enemies. The animosity against God that fills this world is on the side of humankind, not God. Those who spite God are God's enemies. He is not their enemy. Amazingly, God's love even encompasses those who hate and persecute his church.

God loves disinterestedly. God does not wait for a positive response to his gracious provision before conferring good things upon people. Indeed, most of his expressions of goodness will not even lead to a simple "thank you," much less a conversion to Christian faith. Many who benefit from his provision will remain firmly entrenched in their wickedness. But God loves them anyway. If our love is to follow this pattern, we must commit to love people regardless of their response. There is no guarantee that our expressions of love will soften the hearts of our enemies. Whether his happens or not, we must still continue to love. We do not love for the positive consequences that may result from our expressions of love. We love because it is the only right thing - the only godly thing - to do. This attitude is at the heart of "disinterested love." Disinterested love does not love only in order to gain something in return. Disinterested love may wish for a response, but it does not demand a response in order to sustain its expression of love. If we love only when we are loved in return, we are no better than godless pagans (Matthew 5:46-47).

God's love is constant. God's love is not sporadic and fickle but settled and strong. It is like the constant cycle and repetition of the days and the seasons. Twice in Jeremiah, God declares that his covenant faithfulness is as stable as the fixed order of the passing days and seasons (Jeremiah 31:35-36; 33:20-26). Thus, every new sunrise and each passing season is another sign of God's stable and enduring love. If we were to lose the steadiness of these fundamental demarcators of times and seasons, we would be hopelessly lost in the resulting chaos.

We are to have the heart of God for others. To love all people indiscriminately, unconditionally, constantly, and in spite of what they deserve - in other words, to love them with gracious kindness and extraordinary benevolence - is to have the heart of God for the world. This is the "greater righteousness" that God's law is intended to produce. God's law should never be an excuse for hating others. Like Father, like son - we are called to reflect the heart of God. For this reason Jesus concludes, "Therefore, you are to be perfect (whole, wholehearted), as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48).

It should be clear by now that Jesus is not calling us to Greek perfectionism but to Hebrew wholeness. He calls us to love whole-heartedly - to love all people with all our heart at all times regardless of their response. He calls us to love as God loves - love that is full, complete, nondiscriminating, divine.

The call to perfection is a fitting culmination to all that has preceded it. Love that reflects the love of God is at the root of all Jesus teaches. Benevolence instead of anger (Matthew 5:21-26), faithfulness instead of infidelity (5:27-32), truthfulness instead of deceitfulness (5:33-37), mercy instead of strict retribution (5:38-42), and unremitting love instead of hate (5:43-48) are at the heart of the greater righteousness - a righteousness that truly and wholly reflects the love of God.

Three Acts of Love

The kind of love Jesus calls us to is a divine love that channels God's grace into a sin-darkened world. It is not discriminating, but impartial, being shed upon all with no distinction and no demand for reciprocity. It is not an emotional gush, but a concerted attempt to perform actions that benefit others. In his teaching, Jesus highlights three actions that express love to our enemies: Intercessory prayer (Matthew 5:44), good deeds (Matthew 5:16; Luke 6:27, 33, 35), and accepting them with an honorable greeting (Matthew 5:47).

Prayer for our enemies is one of the deepest expressions of love. Persistently praying for our enemies in the presence of God will soften our heart toward our enemies and give us the necessary strength to actively love them. We simply have no hope of really loving our enemies unless we first commit to praying for their good. We must recover the attitude of the apostles: "when we are reviled, we bless" (1 Corinthians 4:12); "not returning evil for evil, or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead" (1 Peter 3:9).

Our prayer must be followed by attempts to do good whenever possible - to seek the best for our enemies. Even if we cannot positively perform any good act, at the very least, we can refrain from returning evil for evil. Godlike love - love expressed even toward enemies - is a commitment to renounce retaliation (Romans 12:19-21). It is rooted in forgiveness and directed toward peacemaking. "If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all people" (Romans 12:18). It refuses to return evil with evil (Romans 12:17), even though the enemy hates, slanders, and persecutes. God's shema people are God's shalom people.

As "peaceful revolutionaries" of Christ's kingdom, our weapon is unconditional love. We may still speak out against evil, impiety, and injustice. Jesus surely did these things. But we may never acquiesce to evil. We do this by refusing to participate in the violence evil brings - including the violence of hatred - for it is impossible to do good to others motivated by hate. "In the New Testament our enemies are those who harbour hostility against us, not those against whom we cherish hostility, for Jesus refuses to reckon with such a possibility" (Dietrich Bonhoeffer). Like Martin Luther King, we must stand firm and proclaim, "I would rather die than hate you."

Finally, we are called to "greet" our enemies - we are called to honor them even if they do not honor us. We are called to recognize their worth and value. In Jewish and Greco-Roman honor cultures, greeting another person was a sign of acceptance and love. It demonstrated that one valued and loved the other. When Jesus openly greeted tax-collectors, prostitutes, and other Jewish renegades he was expressing his acceptance of them. This is one of the main reasons the religious establishment so strongly opposed Jesus: he was greeting and accepting "sinners." In their opinion, he was obviously not concerned about righteousness or God's law. If he was, he would not have accepted "sinners" in the way he did. By identifying with "sinners" Jesus was considered a lawbreaker himself, a Jewish renegade that openly rejected God's law, and thus was a hindrance to God's deliverance of Israel. Thus, this "gluttonous man, drunkard, and friend of tax-gatherers and sinners" was leading Israel astray and had to be opposed and ultimately, put to death (Matthew 11:19; cf. Deuteronomy 21:20-23).

Crazy-Divine Love

The practice of this kind of love is a great challenge, to say the least. It seems impossible to love in this manner. God's kind of love is unnatural and abnormal. It does not represent how people normally express love to others. What is normal? To love those who love us and hate those who hate us; to limit our love to those who make us feel good, accepted, and loved.

The kind of love Jesus calls us to rises above the norm; it is supernatural, super-ordinary, and gracious to the extreme. It is a love without bounds, treating all - even the least deserving and the most disgusting - with extraordinary kindness and love. To love in response to love is natural. To love in the face of hatred is divine. In the "real world" this kind of love is crazy! But in a world full of inhumanity the truly human person seems odd.

Love for the unlovely, the despicable, those who despise us and scorn us - our enemies - is the mark which distinguishes the true disciple of Jesus Christ from the world around us. This is what it means to be "not of this world." Many Christians settle for lesser "marks" to distinguish the righteous from the wicked. Usually the marks chosen are more easily attainable and more externally observable that the true mark of holy love. Legalism is always a cheap substitute for real religion! Legalism's characteristic mark is exalting external behaviors to the status of ultimate indicators of righteousness. The heart is neglected and thus the righteousness displayed is tainted and corrupt. The true mark of godly love from one's whole heart for all people - both friends and foes - is so difficult to practice that legalistic substitutes are always readily available.

Tragically, "we [often] have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another" (Jonathan Swift). It is easy to justify hatred with a cloak of righteousness. The "greater righteousness" of Jesus will not allow such travesties to occur.

The constant expression of this kind of love to one another, to the world, and to our enemies is our evangelistic duty. In the "Great Commission" Jesus calls us "to obey all that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19). This most certainly includes (indeed, primarily includes!) our responsibility to love the world with God's kind of love.

This is our mission. Our mission is to love as God loves. Our mission must be enlarged to more than evangelism. When our concept of mission is simply reduced to evangelism, the mission is reduced, distorted, and ultimately lost. The mission we are called to is much larger than passing out evangelistic literature or sharing the "four laws" or presenting the "Romans road." The mission involves gracious acts of love, kindness, and goodness expressed to all people, including our enemies. God's kingdom comes when this happens. God's will is done when we love like this. If we thought this way, we would actively perform more good works and perhaps more people would glorify our God who is in heaven. Whether we like it or not, this is Jesus' evangelistic strategy: "Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 5:16; cf. 5:13-15).

As always, Jesus fully embodies his own teaching. He is not a hypocrite who says one thing and does another. He lived all that he taught. He never preached beyond his experience. Jesus loved his enemies regardless of their response. Indeed, this crazy-divine love led to betrayal, mocking, scourging, humiliation, crucifixion, and death. Yet in the midst of his passion, he refused to retaliate with violence, although he certainly had the power to do so.

Jesus refused to hate his enemies. Like Martin Luther King, he would rather die than hate. In the end, wracked by the excruciating agonies of the torture instrument known as a Roman cross, Jesus prayed that God would forgive his enemies (Luke 23:34). Jesus was not an angry, hate-filled man on the cross, but a peaceful revolutionary.

This is the perfect love that the Torah called for. This is the "blameless way" God ultimately desires. To split up humanity into those one must love and those one may hate is to live a divided life. In order to be whole, one must love as God loves, by showering good upon the just and the unjust, wholly devoted to the good of everyone.

Our attempts to possess the heart of God begin right here. It is one thing to proclaim it and assent to it; it is another thing altogether to live it. The church - as a family of disciples - should be the community where this is modeled. Do we love our enemies outside the church? Do we love our enemies within the church? Heck, do we even love those who mildly irritate us? It is hard to believe we will love our enemies outside the church if we cannot love our brothers and sisters within. We will not pray for, do good, and greet our enemies if we have not learned to pray for, do good, and greet our brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus.

We can only practice this kind of love if we are aware that we have been the recipient of this love first. Where would you personally be if God's love was not universal, unconditional, unmerited, disinterested, and constant? We must constantly remember our deep need for God's love to us personally. Without it we would be helpless, hopeless, doomed, and damned. We must remember that we were once enemies of God, and yet, God's perfect love toward the ungodly was poured out upon us in Christ for our good. If God did not love his enemies, not one of us could be saved. Desmond Tutu, speaking to a group of white Afrikaner businessmen, said, "My fervent wish for you is that one day you will come to know just how much God loves each of you. For when you comprehend that, you will be able to see how much God loves other people as well."

Remember the person or group you identified as your enemy earlier. I invite you to begin a journey of reflecting God's heart for the world by becoming a man or woman after God's own heart. Pray for your enemy or enemies. Do not offer prayers of imprecation but prayers of blessing. Position yourself so that you are able to do good for them. At the very least, commit to refrain from doing evil to them. And when you encounter then, greet them with the honor they deserve as a creature made in God's image, precious objects of God's holy love.

© Richard J. Vincent, 2004

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