In Jesus’ most famous sermon, he said:
“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad…”
—Matthew 5:43–44 (The Message)
Jesus calls everyone to the radical posture of love and to daily resist the lure of the vices that work against love in our lives. And for Christians, love is the heart of living, of being human.
Love is at the heart of the life of Christ, his teaching, and his death on the cross.
Even on the cross, Jesus expressed love for his mother, had compassion on the two rebels being crucified beside him, and loved his enemies … who were in the act of nailing him to the wood.
Jesus called people to turn and receive God’s love and forgiveness—a love which actively seeks out the sinner, just as the father of the prodigal sought out his wayward son (Luke 15:20).
A Lesson of Love from Christian History
The kingdom of God is understood as the rule of love. And love is the central virtue and most basic conviction as we develop Christ-like character. So, what would happen if Christians suddenly gave up on love? If the church forgets about love, if Christ followers don’t become good at loving, if disciples of Jesus ignore the central way (and teaching) of their master, what would be the result?
If we look back in Christian history to the early 300’s, to the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, in remote caves and on mountaintops, there were men and women who we refer to as the desert fathers and mothers of Christianity.
These desert dwellers took up their crosses to follow Jesus in a time not unlike our own. Under the Roman Emperor Constantine, large numbers of people started joining the church for the social privileges it bestowed. And most sought status and prosperity, more than the cross—and the way of the cross.
The men and women we call the desert fathers and mothers weren’t seeking an escape as much as a way of counterculture. They insisted that if we confuse the gospel’s values with the culture’s values, it would have devastating results. And they were right.
They exposed the underside of a form of religion that feeds our hunger for self-centered living. They sincerely desired the character of Christ to be formed in their lives and they became a renewal movement within Christianity as a response to the spiritual poverty of their day.
And they saw the spiritual poverty of their day as the poverty of love.
They didn’t think there was a lack of knowledge, they believed there was a deep lack of love. And they wanted their love for God and others to grow, not to shrink.
The desert fathers and mothers were sometimes called “Athletes of God” because they lived disciplined lives as they sought (above all) to grow in the character of Jesus. At the heart of their spiritual character training was repentance. They believed only repentance could clear away the stony rubble in the soil of their hearts so God’s love could take root and grow.
- So, they fasted because they were hungry to love God and their fellow man more.
- And they prayed because they wanted closer communion with God and neighbor.
- Then they practiced silence, because they wanted to hear God so they could speak and act more wisely to the people around them.
- And the end goal of every spiritual practice in their lives was love.
One of these desert fathers, known as Anthony the Great, said every individual needs to ask: “What is it that keeps me from love?”
Whether it’s the vice of anger, indifference, laziness, impulsiveness, or self-centeredness, Anthony advised that we decide what kind of virtue we want to forge and then make every effort to work out all impurities (vices) so God can forge the virtue of Christ in our hearts.
A Question for You and Me
Today I am pondering Anthony’s ancient advice to ask: “What is it that keeps me from love?” Perhaps you can do the same, and then see what happens when you take this question seriously. Perhaps you and I can become part of a small counterculture of love for our day.
Pastor Aaron Kunce