As followers of Jesus, we’re called to love: to love God, one another, our neighbors, our husband/wife/children, the stranger and foreigner, even our enemies. Yes, love sounds great… until it meets real life. As Scot McKnight says, “Love is a great idea until you discover who your neighbors actually are. Love is a great idea until you see who actually attends your church. Love is a great idea until your kids go ballistic” (56).
I’ve just finished reading through McKnight’s latest offering, “A Fellowship of Differents,” which aims to highlight “God’s design for life together.” In other words, McKnight dives into scripture to help illuminate what the local church should look like – its nature, its character, its make-up. It’s about the kind of people and the kind of community that we’re called to be. This isn’t a formal review (although it was a good read with some great and needed challenges for Christians), but I had to share McKnight’s helpful and accessible definition of love. In our culture and language, love is about affection and feeling. That’s just how we speak, how we use the word, today. Fair enough, but we can’t impose that 21st Century definition onto the 1st Century authors of the New Testament. McKnight ask us to consider another starting point: how does the Bible reveal love. “Define love” McKnight encourages us, “by watching God love Israel, his Son, and the church – in fact, the whole of creation. God shows us what love is…” (57).
What does watching God reveal about the nature of love? McKnight identifies four elements (58-65):
Element 1: Rugged Commitment
This is the idea of covenant. Once you’re looking for it, you’ll see the idea and practice of covenant all over the Bible, both New and Old Testaments. God expresses His love for His people in the rugged commitment of a covenant (see Abraham, David, Jeremiah… all paving the way for the “new covenant” that Jesus revealed). God’s commitment to His people requires toughness and determination. As you follow the Bible’s storyline, you’ll notice just how often God’s people have blown it. We haven’t been faithful… and yet God’s commitment to us is firm and unwavering. If God’s commitment to His people teaching us anything about love, we see that, as McKnight says, “love is hard work.” Love requires an unrelenting commitment.
Element 2: Rugged Commitment to Be “With”
Central to God’s commitment to Israel was His promise to be with them. As God expresses His covenant commitment to Abraham, God is with Abraham in a smoking fire pot (Gen. 15). Later we see God’s presence in pillars of cloud and smoke, in the tabernacle as Israel journeyed through the wilderness, and eventually in the Jerusalem Temple itself. God was reassuring His people: “I am with you” – a message reinforced by the priests and prophets. Of course, this all pales compared to how God expressed His with-ness through Jesus’ incarnation. Jesus is Immanuel (God with us). And Jesus Himself emphasizes God’s continued with-ness in the coming of the Holy Spirit. The covenant commitment of love is a commitment to be with someone.
Element 3: Rugged Commitment to Be “For”
God’s determination to be with His people is because He is for His people. “God’s love,” McKnight says, “is a covenant of supporting strength; he is our proponent; he is our advocate. He’s on our side” (62). In the Old Testament, we see God’s for-ness stated like this, “I will be their God and they will be my people.” In other words, “I’ve got your back.” God is for us.To love another is to want the best for that person. And you’re there (with) to support, encourage, and advocate (be for).
Element 4: Rugged Commitment “Unto”
“If the ‘with’ is the principle of presence and the ‘for’ the principle of advocacy, unto-ness is the principle of direction,” according to McKnight (63). God’s commitment to be with us and for us results in our transformation. We are moved, transformed, shaped into the likeness of God. We begin to reflect what McKnight calls kingdom realities: “God’s love is unto kingdom realities” (64). Or as Paul tells the church in Rome, “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28). Not necessarily good as we may define it, but as God defines “good” (to be “conformed to the image of His son,” v.29). To love another is to want the best for that person (unto). And you’re there (with) in order to support and encourage (for) them to that end. This indeed requires a rugged commitment.
McKnight offers a final and important warning: the order here matters. Love is a commitment to be with, then for, and then unto. When we get these prepositions out of order, coercion, abuse, and harm are likely to occur. Here’s McKnight (64):
What this means is that our presence communicates to the one we love our advocacy, that combination of presence and advocacy empowers the one we love to internalize that we love them. Many parents want direction (the “unto”) for their daughter or son. Many friends, too, want the direction of Christlikeness in the person they love, but some are unwilling to be “with” often enough to communicate being “for” to that person or child. An alarm: wanting direction without presence or advocacy is experienced by that other person (child or friend) as coercion.
That’s an important word. We can’t assume to love someone “unto” kingdom realities, if we haven’t put in the presence (with) and communicated the advocacy (for) which flow out of our rugged commitment to that person. “It is presence and advocacy that create the opportunities for genuine kingdom direction. God transforms us in grace by being present as the one who is for us, and that presence of his transforms us unto God’s design of Christlikeness” (65).
There’s a lot to chew on here, but I find McKnight’s framing to be very helpful. What do you make of this definition of love? Helpful? Not so much?