Countless pages of the Bible recount the outpouring of God’s love for the least deserving. The contours of Scripture’s story line help us to know and feel that God Himself is love (1 John 4:8, 16). He is more than love, of course, but never less.
When God draws us to Himself and into His drama, He not only shows us His love (Rom. 5:8) but also pours it out on us, lavishly. Romans 5:5 captures the essence of God’s generosity: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” His love isn’t eked out just enough for undeserving sinners to get by. To the contrary, through the Spirit’s power, God places us under an unceasing fountain of His love.
God’s love isn’t eked out just enough for undeserving sinners to get by. To the contrary, through the Spirit’s power, God places us under an unceasing fountain of His love.
If God is love, and if He pours out His love on every believer, then it should come as no surprise to us that the first description of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22 is love. Love is not so much a trait or a characteristic as it is the inner disposition out of which the Christian life flows—including the remaining eight facets of the fruit of the Spirit.
God’s Wonderfully Strange Love
The love God so graciously gives to us and the love He expects from us differ from the popular notions of love with which most of us are familiar. If we are honest with ourselves, our expressions of love are too often directly correlated to the attractiveness or the worthiness of the object of our affection. We show love because we have an affinity with another person or believe that they are somehow or another worthy.
Strangely and wonderfully, this is not what God’s love is like. In Deuteronomy 7, Moses describes Yahweh’s love to Israel like this:
It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers. (vv. 7–8)
In essence, Moses tells the people of God, The Lord loves you because He loves you. God’s love sure is peculiar when we compare it to the “love” we hear about today, because His love has no regard for our merit. He loves you because He loves you.
God’s love sure is peculiar when we compare it to the “love” we hear about today, because His love has no regard for our merit. He loves you because He loves you.
Such extraordinary love cannot stay hidden. Just as God overflows to us and lavishly pours out His love, so He expects that we, too, having come under this fountain, will flow back to Him and others. This Godward and manward love is summed up well in Mark 12:30: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”
In the Christian life, our love for neighbor validates our love for God. As Jesus reminds us, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Wonderful as it sounds, though, this command to love others makes life all the more complex! We can convince ourselves that we are very interested in loving God and other people while we’re just driving in our cars by ourselves, listening to Christian radio or silently praying on our commute. But when we actually have a real person to love (or when someone cuts us off!), then all of a sudden, love becomes much tougher to hand out. Yet this is one of the ways that we demonstrate our love for God: by loving others, even when they don’t make it easy.
Five Facets of Christian Love
The way we treat others is no small challenge. The apostle John would remind us,
If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. (1 John 4:20–21)
What might this sort of love look like in life’s everyday moments?
1. Love Takes Initiative
The love of God is an initiative-taking love. We see this plainly in a verse we referenced above, Romans 5:8: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” God didn’t pour out His love on us because we deserved it. No, He took the initiative to come to us even while we remained hostile to Him. To take the initiative in love is not easy. When someone wrongs us—when a spouse or a friend is clearly upset with us—the last thing on our minds is love. But the way of Jesus Christ is to bear with one another (Eph. 4:2; Col. 3:13) and to be tenderhearted in the same way that our Lord always is for us (Eph. 4:32).
2. Love Meets Real Needs
Secondly, the love of God in us and through us cannot ignore the needs of a brother or sister. The apostle John asks us, “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (1 John 3:17). John speaks here of material need, and certainly we must do what we can to provide for others in the physical realm. Sometimes, all people around us really need is our time, a listening ear, or an encouraging word. Whatever the requirement, though, love meets real needs.
3. Love Forgives
Love also forgives—with or without apologies for the wrong done. Often, we qualify our forgiveness: “Well, I’m prepared to forgive if…” What we usually have in mind is the offer of an apology or restitution. Now, to offer an apology and to restore what is broken in a relationship are good things, and we ought to aim to do just that whenever we wrong someone. But we also ought to forgive even when, on the other side, there is no apology present. The love that God has for us is a forgiving love that is not based on any merit in us. He came and sought us out when we weren’t looking for Him. If I’ve been overwhelmed by this love, how could I hold an offense against my brother or sister?
4. Love Acts
The love of God in our hearts will inevitably shape our emotions and our affections, but we must always bear in mind that love should be a servant of our wills and not a casualty of our emotions. In Colossians 3:14, Paul instructs us, above all else, to “put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” That command stands whether we feel it or not. The call to love moves beyond simply what our emotions might dictate and always into the realm of action—sometimes despite what we feel like doing.
The call to love moves beyond simply what our emotions might dictate and always into the realm of action—sometimes despite what we feel like doing.
5. Love Is Ultimate
The last thing to say about genuine Christian love is that while it is the first word listed as part of the fruit of the Spirit, love is the final and ultimate priority of the Christian life. It’s worth considering how Paul talks about love at the opening of 1 Corinthians 13:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (vv. 1–3, emphasis added)
We can say a lot of things and do a lot of things, but if love doesn’t undergird it all, then it is all utterly worthless. Even faith without love is proven worthless, whatever other wonders it has produced. Expressing back to God and to others the love that He has so mercifully poured out on us is our singular priority. Love is ultimate. Love is final. Without love—both for God and for neighbor—we are left with absolutely nothing. But with love, we have the power to bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, and endure all things, because “love never ends” (1 Cor. 13:7–8).