One of the readings that day was from 1 John 4:20 which says in part, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” . . . While I can’t say that I hated anyone particularly, this reading challenged me. I knew that I loved God with all my heart, but people? Well, people were mean and obnoxious. They rejected you and treated each other terribly. Loving God was a lot easier than loving people. God is love. People are annoying. How could it be possible that I couldn’t truly love God unless I also loved people?
R. Trotter, The Upside Down World ~ A Book of Wisdom in Progress
For a long time, I believed that loving others was an act of love towards God. A way of serving him and living out the love you had for him. If you really love God, then you would love other people as well. If out of obedience if nothing else.
There is truth in that perspective. However, I’m coming to understand that the reality is much more profound. Notice that the scriptures say that if you do not love others, then you CANNOT love God. Not do not – cannot. It’s saying that you are not even capable of loving God if you do not love other people. Considered this way, a lot of what we think we know about God, love and our relationship with him gets turned right on its head.
The bible says that we love because God first loved us. That is, God’s love for us is the source of our ability to love. But it is only through loving other people that we gain the ability to love him in return.
The issue, it seems to me, is that we humans don’t really understand love. We think we do. But a quick glance around the world shows that we’re actually very bad at it. What we’re very good at, though, is self-justification. It doesn’t matter how wrong or how outlandish our treatment of others is, we can quite easily find a way to explain how our actions are actually loving. (Exhibit A: Westboro Baptist Church.)
As long as we allow our ideas about love to remain in the spiritual realm, we can continue being oblivious to just how bad and unloving they actually are. Our ability to receive feedback from or see results in spiritual realms is very limited, at best. So if I have the idea that it is loving to offer blood sacrifices to the gods, I can continue doing so indefinitely without ever learning that this isn’t actually a very good way to love God.
In order to discern whether our ideas about love are accurate or not, we must test them here in the physical world. And this is why I think the bible says that we are not capable of loving God if we do not love other people. By applying our ideas about love to how we treat other people, we are able to see how well they actually work. If they don’t work so well here in the physical world, then that means we’re doing it wrong.
Learning to love other people becomes a way to test and correct our ideas about what love actually is, how it behaves and what it looks like in action. At least if we are open and humble enough to receive correction when we fail. Thus, as we love other people, our love gets purified. Which means that the love we direct back to God is also purified. We gain the ability to actually love God rather than direct our erroneous ideas about love back at him, calling that love.
Often, it is through learning to love others that our ideas about God, who is Love, get corrected as well. Let’s say that I see God as loving, but wrathful and angry. And then I have children. In the course of raising them and loving them, I discover that I am quick to forgive them, unwilling to allow any error or slight on their part to destroy our relationship and that I see them through eyes of understanding and mercy. At some point it may occur to me that God’s love must look more like my love for my child than like the stern, disappointed version of him I had in my head. Once I realize this, my love for God is able to be directed to God more as he actually is and less as I presume him to be.
And it’s not just about getting rid of our bad ideas about love. When we learn to love other people, it changes and shapes us. It drives out our pride. It teaches us patience, understanding and grace. Through loving other people, we take on more and more of the shape of that Love in whose image we are made. Unless that happens, what we consider love of God will be filled with pride, demands, conceit and judgment. It and we won’t look anything like Love.
Jesus famously says that on judgment day, he will welcome those who had cared for those in need. A lot of Christians, for all practical purposes, reject this. They see this as a demand for works and we can’t be saved by our works, of course. But once we understand that it is only through loving people that we gain the capacity to love God, Jesus’ words make more sense. He’s not saying that if you didn’t feed, cloth, visit and otherwise care for others, you haven’t done what is required to get into the Kingdom. He’s saying that if you haven’t done those things, then there’s no way you have the capacity to enter into the Kingdom. Because unless you know how to love people who you do see, you aren’t capable of loving God whose face you have yet to encounter.