By Gary L. Johnson
We make choices from the time we get out of bed until long after the sun sets. Some choices are simple and some are more serious, ranging from what clothes we wear to whom we marry. Weighty decisions are difficult, while simple decisions are made with little thought or effort.
“What the World Needs Now Is Love” was a hit song in the mid-1960s, but that sentiment holds true in today’s era of conspicuous conflict. But will we choose to bring actual love into the corner of the world we call home?
In a TED Talk some years ago, Simon Sinek presented his theory of the golden circles—specifically, three concentric circles—which I think will help us grasp that love is a choice.
Sinek’s theory is that most businesses and organizations start from the outside circle, knowing what they do (i.e., what products they make, what services they provide). Some can go a step inward to the next circle and describe how they do what they do. But only a handful make it to the innermost circle, knowing why they do what they do. Sinek believes that businesses and organizations that start with why and move outward will impact their world.
To understand love being a choice, let’s start with why, move to how, and end with what.
WHY CHOOSE TO LOVE
We should choose to love because, simply put, we were made in God’s image and God is love (1 John 4:8). The opening pages of Scripture tell us God made us in his image and likeness, meaning we have the capacity to love. In my home, we have three generations of wedding pictures, and anyone looking at them can easily see the resemblance of my dad, myself, and my son. When it comes to love, could the same be easily said of us in that we resemble God, our Father? Do we love others because he first loved us?
Come to think of it, God modeled that love is a choice. Think of it this way. While on earth, Jesus was God in the flesh (Colossians 2:9), and toward the end of his ministry, Jesus was approached by a man whom we call the “rich, young ruler.” Mark 10:17-31 describes their incredible conversation and Jesus’ teachings in the immediate aftermath of it. When I slowly and carefully read of their encounter, I am not challenged by what Jesus said so much as by what he chose.
Jesus was fully and completely God—he was omniscient—so he knew the wealthy younger man would reject the invitation to become his follower. Still, “Jesus looked at him and loved him” (v. 21). Despite being rejected, Jesus chose to love him.
When we encounter difficult people—whether at home, work, school, in the neighborhood, or even at church—do we look at them and love them? We should, and we must. Why? We have been made in the image of God, and if people are going to see God in us, they must see love from within us. After all, “Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did” (1 John 2:6). Do we resemble God or not?
HOW TO LOVE
It is not easy to love unlovable people, particularly when we love them biblically and not culturally. Our culture defines love as an emotion. We are quick to say we “love” something: “I love my car; I love pizza; I love hiking, etc.” Moreover, when we say we “love” a person, we do so with an emotion in mind. Our culture defines love as a warm, fuzzy feeling expressed with a $10 greeting card and accompanied by a bouquet of flowers.
Leah, my wife of 45 years, appreciates receiving a card and flowers from time to time, but she knows that I love her when I do the dishes, make the bed, and vacuum the rug. Love is more than an emotion. It is an action.
The most recognized verse in Scripture demonstrates that the biblical definition of love is truly an action. John 3:16 declares that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son to die for us. Similarly, Romans 5:8 states that God demonstrated his love for us in that Jesus died for us. Clearly, love is an action and not merely an emotion.
In writing his brief Epistle, James, the brother of Jesus, used more than 50 imperatives (i.e., commands). James was very Jewish in his Christian faith, and to him it was essential to substantiate his belief in Jesus as his Messiah with his actions. James is well remembered for having declared, “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (2:17). James also wrote, “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right” (2:8). How do we love others? Love is an action and not merely an emotion.
WHAT MATTERS MOST
When we choose to love others by our actions and by the power of the Spirit, we discover what matters most in this life. When Jesus was asked, “Which is the greatest commandment?” he replied that we are first to love God with all our being, and second, we are to love others in the same way we love ourselves (Mark 12:30-31). All other commandments are of lesser importance. God takes seriously his command that we love both him and others. Yet, do we?
I prove my love for Leah by my actions. In the same way, I prove my love for God by my actions: “This is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3; see also 2 John 5). The second most important command (per Jesus) is to love others! When I choose to love others (by my actions and not with mere emotion), I actually love God. I express my love for God by obeying his command to love.
LOVE IS ALWAYS A CHOICE
We make choices every day, and one of the more difficult choices is to love others.
It is difficult to choose to love a difficult person. It can’t be done in our own strength. However, when we realize that the Spirit of Jesus is in us (1 John 4:4), the Spirit empowers us to make the right choice—and that choice is to love. The Spirit produces the fruit of love in us (Galatians 5:22) when we rely on him to do so.
Jesus’ way of loving people stands out to me. While encountering people on the proverbial road of life, he had compassion for hurting people (Matthew 9:36). The word compassion means that feeling came welling up from deep within Jesus. The word in Greek means “moved to one’s bowels.” It’s one thing to have sympathy for individuals, acknowledging their loss. It’s quite another to have empathy for individuals, attempting to feel their hurt and helping them walk through the valley of suffering. Doing so is a choice that can be made only in the strength of the Spirit.
I remember a time 23 years ago like it was yesterday. I stood looking out a window at a place—and in a moment of time—where I wished I wasn’t. Just days before, a phone call from my family in Michigan informed me that my mother had suffered a massive stroke. I left immediately for Michigan to be with my dad, my brothers, and most importantly, my mom. I arrived in time to be with her as she went home to Jesus.
At the funeral home, while looking out that window, I wondered what life would be like for our family to not have our mom with us. My grief was sudden and overwhelming.
But then I saw something that deeply moved me. An enormous motor coach had just pulled into the parking lot. Its door opened and people began stepping off the bus—and each one was a close friend from my church, The Creek. Dozens upon dozens of people boarded the bus in Indianapolis and made the six-hour-plus drive to be with me in my loss. They took time off from work and away from their families. In the Spirit of Jesus, they expressed their love for God by expressing their love for me.
They made a choice to get on the bus. And to this day, I am grateful they did.