April 1, 2014

Living By Love

Last fall I visited the country of Israel for two weeks, and I found it fascinating to be immersed in the Jewish culture. Learning about other ways of life is always interesting to me, but this trip was especially meaningful because of who the Jews are. Their religion is the predecessor of my own faith, and therefore Jewish practices are closely related to how I live today.

Many Jews in Israel do not follow the religious laws. However, practicing Jews were easy to spot and some of their customs immediately caught our attention. For example, married women had their hair covered. The men wore a skull cap or some other type of head covering, and a garment with woven threads, or “fringes,” hanging from its four corners. Other signs of Jewish law that we noticed included separate seating at meals for those eating meat or dairy, and basins for ceremonial hand washing before meals. In our hotels, every room had Scripture on its entry doorpost, and there were special “Sabbath elevators” that functioned without pressing buttons (using any electric switches is prohibited on the Sabbath as it is considered a form of “kindling fire” mentioned in Exodus 35:3).

Throughout our stay in Israel, many more Jewish laws were described to us. When we asked why some are not mentioned in the Bible, it was explained that in addition to the 613 laws of the Old Testament, many more rules have been added (and are still being added) by highly respected rabbis. They extrapolate new requirements for modern times based on the original 613 commands. I found it remarkable that so many Jews can even remember all of these rules, much less keep them!

While pondering the multitude of Jewish laws, I gained a new appreciation for Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:37-39, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” Jesus summed up all of God’s commandments in just two laws. How refreshing!

Though many of the things that Jesus taught were new to the Jews, these commands were not new at all. Long before Jesus spoke these words, God had commanded the Israelites to love Him with all of their heart, soul, and might (Deuteronomy 6:5) and to love their neighbors as themselves (Leviticus 19:18). Jesus was reminding those who were prone to get stuck in religious habits that living for God is not about following a list of laws; the focus must be on loving God and people.

Although these two laws from Jesus are simple, they are not necessarily easy. They relate to our hearts—the very core of who we are—and they will govern every decision we make. Furthermore, the Bible is replete with instruction about how love for God and others should be evidenced in our lives (examples include Matthew 5, 1 Corinthians 13, Galatians 6:2, and James 1:27). Yet Jesus’ point was that if we deeply love God and our fellowman, the actions which follow will be pleasing to God. Love must start in our hearts and then become action.

Loving the way God wants us to is not something we can do on our own; it takes an act of God to transform the sinful heart and impart a spirit of love. God explained this to the Children of Israel saying, “And the Lord thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live” (Deuteronomy 30:6). The word circumcise means “to destroy, cut down,” and here God was speaking figuratively of destroying the carnal nature of the heart. This is the result of experiencing entire sanctification, subsequent to conversion, and it completes the divine transformation that enables us to love God with all our heart and soul. After we experience God’s work in our hearts, we must choose each day to continue in His love.

Since returning home, I have continued to think about Jesus’ two commandments and have realized the importance and wisdom of His words. There is great blessing in applying them to our daily lives. Here are a few examples.

Daily devotions. Spending time daily in God’s Word and in prayer with Him is a vital necessity for a Christian. Back when I was in middle school, I decided to start reading my Bible and praying on my own every day, and I still do. This is a good habit. Unfortunately, anything done habitually can become a mindless routine, and that is the last thing I want my time with God to be.

In order for devotional time to be beneficial—to be what God wants it to be—it must start with loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. When we love God like that, we do not view our time with Him as merely part of the daily routine, but as something exciting and refreshing! God said, “And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13). We will come to know God better when we are seeking Him wholeheartedly, and we have the opportunity to do that every day.

The Lord’s Day. After seeing a Sabbath Day in Israel, I began comparing the Jews’ observance of the Sabbath to how I spend the Lord’s Day, Sunday. Some Jews are very strict when it comes to the Sabbath, and it is easy to see why after reading what God said about it: “Six days may work be done; but in the seventh is the sabbath of rest, holy to the Lord: whosoever doeth any work in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death” (Exodus 31:15). The day of rest is obviously something God takes very seriously, and so should we.

In our society, time is a premium commodity. To take an entire day off and do “nothing” can feel painful when every other day is so overbooked. The only way it makes sense to spend an entire day in devotion to God is when we are consumed with love for Him. Then the cry of our heart becomes, “O God, thou art my God; early will I seek thee: my soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is” (Psalm 63:1). When we feel that way, the Lord’s Day is not an inconvenience or a day of doing nothing. Rather, it is a chance to focus on the One we love more than anything else.

Helping others. Sometimes helping others is easy. When an adorable child is lost in the store, it is a pleasure to help him find his mom. Or perhaps a good friend needs a ride somewhere. I might have to take time off work, but that’s no problem, I’d be happy to do it because I care about her. Other times, though, being helpful is not so easy. Perhaps it is a rude child who needs our assistance, or even worse—a rude adult. It seems the biggest influence on my desire to help is not the difficulty of the task, but my feelings toward the one who needs assistance.

In Matthew 5:44 Jesus said we are to love even our enemies, so we know we are to love everyone, even if we think we have a good reason not to. Only when we truly love others is it possible to obey Jesus’s words, “...bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” We don’t do these things because it is deserved; sometimes it is decidedly not deserved. We show kindness because we recognize the unearned goodness that God has shown us and we choose to love as He does, being generous with forgiveness and mercy. Love is the only motivation powerful enough to cause us to treat others the way God calls us to.

Praying for others. Like most Christians, my prayer list is long. At times I am overwhelmed by the needs around me, especially for the unsaved. Sometimes it is tempting to just give up. So what will keep us going back to the Throne of God for others? Our love for them! Even if we feel our prayers are insignificant or we do not see situations changing, love for them will give us new determination. The more deeply we love, the more we are compelled to seek God earnestly. And when we pray like that, we can be sure that our efforts are not in vain. God will hear and answer those precious prayers.

In our spiritual walk, rules are not bad. We need good rules and habits to keep us on the right path. But without love as our motivation, we are fighting an uphill battle. We can find ourselves doing only the minimum requirement rather than giving our best. And ultimately, God gives no value to actions performed without love. As Paul stated, “Though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity [or love], it profiteth me nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:3). The actions themselves simply are not enough.

Jesus reminds us that there is a better way—the way of loving. We do need to follow God’s instructions, but above all, our actions must be rooted in love. Paul summed it up well: “love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10). God is love (1 John 4:8), and He wants us to reciprocate His love. This is the path to fulfilling God’s will for our lives and being all that He wants us to be. Jesus is our example and He will also be our Helper as we seek to love God more and open our hearts to love others more, too.

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