1 John 4:7-12

John, having just warned us about the problems of end times and the antichrist, now encourages us that, if we are children of God, we have God Himself living in us. He builds on this truth, saying the most profound three words in this letter: "God is love".

So "Love" Himself lives in us. Let's just stop for a moment, long enough to take in this wonderful truth! Why do we not behave lovingly to everyone we meet and feel so bad about ourselves, despite knowing this to be the truth? It is simple. Our "flesh" (old nature) has not died and wants to have total control and dominance in our lives, so we sin. We have the answer to that as well in 1 John 1:9. We simply need to repent and move on, not succumbing to guilt and condemnation, but returning to acknowledge who lives in us and restoring a right relationship with Him.

Amazing love

John said previously that love is all about "living in the light". (1 John 2:10) There was also his amazing statement in 1 John 3:1: "How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called 'children of God’". Here John goes one step further, pointing out that love is the essence of God Himself. It is the basis of all our relationships (between God, ourselves and other people). The love that John is talking about is the special type of love that was translated in the New Testament from the Greek word "agape". It is the love of those who lay down their lives for those they do not know or like without receiving anything in return. It is a totally unconditional love. It was the love that led Jesus to give His own life for us, even whilst we were still in rebellion against Him. (Romans 5:8) God saw our need and asked His Son to leave heaven and to lay down His life for us. Not only that, His death took a particularly violent and degrading form at a time when nobody understood what He was doing or why. God the Father then proceeded to woo us back to Himself, so that we could take advantage of this amazing gift that He had paid for on our behalf.

It is God’s example of love that should be our motivation to love, firstly Himself, then ourselves, so that we can love others. (Matthew 22:37-39) God now counts us as His friends. (John 15:15) We are no longer His enemies and this only happened because of this love. Indeed, God has promised that, as we turn our hearts to Him, devote ourselves to Him and get rid of all the other attractions (idols): "I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them. I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people and I will be their God." (Ezekiel 11:19-20)

This is God’s work in our lives on a daily basis, by the power of the Holy Spirit. There is nothing we can do to change ourselves. Our natural instinct and nature is to be selfish, self-focused, unloving and concerned for our own interests first and foremost. When we are born of God, even our natural disposition begins to change as we grow to realise the fantastic Love that God has towards us. "Therefore, if any person is [engrafted] in Christ [the Messiah] he is a new creation [a new creature altogether]; the old [previous moral and spiritual condition] has passed away. Behold, the fresh and new has come!" (2 Corinthians 5:17 Amplified version) This love is recreated in us when we are "born again"; like Father, like daughter! Then we want to show this love to others. So the Holy Spirit’s work in us increasingly makes His love shine out of a grateful heart. We just obey His word and call on His power to do the things that He calls us to do.

Choosing to love

Because love is at the heart of the good news about Jesus, we should see love in all "born again" people. As we meet together, there should be endless compassion, caring, kindness, wise counsel, tolerance and unity. John is not saying that anyone who has been "in love" is a Christian (someone who is "born of God and knows God" - 1 John 4:7). It is the other way round. John is saying that those who have been born of God and know Him understand what love is all about and are, therefore, also able to love - themselves and others. His love inspires us lay down our own desires and abandon our own plans, deciding instead to give everything over to God for His use in whatever way He chooses, as He knows best.

What gives love its enormous significance and power is the fact that love is given freely - out of choice. If God had not created us with the freedom to make our own choices, any kind of "love" would be meaningless. The "agape" love of which John speaks is something that goes beyond the power of emotional or sexual attraction. It is not a shallow, sentimental response to an overwhelming need in us, but a positive choice to offer love to someone else who needs it. And it is nothing to do with obsessive, self-centred love; it is "sacrificial". It is prepared to do good for someone without expecting any return, even if the other person wants nothing to do with us and rejects all attempts to help or provide support. It is a tough path to walk, but the more that we appreciate how much God has loved us, the easier we shall find it to love others. We also have the Holy Spirit within us who pours out God's love in our hearts. (Romans 5:5) As we practise walking with Jesus, day by day, reading His word and listening to His Spirit, the stronger His love will grow, like a seed in our hearts. The more we feed and nurture it, the bigger it will become.

Loving the loveless

After we have experienced spiritual re-birth in our lives and begun to change our way of living, we can forget what it was like before. Perhaps the Holy Spirit has been putting His finger on different areas and we have made a determined effort to "clean up our act". This is all good, but there is also a danger that we become inward looking and lose our compassion for those who are still lost. We are still aware of people who struggle with life, in poverty or fighting against addictions, but do we now avoid them? We still know plenty of people who simply have no interest in finding God or looking out for others. They are preoccupied with their own interests and just want to be left alone to find happiness in their own way. Before we know it, we have started to avoid those who tell dirty jokes, spread gossip or just wear clothing that is too revealing. We gravitate towards other Christians and stop getting involved in most non-church activities.

If this is true for you, it may be time to have another look at Jesus' story about "The Prodigal Son". It appears in Luke's gospel (Luke 15:11-24) and shows us a perfect picture of the heart of the Father. The son had completely rebelled and dishonoured his father by going off to a distant land, taking a premature share of the family inheritance with him. He wasted no time in spending it, revelling in every kind of debauchery, but soon found himself penniless, friendless and homeless. When he hit rock bottom, hungry and cold in a foreign land, he finally came to his senses. He decided to return home to his father, prepared to go back as a servant rather than a member of the family. He was utterly unprepared for the fact that his father had been continually watching out for him to return. His father recognised him from a long way off and went running to meet him. He welcomed him with an embrace and a kiss of love, acceptance and forgiveness. He gave him fresh, clean clothes, put a ring on his finger and new footwear on his feet.

It is a moving glimpse of the heart of our heavenly Father and His love for us. Before we ever came to our senses and despite our rebellion and cold-heartedness, our Father was looking out for us and waiting to welcome us home. We were constantly on His mind and His heart never stopped loving us. But God feels this way about all those who are still outside the kingdom of heaven. We have become His eyes and ears on earth; we are His hands and feet and His love beats in our hearts. When we see so many who have become spiritual migrants or refugees in a foreign country, let's look at them with the Father's eyes and be prepared to welcome them back.

There is another character in Jesus' story: the older brother. Reading on (Luke 11:25-31), we find that he was resentful, even disgusted, that his father had welcomed home the prodigal brother. He had been loyal to his family and taken on his responsibilities, working hard and seeking to do everything that his father wanted of him. Seeing the way in which his brother was rewarded rather than punished seemed immensely unfair. He was bitter, jealous and self-righteous. He could not share his father’s joy that his brother was alive and back in the family.

It is so important that we keep our hearts soft towards the heart of God, enabling us to love all those whom He loves. This will enable us to be sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit. We never know who the prostitute we pass on the street may become in the hands of the amazing creator of the universe. How about we consider showing Jesus to her by giving her a meal, or even just a smile? She may have been a victim of sex trafficking. Remember the Samaritan woman who encouraged so many people in her village to come to Jesus. Her story has been used through many generations to challenge our attitude to outcasts. (John 4:4-42)

This "agape" love should be the foundation of all church life. It is the strongest tool that we have to win the hearts of people in the world. Everyone needs love!

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