When we experience growing and loving relationships with the Father, ourselves and those around us, we are living God’s design for our lives with celebration and thankfulness. Or at least we should be. And when this happens, God smiles. We smile. Joy abounds!
The key to living well by loving well was on the mind of Jesus when he told a religious teacher, “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’”(Matthew 22:37-39).
Do you want to live more abundantly? Then love more abundantly!
I can achieve five stars in church attendance, Bible reading, prayer, exercising my spiritual gifts, tithing and other evidence of good Christian behavior commonly accepted by believers today, but if there are deep lapses of love in my life, “I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate” (1 Corinthians 13:1, The Message). Simply said, I am not loving well. Not God. Not myself. Not others.
Loving my neighbor
For me, this has included my spouse, children and grandchildren, parents, extended family, co-workers, fellow Jesus-followers, neighbors, hospital patients and families or whomever God has placed in my daily path.
I am grateful for how God has enabled me to live out this commandment, howbeit oftentimes in a three-steps-forward-and-two-steps-backward fashion. But I am still reminded of the not so happy times years ago when I didn’t do well with the “bad neighbors” of my life. You know, those who for a myriad of reasons get “under our skin,” some deeply.
In recent decades this has changed dramatically. With God’s help, almost all of these broken relationships have been restored. I have also discovered that many of these neighbors were actually “good neighbors” all along. I was the “bad neighbor” that caused and perpetuated relational havoc.
What has been the key to loving my neighbors better today, leading to increased joy and peace in my life? I’ll tell you in a moment.
Loving ourselves comes naturally. Thus, it isn’t a commandment. In many ways, it’s as simple as eating. But just as eating too much or too little can have negative consequences in our lives, so can loving ourselves too much through self-exaltation or too little through self-destruction, leading to emotional and relational heartache. Charting a path between the slippery slopes of self-adulation on one side and negative self-talk on the other is needed for loving ourselves and our neighbors properly.
Bestselling author Rachel Macy Stafford says it well. You thrive when you are “loving yourself right where you are, not when you lose some weight, not when you accomplish this or that, not when you get your life straightened out.” A healthy self-love “means loving yourself ‘as is’…speaking words of kindness and compassion to yourself even when they’re not the first words that come to mind.”
God has been my healer here as well. What has been the key to loving myself better? Here too I will elaborate more shortly.
We are also commanded to love our God with our entire being. This has been somewhat more elusive for me. For much of my life, I have loved God mostly with my mind and not with my mind and emotions.
What have I done to better love God with everything that I am, something so important for loving myself and others more authentically? How do I counsel people today to love God more abundantly?
Understand his profound love for you first. This is the first step to loving God, ourselves and others. If anything in my life has been more transformative in understanding the many facets of love, it has been the truth that God is fond of me and then “learning to live in the Father’s affection,” to cite author Wayne Jacobsen.
From singing “Jesus loves me this I know” as a young boy to reciting “For God so loved Lynn that he gave his only begotten son,” I have never doubted his love for me. But sadly, like my loving-God experience, this thought until a few years ago was basically a truth confined more to my head than my heart. As such it was more a doctrine to believe and teach than a cherished reality to live in. The thought that he delights in me, especially following times of rebellion and sin, has stirred my heart with wonder and gratitude, engaging my emotions many times over.
Embrace the biblical definition of love. Society around us has slowly been chipping away at the beauty of biblical love. Love today is based more on selfish feelings than selfless actions; more on what I can get out of a relationship than what I can give; more me-centered than other-centered. Such an understanding is light years away from God’s life-giving idea of love as incarnated in and through Jesus.
New Testament scholar Kenneth Wuest states that biblical love (agapan) “has its basis in preciousness, a love called out of one’s heart by an awakened sense of value in the object loved that causes one to prize it.”
In other words, love is to recognize the preciousness and worthiness of God, ourselves and others leading to an admiring affection of that person. God views us as absolutely precious in every moment. In return, we learn to love him, ourselves and others with like esteem as we allow this treasured truth to slowly penetrate our inner sanctums.
As a hospital chaplain working with many patients with suicidal ideations, I remind them they are deeply loved and delighted by their Creator right where they are: “You are of immense worth and significance to him.” Quite often I will then witness a tear or two working its way down their cheeks.
Live in the realm of God’s love and not condemnation. I have always believed in God’s unconditional love, at least theologically speaking. But practically speaking, I have lived more in the realm of conditional love and fear. I first discovered this when dealing with serious anger and lust issues in my life. When first dealing with these sins and other sins I used to be dogged with deep guilt and shame for days on end. I felt profound sadness, even after seeking forgiveness.
But when I began to understand that God’s love for me hadn’t wavered one iota when I had failed him and myself, something unexplainable and supernatural began to happen in my heart. In time I found myself with fewer angry outbursts and decreasing visits to inappropriate web pages. Accompanying this was a newfound appreciation for God’s mercy and forgiveness, something I have learned to extend to others facing unending guilt.
Slow down and meditate on the ways God has delighted in you. Paul tells us, “I pray that you…may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the length and width, height and depth of God’s love, and to know Christ’s love that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God”(Ephesians 3:17-19 Christian Standard Bible).
Two tasks needed for the believer “to be filled with all the fullness of God” are comprehending the vastness of Christ’s love and knowing experientially this love in daily living. One discipline points the believer to meditate on God’s faithful dealings in the past and present; the second calls the believer to love themselves and others in the present and future. To fully understand the immensity of his past and present expressions of love in the world, in the lives of other believers and most importantly in our own lives, requires time, silence and solitude.
Our society, and in many cases our church culture, doesn’t encourage a slowed down spirituality needed for understanding his love. But when we begin to prize being more with God instead of doing for God, will we then enter into the noble halls of loving Him, ourselves, and others more joyfully and responsibly.
Launch out in the adventure of loving your neighbor. Knowing about God’s love is good for a starter. But when we also begin to comprehend his love through honest reflection and then love ourselves and others with greater devotion will we then live well.
I have an amazing 98-year-old father-in-law. He still drives and lives alone in an independent living facility. But what makes this senior Jesus-follower so amazing is that he has lived well by loving well. Fruit of this is his deep love for God. Only occasionally have I seen him not tear up when leading in prayer. He is a man of integrity and righteous in his ways. He’s one of my heroes.
As to loving himself, he is the kind of man that would probably prefer not to even touch the question of a healthy self-love, but I sense he is living in this reality.
As to loving his neighbor, once again his life shines brightly. I have never heard anyone speak unkindly about him or he speak unkindly of others. He truly loved his wife of more than 60 years until her death. And his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren respect him. His love for each one oozes freely out of his life.
For sure, his legacy of love will live on way beyond his death, something our Father desires for all of us who want to live well by loving well.