All you need is love. At least that’s what classic rock music taught me. Rarely does a day go by when we are not faced with this kind of sentimentality. Love is the answer, many will say, whether we are dealing with the problems in our lives or problems on a larger scale. Some might even think that the Bible agrees with this. After all, the Apostle Paul lists love as the first fruit of the Spirit in Galatians. But does Paul’s understanding of love and the understanding in our culture line up?
To be honest, I want to say ‘yes.’ After all, love is love. I mean, “Love your neighbor” is a pretty self-explanatory statement. Even a five year-old can answer the question, “is that a loving way to act?” And if our children can understand it, then what’s the problem?
The problem comes when we try to define love as well as when we talk about the limits of what is love. Now, I am a Christian minister and so I am going to explain my views in reliance upon the Bible, which is God’s Word. When we turn there, we find love as more than the sentimental, “do whatever makes you fulfilled” approach that our culture feeds us.
This is important because love is the first fruit of the Spirit that Paul gives. Moreover, it’s quite possible that all the other ones flow out of love. Paul says, in 1 Corinthians 13 that if we have all everything else, but don’t have love, then it amounts to nothing.
This week I’ve been working through Romans 13 for my Sunday sermon. Right after Paul gives some uncomfortable instructions about obeying those who are in authority over us (Paul would not have been invited onto a conservative talk show!) Paul goes on to write about living in the world and the church, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” (Romans 13:8)
The first thing about this verse that Paul brings out is that love is a debt we owe. This goes against how we think of it. We like to believe that love is a gift we give. However, that puts the emphasis back on us and our choices. God’s word is clear; we don’t have the option to not love. The question immediately comes, ‘love who?’ We are like the guy in Luke 10 who, seeking to justify himself, asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” The Parable of the Good Samaritan gives the answer: our neighbor, whom we are to love, are all those we come into contact with. Paul says that we owe a debt of love.
This is interesting, further, because it’s a debt that we can never completely pay off. Our love for others is grounded in God’s love for us (see earlier chapters in Romans and Galatians). When we did we earn that? Moreover, when are we no longer in need of God’s love? The answer is ‘never.’ Just as we cannot outgrow our need for God’s love, so we are never done showing love to others.
The last part of Romans 13:10 is, perhaps, the most interesting, “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” The law, here, refers to the Ten Commandments. We know this because later Paul will cite four of them in his explanation. Love is the fulfillment of the law, not because we earn God’s love by obedience. Rather, love was the reason for the law.
God gave the law because he loved his people and he wanted to show them how to love Him and one another. One commentator writes, “If love is cut free from any commandments, it easily dissolves into sentimentality, and virtually any course of action can be defended as loving.”
It is true that if we focus only on the Commandments, without love, then we miss the point. But if we focus on love and throw away those Commandments, then we will eventually lose the very thing that we need: love. Love isn’t a feeling; it’s an action.
This fruit of the Spirit that Paul speaks of is the call to all God’s people. We are to love him with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. Love isn’t all we need; we also need God’s Word to direct us how to love and God’s Spirit to enable us to love.