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Let Love be Genuine
Exploring the nature of biblical love
“Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. (Rom. 12:9–10)
Love is the adorning jewel of all Christian virtue. Without love, as the apostle Paul famously said, all our efforts at pleasing God are reduced to nought. We might speak in the tongues of men and angels, have faith to remove mountains, give away all that we have and deliver our bodies to be burned, and yet if we do all these without love, we “gain nothing” (1 Cor. 13:3). Love is therefore the controlling principle, the unifying theme, and the distinctive feature of all true spiritual life (1 Jn. 4:7–8). As Paul elsewhere says, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision count for anything; only “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6).
Despite the central place of love in the Christian life there remains an immense amount of confusion regarding what love actually is. Most common today is the idea that love amounts to something like a warm feeling of affection toward another person—“affection” being the operative word in that definition. This, coupled with the firm belief that the ultimate good of each individual is the expression of their every whim and desire, has led to a notion of love that is essentially “affirmation.” To affirm someone is the same as loving them, at least according to contemporary secular dogma.
In the Scriptures, however, love is far more concrete. And in the text quoted above we are given several of its defining features. First, we see that love is to be “genuine” or sincere, which is another way of saying love must be free of hypocrisy and falsehood. Thus, love is the kind of thing that does not bow to deception and flattery nor does it settle for that false kind of “love” which is really nothing more than thinly veiled indifference. Rather, love insists on being pure and undefiled. Like a precious metal, love must remain uncorrupted in order for its worth to be maintained.
Second, love leads a person to “abhor what is evil, and hold fast to what is good.” As Calvin rightly notes, this means that love rejects “that malicious wickedness by which an injury is done to men” and instead cleaves to “that kindness, by which help is rendered to them.” Love, in other words, both avoids doing wrong to others and, more positively, seeks to do them good. It’s right for a man to refrain from stealing his neighbour’s ox, but love requires him to return it to his neighbour if he should see it wandering (Deut. 22:1).
To use a current example, if your co-worker Simon suddenly comes under the delusion that he is a rodent and insists that an eight-foot hamster wheel be installed in the break room, love looks like firmly refusing his demands and instructing him regarding the imago Dei. Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law (Rom. 13:10).
Finally, love must be marked by “brotherly affection,” which is to say, it must be marked by warm, familial care and tenderness. As we have said, feeling is not the substance of love, but neither is it inessential to it. In order for love to be complete, it must press through cold, stoic duty into the liberating air of joyful willingness. A husband who works hard to provide for his family during the day and yet sits hidden behind a phone screen at night is hardly fulfilling this responsibility. Love certainly obligates us to do good to our neighbour, but it obligates us to do so with a smile.
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