Do you love Christ?
Let’s start to answer that question by asking another: Is love something you feel, or something you do?
Love is undoubtedly seen in action, even when feelings are fugitive. We all believe we should obey the Lord even if our heart isn’t necessarily warm toward him. Surely we are living in love when we rule against our negative emotions in order to obey. A missionary says he loves Christ as he goes to serve others, but surely we cannot expect that he can maintain the emotions he experienced when he first determined he would leave the security of his homeland to speak the gospel to those people. He may even be depressed and overcome by hardship at times, but still love Christ. He may be like David Livingstone who after dozens of bouts with malaria, almost delusional with the disease, would press on to accomplish what he believed Christ called him to do out of a love that had no strength left for emotion. Yes, love can be seen in action.
Yet, to balance that idea, we all agree that love isn’t merely heartless duty. Christ neither commands nor likes that, any more than a woman enjoys flowers given to her by her husband just because it is required. Rote dutifulness deceives external religionists, but it should not deceive you. You can walk a long way in the dress shoes of externalism, but they will fall apart when climbing mountains. Think how martyrdom itself can be without love: “If I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing” (1 Cor 13:3). No, we look for heart, not mere dutifulness, as we seek to determine the meaning of love.
So, which is it? Is love emotion or action?
Love Distinguished from Action
To make things clearer, note that God’s own love for us is shown by his action. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” (Jn 3:16). “God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).
God acted on his love and did not leave us in our sin while having warm feelings about us from a distance. It will help us to understand our love for him to see in the above statements that the word “love” is first, and is then followed by action. “God so loved . . . that he gave . . .” In other words, God’s action completes his love, but doesn’t define it.
Love as God models it is therefore true affection shown in his action. Love is the tree and action is the fruit. Our love is that reciprocal affection we have for Christ that is demonstrated in action, obedience, and compassionate labors. You cannot divorce the two, but affection leads. We’ll have to articulate more about that affection, as I will seek to do, but we can at least say that it is precedes and is different than the action that follows.
When Jesus was leaving the earth, he predicated the disciples’ reception of the Spirit on loving Christ. Note that love leads and is distinguished from its corresponding yet necessary action:
- “If you love me, you will keep my Commandments.” (Jn 14:15)
- “He who has my commandments and keeps them is the one who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and will disclose myself to him [through the indwelling Spirit].” (Jn 14:21)
- “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word; and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our abode with him [by means of the Spirit].” (Jn. 14:23)
So, again, love is distinguished from obedience, yet characterized by it. Love starts and permeates the action, drives and upholds it, but the action is something different than that love.
Affection as Emotion?
Just as affection is not merely action, so affection or love for Christ cannot be merely emotional warmth. Emotion’s legs are too weak to carry a full expression of biblical love. There should be plenty of feelings throughout the believer’s life, true, and those emotions should be nurtured. Truth about God provides the legitimate path for even ecstatic rejoicing in Christ, “inexpressible and full of glory” (1 Pet 1:8). Yet, I am to act obediently even when emotions toward Christ are used up, or are altered by medicines, or languishing because of sleeplessness, or evaporated for no discernible reason. The affection or love for Christ we are to have, that which leads to true obedience, has to be more consistent and powerful than mere emotions can supply, as important as those feelings are.
I must add one other thing related to affection’s emotional display. A person may also show emotion toward Christ by exercising his intellect eagerly toward understanding Christ and those things that Christ and his prophets taught and demand. A true believer may not show tears in his worship of Christ, but we must not assume that this person is not emoting. We are not all the same emotionally, and there is beauty in the various ways emotions are exercised. For some, intense passion for truth, for uncovering the mysteries of Christ, for discovering the beauty of Christ, may be every bit as telling as emotions seen in tears or exclamations of gratitude. A person may be quiet and seemingly unemotional to the eyes of some, yet have driving internal passion for knowing Christ. We are not all the same in this way.
Value is the Better Definition
What then defines love for Christ if it is neither emotions nor actions?
My suggestion is that this love for Christ, which also may be called affection, is best described as valuing him, which is our recognition of the significance or worth of Christ rather than the emotions or actions which spring from this evaluation. It is founded on what we know about Christ and subsequently believe and appreciate about him that is the essence of love. You act obediently because Christ is, as a matter of conscious belief, the quintessential value of your life—above family, above possessions, above reputation, above rest and recreation, above all other self-interests.
Consider the parable of the treasure in the field. It becomes one of the most precious and informative teachings of Christ in this light. The man found the treasure which he objectively saw as extremely valuable, above all else that he had. This discovery turned immediately to a conviction that the treasure has superior value, which in turn produced both emotion and action. “From joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Mt. 13:44). Love is his conviction of value above all other things, resulting in the emotion of joy and the action of selling all he had to secure the field containing that treasure. The emotion and action fill out the affection or, as we are defining it, the value he now has as a true life-altering conviction.
It is valuing Christ birthed by revelation of his intrinsic glory as the one you now know to be true and beautiful above all else, that makes you a lover of Christ. Love springs from what we know about him. God opens our eyes to Christ’s beauty. Love is the valuing of him above all because we see him as he actually is. Let emotions be attendant or temporarily absent, and we go on loving Christ. In fact, the loss of those emotions is, in a way, a test of our affection. Emotions and actions are what a believer cannot help because of the overwhelming value we now hold concerning the once hidden, now revealed, treasure of Christ.
Like a new mother who wakes up to tend to her baby even when she doesn’t feel like it since she values the child, so the believer loves Christ on the basis of his value, coming from the revealed knowledge of him, even when the believer cannot feel that love. And if she fails at times to want to act for the child, it is only temporary and unveils that she has for the moment wrongly assessed the value of the child compared to the value of her sleep. But reflection will end this temporary insanity, and she will get up to tend to the baby once again.
Love then is treasuring Christ because of the revelation of Christ. It is the conviction of his immense value because your eyes have been opened. You have discovered the treasure. Many things have value and there is a sort of hierarchy of value, yet Christ is above all and only in valuing Christ above all can the other values find legitimacy. Otherwise, they are usurpers of your love.
Because our emotions often accompany our valuing of Christ, we sometimes have difficulty separating the two. But the knowledge of Christ’s value is far deeper and is the true fountain of our emotions. Attendant emotion has the power to oil our love and make it frictionless and free, yet it is not hardy or stable enough on its own to provide a foundation for love.
It is this valuing of Christ above even family and money and life itself that was in mind when Christ described the terms of discipleship in Luke 14:
- “If anyone comes to me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (v. 26)
- “Whoever does not carry his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” (v. 27)
- “So then, none of you can be my disciple who does not give up all his own possessions.” (v. 33)
In valuing Christ, we devalue all else for this object of our love, the treasure. Everything else is taken off the pedestal of first-level importance. The man in the parable sold what he had “from joy.” He was happy to devalue the property he had and which once perhaps had been supreme treasure to him, for the greater treasure. It was a value shift of momentous importance which can be sustained, if speaking of Christ, because there is no lack of value in Christ, or of the potential of your ongoing discovery of that value, now and in the next world.
Perhaps we could say that all other loves are “subsumed” under this one great love. We actually love our family more, for instance, if we exercise our love for it as a means of loving Christ. But Christ is the treasure above all else, without equivocation. If we think otherwise—if, for instance, family love competes with love for Christ and does so as a characteristic—we show that we are not true disciples at all. Love for Christ in this sense is the one love we are allowed to have. And in that love, we love all that Christ loves truly. Only in this way is our love for other things permitted for the believer.
You cannot love Christ as an attachment to life, either in an intentional part-time way or a part-hearted way. And if you value him above all else, you willkeep his word. You will look hard at your heart and at your actions to analyze your sincerity at times, but you will not look at action alone, which can deceive you if merely external, nor will you look at emotion alone, which is an incomplete measure of true love.
God the Father draws the person by revealing the compelling beauty and power and necessity of Christ, who is without rival. The person finds in him the singular value above all competing values. He subsequently obeys because he has no other higher value than God and Christ his Son who has been revealed to him. He cherishes what his Lord says, what he did, what he does, what he will do, his purposes, his beauty, his grace, and his Lordship. He loves all that Christ loves because he loves who Christ is. Though he is eager to demonstrate that love at times through ecstatic emotional displays of affection, or through vigorous and precise study of Scripture, or perhaps through other legitimate means, he knows that mere emotions and actions alone are insufficient to define that love. This one that the believer values or cherishes will shape and define all other things.
The lover of Christ sees and knows, therefore values, and emotes and acts in varying proportions corresponding to the value in Christ he has obtained. And he or she may love Christ more as God graciously reveals more of him either surprisingly or through the believer’s persistent pursuit of him as displayed in the Bible.
With the meaning of love separated and defined, the question is perhaps better understood. So I will ask it again: Do you love Christ?
Copyright © Jim Elliff.
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