"The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." John 1:14

Friday, November 11, 2011

Love Believes

Like the previous phrase “love stands,” the next phrase Paul presents in the multifaceted description of love in 1 Corinthians 13 is open to interpretation as well. “Love believes all things” is the traditional translation. Some more modern translations have opted for “love always trusts.” In actuality, either is perfectly acceptable, which comes to one of the common myths about Koine Greek language; contrary to popular belief it sometimes is more vague than English simply because of the alternative interpretations that are available and acceptable. Here, two pivotal words are open to multiple translations: all, always, etc. and believes, trusts, has faith, etc. These are not subtle distinctions, and major translations fall down on different sides of this fence.

Since the learned scholars who have devoted collective centuries to the translation of the New Testament have not apparently come to a consensus on the translation of these phrases, I will not, in arrogance, presume to know which phrase is more accurate, though I do have a favorite. Rather, I will look at each possibility and try to shine a light, I hope empowered by Spirit, and show the truth in it. One hopes, after all, that the same Spirit has guided the translation and preservation of the Bible through the centuries. Even though those of us who hold to inerrancy of scripture do so in the original manuscripts and languages, and make room for human error in translations, we believe that God has kept enough of the originals intact to provide us the truth we need to come to him and to flourish in him. Sorry for the digression, but I feel that when I point to apparent disparities in translations, and I do not know my audience, it is necessary to lay a little foundation.

“Love believes all things” being the most traditional translation, is the broadest in its meaning and holds great hope for our relationships in the church. It does not necessarily imply that every individual is to be trusted in every situation (which seems unrealistic in light of Jesus’ teachings: “I send you out as sheep among wolves”). I do not take it to mean that a follower of Christ literally believes everything; he is not blown here and there by every wind of doctrine. No, this is a relational passage. A person filled with agape love is able to believe all things for and with the one(s) he loves, even when these things are not yet visible. This, after all, is the very nature of faith (the same greek word, pistis), to trust in things not yet seen. You may have guessed it, and I am not trying very hard to be neutral here (it IS my blog and you are free to comment). This is my favorite translation: Love believes all things.

Then there is the possibility that Paul meant to say “Love always trusts.” If so, what did he mean by it? Certainly he did not trust every one in every situation, and he did not teach others to do so. Even in the same letter, he had harsh words for the behaviors and character of some in the Corinthian church. If we assume that Paul, as an apostle, was a man of character, and that he was more or less consistent in applying what he taught, he cannot mean, literally, trust every person in every situation, no matter their track record. As noted above, Jesus taught his followers to be aware of human nature and to be, as it were, on guard, not casting their pearls before swine, and being shrewd as serpents, gentle as doves. The Bible is nothing if it is not realistic in its portrayal of human nature. There is little written in its pages that inspires us to naively place our faith and trust in humanity, even redeemed humanity.

So much for what I believe “love always trusts” cannot mean. However, what if the trust involved is not so much in other people or circumstances, specifically, but that God is in control in his churches, and things will eventually work out? What if the trust is, primarily, in the Lord, who is ALWAYS trust worthy, versus people, who are, well, let's just say not always trust worthy. That being said, I do believe that we give one another the benefit of the doubt, that there is a sense in which we keep on believing that the Spirit of God will have his way in our brothers and sisters, and that God will complete in one another the work he has begun. That’s something to believe in, because He’s someone to trust.

“Love…believes all things.” 1 Corinthians 13:7 NASB

“It (love) always trusts.” 1 Corinthians 13:7 NIV

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Love Stands

Our next phrase, translated as “love always protects,” is one of the more interesting renderings in the passage on love in 1 Corinthians 13. The same word, stego, is used 3 other times in the New Testament. In every other case it is translated as some form of “stand,” as in “when we could stand it no longer” (twice), and in another case “to put up with.” Its usual meaning falls in line with bearing with one another. However, I am here assuming that the translators had some solid reasons (not mere adherence to traditional translations) for their choice in this matter, and am going with the word “stand,” which seems to cover both meanings. To stand in love is to afford protection to the beloved. Standing in love also implies bearing with the faults and shortcomings of the one who is loved.

When I love someone, I stand my ground in their defense. Certainly this is the way Christ has loved me. He taught his disciples about such love, saying that no greater love exists than to lay down your life for your friends. His anger in the temple and with the religious establishment was not only because of the distortion of the truth of his Father’s message, but also because of the impossible burden the religious authorities had placed upon the people, without lifting a finger to help them. He stepped between the woman caught in adultery and those who condemned her in the most beloved of stories, bringing into sharpest focus the principles of grace (neither do I condemn you) and truth (go and sin no more). Ultimately he stepped between the righteous wrath of God the Father and all who receive him as Lord and Savior. His love protects us from the consequences of our own sins if we accept his atoning sacrifice on our behalf.

His love also “stands” us. That is to say, he bears with us. I think there is good reason that the intimate and unflattering little exchanges between Jesus and his disciples are included in the gospels. Many times he turns to them in exasperation and says something like, “How long have you been listening to me? When will you finally get it?” These conversations are there not so that we can feel superior to his followers. They are there so that we can relate to them. He could say the same to each of us. He bears with us. His love allows him to stand us.

Agape, then, empowers us to stand one another in a way that conditional love cannot. All other kinds of love are based on some kind of a performance standard or exchange for services. Worldly love needs to see that it is getting something in return in order to keep investing itself. It keeps asking, “What’s in this for me?” As we have seen in earlier posts on agape, this kind of love is different. It asks, “What’s in this for the other(s)?” This attitude makes it possible for us to hang in there, when worldly love gives up and gives in. When we are not holding out for the self-centered return on our investment, we have all the patience in the world (and beyond).

Occasionally, I get a glimpse of how God’s love stands with me. Unwavering, it protects me from all accusations (even my own), and empowers me to stand myself. Let it empower us to protect and bear with one another in the same way.

“Love always protects (stands).” 1 Corinthians 13:7 (parenthesis mine)

"We love because he loved us first.” 1 John 4:19

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Love and Evil

Two words seldom seen in the same sentence, unless in a romance novel, or (worse yet) a romance novel about vamps, are the words love and evil. In their purest sense, love and evil are mutually exclusive. They cannot share the same space. God, as the source of purest love, has no evil in him, and cannot be in the presence of (unredeemed) evil. Purest love drives out evil. So when the apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:6, “Love does not delight in evil,” his readers must have silently responded with a resounding…”duh.”

However, when we step away from the purely philosophical views of love versus evil, is this principle, that love does not find pleasure in evil, all that obvious? If a hidden camera recorded our every conversation, each movie, book or television program we choose to digest, would it be all that clear to the objective observer that WE do not delight in evil? Hmmm… maybe not.

Truthfully, when evil presents itself, we do a double-take. We are drawn to it, like the auto accident at the side of the road. It’s as if we can’t help staring. When it is framed as humor in situation comedy, we roll on the floor laughing. And that bit of tantalizing gossip we just can’t resist listening to (and passing on) is evil... delightful evil.

Just as the Corinthians (if they stopped to think about the immorality that was so commonplace in their fellowship) had grown to delight in evil, we are in danger of getting used to the evil in us and around us. Having grown used to it, we accommodate it in our homes, our fellowships, and our hearts. Delighting in it is a short step away.

The consequences of small, seemingly unimportant concessions to evil become monumental when evil drives out love. We are filled with Spirit, or we are filled with something else. He does not share space with other idols. Love and evil are mutually exclusive. At any given moment, we are walking one path or the other. Choose wisely.

“Love does not delight in evil.” 1 Corinthians 13:6

"So be very careful to love the LORD your God." Joshua 23:11

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Meditating on the Word

I have heard about meditation on the word of God for most of my life. I have generally understood this to mean that one looks up a passage (that either comforts or challenges) and reads it, then sits and thinks about it for a while. Hopefully, the Holy Spirit brings enlightenment to the person who is earnestly seeking to hide the word in his or her heart. The word then is more likely to take root and become an actual part of us than if we just passively read it, check off our devotional requirement for the day, and call it good.

Recently I set out with a more patient, methodical way of meditation on the scriptures in which I approach a passage one phrase at a time, as if to memorize it, but with a deeper purpose. As each phrase is repeated a few times, I prayerfully ask the Holy Spirit to cause the truth of the passage to sink in deeply. The results are more profound. Please hear me out on this and especially what I have to say about context and interpretation in closing.

I began with Colossians 3. It is a great chapter about newness of life in Christ, focusing on the things above, forgetting about the things of this earth, letting the peace of Christ rule in our hearts, forgiving others as we have been forgiven, and living in gratitude. Sounds like standard fare for Paul, right? So familiar that one might easily glide over it barely affected by it, especially if you have been hearing this stuff in churches for a long time. But as I meditated on each phrase, the overarching question in my spirit seemed to be—What would be different if I really believed this with every fiber of my mind, emotions, soul and spirit? What if every part of me was in harmony, moving in concert in the same direction as the Spirit of God as revealed in this particular phrase I am hearing right here, right now?

A particular phrase demanded my attention: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts (vs. 15).” Over the course of about 3 weeks, during my quiet time, this became more personal, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your heart.” Finally, it became a choice I owned, “I am letting the peace of Christ rule in my heart.” Still sounds very simple. Yet what was going on during the pauses between the phrases was profound. The Spirit was bringing to mind other things that I was allowing to rule in my heart: envy, fear, anger, material desires, the desire for approval, circumstantial happiness, the list went on and on. There were then conscious choices to trade each of these counterfeits for the peace that comes from Christ. As I have done so, I have found a deeper peace than I have known in quite some time. I expect this to be an ongoing process, but it is one the Spirit has brought to my awareness through the meditation of the passage. What the practice did was jump start my progress in this area. What might have taken years of normal living progress was realized in the course of a few weeks. This is not a way of feeling special about oneself, but a means of sanctification, a stripping away of self.

Again, I cannot emphasize enough that no method is to be worshipped. Peace comes through relationship with Christ. Christ is revealed in his Word, by his Spirit as we prayerfully approach him. (The Bible itself can become an idol if we let it obscure the One it is meant to reveal). This process of meditation works for me, and I am eager to utilize ways to take the Word of Christ ever deeper into my being, so that it can dwell there ever more richly. I am motivated to share with you anything and everything that might build you up and draw you closer to him and to one another.

Here is what I want to say about context and understanding. If we just pick a passage or a verse and begin to meditate on it, without understanding the passage in its original context (who wrote it to whom with what purposes in mind) then we are open to misunderstandings, misinterpretations and misapplications. God gave us a mind as well as emotions, and he expects us to use them in pursuit and worship of Him (Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind…). Therefore, what I am insisting on is a preliminary, prayerful study of the passage you are meditating on. You do not have to be a scholar these days to do so. There are a number of decent Study Bibles on the market, and your local Christian book store will be happy to walk you through them. Most even come in affordable paperback versions. Two that come to mind are the NIV Study Bible and the Life Application Study Bible.

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly…” Colossians 3:16

“I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways. I delight in your ways and I will not neglect your word.” Psalm 119:15, 16