I want to take some time this morning to look at the question of love. Central to the floor in Scripture and yet really worth thinking carefully about. What does the Scripture mean by that? What does that look like? How does that work?
Before we go to the Word, let’s take a moment to pray. Heavenly Father, we’re thankful that you deal with us in ways that are gracious and kind. You’ve talked to us in love and shown us love. We pray now for grace to learn from your Word about that, to experience the love of Christ, and then that we’d be able to be people who demonstrate that in the world around us. So we lift ourselves up to you. We pray for your work within us, and Holy Spirit yours especially, and pray this morning in Christ’s name, amen.
Ever since I first heard about Christians, whom I went down to laugh at and mock, the topic of love was a big topic and I thought, “Well, that’s nice, but how does that fit in?” That certainly is a big topic in Scripture, if we look at 1 Corinthians 13 where Paul is writing to a church that’s divided and bitter; they don’t like each other. They get to communion and one group is with brown bag lunches and the other have servants in there, and they’re maybe even drunk. And so they’re here bitterly divided. And he writes to them about their divisions and about love.
Some of them had gifts, spiritual gifts: speaking in tongues, doing healing, having insights. These are impressive gifts, and people with them tend to think, “I’m impressive.” Indeed, the Corinthians seem to have been saying, “I have this gift, you don’t, and that puts me in a special place.” And hey, people with gifts are impressive to us. So Paul writes and he says, “If I speak with the tongue of men and of angels, but I don’t have love, I’m a noisy gong, a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor. 13:1). If I don’t have love, I am just making noise when I talk. And he closes that chapter—which it would be fun to look at, but we certainly don’t have time for that in this chapel—he closes a chapter by saying, “So now, faith, hope, and love abide. But the greatest of these is love. Pursue love” (1 Cor. 13:13–14:1). We so often quote that verse without the next remark: “Love abides. Pursue love.” What does that mean? How does that work for us?
If I don’t have love, I am just making noise when I talk.Paul of course learned this from his own master. If you think of the Lord who is asked, “What is the greatest command?” (Matt. 22:36). What’s the first one? Interesting answer. Which thing should I do most in obedience to God? Love the Lord your God with your whole person. What’s next? Love your neighbor the same way. Everything else hinges on these.
So the topic’s pretty important. What are we talking about? How does that work out? Why does he put such a focus on it? If we carry on in John’s gospel a bit, chapter 13, Jesus talks about the new commandment. He says, “I give you a new commandment that you love one another, just as I have loved you, you’re to love one another. And this is how all people will know that you are, in fact, my disciples, that you love one another” (John 13:34–35). What’s new is not love to God. What’s new is imitating him: that you’re to love the way I have loved you.
God Loves Us Like a Parent Loves Her Child
But still, what is this? We could multiply these passages one hundredfold, two hundredfold. I want to think with you for a minute about a little baby called Danisha. Her parents have not tried having children before. Here she comes and she arrives. And when she’s born and Mom is greatly relieved and they hand little Danisha to her. Her mom puts her on her chest, holds her there, and just is in love with her. And the little baby is there, and boy, she’s relaxed as well. I mean, she’s lying there, her eyes are closed, she’s breathing gently. Here we are with a new baby.
And dad’s there and he looks and he’s filled with love too, not skill, just love. He says, “Could I hold her as well?” “Of course, here.” And he gets her and her neck doesn’t work and her head might fall off. And he’s got her out here, and he’s not quite sure what to do. You can see it in his eyes. What do I do with this? Well, little Danisha picks it up too. And she begins to fuss and she begins to cry. And he’s justm “What do you do with it? Here!” Gives her back. Mom takes her, puts her on, starts this routine again. Danisha calms right down. She settles out. She has no words, but the emotional state of her parents shapes her. She knows by her mother’s touch and calm that she is loved.
Well, then she grows up and dad gets a little smarter and she gets more active and she’s about three now and they’re going to go down the street a couple of houses to pick something up. And, you know, three-year-olds, I mean, she’s like bouncing down the street and trying out her muscles, and he’s watching to make sure she doesn’t run into the street because she doesn’t know yet about cars, at least fully about cars. So they get there and they walk in the living room. They sit down and dad is talking with the neighbor. Danisha looks around, she begins to check out what’s under the chair. Here’s a table. She begins to play with that. Her dad sort of puts his drink a little off to one side because she might test that out, too, and that would not be a good idea. Coke on the floor is not cool. And then maybe she climbs up in his lap and plays with his shirt a bit, grabs him, you know, and then off she goes again to play. This is three-year-old Danisha with her dad.
And then he and the neighbor walk into the dining room, turn the corner to pick up what they’re going to bring back home. Well, she looks at that and man, you can see it all over her. “Ahhhh!” And she starts to cry, “Daddy, where? Daddy?” She’s panicked because she’s lost her resource person. Dad hears it, comes around a corner. “Oh!” walks up, picks her up, holds her, strokes her, “It’s all right, honey. I got it. I’m OK. You’re OK. I’m here.” And she settles down again. Settles down and he puts her down and she begins to play again. Her dad has done something for her there. This time he used words, but what calmed her down was not so much his words. What calmed her down was his caring that she felt in interaction with him.
The psalmist describes this kind of a situation in Psalm 131. See little Danisha didn’t know about the world, didn’t know about all that was going on, but if her dad’s got her, she’s okay.
The psamist writes, “O Lord, my heart isn’t lifted up, my eyes aren’t raised too high; I don’t occupy myself with things that are too great or too marvelous for me. But I’ve calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child up against his mother is my soul within me. O Israel, hope in the Lord from now and always” (Ps. 132:1–3). The psalmist knows about being small in a world he can’t control. He says, I’m not trying to control the world, but I’ve learned about the steadfast caring of my Father, of my God, and I can rest the way a little child snuggles up against its parent. And it’s okay. And he goes from that to Israel: You can do that with the Lord as well.
Well, this theme comes up a good bit. Danisha’s parents have, in fact, given her a wonderful and godly gift that she’s likely never to realize she received. Her parents have loved her in a way that mirrors God’s love for us. He sees, he cares, and he will act favorably toward them. With Danisha: I see you. You matter to me. Let me pick you up and care for you.
Scripture Celebrates God’s Loving Kindness
How about other places in Scripture? Whenever you think of the loving kindness of God, chesed. How often is that there? Miles could probably tell me, my computer could tell me, but how often does the Old Testament celebrate the loving kindness of God, that he is steady. He is there for his people.
Hagar feels lost and God comes to deal with her and he’s seeing her, and she says, “You know, you’re a God of seeing. Truly, I’ve seen him who looks after me” (Gen. 16:13). [00:09:16]I see you, I care, and I’m taking action on your behalf. [5.6s] And her response is to celebrate the God of “seeing her.”
If we get to Moses and he sees that funny burning bush, and he says, “I’m going to see what’s going on with this. Bushes don’t just burn like that and not burn up.” When it gets there, how does the Lord announce himself? He’s the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. “I have seen the suffering of my people and I’ve come to deliver them” (Ex. 3:7). I see you, I care, and I have taken action on your behalf.
Well, we get to Psalm 121. They’re going up to the mountain to worship and it’s dangerous. There are bandits, there are wild animals, and they don’t have guardrails on their trails. And so they’re walking up. “My eyes go up to these dangerous hills. Where will my help come from? My help will come from the Lord” (Ps. 121:1–2). And then we’re told he doesn’t slumber or sleep. I see you, I care, and I’ll take action for you.
How often does this go in Scripture? Over and over and over. Think of our hymns trusting in the one who sees and cares.
When we experience caring, attending like that, it builds security, safety, bonds, and trust. Psalm 116, the psalmist writes, “I love the Lord because he heard my voice and my pleas for mercy. Because he bent his ear to listen to me, I’ll call on him forever” (Ps. 116:1–2). The experience of attending, really listening, brings forth a valuing, a loving, a wanting of more contact that way. Do you think that could be relevant to the church, to us as believers?
God Designed Our Brains to Flourish in the Presence of Love
I want to think with you a little bit about loving and some of the things that we’ve learned as people have begun to advance in their knowledge of God’s creation, his Word, and now things about his world. When we’ve learned how brains work, it turns out, not surprisingly, that that’s relevant to loving. Bunch of other stuff, too.
But what is it we know about brains? Well, one thing we know is that we have in our brains a hardwired system in all of us that, like our other emotions, organizes and structures our whole person. Emotion is not a feeling. It’s our awareness of how our person is organized. Think about that a minute. When I’m a little irritated, that’s one thing. If I get more irritated, so I’m not angry, that even more structures what I see, what I hear, and what I’ll do. If I’m seething angry at Miles for his test, it might even emerge in angry actions for which I could get put in jail. But actually, I’ve never been in his class, and I know he’s nice, and you don’t get there, but still. Here’s that anger system that goes from low and gets way, way, way up there and structures our world.
Fear can be the same way. These are protective emotions. If I’m terrified (sorry, Miles) of Miles, I walk in, I’m a little cautious. And then he scratches his head. I’m thinking he’s going to attack me, and I back up and run away. OK, that’s energy God has built in us to address a problem (anger) or to get away from it (fear). It’s energy. Paul is really clear: Be angry; don’t sin (Eph. 4:26). Have the energy, but use it in a godly way. Well, it turns out love and caring is another of those systems that structures our whole person. I can get here and I’ll model it a little bit in due season. I can sort of get myself in angry mode. But I can also get myself in caring mode. Paul says, “Pursue love.” It’s not that it just happens. Pursue it.
Research on the system that has to do with love describes it empirically this way. When that system is up, the caring, loving system in our brains, when it’s active, it organizes our whole person, produces spontaneous feelings of warmth, tenderness, affection, concern for the well-being of others, and it has promptings to act in ways that are nurturing toward them. Love is a frame of mind, a brain state, an organization of ourselves. The same way anger, fear, humor, and joy are also arrangements of ourself. Danisha’s parents, by steadily being there for her, helping her regulate the emotions she can’t regulate—little babies are not good at that, that’s why mom calms her down—have helped her learn you can live in a world where resource people are there for you and will help you. And they set her up to understand the grace of God who, after all, is the model for that.
Love is a frame of mind, a brain state, an organization of ourselves.Sadly, it turns out you can go the other way. If we grow up in a home setting that’s not like Danisha’s home, but is a home where there’s hostility, physical abuse, sexual abuse, so that there’s a constant hostility toward the child, then they grow up with that fear system up and running. Maybe the anger system up and running. And it turns out when the anger system is up, it depresses the curiosity learning system. It depresses the caring system. I am too angry to care much. Or if we’re terrified, we’re not thinking about the other person. We’re looking to survive. God built that in. But if you grew up in a world where that’s the way it is that’s your default setting.
And it does other things. If when I go out the door, I don’t know if I’m going to be shot or assaulted on the way to school, I live in a world of fear. If I’m over in Syria and I’m not sure if I’m going to get bombed, I live in a world of fear and literally it programs our brain for the default is protective. It reduces our ability to connect. And it does horrendous things to our physical selves. Kaiser did a study and it’s been replicated hundreds of times in different contexts. When children grow up and they have, depending on where they natively live, three or four of those adverse childhood experiences of death, violence, etc., the likelihood that they’re going to have physical difficulties as they mature is multiplied exponentially.
How you treat the child hugely influences their future. Does that say something about what we might want to do with our children and the children of the church?How you treat the child hugely influences their future. Does that say something about what we might want to do with our children and the children of the church? Not only physical consequences, but emotional, too. But I’m concerned, I’m worried, I don’t know if Miles is going to be there for (you’re my daddy now), if Miles are going to be there or not, then I’m kind of looking to see if he’s going to be there. See, I’m afraid of you. I’m angry with you. Now I want to connect with you. Don’t ever sit in the front when I’m teaching. My students know that. But I want to connect. And so I’m not sure he’s going to be there. And I’m constantly a little vigilant. So when I talk with Ann over here, the back of my mind is looking at: is he going to be there? And that’s a brain state that has a nasty chemical consequences, intellectual consequences, emotional consequences. If we live in a world of fear it harms us for lifetime. That’s a really sad place. Can the church speak to and do something around this?
Well, the manufacturer’s instructions are generally designed for the good of the product. And God’s instructions to us are good, not only morally before him, they’re good for us. And even if you don’t like him, his plans work for us because that’s how we’re designed. That’s why Proverbs were attractive—they talk about how to live life in God’s world—were attractive to people who didn’t want to know much about God, but they looked at what Solomon wrote and they said, “Whoa, where did you get this?” And they came to hear the manufacturer’s instructions. He knows the product. And they’re not just ideas: they have to do with how we function. So I want to think a minute about the neuroscience of love. How’s that for a morning sermon?
The Neuroscience of Love Reflects Biblical Teachings
Well, first, we’re thinking about our brains. We’ve all got them, if you’re alive and you learn something about the color of your car, your brain is active and forming memories. Left top side of our brain works in terms of structure and logic. We’re Presbyterians; we’re big on that side. We want the theology right. We want to do it the way you’re supposed to. Here’s how you do a sermon. Sometimes people talk about that, but we don’t always do it that way. But we’re big on the left side. That’s structure, language. The top right side deals not in language, but in experience and non-word learning. Non-word learning, that’s how Danisha picked up her parents’ care. The right side of her head felt and understood the caring experience and she relaxed. Structured logic; experience.
And when the right side remembers, it doesn’t remember in words, it remembers in the present tense. That’s why a trauma and you get a flashback. Or you walk in somewhere and you smell it and it brings you back to an event with your grandparents. When I smell a pumpkin pie, my head, I am back in my grandmother’s kitchen and it just came out of her oven. I managed to damage it because I was very interested in eating it, and it wasn’t ready yet. But still my mind goes back, not to the trauma of messing up the pie, but back to right there with my grandmother. The right side remembers in the present tense, and the right side takes the data twice as fast as the left.
So that means, see now here’s Guy Waters. Sorry about this. If I said, “Guy, yeah I’m glad you’re here.” Now some of you smile. Does that make sense to you? The right side of your head heard the relationship message I just sent him, which was rejecting. And then my words were kind of friendly. Now, hopefully, actually, and some of you smiled, “Wait a minute, he’s not going to talk to his colleague that way!” But if you didn’t know that Guy, at least up until now, has been my friend, “I’m glad you’re here” is a rejection. Your brain will hear my actual words in the framework that assumes the relationship message. Well, we get that, too. When you walk out to shake somebody’s hand and you get the dead fish, you know? Or it’s kind of like this? Or if you’ve tried that with Elias, you get your hand, but then you’ll often get a hug with it. OK. There’s a physical message that says, “I’m not really interested in this. I’m a little distant from you. I’m here to meet you.” The right side deals with relationship information.
Not only that, but these systems in our head have another system of codes called mirror neurons. Every good seminary student needs to know about mirror neurons, right? But if I stand here and I do this and you watch me and I said, “Could you do that?” Everybody in this room, who is watching, could do this, right? If we did a brain scan, what happened is this: the inside of your head, the part of your head that would do that if you actually were moving your motor muscles came alive and mirrored my gesture and you remembered it long enough that you could reproduce it. Mirror neurons. So how I speak to you is mirrored inside you. That means if I speak hostilely to you, you feel the hostility.
Proverbs: “a soft answer turns away wrath but harsh speech stirs up anger.” That’s exactly right. If I speak in a manner that reflects caring, it triggers it in your brain and you’re much more likely to respond in a caring manner. If I treat you with other words, the way I treated my brother Guy, you’re likely to be threatened and angry because that’s the message I send. The message we send influences the recipient.
The Christian Life Is about Modeling the Love God Has Shown Us
Caring is in many ways the master emotion, and it overlaps almost 100 percent of what the Scripture talks about under the heading of love.Well, what about this? I’ve already said the higher the system is, the more it shapes our life, and the protective systems diminish the other systems. Conversely, if you’re in a caring place, it increases the likelihood that you’re going to act in a caring manner, that you’re going to send caring messages. I see you, I care, and I’ll act for you. Caring is in many ways the master emotion, and it overlaps almost 100 percent of what the Scripture talks about under the heading of love: I see you, I care, I’ll act on your behalf.
That’s why Paul, when he begins the section of Ephesians that talks about how to live the Christian life, in the beginning, he starts with God’s love for us: Before the foundation of the world, God loved you. He set you aside to be holy and blameless by the work of Christ, not you, to be adopted as his children who are loved (Eph. 1:4–5). Now that’s security. I see you, I care, I’m acting on your behalf. When he gets to chapter 4 about how to live out our Christian life, he begins with this: Walk in a way that’s appropriate to or worthy of your calling to which you’ve been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love (caring), eager to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:1–3). When Paul starts talking about Christians handling differences and living alongside each other, the lead is establish a safe, caring connection between you and work really hard to maintain it.
We can get the divisions here, you know, there’s a MAC program, MDiv program. Christ died for all of you. How do you feel about each other? It’s actually easy to begin to have tensions come in. And then here’s the body of Christ divided. And it actually inhibits learning when you’re in class contemptuous of each other, looking down on the other as knowing or not knowing this or that side of things. That’s not going to build the body of Christ. It’s actually going to damage learning.
And he gets to the end of his discussion of Christian life, and we’re in chapter 5 now. He says, “So be imitators of God like children who know they’re deeply loved. Walk in love (caring) as Christ has cared for us and given himself for us” (Eph. 5:1–2). Do you see the importance for Paul? It’s right at the top. Live and walk in a stance of valuing and caring. God has done that with us, and we’re to do it with one another and with other people made in God’s image. How powerful is that? It literally shapes our life and other people’s lives. So establish trusting, caring bonds, pursue love, learn to actually shift your mind to think that way.
We can learn to do that and actually practice makes it easier. If every time I see you, I remember and gnash my teeth, I’m building—literally building—strong brain pathways that associate you with my bitterness and rejection. And every morning I wake up and I remember again—and I won’t assign it to a person—but how they banged in my car and left. And morning by morning when I go to the car with a big dent in it, I resent them. What am I building? I’m building a frame of mind that when you just mention their name it’s going to structure my mind in bitterness and resentment.
I can make a choice not to nurse that. Love doesn’t keep an account book of wrongs, says Paul (1 Cor. 13:5). I can choose not to do that. I can choose to see you. That’s not easy. There are whole issues of security here. There are issues of learning to do it. But that is, in fact, the calling. I’d like to suggest to you that part of our role as a church is to model being a caring community.
The Church Needs to Meet in Small Groups to Love
Now, this morning, we’re all down here, you know, we’re not scattered all over the place. The balcony is empty, but we are more together. Frankly, I think that’s great. Whatever the lounges that are going to be up there, it’s good to get a bunch of us alongside each other. One hundred and fifty, 200 people worshiping together are attuned to each other, worshiping God together. But I cannot learn to speak constructive words to build you up according to your need if I only know you from standing together to worship. We have to have the close contact where we can bear each other’s burdens. Where I can be loving toward you and you experienced it and it comes back. The body life demands close togetherness. Nine hundred worshiping, facing the same way, is not the whole of what it means to live as a Christian.
And then I want to think with you here, we have a calling to be God’s servants always doing these things. But if you’re a leader in God’s church, be it as a counselor, preacher, elder, you have a special calling, a particular calling. And Paul speaks to that in Ephesians 4. Fancy that, it’s an amazing little chapter there. But he writes and he says, speaking of the risen Christ who gave gifts to his church, and everywhere else he writes the gifts are this ability, that ability, kindness, administration. Here, the gifts are people. The risen Christ gives people, pastors, teachers, etc., to do what? “To equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ . . . so that speaking what’s true in a way that’s loving we grow up in every way unto him who is the head. When each part is working properly, that makes the body grow up, so it builds itself up in love” (Eph. 4: 12, 15–16).
Paul says as leaders in the church our job is to prepare the people of God to minister to one another.Do you hear that? Paul says as leaders in the church our job is to prepare the people of God to minister to one another. And right at the top of that is teaching them how to say what’s true in a manner that’s caring. And actually it goes further than that, because that’s aletheuontes, and that’s not just speaking the truth, it’s actually truth-ing, living out what’s true. It includes speaking, but we’re to prepare God’s people to live out the truth in caring. That’s how the body builds itself up.
Have you gone to a church where you didn’t feel welcome? Where the handshake was a little distant? Have you been in a prayer group that distrusts people? We don’t grow. We don’t thrive. So the issue is helping the church be a place where people experience the love of Christ through his people. And that’s going to mean small groups, mom’s groups, because they can bear each other’s burdens and the men don’t know how to parent little kids and moms are, often, better at that. We’re to have groups of addicts who can support each other in that. Sometimes with Brian Gault we have athletics where we build the bonds of working together and showing respect and caring.
The church needs small enough contact groups that we can know each other, love each other, speak constructive words according to the other’s need. As leaders of the church, your focus is rightly, “I want to understand the Word and I want to be able to preach it effectively,” but that’s not shepherding. That’s not all of shepherding. The Great Commission, remember, is not preach the gospel, but disciple the nations (Matt. 28:19). Aiming words is not the same as, it’s not all of, discipling.
Seminary Is the Time to Learn How to Love
So as you’re here at seminary preparing to be pastors, I want to I encourage you enormously strongly in your own life: learn how to move into a caring frame and how to act out of that and then find opportunities to participate in groups and church activities where you can learn to help God’s people come into a place of caring and acting out of that. And very gently but firmly, I’d want to say, if you graduate and it’s foreign to you, “How do I help people begin to live this way?” you’re not yet ready to pastor.
You know, you graduate from seminary. I remember doing that and being invited to preach and I remember that, too. And knowing I can give you the very best I’ve got that’s really good: third year graduate studies. The church put up with that, and over time, when you watch a pastor who is really skilled, he begins to take the Word and help you see how that works into life. And you hear it in his speech and then you see it worked out in his church. Learn to disciple self and others. That’s the task Paul sees here of preparing the members of the body to serve one another in love. So how important is love? Without that, you will not grow. You’ll live in fear. With that you have the chance to move ahead. And Jesus does have something to say about “let your light so shine that people will see your good works and glorify your Father” (Matt. 5:16).
John the apostle writes, you know, if he loved us that way we should love others that way (1 John 4:19). And Jesus is very clear with the disciples: here’s how they’re going to know you’re my disciples, that you actually live out and walk out this love (John 13:35).
So how important is it? Without it, we fail. Here at seminary is the time to gain it. Now, we do have some ideas about this. We’re about to go to lunch, free lunch. Still free, right? It’s not free. Not free. Lunch used to be free. Am I out of date? Sorry about that. And then we’re going to be in prayer groups. We’re going to sit around the table to talk with each other and come to know and value each other. By the end of the year, when I see the folk in my prayer group, I get a little smile on my face. And the next year when I see them and some of you I’d recognize in the library, I get a smile and walk up, “How’s it going? How’s your new baby?” Because I’ve known these people. I love these people. I prayed for these people. I think of one, “So I got a car this year!” and I knew what that meant because last year we’d prayed about his getting a car because he needed one. Enough knowledge that you can grow the love and then we thrive.
Lord . . . give us wisdom to prepare your people for truth-ing in love, for speaking and living the truth, in ways that build up the body.So there’s at least a little effort to do that in your programs. Counselors, if your clients don’t feel safe with you, they will not take risks. They will not grow. And your job is not just to help them with their problem, but help them be able to step back into the body of Christ, to step into a context where they can reflect that love. Let’s take a moment to pray together.
Lord God, give us grace to maintain our unity of the Spirit and a bond of peace. Give us wisdom to prepare your people for truth-ing in love, for speaking and living the truth, in ways that build up the body. Lord, help us to do that in a way that glorifies you and the people will look at us and see not bitter, narrow people, but see our good works of caring and glorify our Father in heaven. Lord, we pray that that would happen for your name’s sake and Holy Spirit we pray your wisdom to do it, and we do so in Jesus’s name, amen.