Christians are frequently guilty of majoring in things that are minor.
We seem to love tangents, tiny cul de sacs leading nowhere. We so easily wander off down some peripheral sideline that we come to believe is central to our faith. Whenever we get trapped in one of these deadend streets we inevitably find ourselves bogged down in the conflcit of irrelevancies.
Valentine’s Day is a good occasion to remind ourselves that there is only one fundamental Christian thing.
Before anything else, the fundamental Christian thing is love.
Christians are people who believe in love. We aim to practice love; we teach love, and we find the fulfillment of all things in love.
I John 4:8 declares simply and boldly,
God is love.
This is the Christian definition of God.
For a Christian the fundamental principle of life is love. Love undergirds all that is. Love is the source, the goal, and the meaning of life. Love is the force that holds the universe together, that causes my heart to beat and the blood to flow in my veins. Love is the power that draws human beings into communion with one another and that heals brokenness and transforms death into life.
Long before the writer of First John pointed to love as the central quality of the nature of God, the writer of Exodus said the same thing.
The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed,
‘The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.’ (Exodus 34:6)
Love was central to Moses’ understanding of the nature of God.
The Lord is slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love. (Numbers 14:18)
At a time of profound struggle in the life of the people of Israel, the book of Ezra/Nehemiah affirmed again to God’s people the foundational reality of God’s loving nature.
But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and you did not forsake them. (Nehemiah 9:17)
The Psalmist, who was certainly no stranger to doubt, fear, and suffering, returned again and again to an affirmation of love as the defining characteristic in his experience of God.
For your steadfast love is higher than the heavens,
and your faithfulness reaches to the clouds. (Psalm 108:4)
Even the Hebrew prophets, notorious for their harsh words and troubling judgments, understood God fundamentally as a God of love.
Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love (Joel 2:13)
If love is the fundamental thing in attempting to describe the essential nature of God, love is also the fundamental thing in describing human beings. We were created in the image of God.
Just as love is God’s essential nature, so love is the defining characteristic of what it means to be truly and deeply human. The closer we come to love, the more fully we embody the reality in which and for which we were created.
It is tempting, perhaps especially on Valentine’s Day, to mistake the nature of this love. But biblical tradition never confuses love with sentiment. The love the Bible holds out as the fundamental thing in all of life, is not a soft squishy feeling in the pit of our stomachs. Love in the Bible is always a practice; it is a way of life that reflects the character of God, thus opening us more fully to the reality of God in whose image we were created.
Ths active practice of love is best defined in Paul’s challenging words in I Corinthians 13.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (I Corinthians 13:4-7)
The key to knowing God is not having accurate information or knowledge. The key to knowing God in Christian faith is practice.
The more we practice patience, the more we open to God. The more we embrace kindness, the more we will know the presence of God. The less we practice “envy or boasting or arrogance or rudeness”, the fewer barriers there will be in our lives to an awareness of the fullness of God.
As we rejoice in goodness and truth, our experience of God expands. As we bear the realities of our life circumstances with equanimity, the more clearly we will see God in all things.
Love is not just for Valentine’s Day. It is an every day practice. It is the reality that expands our consciousness of God’s presence at work in our lives. This is why, in the Christian faith, love is always the fundamental thing.