Many of us understand the need for spiritual disciplines. Often men or women struggling with sin will acknowledge the need to spend more time reading God’s Word and praying. If I had to guess, I’d say 95% of Christians believe these to be essential spiritual disciplines. Romans 12:1-2 says, “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. 2 And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Paul exhorts the congregation to renew their mind, be in a state of learning and imitating Christ because it causes growth while honoring God (worship). So naturally starting here with “reading the Bible and praying more” seems sufficient. However, this is short sighted. If I had to guess, I’d say 90% of Christians do not realize “learning, investing in and serving other people in love” is as important of a spiritual discipline as growing in knowledge.
Mind and Actions worships Christ
If you look at Romans 12, the chapter seems to indicate what it means to renew our mind and present our bodies a living and holy sacrifice. In fact, it might suffice to read Romans 12:1-2 as a thesis or summary to the entire chapter. Imagine asking Paul, what kind of mind renewal do we need and what kind of actions should this produce?
The rest of the chapter is his answer. Romans 12:3-8 emphasizes humility — we need to see everyone as important. Our holy sacrifice and God’s will would be undermined if we see “me” as super important, more so than others. In fact, to be selfish undermines ministry. Ministry serves other people Christ, building them up to be more like Him, patiently encouraging others to follow Him. It helps others emotionally, mentally, physically, and any way necessary to edify. To view me as most important is to be selfish or inward focused and cannot cooperate with ministry.
As Paul talks about the kind of mental fortitude and service we need, he then describes how our service should be defined by love. He says, “Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; 11 not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; 12 rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, 13 contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality.” (Romans 12:9-13).
I think it would be fair to surmise, Paul sees loving others as the product of learning God’s Word and maturing. In fact, it is worship. We know our mind and service aligns with God’s when we love others. Worship is a vertical practice focused on Christ, but takes a horizontal manifestation as we seek to serve others. (Heb 6:9-12 validates this). So for those of us interested in cultivating quality spiritual practices that honors our Lord, loving others is on the list and even one of those hills we die on.
Paul summarizes the motivating power of love and its intended manifestation in 2 Cor. 5:14-15, “For the love of Christ acontrols us, having concluded this, that bone died for all, therefore all died; 15 and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer alive for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.” Paul, our favorite theologian even says the goal of instruction is love, “But the goal of our 1ainstruction is love bfrom a pure heart and a cgood conscience and a sincere dfaith.” (1 Tim 1:5)f
Are we scared to love?
Often times I hear love and truth pitted against each other and have even seen love devalued. We hear, “Love? Sometimes you need to tell people the truth!” This dichotomy only works if love does not coordinate with truth. But biblical love clings to truth and advocates it, “[Love] does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but brejoices with the truth;” (1 Cor. 13:6). Yes, sometimes love requires having hard conversations with people, but our love for them should drive us to speak gently, praying the Lord leads the person to repentance (2 Tim 2:24-26).
The world has a messed up definition of love. Some churches allow the world to define love and then fit in with the world in how it loves. This is wrong. Love needs to coordinate with truth. But we people do weird things. Sometimes we allow another person or group’s wrong behavior to influence our behavior. So instead of living according to biblical principles, we live in a way to avoid looking like the wrong ones. Avoiding error does not mean we live in holiness. To live in holiness we need to live according to God’s character. But knee jerk reactions are human. We need to confront our own reactions and instead of “seeking to avoid living like them” seek to live like Christ according to Scripture. In other words, just because I avoid “yelling at my wife” does not mean I actually love my wife. To love my wife, it must be seen in my actions and defined by Scripture!
Love is essential
Love is too important to avoid because the thought of it conjures up other’s wrong approaches or we’re scared people will think we’ve gone “liberal.” Instead, we need to double down on it and pursue it biblically.
This is the point. Love needs to be a spiritual discipline, just like pursuing knowledge about God. In fact, if we have knowledge and no love, then we are just a noisy gong or clanging symbol (annoying!!!). In Alexander Strauch’s book Leading with Love he quotes George Sweeting, “I have been keenly disappointed to find people more concerned about hidden mysteries than about needy people. . . . Too often Christians are concerned about hidden truth, but indifferent about loving people” (12). Ouch. The exhortation needs consideration. If worship is only listening to a sermon and learning God, then we avoid the command to love others.
Mr. Sweeting is right! (And it isn’t an either/or thing, it’s a both/and thing)! We need to pursue knowing God, the Gospel, and His word so that we can know how to love others. A difficult passage requires prayer, investment, and time. The results of this study can leave us in awe of God and thankful to Him. But difficult people often leave us looking for another road or door in order to avoid him or her.
Instead, we need to invest in the person. Time should even be spent outside of personal engagement thinking about how we can encourage and love people. Hebrews 10:24, “Let us consider how ato stimulate one another to love and bgood deeds.” You know you will see your church family a few times a week. Off days should be spent praying for them. Off days can even be spent reaching out to them, engaging them – dinner? Lunch? Family play date? All of these can serve others.
As serious as Bible study time is, so is engaging others in love. Contemplate what hinders love, confess it, lament it, and then seek to undo this wrong thinking. Repent if needed and go be the kind of friend you want others to be to you. (And the introvert says, “yes, leave me alone!”) But even the introvert needs to be aware, being alone is dangerous (Prov 18:1). You do not have to be a chatty-Kathy (no Kathy’s were actually personally contemplated in this sentence), but we do have to love. Plan your Bible study and plan your love. You know when you’ll see your spouse, church family, neighbors, kids, and people in general. Invest in them, make yourself available to them, and love them.
“A anew commandment I give to you, bthat you love one another, ceven as I have loved you, that you also love one another. 35 “aBy this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”” (John 13:34-35).
As Strauch notes, “Jesus sets his own example of love. His love is a love for the unlovely as well as the lovely. It is a caring, serving love. It gives itself unselfishly for the good of others. That is why he gave us the example of washing the disciples’ feet and of sacrificing his life on the cross. He was establishing a new pattern of love” (32).