One of the more enlightening moments in the recent Labor Day talk, which I’ve good-naturedly entitled Not Ready To Give An Answer, was when we were told that those of us who preach incessantly about love have succumbed to a feel-good religion involving no real sacrifice or cost; a cheap gospel that is all about making you “prosperous and healthy and wealthy and wise.”

“And so as I hear about so many people who were raised in the church, people who are no longer wanting anything to do with the church they were once a part of, seem to have bought into a type of gospel that says “Jesus wants you to be happy” and “Jesus wants you to be joyful” and “Jesus wants you to have love” and “Jesus wants you be be peaceful” and solve all your problems and make you prosperous and healthy and wealthy and wise, and all of this. I’ve heard this before. And that’s right around the corner from this kind of garbage.” (Approx 1:33:55)

It struck me that we are obviously working from vastly different definitions of love. If you understand love to be just a feeling, it makes perfect sense that it is broken by “having opinions and expressing them strongly.” That could hurt someone’s feelings. If one believes that love is merely an emotion–warm fuzzies that make you feel good–then it’s no wonder there is such a disconnect on this subject.

The old song that says the “gospel in a word is love” makes absolutely no sense inside the framework of a works-based theology. With legalism, I am constantly focused on myself; am I performing up to snuff, am I doing enough, am I sacrificing enough, am I, am I, am I? It’s all about me earning my reward. But if love is an active, self-sacrificing force that moved God himself to come to earth and suffer and die for his rebellious creation, then love is not about me, or how I feel, is it? Perhaps the problem, then, is not that I believe in a cheap gospel, but that they believe in a cheap love.

This emasculated view of love is sacrilegious to me; almost blasphemous, given that John–the disciple whom Jesus loved, by the way–says that God IS love. In mathematical terms, that’s a big equal sign: GOD = LOVE. I’d choose my words carefully before mocking a word like “love,” because that is cheapening God himself, not to mention what he did on the cross.

In fact, Jesus taught that the Greatest Commands are to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. Yes, the Greatest Commands in all of the Law of Moses revolved around love; or more accurately, upon it hung all the Law and the Prophets.

Could it be that God really is in the “feel-good religion” business after all? Or maybe–just maybe–there is more to this iceberg called love that is lying massively under the surface, ready to sink ships, tear down strongholds, and humble the proudest of captains?

The Greatest Commands, it turns out, are hardly the lightweight “feel good” health and wealth drivel they are made out to be. That is a straw man, easily defeated. There is plenty of that cheap love on the market, but that’s not what you’ll find on these pages. What you’ll find here is the notion that love is quite expensive, and not at all just a feeling. Love your neighbor doesn’t merely mean like him, or even “be nice” to him, but care for his wounds, take him back to the Inn, and pay the bill, all with the right frame of mind. Try doing that when you’re running late for church. No, if we think love is all about fluffy niceties, we have truly missed one of the weightiest and most life-altering points Jesus ever made: to think outside of our own self-interest.

Love is not cheap. In fact it is the most costly thing one can acquire. It is virtually everything we need to know about following Jesus, from relationships with family, to God, or unbelievers, or spouses, or bosses, or detractors. And none of it cheap or easy:

1 Corinthians 13:4-8 – Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Love never fails.

Do you mean to tell me that complying with a bunch of extra-Biblical rules, like going to every church function religiously, or wearing nylons on Sunday, or being confronted by your children about your unbiblical doctrines; you mean to tell me that those petty things can hold a candle to love in the grand scheme of things? Are they sacrifice? Is that the cost you think you’re paying to get into heaven? Is that what Jesus means when he says to carry your cross?

Cry me a river, but being asked hard questions is not persecution for the cause of Christ. Perhaps our values are a little out of whack. I believe deeper things, like love, are of much higher value in the kingdom than performing all the made-up outward works you can burden your members with. The deeper things of God do not consist of complying with elaborate rules for travel, or nuanced dress codes, or the marital sex police. The deeper things of God are the spiritual things taught by the law written upon our hearts.

Out of love, we may be called to endure petty things, like family giving us the cold shoulder, or people reproaching us as “enemies of Christ.” If we would get out of our cieled houses, we may even be called to endure weighty things like being tortured in a Chinese prison. Or let’s not forget that out of love, Jesus came and died a tortuous death, for our sakes, while we were yet sinners:

Romans 5:8 – But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. 

John 3:16 – For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

Love is an action word, a verb: to love. When we love unconditionally and self-sacrificially, we are continuously serving others from the heart, not because we want to go to heaven, not because we think we’re going to hell if we don’t. Because we love. Period. Love is the motivating force behind all that is good in the world, because it is the motivating force of God himself. All that is good comes from God, remember that?

This pesky little subject of love comes to prick our conscience in so many ways when we let it’s rich meaning sink in: Love is not self-seeking. But wait a minute, I thought I was supposed to be working my way to heaven? Isn’t self-interest behind that? No, it shouldn’t be.

I’m not good because I want to go to heaven, although of course, I do want to go to heaven. I’m good, or at least I try to be good, because I know God, and his love is at work in my heart. It’s why I foster children, because my wife and I love them and want to give them a loving home. It’s why we adopted children. Not because we want to avoid hell, or earn heaven. It’s scoring me no points. It deserves no pats on the back. It’s just showing the fatherless a small measure of the grace that God has shown to me. God blessed me with a loving family, and it’s the least I can do to share it with someone who’s never experienced such a thing.

The irony is that people who might mock me as preaching a “feel good” or “do good” religion (who don’t know me or my life or my heart, by the way), are the very ones who approach Christianity with the first question of “What’s in it for me?” Heaven, right? But isn’t it possible to pursue heaven selfishly, like the young professional willing to step on everyone else on the way to the top? Yes, we can, but no, we shouldn’t. That, of course, is self-defeating. In the revolutionary teachings of Jesus, even the pursuit of a worthy goal like heaven itself can be done in an unloving, i.e. self-seeking manner.

Let that sink in. It’s true, isn’t it? How many relationships have been unlovingly and unnecessarily thrown under the bus in the so-called pursuit of heaven? Is that love? WWJD, indeed. We can follow all the “commands” we think we see in Scripture, yet if they are performed flawlessly, but without love, they are as a sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal. They are a meaningless noise to God, a smell of incense that is really just a stench in his nose.

1 Corinthians 13:1-3 – If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Consider this. Do you ask someone’s forgiveness on Saturday night because you want to be free of sin to take the Lord’s supper (a mistaken idea, but follow me here)? Do you do so because you want to go to heaven? Because you don’t want to go to hell? Do you wait until Saturday night so you can be sure you haven’t missed anything for Sunday? Or, on the other hand, do you drop what you’re doing and reconcile with your brother as soon as you realize you’ve offended him, asking his forgiveness because you love him, and care about the relationship, and want to mend it if you’ve truly wronged him? There’s a world of difference, isn’t there? One is self-seeking. The other is love.

Love is not pursued out of a sense of self-satisfaction, or even self-preservation. I don’t love because I want to go to heaven. Nor do I love because I don’t want to go to hell. I love because I want to show people the source of the love I know, this love that passes all understanding. I love because I know God, the source of that love, personally.

So, after all of this, what’s in it for me? Why should I drop everything to follow Jesus? I am confident that I can leave my fate in the hands of a just but loving judge, who knows my heart, and has agreed to listen to our advocate and reconcile his sacrifice as payment in full. We sing the old song, Jesus Paid It All, but do you believe that, brothers? Or do you believe he paid it once, a long time ago, and we’ll have to pick up the tab for the rest, with 2000 years of interest, adjusted for inflation?

Legalism tries to earn what no human can earn for themselves. It is by definition self-seeking. How much time and effort is spent reflecting on one’s own past sins in an effort to remove guilt, instead of embracing the forgiveness offered at the cross that frees us to love and to serve without constraint? A grace-centered, love-centered theology leaves the “what’s in it for me?” question in God’s hands, and seeks to serve others like Jesus did, with no expectation of being loved in return. THAT, my friends is a costly sort of love. Let’s not cheapen such a sacred word.