St Paul

What is this ‘love’ that I have been writing about? I recently offered an overview here of the different ways in which the Bible itself uses that flat English word, ‘love’, so don’t want to go over the same ground again. We know, from Paul, the apophatic definition of love – that is all the things which, in action, it is not – so, envy, arrogance, rudeness and wanting your own way are out, so are irritability and resentment. Note that every one of these things is about the way in which we interact with and relate to our fellow beings. Each one of these things is about putting ourselves second, and restraining our love of self – and even sense of self. But there is also an element of how we react of events in that description: ‘ It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things’.

The pattern for that love is the love Jesus shows us. We surely do nothing to deserve salvation, and yet if we embrace His word and follow Him, and run the straight race to the end, then we shall obtain that prize. Jesus told his followers, who like most of us in the presence of a charismatic leader, start wondering about what prize we might obtain, that he who wanted to be great in the kingdom of heaven had to be a servant – an utter reversal of the way things work in this world. Washing the feet of others was the work of servants and of women, but Jesus did it to set an example.

How do we, though, love our enemy? Jesus made no claim it would be easy, he simply said we must do it. The only way I can explain this is to say that not long ago someone for whom I worked, and for whom I had often gone way beyond an extra mile, decided to renege on a promise of future employment, which involved living quarters as part of the remuneration. I felt hurt, and indeed eventually secured an out of court settlement. It was not what my lawyer said I could get, but whilst I wanted to send a signal that it was not OK to treat people like this, I had forgiven the person concerned and did not want to make their life even a little difficult or get them into trouble – how would that have helped? That would have been revenge. I can’t say the that the prospect of a five figure settlement didn’t tempt me, but I can say I resisted, and did so because I had let it pass. This person had acted badly, that was between them and their God and their conscience – it was not for me to seek even my pound of flesh – the employer offered what my lawyer called a derisory amount, and although the cash would have been very useful, it seemed to me to run against Paul’s definition to go down the route of compensation.

But was that the same as loving them? No, and I don’t claim it was. But it was on the road to that place. Acknowledging that person is a child of God, and that as another child of God, my first duty is to forgive, and in forgiving to hope that love will come. It may even be that, in Paul’s apophatic sense, I am getting there, as if love does none of those things, and I don’t, perhaps I am on the verge of doing that hard thing?