Jim Cymbala recently remarked that, “our people will pay good money to go hear some Christian musician but they won’t come to meet with Jesus for free.” This stinging rebuke points to something deeper than Christians with misplaced priorities. It points to Christians who have a problem with love – or more precisely, a lack of it.
When Jesus proclaimed to His followers that the greatest of all commandments was to love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind (Mt 22:37), He was not only prioritizing the most important of all Biblical commands, but He was declaring that the fundamental relationship binding us to Him is one of love.
What does loving Jesus mean?
Jesus tells us in the Gospels that loving Him does not consist in saying, “Lord, Lord!” but in doing the Father’s will and in keeping His words (Mt 7:21-29). When we speak of loving another person, we mean that we seek the good of the person loved. It means that we desire and seek to procure that person’s well-being. However, there is no good that we can desire for Jesus that He does not already have. Hence, for Him, all the loveliest qualities of loving are subsumed in that simple act of “doing the Fathers will.”
How can we cultivate love for Jesus?
Jesus is not merely a historical figure, a philosophical concept or a remote invisible Deity. He is truly God yet truly man. He is a living person who is a “you” and a “friend.” He is someone who can be loved and someone who reciprocates our love! The saints have given us multiple examples of this love relationship. Paul’s love for Jesus was such that he wished to be released from the body in order “to be with Christ” (Phil. 1:23). The Apostle John often referred to himself as that “disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23). On the eve of his martyrdom, Ignatius wrote, “All I desire is Christ . . . I seek Him who died for me, I desire Him who rose again for me”! How can we cultivate this level of love for Jesus as well as this level of awareness of His love for us?
There are no married couples who cultivate their love for each other in exactly the same way. Each couple has their own preferred way that works best for them. However, there are common means that can be witnessed in the lives of all married couples who seek to cultivate a deeper love relationship. The same is true in the cultivation of love for Jesus. Individually we might have our preferred means, but there are certain common means that Christians have used for centuries in developing such love.
One of the primary ways saints have cultivated love for Jesus is through the means of grace: studying the scriptures, prayer, fasting, contemplation, good works toward our fellow man, singing to the Lord (private worship) and receiving Holy Communion. The faithful pursuit of these means will enable us to “know (experientially) the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge (comprehension)” (Eph. 3:14-19). It is important to add that these practices must be enabled and aided by the Holy Spirit. The most brilliant and acute Christological analysis, void of the Holy Spirit, will reveal nothing transformative nor increase our love for Him. Jesus is not revealed by “flesh and blood,” that is to say by human brain-power and research, but by “the Father who is in heaven” (Mt 16:17). It is the Holy Spirit who reveals Jesus to us and enables us to love what we see in Him. It is the Holy Spirit that brings life to what would otherwise be dead works.
The Apostle John provides another way to increase our love for Jesus. In 1 John 2:5 we learn that, “whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected.” My studies in spiritual formation have taught me that formation in Christlikeness is oriented toward explicit easy obedience. It is also true that as we go deeper in obedience to Jesus we increase our ability and capacity to love Him.
Jesus gave us insight in how to love Him more in the Sermon on the Mount. “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Mt 6:24). John tells us to, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). There is a law of moral affinity and it will develop in us either a love for Jesus or a love for this present world depending on what we set our affections upon. There is no middle ground or safe zone where we can love them both. If you wish to grow in your love for Jesus, then the love of this present world can have no place in your heart.
Someone has said that at the end of life we shall be examined about love. If that is true, the question we face might be, “How much did you love Me?” In light of such a possibility, it could be profitable from time to time to let the question of Jesus to Peter, “Lovest thou me?” speak freely to our inner man to see if we can honestly respond, “Lord thou knowest that I love thee.”