We Love Because He Loved Us First

Loving Others is Difficult
I do not love like I would like to. I have angry outbursts, get impatient (especially in lines), and wrestle with thoughts I would rather not think in the first place. Furthermore, I know I am not alone. It seems that every day I see others like me, people who reall y want to love God but who do not love God as fully as they want to. Even the best of us do not love as often and as fervently as we would like to. And then there are those Christians who are not even trying hard to be loving—with predictable negative results.

Being loving is the most difficult thing any person can do. Most cultures, including our Western culture, idolize people who are “rough and tough,” who live life by their own rules and get ahead by being hot tempered, quick witted, and hard fisted. But living like that is easy compared to being loving. For example, it is easy to get angry and use obscenity, which is why so many people live that way; it takes little effort to behave like that. On the other hand, try having no temper. Try taking abuse with no anger or obscenity in return. Remember, God says love “is not easily provoked” (1 Cor. 13:5 KJV).

At this point we need to understand “provoked.” It is translated from the Greek word paroxun? (Strong’s #3947; pronounced par-ox-oo’-no), which, like many words, has several different meanings. It can mean to rouse or stimulate, and it is used that way in Acts 17:16 (ESV) when Paul’s “spirit was provoked” when he saw all the idols in Athens. In that sense it means motivated, moved, stirred, or roused, and many things can stir or rouse us. That is not what 1 Corinthians 13:5 is speaking of. It can also have the meaning of one person purposely arousing another person by picking on, vexing, irritating, or challenging him and that is the meaning of “provoke” in 1 Corinthians 13:5. It does not mean that evil or injustice does not motivate us to right the wrong. It does mean that the evil that others do to us is not what causes us to react; instead, we act if it is the godly thing to do. Both God and Jesus had righteous anger in certain situations, but being “provoked” is when someone prods, pokes, and attacks us until we finally lose our temper and attack back. Jesus was never “provoked,” and that is the standard we must have for ourselves because that is love.

If we really want to learn what love “looks like,” we have to study the life of Jesus Christ. One small aspect of love, and a good example, is not being provoked. If anyone had a reason to lash out in anger at people it was Jesus. The more innocent a person is when he or she is attacked, the more the attack usually hurts. Jesus was completely innocent, and over and over again he could have lost his temper and attacked those who slandered him, but he did not. Jesus set the bar very high for the rest of us, and his behavior should be the goal to which we aspire.

Even just that one behavior-goal of love, to not be provoked, seems to be so hard to reach that many translators cannot seem to grasp it. The Greek text in 1 Corinthians 13:5 is only two words, ou paroxun?, which mean “not provoked.” Versions such as the Holman Christian Standard Bible, the NASB, and Young’s Literal Translation say only: “is not provoked.” But not being provoked seems to be such a high standard that many versions, including the King James Version, add the word “easily” and read, “…is not easily provoked….” This makes it seem like it is okay to be provoked as long as we are not “easily” provoked.

Thank God that Jesus did not think it was okay for him to be provoked as long as he was not “easily” provoked. If he did, it is quite likely that early-on in his ministry his enemies would have crossed the “easily” line and suffered severe consequences. Thankfully, Jesus knew what we all should know, that love “is not provoked,” period. The scholar and commentator R. C. H. Lenski writes: “[Love] is not embittered or enraged by abuse, wrong, insult, injury.” [1] That is being honest with the text, and now we have to work hard to live that way. But not being provoked is only one aspect of love in the list in 1 Corinthians 13, which itself does not describe every aspect of love. Every Christian owes it to God, to Jesus, and to himself or herself to strive to attain the goal of love and love completely, entirely, and not just part-way.

Love is a High Standard
God is love, and God cannot compromise Himself or what love is. The behaviors that define love are high standards because they are what love is, and if they were not high, they would not define love. If we take the list of behaviors in 1 Corinthians 13 that help us to understand what love is, and “water them down,” or weaken them, we do not have love. How loving would “love” be if it was “usually patient, mostly kind, only envious sometimes, did not brag much, was almost never arrogant, only occasionally acted improperly, and was not too selfish?” If that were God’s list that defined love, then almost everyone would be loving already. No one would have to work very hard or sacrifice much to live a loving life. Of course, if a list like that defined love, it would also define God and how He would behave toward us, because “God is love.” What if God was “usually” patient with us, kind to us only some of the time, and occasionally acted improperly towards us? That would be disastrous.

God is love, and God tells us what love is so we can strive to be loving, but also so we can understand Him. Everything He tells us to do, He already is and does. Jesus did them too, and it was hard for him. If we are going to draw strength from Jesus’ example and the way he lived his life, we have to believe Scripture when it says that Jesus was made like us and was tempted like we are. It is erroneous and unhelpful to think, “Jesus was the Son of God so it was easy for him, but I just cannot do it.” It is accurate and helpful to think, “Jesus was as human as I am, and faced temptations without giving in, so I can too.” That kind of thinking helps us to focus, get serious, and expect success. Sure we will fail sometimes, but we will fail much less if we focus our lives and make a diligent effort to succeed. Scripture says Jesus was made just like we are and was tempted like we are.

Hebrews 2:17a
For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way…

Hebrews 4:15
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin.

Do we really believe that Jesus was tempted “in every way, just as we are,” or do we believe that somehow he did not really go through what we go through in life? How angry do you get when someone lies about you? Do you think Jesus was tempted to get angry too? But he did not. Why? How did he love so much?

Being loving is the highest and most noble goal God could ask of us, but it requires so much of us that we often give up and give in to our flesh and sin nature. Compared to being loving, being “tough,” “hard,” “distant,” “cool,” or “self-made” is easy. The world does not tell us how hard it is to be loving and that only the strongest and most focused people are regularly successful at it. Rarely on television or in movies, are people accurately portrayed going through the great inner struggle it takes to obey God and be loving. It takes a lot of time talking to yourself and to God, and usually the support of close friends, to be loving. However, that determination, strength, and struggle are not shown, and instead the movies show loving people as weaklings, or show them being taken advantage of by others. Let’s be clear about this: loving people get “taken advantage of” all the time. Loving people get screamed at and cussed at without screaming and cussing back. Loving people give their time to others and are usually not given much in return. Loving people often give other people the benefit of the doubt, and as a result lose money and possessions. Loving people get slandered and do not retaliate, sometimes losing their reputations.

If we examine the life of Christ we see this modeled perfectly. To the world, he was the ultimate chump, a do-gooder who got little in return. Many of his disciples were glad to tag along while he did miracles and other exciting stuff, but left him when he asked for a commitment from them (John 6:66). He was accused of being a blasphemer or having demons so many times that many thought “…he deceives the people” (John 7:12). The religious authorities accused him of being an illegitimate child (John 8:41). One of his closest men stole the money that people had given to support his ministry (John 12:6). When his teaching threatened the religious establishment, they found false witnesses to testify against him (Matt. 26:59 and 60), then pressured the governor to execute him (John 19:12). The governor knew he was innocent, but had him tortured and killed anyway (Matt. 27:18-26). Jesus ended his life on earth in unspeakable agony, being mocked and abused, with even his clothes being taken as booty by the enemy (John 19:23 and 24).

In reading the above paragraph we see the difference between the real and the imagined. “Being loving” sounds so right and wonderful that many people say it is what they want to do, but when they are being abused or taken advantage of, it suddenly is not fun at all and in fact is exceedingly difficult. Thus, in real situations, being loving often is replaced by self-centered behaviors such as avenging ourselves and striking back. Of course there is the other difficult side of love, which involves restraining our fleshly desires. Like a baby who will not eat vegetables or take a bath, our flesh often desires what is not good for us or others. The loving person masters his or her flesh, while the worldly person gives in to overeating, oversleeping, sexual desires, abuse of alcohol, and other such things. Once again, we see it is more difficult to be loving than to look “hot,” to tempt others (or be a source of envy), and to give in to the flesh. Being loving is harder than being worldly.

People who truly love are not provoked, so it is easy for others to think that somehow they have hardened their hearts so that being abused and taken advantage of does not hurt. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, loving people hurt far worse than the hard-hearted people of the world ever hurt. Developing the sensitivity to be truly loving means being easily hurt as well. Loving people want the world to be loving too, which is why they “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matt. 5:6) and why they have “longed for his [Jesus’] appearing” (2 Tim. 4:8). [2]

To the world, living in a loving manner that means being abused and taken advantage of is stupid and weak. That is one reason it is hard to find examples of truly loving people. For example, showing movies of people engaged in the struggle to be loving in a Christian way would not draw crowds and pack theaters; as a promoter might say, “there is no money in it.” That should not surprise us. Worldly people are not interested in the effort, pain, and sacrifice it takes to be loving, so why would they want to see movies about it?

If we are going to love the way God wants us to, we have to quit making excuses for ourselves when we fail, and strive to be loving with the same intensity a champion athlete has in working for a goal or a soldier has in battle when he fights to stay alive. A half-hearted effort will not get us the result we want. Pushing ourselves to be loving will often consume our lives, but the result is worth it.

God Loves Us
Being loving is so difficult that anything that helps us accomplish it is very welcome. There are a lot of things that help us to be loving, and all of them are valuable. For example, it is very helpful to know that although loving people are often taken advantage of in this life, there are great rewards in the future for being loving. There is one thing, however, that seems to be fundamental to success, and that is knowing that we are loved by God.

1 John 4:19
We love because he [God] first loved us.

Child psychologists know how to raise a mean child: be mean to him/her first. Similarly, if people think God has been unloving to them, they will often be unloving to others, or at least struggle with being loving. This is not a mystery, and it is a major reason that so many people struggle with being loving—they do not feel loved by God. If a person feels that God is unloving, unhelpful, distant, and uncaring, then he or she will have a difficult time obeying the commandment to love others. In contrast, people who feel loved by God in the depths of their hearts can reflect that love even if they are in very difficult circumstances. That is why 1 John 4:19 says that we love because God first loved us.

If we do not know that God loves us, then we will serve Him, not as a loving Father, but as a demanding God. Once we understand this we can better understand people such as the Pharisees. The Pharisees seemed to be an enigma because they worked so hard to obey God’s laws, but somehow did not manage to love His people. Here is what Jesus said to them.

Matthew 23:23
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.

How did it happen that the religious leaders cared so much about keeping the little specific regulations of the Law but missed the heart of it: loving God and His people? In part, the answer lies in the fact that they never understood that God loved them. To them, God only “loved” (to them, “accepted”) the people who kept all the details of the Law. Thus they were always hard on themselves and others. They could not reflect to others a love they did not feel themselves. They did not love “because” they did not understand God’s love for them. Jesus told a parable that expresses what that situation is like.

Luke 18:10-14
(10) “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
(11) The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.
(12) I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
(13) “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
(14) “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The paradigm in which the Pharisee lived only allowed him to see what the tax collector did not do. He missed the fact that this tax collector was in the Temple to pray and talk with his God and ask for God’s mercy. God was obviously very real to this tax collector, even if he did not manage to obey the whole Law. Even if the Pharisee thought the tax collector’s actions were wrong, he should have noticed that he wanted to receive God’s mercy and therefore taken him aside to speak to him and encourage him to change his life. The Pharisee himself did not really feel loved by God and so he could not truly love others around him.

Love Blockers
We all know the wonderful feeling of being loved, how it touches our soul, warms our heart, and makes life easier. So why, since God says He loves us, does life seem so hard and heavy, and we struggle with loving others? I assert that many times we mentally acknowledge that God loves us, but at some level we do not believe it, or at least we question it. There seems to be so much “evidence” that God does not really love us. Dan Allender puts it this way:

…why do so many people seem to love so poorly? Part of the answer is that few are…that grateful to God for the work of the Cross. Instead, most of us are somewhat irritated with God that He has not done more to resolve our struggles with an outstanding mortgage debt—or with the debt that is owed to us by a parent who abused us. To be honest, few Christians are that overwhelmed by the power of the gospel to save our souls from hell, because the unpleasant consequences of living in a fallen world feel too much like a hell in which God refuses to intervene. [3]

Allender has made a great point. Many people think that God often fails them. But that kind of thinking has to be dealt with and corrected. God does not “fail us,” He loves us, and if we love “because” God first loved us, then we should make it a priority to understand God’s love for us. We need to be able to answer questions such as, “If God loves me, why do so many prayers seem to go unanswered? Why do I have problems He does not seem to help with? Why are disasters, killing, disease, and hatred so prevalent in the world? Why does He not protect me, my family, and my friends?”

We must be comfortable with asking God the questions we have, and then be diligent and patient in getting the answers. We are not alone in having feelings such as these. Job was a righteous man, and he marveled that he was so afflicted while evil people seemed to do so well. He asked,

Job 21:7
Why do the wicked live on, growing old and increasing in power?

Jeremiah the prophet asked,

Jeremiah 12:1
You are always righteous, O LORD, when I bring a case before you. Yet I would speak with you about your justice: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?

Habakkuk had questions, too.

Habakkuk 1:2a-4, 13 (abridged)
(2) How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen?
(3) Why do you tolerate wrong?
(4) The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.
(13) Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?

In this life we will not get answers to every question we have about why things happen on earth the way they do. However, we must not allow that to keep us from deeply knowing and experiencing God’s love for us. For example, we know (or should know) that many problems on earth today are due to the spiritual war that rages around us between God and the Devil. Other problems are caused by man’s freewill decisions that are not wise or godly. Other problems, such as those associated with aging and some sicknesses, are due to the fallen nature of the world. Still other problems are caused by unrealistic expectations: thinking that God will do things He will not do, and then being disappointed when He does not do them. Still other problems are due to poor theology that makes God look somehow evil and this causes us to doubt or fear Him, for example, believing that God burns unsaved people in hell forever. [4] No wonder God tells us to get wisdom. If we are wise it is much easier to see and understand the love God has for us.

Proverbs 4:7
Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.

Jesus Shows Us Love
Some of the clearest statements about God that allow us to see Him and love Him were spoken by Jesus Christ. Jesus spoke them at the last supper, only hours before he was arrested. He was preparing his disciples for ministry without him, and he made some statements that we must have living in our hearts.

John 14:7a
If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well.

John 14:9b
Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.

There is so much theological fog drifting through the centuries that it is no wonder people doubt God’s love and His goodness. [5] But if we keep Jesus’ words in mind, the fog clears. Jesus only did good for people, and loved them from his heart. He was only supportive, only loving, only protective, only giving, only helpful, and if we have seen Jesus, we have seen our God. He loves us so much He gave His Son for us even when we were still hostile to Him. He loves us so much He set things up so that our sins could be paid for by someone else. He loves us so much He promises us a wonderful everlasting future we do not deserve. If we took the time to think about it, we could come up with a huge list of, “He loves us so much that…”

We know if we really love God or not, or if we have concerns, doubts, or anger with God that blocks His love from warming our hearts to the end that we can reflect it to others. If we love God, let’s work hard to fully reflect that love back into the world and love others. If we have problems with God, let’s deal with them straight-on, ask the hard questions, and do the work we need to do so we can feel, and live in, His love for us. God says He loves us, and He never lies.

Endnotes

[1] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of I and II Corinthians (Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis, MN. 1963), p. 558.
[2] The Greek text of 2 Timothy 4:8 reads, “loved his appearing.” People love his appearing in many ways, including by living a loving life in anticipation of being rewarded at his coming, and by longing for him to come. Thus, in this context, “longing” for the appearing of Jesus Christ is implied in “loving” his appearing.
[3] Dan Allender and Tremper Longman, Bold Love (Navpress, Colorado Springs, CO, 1992), p. 43.
[4] For further study visit TruthOrTradition.com/hell and see our book Is There Death After Life? Also, see the entry on Revelation 20:10 in our free online commentary to the REV® Bible at STFonline.org/REV
[5] People often blame God for things He did not do, and expect things from Him He says are our responsibility, not His. See TruthOrTradition.com/DontBlameGod for further study and our book, Don’t Blame God! A Biblical Answer to the Problem of Evil, Sin, and Suffering.

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