The book of 1 John is a book written not from the hand of a systematic theologian, but from a seeming creative artist with words who knew Jesus intimately and lived out his passion to teach others to encounter the same Lord he did. One verse in particular sticks out to me in 1 John that always ruffles my feathers is 4:20-21:
20 If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.
What is Johnny saying here? This is a strong sentence. At first glance I sense that Johnny is saying, “Love for your brother has no bounds because it is not driven or tainted by fear of man, or what man thinks. It is a pure love that can’t be contained… love unleashed… explosive love!”
So I ask myself, “How do we get to that place of unleashed, explosive love?” Many of us have experienced the new birth in Christ and yet we are struggling to love one another (we are not doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly among our enemies). We are often times fake, we gossip, we hold grudges, we judge, we build up walls to dodge, we dismiss, and we elevate ourselves over each other and over other beliefs, we fear being found out, we run from intimacy and protect ourselves from good people.
Dan Allender in his book Bold Love (1992) writes this: “Is it possible to love and hate at the same moment? Even more important, is it possible to hate someone so deeply that love is obscured–to a point of being a functional non-entity (existence)? If that is possible in our relationships with one another, could a regenerate heart have even love for God crowded out by self-interest, fear of others, anger, rebellion, and hatred? I believe that it is not only possible, but the very reason why most of us love so poorly.”
Allender is leading us to think more deeply and critically of ourselves and stop defending our goodness. Believer, Jesus defends your goodness! We must ask ourselves questions like this: Why am I an amateur lover? Why does forgiveness at times mean so little to me? Why do I harbor negative feelings towards someone and never seek reconciliation with them? How can I see brokenness and not give my life to helping those I know who are broken?
We do these things not because we are wicked people who love to hate, but because we are humans who still struggle with sin, and will always battle with this until we are with the new creation is a reality. For now, this is our reality. We need not try to seek our defense.
As sinners, even re-born ones, our hearts are either directed towards God in a loving, thankful, and worshipful way, or we are directed towards God in an angry, self-justifying, and self-loving way. Paul understands the battle of the believer to be one of a desire to do good (submit to the Spirit), and a desire to do evil (gratify the flesh) (Rom. 8:5-8). This war takes place in the same heart, often times at the same time, in every person!
This hatred in our hearts is often quiet, dormant, and masked. “How could I hate God? I mean come on, I love and follow Jesus!” But what we neglect to see at times because of our fear of judgement, is that we make decisions daily that show our neglect of God, and if we treated a friend that way, it would be hateful behavior.
Hatred of God and others in our lives is usually labeled as something more digestible to our senses. We often dumb down the reality of our depravity and our sin against God and others, which makes the good news of Jesus seem only mildly pleasant to us, and the effects aren’t fully experienced either. We must be honest with where and who we are and allow the new birth to take it’s full effect.
And this honesty begins with being silenced by the gravity of our condition. God is love, we are not! Silence, not defense, is required for deep change to occur. When we become silent, and stop defending and fighting for our own goodness, we can look God in His eyes and discover His response, which 1 John 4:20-21 teaches us, that God’s response to His honest children is one of love, acceptance, and presence, not fear, torment and loneliness. It is at the place brokenness and honesty where we catch a glimpse of the love that the Father has for us.
To the degree that the view of Jesus dying for your sins stuns you into silence, will be the degree that you will be able to love God and love people. This is because God’s disruptive and scandalous response to our sin and hatred transforms rage into gratitude, deadness into life, ashes into beauty, dried up steams into rivers of living water. You were made to love, but to love the way you were created to, you must encounter the love of the Father.