Genesis 45:1-15, Romans 12:9-21
August 24, 2008
“Let love be genuine.” Paul told the Romans. Now, Let me begin by saying that we could spend a long, long time on that verse alone! Because our culture’s understanding of what the word “love” means has been slowly but steadily eroded over the years, particularly in the last half century. It’s been eroded by such things as films and television, and it has been eroded as people have slowly pushed God – the greatest source of the understanding of love – out of their lives. Then they wonder why love is shallow and unfulfilling!
This passage from Romans speaks entirely about love. And I want you to notice, as we go through some of this, that it does not focus on emotions! The world, in its eroded understanding, has relegated love to that emotional level. And in it’s worst form it has eroded it to the point that it thinks of love only as a “physical thing.” That is, it is something that has to do with the attraction of our bodies.
An old roommate of mine in college used to joke about that. When spotting a particularly attractive young woman he would say, “I think I’m in lust.” (As opposed to “in love”) And that was a funny way of dealing with this whole thing. Because it hinted of honesty. I would be so bold to say that there’s no such thing as “love at first sight.” We really don’t look at someone for the first time and “love them.” We may be attracted to someone. And that’s fine. That’s part of the whole “spice of life.” Billions of dollars are spent every year by people in order to make themselves more attractive. And you can look “across a crowded room” and have that attraction. But is that love?
The problem is, that’s the only understanding of love that many people in our world have. It’s purely a matter of emotion or feeling. But God has taught us – or tried to tell us – that love is not an emotion! There are certainly emotions connected to it! And again, that’s part of what makes life so full and wonderful. But love is not a “feeling,” as many people think. If it were, then the words of Jesus would make no sense at all when he said, “Love your enemies.” How are we to develop “feelings for” people who are our enemies? How are we to “feel good” toward people who persecute us?
Let me say again, because it cannot be said enough in our world. Love is not a feeling! Love is a choice. It is a choice of how we treat people. As I looked at this passage from Romans 12, that became that much more acute and that much more plain for me to see. Look at what Paul says here, and see if you don’t agree with me that these are things that we choose to do.
“Let love be genuine.” he said. (“And in doing so,”) “Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” Now, there’s an emotion right there – hate. “Hey, you said this wasn’t about emotion!” That’s not exactly true. I said it didn’t focus on emotion. It doesn’t portray love as an emotion. When we choose to hate what is evil, and hold fast to what is good, (for they’re used in the same phrase here) we choose to develop a more loving attitude. And yes, I would be quick to say that love is an attitude!
Notice also that Paul doesn’t say, “Hate those who are evil.” It doesn’t say to hate evil people! It says to hate the evil itself. Then again, in the same sentence “hold fast to what is good.” And I hope you see both of those things as choices we make! They don’t flow from the emotional side of us. They come from the intellect, from that place of conscious thought in us. Paul doesn’t say, “I hope when you see evil, you will, in your emotional response, hate it.” He says choose to hate it!
Then Paul ties that to this next phrase in that same sentence, “love one another with brotherly affection.” “Affection?” you say, “Well there’s another emotion!” ”Are you sure this is not focusing on emotions?” No it’s not. Because again this is emotion guided by conscious choice. Paul is not saying here, “Love those for whom you feel brotherly affection.” He’s not saying, “Express your love to those for whom you have deep feelings.” He’s saying “Choose to love one another with brotherly affection.” Do you see the difference?
Do you think these people to whom he was writing were all wonderful and lovey to each other and they never had any disagreements or aversions or irritations? Of course not! We know that clearly from Paul’s letters. But(!) as the body of Christ here on earth, he is telling them that they should choose to have affection for one another despite whatever emotions they might have to the contrary! Again, there’s that idea of emotions being tempered by reason and conscious choice!
Then he makes this statement that I just love. “Outdo one another in showing honor.” Unfortunately, that’s not what the world does. When it comes to honor and its sister word “respect” our world thinks they are necessary to be present before people can reciprocate them. In other words, “respect breeds respect.” But again, that’s the emotional response side of those things. “When someone shows respect to me, then certainly I’ll respect them.” But of course, the understanding is, “But if they don’t, then forget it!” Then there’s the further understanding that says, “I’ll show them as much respect as they show me – nothing more.” What happens them is that if a person fails in showing respect to us, then we pull back some of our respect for them. Then they take away a little from us, etc, etc, etc… Do you see where that goes? Respect between people can easily erode that way!
To all of that Paul says “Nonsense!” “Don’t think of things that way!” “Don’t play those games. They’re emotionally controlled anyway.” “Don’t just show respect for each other, but outdo one another in showing respect!!” Choose to show an even higher level of honor and respect then has been shown you!” The world doesn’t always understand that kind of choice. As God’s people we are called to it!
Next follows some quick exhortations that I hope you will again see as choices – even though they do have some “emotional elements” to them. Paul continues, “Never flag in zeal.” In other words, “Don’t let your enthusiasm grow less.” “Be aglow with the spirit.” Strive to feel the spirit within you. “Serve the Lord. Rejoice in your hope. Be patient in tribulation.” “Be constant in prayer.” Ooh there’s the one we talked about last week! “Contribute to the needs of the saints. Practice hospitality.” Choose to be giving and generous people! (Remember, Stewardship season is approaching!) And again, is it that we feel generous? Or do we choose to be and therefore feel generous?
Then Paul goes on with a tough one. “Bless those who persecute you.” he says. That’s definitely a tough choice to make – maybe the hardest one. And again, is that something we feel? Probably not. But we are called to choose to, because that’s part of this “Genuine Love” he’s explaining in all of this. For love is a choice! He’s going to get back to that one, but first he touches on a few more practical things, like rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep. In other words, empathizing with others. That’s certainly part of “genuine love.” “Live in harmony with one another.” he says. “Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Do not be conceited.” Those too are good choices to make!
Then he returns to that “enemies” thing. He says, “Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to… God.” Then he ends with this quote that he actually gets from Proverbs. “If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty give him drink. For by doing so you will heap burning coals on his head.” (Proverbs 25:21-22) In other words, he concludes, “Overcome evil with good.”
That’s a whole different picture of this word love than we’re used to, isn’t it? And that’s definitely not one that’s “feelings based,” though feelings are certainly part of love. Genuine love is about choices we make of both behavior and emotions toward others! Genuine love is making choices which can be difficult. Remember, it’s always easier just to go with the emotions!! If you’ve got emotions rising within you, If you have feelings vying for supremacy, fighting to take over your thoughts and actions, they can be very strong!! It’s always much more difficult to “take every thought captive in obedience to Christ!” It’s much easier just to “go with the flow” within us, to give into the emotional response, and then to use the tired old excuse, “I can’t help what I think, who I am, or how I behave!”
I’ve said this before, and I’ll keep saying it. We can help those things. We are called to help those things. In our striving to be like Jesus – which is our calling in this world – we must be in control of those things! That’s the practical side of understanding what Paul means by “Genuine Love.”
So in your life, as you seek to be more like Christ, I’ll give you again the words of Paul. “Let love be genuine.” Choose to let love be genuine. Always be striving to know more and more what that means.
Eternal God, your love for us is everlasting. By your divine choice you sent your son to restore our relationship with you, and to give us the best example of how you want us to live this life. Help us, Lord, to make the best choices in living life, that your light may be seen within us. For these things we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.