“What the world needs now is love, sweet love”; so Hal David told us. “All you need is love,” according to John Lennon. Is it true? Well, maybe. It depends. Define your terms—what do you mean by “love”? If we’re talking about the love of God revealed in Christ, then yes, without question; but people usually aren’t. They more often say things like, “if you loved me, you would”—in which the word “love” is wielded as an emotional crowbar, a basis for demands and manipulation. That’s not real love.
The problem is, we keep trying to define “love” to suit ourselves; but that would derail everything Paul’s talking about in this chapter. We need to let love rule in our lives, but that love must be genuine. That word—the NIV translates it “sincere”—is important; we need to distinguish real love, the genuine article, from the counterfeit. Real love is no mere pretense or outward display, it’s nothing we can use to suit our own agendas; rather, love is defined by God, who is the source of all love. It’s an expression of his nature and character, and so it shapes our character to make us more like him.
Thus love is not merely about feelings; that’s part of it, but love expresses itself in action, and so changes our behavior. The love of God in us moves us to want what God wants, and to want to do what he wants; it takes away our taste for evil, teaching us to loathe it instead. As such, love fulfills the law of God, because it moves us to do the will of God not out of fear or duty or desire for reward, but out of a renewed mind and heart. We keep the law on the way, as we’re on about something more important; our focus is not on keeping the law, but on loving God, and loving others as he loves us.
The more we seek God, the better we know him and the more we love him, and the more we’re motivated to love those around us. As with any relationship, our love will tend to cool if we don’t keep seeking him; we need to keep opening ourselves up to the Holy Spirit. It’s not just praying or reading the Bible—we can easily do both those things with closed hearts; it’s preparing ourselves for the Spirit to speak to us, and letting go our efforts to control what he might say or do. The more we open ourselves up, the more the Spirit fills us with love for God and fires us up to love each other and serve the Lord—to serve the Lord by loving each other.
Part of that is the Spirit’s work in renewing our minds, in giving us the common mindset Paul talked about in verse 3. Here in verse 16, the NIV renders it “live in harmony with one another,” but we might say “think the same thing toward one another”; the point is not that we never disagree (or never admit we disagree), but that we recognize that we all stand together: we all share in one salvation, through one faith, by the one grace of God, and we are all absolutely dependent on his grace. Thus we live in humility toward one another, humbly confessing our own sins and failures and shortcomings, and humbly forgiving our brothers and sisters for their sins and failures and shortcomings, recognizing that we all need grace, and we all need each other.
Thus as well Paul tells us we should seek to bless one another rather than to bless ourselves—and indeed should actively look for opportunities to do so. We are brothers and sisters in Christ; in a healthy family, we may not always be happy with one another, but we’re always committed to love and care for one another regardless. We understand that the need of one is the need of all—and we should see our church family in the same way, holding our needs in common and doing what we can to ensure that they’re all met, because that’s what people who love one another and are committed to one another do for each other. Nor is this just about physical needs. Paul also calls us to grieve with those who grieve, sharing their burden and letting them know they’re not alone; and, what’s often harder, he tells us to rejoice with those who rejoice, not grudgingly or enviously, but wholeheartedly glad with them and for them.
Our love doesn’t end with those who love us, however; we’re also called to love non-believers, and we’re called to love our enemies and those who persecute us. Indeed, God loves them as much as he loves us, and so we should love them just as sincerely and single-mindedly as we love our friends within the church. Not only are we forbidden to avenge ourselves, Paul tells us not to call down God’s vengeance on our enemies; instead, we’re supposed to bless them and serve them, and to ask God to bless them.
Now, that might seem like a wildly unreasonable set of commands, on the surface; but Paul wants us to see deeper, and so he quotes Proverbs 25: do this for your enemies, “for in so doing you’ll heap burning coals on their heads.” Blessing those who curse you isn’t giving in to them, or cooperating with them in hurting you; rather, it confounds them, because it’s not in their script. As Oscar Wilde quipped, “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.” To freely serve your enemies and bless your persecutors in the love of God is to act in defiance of their hatred and opposition, against their expectations, and out of a power which is completely alien to them; for we can only do so sincerely in the strength of God, by the work of his Holy Spirit.
Apart from God, when we’re attacked, we can’t see past our own egos and our own hurt; we may hit back in anger, freeze in shame, or run in fear, but we cannot act freely or constructively. God gives us the strength to respond with love, and the ability to trust him that we will not lose by loving our enemies and asking him to bless them. You see, the greatest blessing God can give them is repentance—a blessing which can only come through the burning coals of shame and guilt. It is better for us that our enemies should repent than that we should see them destroyed; better that they become our friends, and better that they confess the wrong they’ve done and seek to make it right. But if they will not, then God will judge them for it in his time. Either way, in the end, he will vindicate those who love him, who depend on him and call on his name.
You can’t overcome evil with evil, and you can’t beat hatred with hatred. Either it crushes you, or you become like it and it absorbs you. You can only overcome evil with good, and you can only defeat hatred with love. We lose sight of that, because we get focused on the battle we see, and we think that’s the real battle—but it isn’t. The real battle is to continue to love in the face of hate, and continue to do good in response to evil; when by the grace of God and the power of his Spirit we’re able to do that, then even if we lose, we win. We win because the love of God is the power of his kingdom, and the powers of this world are doomed to fail, but his kingdom is eternal, and his love will reign forever. Let’s pray.