John concludes the previous section of this letter in verse 10 by saying, “This is how we know who are the children of God, and who are the children of the Devil: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God”—which restates what he’s already said in verses 7-8; but then he adds to it: “nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister. For,” he continues, launching into this next part of his argument, “this is just what you’ve heard all the way along: we should love one another.” This is the standard by which our relationships with other people should be measured, this is what our lives should look like, this is the sign that the love of God is in us: do we live out his love to the people around us?
The problem, of course, is that this isn’t like math—you can’t measure it or plot it on a graph to prove that you love someone (or don’t, as the case may be). As we’ve talked about, we can’t just take people’s statements about love at face value—not even our own—because human beings use the word “love” in some pretty slippery ways. Benjamin Franklin wrote in his autobiography, “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do,” and the world “love” is all too easy to use for that purpose. We recognize that it has power, and so there’s a great temptation to seize that power to use against others for our own purposes, to get what we want. Biblically, though, that’s the exact opposite of love, which is not about getting, but giving; the demands of love are directed not at each other, but at ourselves.
Thus John gives us first the negative example of Cain—an extreme example, as one who literally physically murdered his brother, but one who in that very extremity offers a powerful illustration of the problem. Why did Cain kill his brother? We saw this last year when we worked through Genesis—Cain was all about Cain. He didn’t give God the best of his crops, just what he felt like giving; and when God favored his younger brother because Abel did give God his best, Cain grew angry and bitter. Instead of accepting God’s rebuke and admitting his sin, he blamed it all on his brother. He put himself ahead of his brother, which led him to see Abel as a rival and a threat; as a result, he came to hate him, and ultimately to kill him.
By contrast to Cain, we also have the positive example of Jesus—also an extreme example, as of course he was God and therefore perfect, which makes him the perfect illustration of love. How do we know what love is? Jesus died on the cross for us. What does it mean for us to love others? Go and do likewise.
Now, as John goes on to say, this doesn’t mean that we all need to lay down our lives for others in the exact same way as Jesus did; for one thing, we can’t because we’re not him, and for another, that’s not what people need from us. As James Denney put it in his book The Death of Christ, “If I were sitting on the end of the pier on a summer day enjoying the sunshine and the air, and some one came along and jumped into the water and got drowned ‘to prove his love for me,’ I should find it quite unintelligible.” I might need love, but such an act would do nothing for me. But, he continues, “if I had fallen over the pier and were drowning,” and someone jumped in and saved my life at the cost of their own—“then I should say, ‘Greater love hath no man than this,’” because then I would understand the sacrifice that was made for me. I. Howard Marshall sums it up this way: “Love means saying ‘No’ to one’s own life so that somebody else may live.”
Note this: what we see most clearly in Jesus’ way of dying is also his way of living, and the way in which he calls us to live. Living out his love means, day by day, saying “No” to ourselves and our desires so that we can say “Yes” to meeting the needs of others. If we see others in need and harden our hearts against them, lest pity move us to sacrifice some of our comfort to help them meet their needs, then the love of God is not in us. I don’t agree with the Occupy Wall Street movement as a matter of economic policy, but I do believe there’s a moral intuition here which we must take seriously: I think most people in this country perceive that the very rich don’t care tuppence about them, and I think for the most part, they’re pretty much right. As it happens, experience has taught me that the exact same thing is probably true of most of them, and if they were suddenly hugely rich they’d be no better, so I don’t think their high horse has any legs to stand on; but that doesn’t make their insight false, just truer than most of us would like to admit.
Does this mean that we must give to anyone who asks, or that we must give them whatever they want? No; again, we aren’t Jesus, we aren’t God, so we don’t have the ability to give so much to so many. It is not given to us to meet every need we see; we are far more limited than that, and we must begin by taking care of those closest to us before we seek to provide for people outside that circle. Then too, not everyone who claims to be in need is trustworthy, and I don’t see anything in the gospel that necessarily makes a virtue of being cheated. There are prudential decisions here, of whom we can truly help, and how, and how much. But it is to say this: love changes our priorities. Love isn’t about getting what we want, it’s about giving others what they need. Love seeks first to bless others, not to bless ourselves.
And you know, maybe we can’t apply that with mathematical precision, but this is a standard we can use to evaluate ourselves. When we look at how we spend our time and what we do with our money, what do we see? Do we only give when it doesn’t cost us anything, when we really don’t have to give anything up? If I go home, and I’m tired, and Sara’s tired, and the kids are squirrely, and I go off in a corner and do whatever I feel like while she’s trying to make dinner and manage four kids and keep herself together emotionally, do I love my wife? Not at that moment, I don’t. If I decide that I don’t want to give my tithe to the church this month, that I’m going to keep that money and buy a flatscreen TV, do I love the church? Not with my actions. If I see a friend in need—it doesn’t have to be financial; it could just as well be emotional or spiritual—if I see a friend in need and choose to look the other way because I want to keep my time, my energy, my money, for myself, do I really love them? Not in any way that matters.
And if I do these things, if I choose to spend my money, my time, and my energy on my own pleasure and my own satisfaction, can I say that the love of God is in me? No, I can’t. But if I live my life as an ongoing offering to God—recognizing that he has given me all the time I have, all the energy I have, all the money and possessions I have, and that he gave them to me so that I might use them to love and bless the people he has given to me, and those he sends across my path—if I desire to please him and to bless him by blessing other people, to respond to his love and live in his love by loving others and giving them what best I can, then I can say, yes, this is the love of God in me; this is what it looks like. I’m not all the way there yet, but by God’s grace, by his love, by the power of his Holy Spirit within me, I trust he’ll get me there. May it be so for all of us.