Love Letters from God
Learn the secret of the early church’s dramatic impact on their world-and how it can transform our culture (and every single relationship we have.)
By Dr. Gary Chapman
What if Christians really were?
Eighty percent the United States’ population claim Christianity as their religion,1 and two billion people in the world accept that label to define their belief system.2 What if all of these people truly were Christ-like?
The word Christian is not a word that the early believers we read about in the New Testament chose to call themselves. It was a title they were given by those who observed their lifestyle and recognized them as people who followed the teachings of Christ (Acts 11:26). And what was the central theme in Jesus’ teachings and actions? Without question, His theme was love. When a Jewish leader of His day asked Him, “Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”, He answered that all the moral teachings of the Old Testament were summarized in two commands: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:36-403).
The Greatest Commandment
Jesus also made the supreme role of love clear to His disciples when He said, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35). He made love the distinguishing mark of His followers, wanting us be known for our love—and not just toward fellow believers, but also to our “neighbors,” a category that includes anyone we encounter.
Imagine what would happen if all the Christians in the world were known for genuinely loving their neighbors. I believe that one of the reasons the contemporary church has not made a greater impact on secular society is that we’ve strayed from this theme laid down by our Lord. We have been influenced by culture far more than we’ve influenced culture. We have fought fire with fire; hatred with hatred. We have sometimes exalted ourselves and put others down—often in the name of defending the Truth. We have treated others with disrespect in an effort to convince them that they are wrong and we are right. To many secularists in Western society, “Christians” are seen as a right-wing political party that is motivated to promote its own agenda while attacking others in the process.
I’m not suggesting that Christians refrain from involvement in the political process. As citizens, we should be involved on every level and in every corner of society, but our attitude is to always be love. We are to seek the good of others, treating all individuals with dignity and respect, even when we disagree intellectually or politically with their position.
The Secret of the Early Church
In his book The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark, a sociologist of religion, set out to understand how the early Christian movement managed to grow from a few thousand followers to 30 million—half the population of the Roman Empire—in just 300 years.
He indicates that in the first centuries of the Christian era, two major epidemics claimed up to one-third of that empire’s population. In the face of these terrible conditions, political leaders and their non-Christian religious priests simply fled the cities. The only social network left was that of the early church, which provided basic nursing care to Christians and non-Christians alike along with the hope that transcended death. Even secularists acknowledged that early Christians did indeed love their neighbors “as if they were their own family.” What changed the minds of Roman elites was neither political overthrow nor oratorical persuasion; it was personally knowing followers of Christ and watching their response to disaster. Cultural transformation resulted from the Christian community simply being itself.
Perhaps the closest similar contemporary events have been the Asian tsunami of 2004 and Hurricane Katrina. Our nation as a whole responded magnanimously to both catastrophes, but in many instances, it was the church that became the vehicle for ongoing help, long after the waters receded.
The basic challenge to Christians today is the same: to be people of love on a daily basis—whether in response to a social crisis or not. I believe there is no greater power to change the climate of our society and the world than Christian love. But for many, love is a nebulous word. So let me define a loving person as one characterized by the following seven traits that Scripture points to:
- Kindness – discovering the joy of treating others as persons of worth
- Patience – accepting the imperfections of others
- Forgiveness – finding freedom from the grip of anger
- Courtesy – treating others as friends
- Humility – stepping down so someone else can step up
- Generosity – offering time, abilities, and finances to help others
- Honesty – speaking the truth in love
When we seek to develop these qualities through the power of God’s Spirit, He uses us as His instruments to change the world.
You might wonder, In a world of constant conflict, does love stand a chance? We read daily reports of the inhumanity people inflict on one another, some even perpetrated in the name of religion. In fact, it’s apparent that religion will continue to play a major role in what happens globally over the coming years. The question is, Does love stand a chance within the world’s religions? Or, as those of us who claim to be Christians should ask ourselves: Does love have a chance within the Christian faith? Can we rediscover the reality that we love God because He first loved us—and that because we love God, we are compelled to love others (1 John 4:19-20)?
The apostle Paul had this vision clearly in mind when he said, “For Christ’s love compels us ... [and] those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again” (2 Cor. 5:14-15). Paul spearheaded the growth of the early church by proclaiming love, and over the last 2,000 years, to the degree that the church has evidenced love, the church has been successful. It was not the military Crusaders who account for the survival of the faith. It was the love of common Christians for all mankind that kept the church alive and growing.
The Mark of the Believer
Christians have never been exempt from life’s difficulties. History shows that Jesus’ followers have suffered earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, fires, landslides, accidents, sickness, and other hardships. They have often been persecuted simply because they were believers. How can a person endure such things and still passionately desire to follow Christ?
The answer is found in having a clear understanding of what the Lord seeks to do in our lives: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those he foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom. 8:28-29 NIV). God’s clear intention is to make us Christ-like in attitude and lifestyle. He is even able to use harsh experiences for that purpose. Often, it is in the midst of trials that we find our greatest opportunities to experience His love—and to be agents of sharing that love with others.
I recently saw this demonstrated by a 52-year-old mother of five who was dying of cancer. I’d observed her life for a number of years and found her to be one of the most loving people I’d ever met. She faced death with realism and yet with a positive spirit. I’ll never forget the day she said to me, “I’ve taught my children how to live. Now I want to teach them how to die.” Mature love sees even death as an opportunity to love others.
Perhaps you’re wondering how you, an ordinary Christian, could ever become such a lover—someone whose life is marked by love. This is where Christianity parts company with many other faiths. Most of the world’s religions are based on self-effort. But for the Christian, the key to becoming a loving person lies not with us but with God. It is His love that we seek to share. And it is His Spirit who pours divine love into us and enables us to communicate it to others. Our role is to open our hearts and minds daily to receive that love—and to look for opportunities to share the treasure with others.
Why, then, aren’t all Christians such lovers? The reality is that we are morally flawed. At the core of who we are, two dynamic forces—the “old self” and the “new self”—are in conflict (Eph. 4:22-24). The new self fills us with desire to be lovers of God and of others, but the old self pulls us toward self-centered living. And if we keep our distance from God, the old self will likely dominate our lifestyle. But when we “draw near to God ... He will draw near to [us],” and the new self will control our attitudes and behavior (James 4:8).
At the University of Virginia, these words are engraved over the entrance to Cabell Hall: “You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.” That sentence captures the essence of the believer’s calling. What if all Christians answered that call, seeking daily to be like Christ? What if we all decided to go down further on that path of true love, tasting its fruit in our relationships—and never again being satisfied with the dullness of a self-centered lifestyle?
Authentic love is the most powerful weapon in the world for good. I’m convinced that not only does love indeed stand a chance in the contemporary world; it is, in fact, our only chance of survival. And it’s how the world will know us as true followers of Christ—true Christians.
1Patrick Johnstone and Jason Mandryk, Operation World: 21st Century Edition (Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster Lifestyle, 2001), 658.
3All Scripture quoted is from the NIV Bible.
Gary Chapman is the author of Love as a Way of Life: Seven Keys to Transforming Every Aspect of Your Life.