Reflections on Earnest Love

COVID-19 PERSPECTIVE: Chip Bennett Grace Community Church, Sarasota, Florida Did you ever watch the YouTube videos where an animal is trapped in the mud, or rising water, or on a fence, or in some life-threatening situation and still fights the humans who are the very ones trying to save its life? That’s instinct. It’s part […]

COVID-19 PERSPECTIVE: Chip Bennett

Grace Community Church, Sarasota, Florida

Did you ever watch the YouTube videos where an animal is trapped in the mud, or rising water, or on a fence, or in some life-threatening situation and still fights the humans who are the very ones trying to save its life? That’s instinct. It’s part of the animal’s nature. It’s just trying to survive and unfortunately and more importantly, unknowingly, its instincts actually are at war with its chance of surviving. God bless those animal loving humans and the great video cameras our cell phones have!

This begs a question though that we need to think about: Does the same thing ever happen to us as Christians? Could our instincts lead us to places and choices that aren’t in our best interest? Hold that thought.

As I reflect on what’s going on in our country, especially from a pastoral point of view, I feel I need to write down some thoughts that come from the current series we are doing online at our church. The series comes out of a passage of Scripture found in 1 Peter 4 and is one I believe speaks to our current time as a proverbial “word in season.” It is my hope and prayer that every pastor, leader, Christ follower or unbeliever that reads this will at some level interact with the words the apostle Peter wrote so many years ago. He really still speaks today …

Peter writes into a very difficult time in which the recipients of his letter found themselves. Persecution from without, governmental overreach from Nero, hard times, periodic lack of food, monetary issues, being scattered across the Roman Empire—these were all starting to lead to the local churches fracturing and dividing. Peter writes to several specific things going on in the lives of those who read his letter. He states in 1:22–23 that “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again.” He tells them in 2:1, “So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander.” Again, he writes in 3:8, “Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart and a humble mind.”

So, it isn’t difficult, for even the casual reader of this epistle, to see that the Christians Peter is writing to are having serious internal issues responding to the difficulties of their day. They are having a hard time truly loving each other. There is malice towards others found in the congregations, along with deceit and hypocrisy arising out of the tremendous pressures of their day. On top of that, their unity has fractured and the love and tender hearts they had for each other are giving way in the face of difficulty. They are finding it difficult to love one another because self-preservation is starting to set in.

The hard truth is that when times get difficult, many people turn toward self-preservation. It even happens in the Lord’s church. It happened then and unfortunately; we are seeing it now. As difficulties arise the need to preserve self, preserve livelihood and preserve normalcy are part and parcel of the human instinct, but an instinct that doesn’t quite conform to the Lord’s commands to love as he loved, Paul’s admonition to the church at Philippi to consider others more important than ourselves, or to lay down our lives for others. That’s why in 1 Peter 4:8, Peter tells the recipients of his letter “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” Peter realizes one of the first things to go in tough times is other-seeking, selfless, earnest love.

These words penned almost 2,000 years ago speak right into our day where Christians dividing over politics, arguing whether or not to wear face masks, debating conspiracy theories, arguing over religious freedoms, and all the other things we see right now in the American church are leading us to anything but earnestly loving one another. These things can lead to division, disunity, slander, hypocrisy and all the other things we just read. It’s like Peter knew in advance that when the going got tough, the first thing out the window was the most important part of being a Christ follower: love.

Why is this letter so important for us today? For us right now? Why do we need to hear the message that above all else we need to earnestly love one another? It is because the church right before our eyes is being buffeted, beaten, challenged, and is subsequently giving in to the spirit of our age: division and partisanship.

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This is what hard times do. They bring out instinct. Cue the cell phone camera and bring in the nice humans, because we need a YouTube moment …

So, let’s get real here and discuss some really important things that we might not want to hear, but we need to hear:

1. Tough times lead us instinctively to self-preservation and not to Christ-like self-sacrifice, others-seeking, foot washing love.

The feeling to protect ourselves, our way of life, our rights, or insert whatever you want here, is real. It is instinctive. It is natural. It “feels” right. The problem is that it isn’t what God has for us. He wants us to love others. Period. We can’t be wrong with people all the time and be right with God. We are to love earnestly. That means putting aside certain issues, certain soap box items and learning to love our brothers and sisters. If the church continues all the infighting, we lose our witness to the world.

The word translated “earnest” is a compound word in the original language of the New Testament. It combines “stretching” and “out.” To love earnestly means we are going to be stretched. We are going to be challenged. Loving others isn’t easy, but it is what Christ taught us to do. He even said we would be known as his disciples by the love we show to one another. Self-preservation, however, leads us to associating only with likeminded people who make us “feel” more secure.

When we stop earnestly loving one another, putting others before ourselves, reaching down to a brother in need, because we have to preserve self and make sure others hear our point of view, we can actually silence the message people need to hear and see and that is the gospel.

It is very subtle, but our message (face masks, conspiracy theories, political partisanship, secondary doctrinal positions, etc.) cannot be allowed to eclipse the message that the God who created the universe took on human form and died for our sins so we could be restored to fellowship with God—and then on top of that he rose from the dead on the third day so that all of us who believe in him will have eternal life. This is the message that the world desperately needs to hear and when we aren’t loving earnestly we slip into self-preservation and then whatever our issue is (and there is always one) becomes the divider of people, a judgment stick for others, and leads to fracturing the very institution that has the message the world needs.

2. Earnestly loving one another keeps us from airing our dirty laundry.

Listen, the church is made up of sinners. We are all a mess waiting to happen at any given time. That’s why none of us is saved by how well we perform. We are saved solely by the grace of God. The fact that none of us is ever quite ready for prime time means the church will always be messy. But when we aren’t earnestly loving each other, then we start to take offense at others, we start to judge more harshly, we start to divide, we start to make decisions on who is in and who is out, and that lack of love doesn’t allow these very sins to be covered. It exposes them. All the dirty laundry starts to make its way outside of the church for the world to see.

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That’s why Peter writes that “love covers a multitude of sins.” It just does. When we are earnestly loving our brothers and sisters then we don’t care if they wear a mask or don’t. We don’t condemn those who don’t see Bill Gates the way we do (whatever the conspiracy theories might be). We don’t castigate those with different political views. We don’t separate from people based on their view of where the coronavirus came from. Why? Because we love earnestly and that means stretching ourselves to reach out to those whose opinions are different than ours.

3. If we can’t show earnest love to our brothers and sisters, then we probably won’t to those outside the church.

This is the real deal here. All of our red-hot divisive issues can’t save anyone. Only Jesus can do that and if the world doesn’t see a compelling message coming from a group of people who earnestly love one another, then the witness of the church is diminished in the local community. The world craves a place where they can be loved in spite of who they are. They can’t imagine a God who knows everything they ever did and still loves them. If we can’t love our brothers and sisters in the Lord for who they are, then how are we ever going to love those on the outside?

This is real stuff. This is more important than our political theories, our conspiracy theories, and our doctrinal theories. This is the gospel. This is “who do you say Jesus is” heavy stuff. When all we do is bicker on social media, gossip in our small groups, slander other brothers and sisters under the “I’m a fruit inspector” label, then we shouldn’t wonder why the world wants nothing to do with the church or Jesus. They get all that junk from living in the world, they don’t need it on Sunday.

HERE ARE SOME REAL-WORLD THINGS TO PONDER:

Make it a point to not gossip or attack people. Period. All of them. On social media as well.

Realize when we share our strong opinions, people may walk away. People don’t care about our issues; they care about theirs. To reach people we need to hear and listen to them.

Pray for people we don’t like. When we pray for people that rub us wrong, or we feel have bad ideas or have differing views, etc. it softens the way we see them..Pray for your enemies, because in the wonderful and miraculous nature of God, they just one day may be your brother or sister in the Lord.

Be willing to extend to others the same grace God extended to us. When we love earnestly, we are following Christ. When we love earnestly, we set the church up as a great witness in the local community. When we love earnestly, we show that the apostle was right and that the church is made up of all kinds of people from differing places. When we love earnestly, we cover a multitude of sins as Peter said. When we love earnestly, we are living out the answer to the prayer of Jesus recorded in John 17 that we would be one as he and the Father are one so that the world may know and believe. When we love earnestly, we are stretched. When we love earnestly, we are the most like our Lord.

The YouTube video is on us. Are we going to go with instinct and fight the very thing that ultimately saves us? Camera is on and rolling. …

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