Richard Foster, who has studied what we call “spiritual formation” his entire life, breaks down the history of how churches have understood the Christian life into six themes in his book Streams of Living Water. You can “map” churches and folks by these various and important streams.
- A prayer-filled life
- A holy and virtuous life
- A Spirit-empowered life
- A compassionate or just life
- A Word-centered life
- A sacramental life
I contend each is both right and slightly off center.
Christian maturity is measured according to Jesus, Paul and John by love — love of God and love of others. Jesus and Paul focused the entire law into loving God and loving others, and the apostle John could hardly write a sentence without somehow including the term love. It is John’s Gospel that we learn that the mark of a Christian is love.
Which leaves a very important question: What is love?
Love is sometimes seen as simplistic and preliminary and the ABCs of the Christian life, and it is sometimes defined by looking at American English dictionaries — deep affection, etc — but Christian theology knows (1) that God is love and that therefore (2) love is defined by how God loves. I contend if we look at God-is-love and how God loves, we can see four elements in love.
The application of this is the most challenging dimension of the Christian life for it is simple to say one loves another but actually loving is profoundly challenging.
So, let’s begin with this: name your enemy and ask if you love that enemy, and ask if you want to turn your enemy into your neighbor as Jesus taught. Or name the person with whom you are struggling, the person with whom you are out of reconciliation, the neighbor you don’t like, the pastor you can’t stomach, the teenager in your household you now can’t speak to or with… the church person, the work person, the neighbor, the politician… and now ask if love is easy. Of course not, it is powerfully demanding.
Four elements of love when mapped on how God loves:
1. Love is a covenant, or translated in light of how God’s covenant love works, love is a rugged commitment to another person. Do you want to make a rugged commitment to your enemy?
2. Love is a rugged commitment to be with that person. This is the principle of presence, time spent with that person. Are you willing to be with that person over time?
3. Love is a rugged commitment to be with another person as someone who is for that person. This is the principle of advocacy (not tolerance), the principle that the other person deeply knows that you are in that person’s corner. Does that person know that you are in their corner?
4. Love is a rugged commitment to be with another person as for that person as both of us seek to become what God wants of us, that is, Christlikeness. This is the principle of direction or the teleological dimension of love. Love entails wanting that person, in relationship, to become God’s Christlike design for that person (and for the one who is loving to grow in the same direction). Are you seeking Christlikeness together?
The order matters: one can’t expect #4 until one has made #1 a reality, until #2 follows #1, and until #2 creates #3.
When I was a kid we sang “What the world needs now is love.” What the church needs is love, and it begins with me and with you. Now. In the next encounter.
I sketch this more, with some biblical support, in A Fellowship of Differents.