The Four Elements of Love

The Four Elements of Love May 1, 2015

A_Fellowship_of_DifferentsRichard 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 lovesI 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.

And Jesus calls us to love our enemies into neighbors. What is love? Four elements:

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.

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  • Bev Mitchell

    You mean we can’t fight over theological points any more? We can’t disfellowship people who are clearly in the wrong? What about those people who write books with stuff we disagree with? What about people who do things we disapprove of, or even have whole lifestyles we abhor? What about the degenerate – do we have to waste time loving them too? What if my enemy is, in fact, degenerate? Isn’t my life meant to be more full of purpose than that? You mean we need to love someone just because he or she is a person? Is that the only criterion? Aren’t we supposed to abhor the flesh? Isn’t it true, after all, that we don’t really know what love is anyway? Don’t we who are inside get to define love a bit more precisely, a bit more god-like? Don’t we just get all soft and squishy if we overdo love?

    You’re right. This is not easy at all. In fact, it’s so hard my objections to it don’t even make sense.

  • gingoro

    Bev I am afraid that I really disagree with parts of your post. I think we can and must disfellowship people who claim to be Christian and yet who grossly abuse children or spouses… and who deny they did anything wrong. To me that and other things is what Paul was talking about when he said not even to eat with such people. I think Scot left out point 0 which is both to talk publicity about the abuse that occurred but also not to seek revenge. I would quite happily tamper with the brakes on the car of some who abused my friends and I at mission boarding schools but we are called to forgive in love. DaveW

  • Bev Mitchell


    My comment was on attitudes more than practical advice. You may be taking it too literally.

  • Thanks, Dr McKnight. This may be the best definition of love that I’ve heard. Here’s what I would add to it (going out on a bit of a limb here) that goes beyond orthodoxy and orthopraxy to what I guess I’ll call the ortho-Pneuma of love. Here’s some examples of what I’m seeing in the Scriptures, which often uses the female imagery of birthing for this element of love:

    * Starting as you do with how God loves, we see in Is 42:14-16 God with strong and emotional action like a woman in labor grasping and panting, turning darkness to light and leveling rough places for the blind people of God. [Also Rev 12:1-5 and 1 Cor 15:55 (which refers back to Hosea 13:14) and John’s born “out of water” analogy for being “born out of the Spirit” (BW3)].
    * Jeremiah has shut up in his bones the fire of the word of God (Jer 20:9).
    * Jesus was greatly moved in pneuma and stirred up internally before the raising of Lazarus and had very anguished prayer in the garden of Gethsemane (Jn 11:33, Lk 22:44).
    * Paul describes his work of travailing in birth that Christ would be formed in the Galatians (Gal 4:19, also see 2 Cor 6:11-13).
    * And to the Romans in chapter 8 Paul sees that the Spirit “does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans” similarly to how the Creation also groans (The Message). About this idea the WBC states: “the construction does imply that in v 23 the groanings are part of the expression of the Spirit’s presence (that is, a fundamental feature of the eschatological tension) and not simply a regrettable or accidental byproduct.”

    God’s transformative works of love appear initiated and birthed out of this aching Pneuma-love, Who asks we open our hearts and attention towards. I hear this Pneuma-love in your definition behind the “wanting” of #1, the “willing” of #2, the “deeply known” of #3, and again in the “wanting” of #4.

  • scotmcknight

    Nice idea, Julie — God’s aching Pneuma-love. God in the core of God-ness is love.

  • Interesting. You know my long work with the Hebrew term “hesed” as the over-arching concept for the nature of God as love and as the essence of covenant keeping.

    Recently I was asked by my cousin, a Hebrew scripture translation consultant, to help him produce a definition of hesed that didn’t use the wors love — because love has lost so much of its richness in modern cultural use. I’ve been working through a number of editions the past few months, but this one popped into my head yesterday as I pondered the breadth of hesed being translated variously throughout the Scriptures as agape/love, charis/grace and eleos/mercy…and here it is:

    Hesed is purposeful favor that is perpetually initiated with deliberate affection.

    I’m enjoying pondering it at the moment, so your post was timely for me.


  • scotmcknight

    What is the teleology (what I call also the principle of direction)? Ecstatic union, mutual intimacy, etc?

  • Well, it would be perichoresis. I have come to put these two terms together as perichoretic hesed, so the dance of mutual interpenetration without loss of distinction which faithfully lives out the New Covenant in Jesus to love one another as he has loved us / Jesus Creed.