The reason that we need to understand love when we’re discussing Christian growth is because growth really happens “in the background,” while we’re in fellowship with God, experiencing His love.
The most basic idea in Christian faith is simply that God is the source of love. The Message Bible translates Genesis 1:26 as: “ ‘Let us make human beings . . . reflecting our nature.’ ” If we truly believe that God created us to reflect godly nature, and if we truly believe that God is love, then if God is present in our lives, we can reflect this love through our actions.
Easy to say, isn’t it? The question is, How? How can we do this in our messed up, broken lives?
Let’s look first at the thing that’s easiest for us to see; we all need love. Most people have heard of the many studies that prove this, as if we needed scientific studies to tell us we need love! Some were conducted at the end of the nineteenth century in orphanages. Babies were well cared for, fed, and kept dry and clean and healthy. Yet they tended to have a high rate of mortality. When volunteers came to spend time the overwhelmed orphanage workers didn’t have, just sitting and holding and rocking the babies, they were much more likely to live.
More studies have been conducted throughout the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first. Surprise! They all show we need love. We have to have it. If we don’t physically die from lack of love, we can die emotionally or spiritually. We can grow up violent and lawless, or silent and isolated. We can end up living in cardboard boxes under freeway underpasses or in mental hospitals. A shocking number of us end up in prisons. It would be interesting to go from cell to cell and ask each inmate, “Have you been well-loved in your life?”
According to Genesis, this was decidedly not God’s plan. God lived in a kind of united community that we cannot begin to understand, so we argue about it all the time. God lived within something we call a Trinity, or Godhead, and even then, began to create other beings to love. This Word of Love eventually created this world, hand-sculpted beings to live on it, personally breathed Life or Spirit into them, and put itself into some sort of form that could walk and talk with them in the cool of the evening.
Astonishing! And, one would think, irresistible. Yet it didn’t take long before the perfect unity of that love was broken by the choices of both the angelic beings and the human ones. Ever since that day, we have all been surrounded by all the infinite love we were originally surrounded with, but we can’t feel it anymore. It’s a dreadful state: I need love!
But I can’t feel love! Some may say they love me, but how do I know it’s true?
Why did the orphans live if they were held and cuddled? Didn’t the workers already love them? Hadn’t they given their lives to working for them, taking in foundlings, rounding up children who were trying to survive in the streets? Didn’t they work tirelessly to raise the money needed, perhaps going without things they needed themselves? Didn’t they work long hours caring for them and keeping their rooms clean, cooking, doing laundry? These babies were already loved, right?
There’s a difference between being loved and feeling loved. God’s extraordinary love is highlighted throughout Scripture. Creation, the gift of the Sabbath, the plan of salvation—all affirm God’s loving nature. Why, then, don’t humans all feel loved? Why is it that, even if we have Bible studies with them, showing them all about Creation, the Sabbath, even the plan of salvation, their eyes don’t just immediately well up with tears of joy because they feel so loved?
The operative word is “feel.” The babies, had they been able to, would have no doubt been thankful for the clean clothes and the food. It certainly was a practical and necessary means of showing them love. Had someone sat down on the curb with a starving street child and held her, she might have felt loved, but only while the hug lasted. She would still be cold, dirty, and hungry. Babies, however, need love in a language they can understand. We all need love in a language we can understand. And one language that is eternal, international, passes all language barriers, and is less likely to be misunderstood is touch.
That’s why God gave us hands and arms. Adam and Eve’s job was to love each other—to become “one flesh.” Throughout the next several millennia, God kept begging people to learn to love each other, and when that wasn’t working out so well, He came Himself.
Jesus put on skin—put on hands and feet and a face that could smile or cry, and came to touch us. The words of God about how much He loves us, how He created this world as a home for us, even how He planned our salvation from before the beginning, these words all suddenly made more sense when the Word became flesh.*