We have just come through the month of Valentine’s Day and have been reminded of love generally, and romantic love specifically. It is a wonderful theme. An old song says: “It’s love that makes the world go round.” The Apostle wrote, “There are three things which last: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). St John said, “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7). As far as the Bible is concerned love is the central theme and is mentioned 310 times (KJ version): 131 in the Old Testament and 179 times in the New.
The different themes and types of love are what most of the world’s songs and poems are about. We exalt this theme above all others, and yet curiously it is the hardest challenge of life to meet consistently. We all fail at it, fall short of it and give way to its opposites in terms of bitterness, racism, prejudices, resentment, indifference, or even hatred. Something seems to be wrong. We want love and need love. We strive for it and are frustrated if we do not find it. We feel guilty when we do not express it.
Maybe these realities have within them the seeds of a deeper message. We are born and destined for love, but we need Divine Help in reaching and achieving it. The big clue comes when St. Paul writes: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit which has been given to us” (Romans 5:5). In other words our God who is love needs to indwell us by His Spirit to enable us to bring forth its expression. The Apostle reiterates this truth when love heads the list of “the Fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:22.
For sure we need the Spirit’s enabling so that love for spouse or children does not wear thin, so that love for friends does not become possessive and selfish, so that physical and romantic love does not become lust. In fact we also have to register that Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount gives us a real theology of love for those we don’t like and even for enemies. I have a book on my shelves called Enemy Love. This is a revolutionary requirement given to believers by our Lord. My former co-leader of the AE Ministry, Bishop Festo Kivengere, was thus able to write a book midst the convulsions of Uganda in the seventies entitled I Love Idi Amin. That didn’t mean he liked or approved of what he did, but it meant he was committed to covet the highest and the best for Idi Amin, even including his Christian salvation.
So love’s requirements are very comprehensive and they need to control all our relationships of every sort. Thus we also need to embrace afresh the biblical love principles governing sexual behaviour and stable family life and marriage. Indeed, love requires us to work out its mandates in practical care and action. In our own country it is Christian love and concern which needs to reach as never before to the poor, spiritually lost, marginalised, deprived and often broken people all around us. This challenge is staring the South African Church in the face as almost never before.
This perhaps brings us to another type of love, namely love for our country. Our Lord wants us to engage with the overall needs of the country where we are domiciled. Many feel, including yours truly, that this country is in real trouble. Love will not allow us to discard or abandon it. Above all, we need to register afresh that, “Righteousness exalts a nation” (Proverbs 13:24). Obviously the corollary is also true that unrighteousness will take a nation downhill. In fact, I believe that perhaps as never before the Church needs to engage with the needs of this country and seek to see an end of corruption, economic injustice, and inequalities.
In fact we need what I once called The Politics of Love in a book I wrote back in 1991 by that title. In that book I quoted the late and great Dr Edgar Brookes, parliamentarian, historian and professor of political science: “Love is a political virtue – shall we call it the unfound political virtue? And one to which we must strive to approximate. If justice is a political virtue, then so is love. Justice, too, can never be more than an approximation in states as we know them, but that does not mean that it must not be tried. The world languishes because love is being tried so little. It is imperative that it must be admitted into the field of political thought: only so will at least an attempt at an approximation be made.”
In the case of Wilberforce (1759-1833), his love of Christ and his love of people drove him to labour relentlessly for some fifty years in the British parliament to secure the abolition of slavery. Love of Christ and of people bred in him a profound sense of human dignity and value, and this was the primary motivation in his epic crusade.
The engine of change
For Wilberforce and others who were caught up in the eighteenth-century Wesleyan revival, Christian love led naturally into a sense of responsibility to care politically for the poor, the broken and defenceless. While not all were guilty of making others poor, all were responsible to do something about it. And so it was that Christian love in Wilberforce and his friends gave birth to a moral sentiment that permanently changed England’s attitude to distant and defenceless peoples and to her own brutal and degraded masses at home. Love was no sloppy irrelevance: it was the engine of change.
So we need to pray for spiritual renewal in the Church of South Africa, for new prophetic voices to arise, for new movements of prayer and for new awareness amongst our political and business leaders of the importance of integrity and Christian morality. These characteristics also need to define the Church if we are to have any credibility in our society.