We pulled up to a stop sign behind a large black SUV. Suddenly the driver jumped out. I thought he was rushing to help someone in need until a woman opened the passenger door shouting, “Come back!” When the man kept walking, she screamed, “I hate you!”
As we pulled around the still-running SUV and turned right onto the cross street, the man strode down the sidewalk, ignoring both the pleas and abuse hurled at him by the woman.
My wife, Lanell, and I drove away deeply disturbed by the couple’s anger. Why were they so angry that he could abandon her at a stop sign, that she could stand on a city street corner shouting curses at the man she once must have loved?
ANGER AT INJUSTICE
It’s easy to say: “Thank God, I’m not like that couple!” But how often do we get angry at:
The driver who darts into the parking space we’ve been waiting for.
Coworkers who talk nice to our face but spread lies behind our back.
A classmate who cheated on an exam and received a better grade than we did.
Church members, supposed brothers and sisters in Christ, whose cold, cliquish ways finally snap our last nerve.
Racist or sexist comments by close friends or family members who try to justify their views with biblical references.
Anger and punishment seem the appropriate responses to people who have harmed us.
Jesus’ disciple John and his brother James knew what it was like to get angry over the actions of others. They erupted so often that Jesus called them “Boanerges, which means ‘sons of thunder’ ” (Mark 3:17).*
But after following Jesus for six decades, John was transformed from a son of thunder to an apostle of love. John answers the question “Why should I love someone when their actions deserve not love but justice and punishment?” in 1 John 4:7-12.
WE LOVE BECAUSE GOD IS LOVE
“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:7, 8).
John calls us to base our love for others not on their nature, but on God’s nature, because God is the source of love. Our love for others identifies us as God’s children.
John adds in 1 John 4:8: “Whoever does not love does not know God.” Why? Because “God is love”! If we don’t love one another, we don’t possess God’s DNA; we don’t really know Him.
Some time ago Lanell spotted peaches growing on the hill below our deck. The idea of peach trees surviving amid the thorns and vines covering the hill seemed impossible, but when we hacked a trail down the steep bank, we harvested juicy, sweet, freestone peaches. The surrounding thorns and vines had no effect on what fruit the trees bore.
Why should we love one another? Because our love for others shows we are born of God and know God. Other people’s actions have no effect on the love we share.
Jesus’ reaction to His disciples’ ill-treatment of children (Mark 10:13-16), to leaders who accused a woman of adultery (John 8:1-11), and to leaders who used the temple services to enrich themselves (Matt. 21:12, 13) shows that our love for others cannot ignore or excuse injustice. But how can we love the unjust while defending their victims?
GOD'S SPECIAL LOVE MESSAGE
“This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:9, 10).
Because we rebelled against God, we deserve justice and punishment. When we walked away from God, He could have abandoned us, but instead the good news is that God “sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.”
Lest we misunderstand the radical nature of God’s love, John makes it explicit in 1 John 4:10. “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us.”
When we deserved justice and punishment for walking away from God, God showed how much He loved us by sending “his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (verse 10).Jesus died the death we should have died as sinners. Instead of judging us for our sins, He justified us by taking our pain and punishment so that we could be free of guilt.
We often define justice as punishment because we misunderstand the relationship between love and true justice. The strongest form of human justice, the death penalty, may prevent the murderer from murdering again, but it’s incomplete justice, because it can’t revive the dead. Only Jesus’ death and resurrection provide true justice, because He has destroyed the enemy of death and promises to reverse the effects of sin and restore us to our pre-sin condition. That’s the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection. But we still face the question “Why then should we love someone when their actions deserve not love but justice and punishment?”
John’s first answer is Because God is love.
John’s second answer is Because God loved us so much that He sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
If someone saved me but died in the process, I would certainly owe them my life and love. But how would their actions motivate me to love someone else?
LOVING OTHERS BECAUSE GOD LOVED ME
“You won’t believe who I saw today,” my older daughter told me on the phone.
“I saw Dr. Habal in Staples!”
Thirty-five years earlier Dr. Habal had given our 1-year-old Janell the gift of life. Born with a closed left suture line, Janell’s head grew asymmetrically, her left eye socket and forehead unable to expand as her brain grew.
Janell’s questioning look as an orderly carried her through the doors into the operating room haunted us until six hours later Dr. Habal emerged from surgery and said, “I did a perfect job.”
He had cut Janell’s scalp from ear to ear, pulled her face down, rebuilt her left forehead and eye orbit so her face was now symmetrical, cut a half-inch expansion space in the top of her skull to allow for future growth, pulled her face back up, and sewed everything in place. He had done a perfect job.
From the moment Dr. Habal resculpted Janell’s head, she began to thrive. On the day when she called, she had stopped at Staples and recognized the surgeon who had operated on her and followed up with her for years. She walked up to him and asked,
“Yes, but how do you know who I am?”
“You operated on me when I was 12 months old.”
Why did Janell speak to Dr. Habal? She wanted to thank him for saving her from physical and mental disability. But she also told him that she was now a nurse practitioner because the gift of life he had given her had inspired her to help and heal others.
Why do we love others? Not out of obligation, but out of sheer thankfulness for what God has done for us. Jesus’ atoning sacrifice for our sins transforms us. We want to pass on the blessing to others by loving them!
WHEN GOD'S LOVE BECOMES VISIBLE
“Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (1 John 4:11, 12).
First John 4:11 seems the perfect ending for John’s call to love one another, but John continues in 1 John 4:12 with a strange interjection: “No one has ever seen God.”
Why does John mention God’s invisibility after he calls us to “love one another”?
In today’s selfie-focused world, image is more important than character. One’s outward appearance—the hairstyle, clothing, the carefully curated social media photos—often count more than listening to a friend fighting cancer, being a big brother or sister to a foster child, volunteering at a hospice for homeless veterans, or leading a small-group Bible study.
God loves beautiful images—look at His creation that surrounds us—but that’s not how He has chosen to reveal Himself to a sinful world addicted to selfie photos. Instead John writes,“No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (1 John 4:12).
Rainbows help us understand the relationship between God’s invisibility and John’s call for us to love one another.
Sunlight is invisible until it passes through a medium such as airborne water droplets or vapor. Each wavelength of light travels through a raindrop at a different speed and is refracted or bent at a different angle, separating sunlight into the visible color bands of the rainbow.
It’s no accident that John says in 1 John 1:5 that “God is light” and in 1 John 4:8 reiterates that “God is love.” Our love for others is the visible reflection of God’s light in the world. As we love others, each act of love becomes a different color in the portrait of God we are revealing to others. And the colors of love’s rainbow are as infinite as those through whom it shines.
Each person we meet needs God’s love. Some may deserve justice and punishment, but what they need is to know that first, God is love; second, God sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for their sins; and third, the same God who lives in us wants to live in them. When God lives in us and His love shines through us, John concludes, “His love is made complete in us.” At first I thought John meant that my ability to love was made complete, but when I considered the infinite different colors that make up the spectrum of light, I realized there is a unique color of God’s love that only I can reveal. The way we reflect and refract God’s love in this world completes the portrait of God. His love is invisible. It is incomplete without the colors of love we reflect to others. That is ultimately why John tells us, “Dear friends, let us love one another.”
* All Scripture quotations have been taken from the New International Version.