THE SUPREME VIRTUE
By Pastor Glenn Pease
Pitiram Sorokin in his book The Ways And Power Of Love tells of how in 1918 he was hunted down by the Communist Government of Russia. He was imprisoned and condemned to death. Everyday he expected to be shot as he witnessed the shootings of his friends and fellow prisoners. For 4 years he underwent endless horrors of human cruelty, death, and destruction. In spite of all this he was an excellent example of the power of positive thinking.
He wrote this in his diary while in prison: "Whatever may happen in the future, I know that I have learned 3 things which will remain forever convictions of my heart as well as my mind. Life, even the hardest life, is the most beautiful, wonderful, and miraculous treasure in the world. Fulfillment of duty is another marvelous thing making life happy. This is my second conviction. And my third is that cruelty, hatred, violence, and injustice never can and never will be able to create a mental, moral, or material millenium. The only way toward it is the royal road of all-giving creative love, not only preached but consistently practiced."
This all-giving creative love he writes of is the agape love of the New Testament. God spared Sorokin that he might preach and practice this love. He became one of the most voluminous writers of modern times in the area of Sociology. He established the Harvard Research Center in Creative Altruism. Altruism is another word for the love of others. After years of study and experiments Sorokin believes he has established the following truth scientifically:
"Unselfish love has enormous creative and therapeutic potentialities far greater than most people think. Love is a life-giving force, necessary for physical, mental, and moral health.
Altruistic persons live longer than egoistic individuals.
Children deprived of love tend to become vitally, morally, and socially defective.
Love is the most powerful antidote against criminal, morbid, and suicidal tendencies; against hate, fear, psychoneuroses.
It is an indispensable condition for deep and lasting happiness.
Only the power of unbounded love practiced in regard to all human beings can defeat the forces of interhuman strive.
It is goodness and freedom at their loftiest."
He feels he has established the fact scientifically which the New Testament proclaims, and that is that love is the supreme virtue. It is the pinnacle of perfection. It the weapon that will ultimately win over all the forces of darkness. He says that the finest fruit of scientific thinking is identical to the finest fruit of the Spirit, which is agape love. Science is a precise method for interpreting and controlling nature, and when it comes to human nature the key factor in interpreting and controlling it is love. More and more people in the fields of psychology, psychiatry, and sociology are recognizing this fact that life without love just will not work.
Smiley Blanton, and American psychiatrist, has written a book titled Love Or Perish. He writes, "For more than 40 years I have sat in my office and listened while people of all ages and classes told me of their hopes and fears, their likes and dislikes, and of what they considered good or bad about themselves and the world around them....As I look back over the long, full years, one truth emerges clearly in my mind-the universal need for love. Whether they think they do or not, all people want love.....They cannot survive without love: they must have it or they will perish."
A psychiatrist at a mental institution in Peoria, Ill. Says: "No matter what a psychiatrist knows he cannot cure a patient with knowledge. Someone has to love that patient, for the lack of love produced the neurosis. And only love can cure it." Dr. Karl Menninger, the noted authority in the world of medicine and psychiatry, said, "Love is the medicine for the sickness of the world." He tells his staff, which includes doctors, nurses, orderlies, and cleaning people, that the most important thing they can offer a patient is love. When people learn to give an receive love they recover from most of their illnesses. The biggest health problem in the world is the inability to love and receive love. Love is the greatest gift, and God gave us this gift in the giving of His Son.
Paul made it clear in I Cor. 13 that he could have all gifts and powers that anyone could ever hope to have, but if he lacked love he would be nothing. Peter agrees with Paul, and that is why he puts love at the top. We can be a very fine person with many virtues, but without this supreme virtue of love we can never be Christ-like in the way that really counts. There would be no Gospel if God lacked this love, and there would be no communication of the Gospel if Christians lack it. It is far more comprehensive than brotherly love. That is a love that is exclusive for those who are brothers in Christ. Agape love is that which covers all that the New Testament says about our love for neighbors and enemies. It is a universal love. It is the only kind of love adequate to meet the human situation because it is not a matter of affection, but a matter of unconditional acceptance.
A love that depends upon feeling and affection would be so limited as to be of no value at all in relation to enemies, and of little value in relation to most other people. You can only have true affection for very few people, and so we have to get the idea out of our mind that when we speak of agape love we are speaking of some kind of emotion or affection. Agape love is unconditional acceptance of another person. It does not demand anything. Emotional love demands attraction, affection, and some kind of benefit, but agape demands nothing. The only perfect example is God's love for us. It was while we were yet sinners that Christ died for us. This means that God's love was expressed before we responded in faith. God loved man in an absolutely unconditional manner, and He required nothing of man before He gave His Son to die for their sins.
This was the kind of love Jesus displayed as He went about doing good and healing all manner of disease, both physical and spiritual. The law said, if you do this I will accept you, but the love of Christ said, I accept you, therefore, do this. Agape love is the difference between law and grace. The only way we can carry on the effectiveness of Christ is to add to our lives this supreme virtue of love.
Paul Tillich looking at it from the practical and scientific point of view wrote, "You cannot help people who are in psychosomatic distress by telling them what to do. You can help them only by giving them something and by accepting them....Only then can one accept himself. It is never the other way around. That was the plight of Luther in his struggle against the distorted late Roman Church which wanted that men make themselves first acceptable and then God would accept them. But it is always the other way around. First you must be accepted. Then you can accept yourself, and that means, you can be healed. Illness, and the largest sense of body, soul and spirit, is estrangement." The power of the Gospel is, therefore, the power of love and reconciliation. God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself. The sense of estrangement is not necessary, for God because of Christ accepts everyone unconditionally.
We do not love in the New Testament sense unless we can accept people unconditionally. If we demand anything of people before we accept them we fall short of agape love. This great truth can be perverted if we assume that God's acceptance of the sinner is the same as the salvation of the sinner. The liberal tends to do this, and by doing so weakens the Gospel of love by not going beyond acceptance by God to repentance and salvation. The conservative on the other hand is repelled back from the idea of telling the world they are reconciled to God, and they weaken the Gospel of love by changing its unconditional nature. This puts the sinner in the position of having to do something to win God's love and be accepted.
Both of these perversions of love have hindered the cause of Christ. The liberal perversion brings into the church those who are not made whole by conversion. The conservative error keeps out of the church those who would be converted and made whole if they were accepted in love. This greatest weapon for spiritual warfare is like any major physical weapon. It is complicated and technical, and it calls for a trained and skilled operator. To be effective uses of love we cannot afford to be ignorant of its nature anymore than a soldier can afford to be handling atomic weapons when he does not understand them.
It is one thing to be down on the launching pad of faith, but quite another to be way up in orbit controlling the ship of love. When we come to the top position in any field we have a great deal of responsibility, and so when we come to this supreme virtue and ultimate weapon against evil we have a great responsibility as Christian soldiers. If we want to be successful in soaring high into the atmosphere of Christ-like love, there are some important things we need to know about love. We cannot deal with them all now, but the major thing we need to understand is that-
LOVE IS EXTREMELY EXPENSIVE.
None of the weapons of spiritual warfare come cheap, but in comparison to love they are the parachute and love is the airplane. It costs to climb to love in Christian maturity. It cost God His Son to love, and it cost Christ His life to love, and a great deal of sacrifice while He lived. Richard Trench has put into poetry some of the things that Jesus didn't do because He loved.
He might have reared a palace at His word,
Who sometime had not where to lay His head;
Time was when He who fed the crowds with bread
Would not one crust unto Himself afford.
Twelve legions, girded with angelic sword
Where at His beck, the scorned and buffeted.
He healed another's scratch, His own side bled,
Side, feet, and hands with cruel piercings gored,
O wonderful the wonders left undone.
And scarce less wonderful than those He wrought.
O love divine, passing all human thought,
To have all power yet be as having none.
O self-effacing love that thought alone
For others needs, but never for His own.
Self-sacrifice is the very essence of agape love. It is costly because it is always giving regardless of whether it is receiving or not. Stephen Neill writes, "Love in the Bible sense of the word is always concerned with self-giving. It is never merely feeling; it always includes a steady direction of the will toward another's lasting good." Now that is easy to say, and love is easy to define, and fairly easy to understand, but if you think it is easy to practice, you are deceived. This kind of love is unnatural. Love for family, friends, and brothers in Christ is easier because there is a natural bond, but to love the stranger, the unlovable, and the enemy is to love across a chasm with no bridge. It is contrary to the natural tendencies of man. That is why agape love is so expensive. It is custom made, and can only be possessed as we participate in the divine nature. This is demanding and calls for costly commitment.
Soren Kierkegaard, the great Danish theologian, in his Works Of Love recognized this truth and said, "It is easier to become a Christian when I am not a Christian than to become a Christian when I am one." It is easier to enter the kingdom on ground level by faith in Christ than it is to climb to the heights of the kingdom by taking up the cross and following Christ all the way. To take up the cross and to add love to your life amounts to the same thing, and this is costly. Kierkegaard said that the Christians of his day rationalized and said that the command to love your neighbor as yourself was intentionally severe. It was like setting the clock a half hour ahead so as to be sure not to be late. This is really not necessary, however, if you are wise and careful, and so they made love easy and cheapened it.
Another way to cut down on the expense of love is to limit it to language. Love language can be beautiful and the cost is almost nothing. Beautiful expressions can be easily learned and used like well written poems for birthday cards. They make it easy to take care of a love obligation. This loving by words is like a tree with beautiful leaves but no fruit. It has aesthetic value but no practical life sustaining value. Leaves are allowed to take the place of fruit. It is easy and cheap, but in the long run more costly than sacrificial agape love. Israel was cut off because of its fruitlessness, and Jesus says every branch in Him that does not bare fruit shall be cut off. That is why John warns Christians in these words: "My little children, let us not live in word or in tongue but in deed and in truth." This is the hard way, and the expensive way, but the only way to be truly Christ-like and fruitful.
The reason it is so hard and costly to love in action and sacrifice is because it is so contrary to our natural tendencies, and to the value system of the world. We can only be Christ-like when we make Christ the supreme object of our devotion. We cannot bear the cost of love apart from a full commitment to Christ who alone can impart such love. The burden can be made lighter, but not the cost. The poet put it-
Love came to me with a crown, I took it and laid it down.
Love came to me and said, Wear it upon thy head.
Tis too heavy, I cannot wear it, I have not strength enough to bear it.
Then my soul's beloved spake, Saying, wear it for my sake.
When lo! The crown of love grew light, and I wore it in all men's sight.
When we do all we do for the sake of Christ, the burden is lighter, but the fact remains that the cost is no cheaper. It would all be so easy if we just had to love God, for He is unchangeable and there is security in loving Him. But there is great uncertainty and risk in loving those close to you, let alone the neighbor, the stranger, and the enemy. St. Augustine in his confessions tells of how the death of his friend Nebridius plunged him into despair. This is what comes, he says, of giving your heart to anything but God. All human beings pass away, and so he reasons, do not let your happiness depend on something you may loose. If love is to be a blessing, not a misery, it must be for the only Beloved who will never pass away."
Augustine's thinking is clouded by his grief, for what he is doing is seeking a love that is not so expensive. He wants an easy and secure love in God alone where there is no risk. Scripture commands us to love Him supremely, but not Him solely. C. S. Lewis read this passage from Augustine and responded like this in his book The Four Loves: "Of course this is excellence sense. Don't put your goods in a leaky vessel. Don't spend too much on a house you may be turned out of. And there is no man alive who responds more naturally than I to such canny maxims. I am a safety-first creature. Of all arguments against love none makes so strong an appeal to my nature as "Careful." This might lead you to suffering."
But he goes on to say that when he responds to that appeal he feels a thousand miles away from Christ. He writes, "If I am sure of anything, I am sure that His teaching was never meant to confirm my congenital preference for safe investments and limited liabilities. I doubt whether there is anything in me that pleases Him less." There is no way to make love cheap and please Christ. Love costs, and there is no escape. It is a risk every time, and loss is certain. To think you can love and escape tears is to be blind to the risks of love. You cannot love a dog and escape suffering, for the dog will die or be killed. If you love, you are opening your heart to suffering and disappointment. All the sorrows of Jesus were due to His loving. He wept at the tomb of Lazarus his friend. He wept over Jerusalem. His heart was saddened because the rich young ruler, whom He loved, turned and left Him. There is no easy way to love by which you can escape the suffering it brings.
C. S. Lewis wrote, "The only place outside heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is hell." Lack of love is even more costly, however, for the price of it is hell. In the long run love is the best bargain in the universe, but we must ever be aware that it is nevertheless extremely expensive. A. J. Gossip put it, "You will not stroll into Christ-likeness with your hands in your pockets shoving the door open with a careless shoulder." You will be Christ-like only at great expense and sacrifice. So lets stop kidding ourselves, and get out of our safety zones and begin to march into enemy territory and claim it for Christ. We do this by paying the cost to love all whom God loves. It is expensive, but it is worth the cost for when we have this we are in possession of the Supreme Virtue.