RETURN TO FIRST LOVE
By Pastor Glenn Pease
O Henry tells a short story of the lad who grew up in a small village and sat next to a lovely young lady so innocent and sweet. He left that village for the big city where he got in with the wrong crowd and became a thief and a pick pocket. One day as he was working the crowd, doing quite well, he saw that girl he sat by back in the village. She was still the same fresh, innocent, and sweet girl. He did not want to be seen by her, so he hid, but he was overwhelmed by his memory. He remembered what he had been, and realized what he had become. He leaned his head against the lamp post and said, "God, how I hate myself." That was his turning point. He had the choice to go back to what he once was, or to go on to be more what he was becoming, and that he hated.
The Prodigal Son came to this point and said, "I am going home where I was." That is what repentance is! It is responding to what you remember as a better day, and a better way, and choosing to stop departing from it, but to go back to what was. Repentance is admitting that you once were on a better path that you have now forsaken, and choosing to get back on that better path. We tend to think repentance is for those only who have never been saved, but Jesus makes it clear, repentance is as much for Christians as it is for those being saved for the first time. Christians need to constantly consider if they were once on a better road that they need to return to. They need to ask with William Cowper-
Where is the blessedness I knew,
When first I saw the Lord?
Where is the soul-refreshing view
Of Jesus and His Word?
Revival; renewal, and repentance: They are all the same experience of getting back to first love-to the love that puts Jesus in the center of life. This is not a rare need, but a constant need, because we, as Christians, tend to decline. The idea of perpetual growth does not fit reality. We are usually the best Christians we will ever be when we first fall in love with Jesus. Maybe we are not very sharp in our theology, and wouldn't know a false prophet if we heard one. Maybe we would not spot a heresy if it sat on our nose. But we had a fervent love for our Savior, and we long to make that love known. The best witness for Christ comes from new converts. They don't know how often people don't want to hear their good news, and so they share it with enthusiasm. It is only after a lot of rejection that a Christian tends to withdraw from the sharing of his or her faith. That is why Jesus says we need to become as little children to enter the kingdom of God. It is getting back to the simplicity and enthusiasm of our new birth days that is really the high point of our Christian life. To be childlike in Christ again with a fervant love is the ideal.
Jesus is not anti-maturity, for that is a vital part of the Christian life, but we need to keep going back to that first love and keep it alive as we grow in maturity, or the maturity itself is much ado about nothing. When we first become Christians we are the most normal. We soon grow out of this normalcy and become abnormal. That is why we need revivals to get back to normal. Vance Havner said it as only he could in his book Repent Or Else!
"Revivals should not be necessary. God intended that His people
Should grow in grace without periodic spells of backsliding and
repenting. But so long as we have such a malarial brand of
Christianity, a fever and a chill, a fever and a chill, we shall need revivals. Nor is a revival a mere emotional upheaval. The way out of a stupor is not by getting into a stew. God does not intend that we live in a fever of excitement all the time. The farmer must break up his fallow ground, but if he did only that he would never plant or cultivate or reap. Surgery may be necessary at times but it is not normal to live in a hosptial. What we call revival is simply a return to normal New Testament Christianity. Most of us are so subnormal that if we ever became normal we would be considered abnormal!"
Older Christians acting like younger Christians would seem abnormal, but the fact is, that is what Jesus is looking for in His church. He wants mature Christians who still have the fire of their first love. Jesus does not grow cold in His love for His bride. He does not love His church less now than when He chose to lay down His life for her. He loves her fervently, and He wants that kind of love in return. The idea of love growing dim and fading is based on our weak human nature, and what we experience because we let love slide. Jesus says this is not only not necessary, it is stupid. Love is the best thing we have going for us in any relationship. To just let this decay and grow old and cold is as dumb as catsup on corn flakes. If you are not so dumb as to put catsup on corn flakes, why would you be so dumb as to let love grow cold?
It is stupid, but we do it all the time. We do it with marriage; friends, and with the Lord. We let the most valuable and treasured possessions we can ever have rust away for lack of use, and all because we foolishly buy into the lie that it is normal for love to fade and decay. Jesus says it is not so. First love is capable of being kept alive permanently. You don't have to decline to second love, or third love, and down to a level where love is in the pits. First love can be last love as well. The ideal Christian life is one where the old saints love the Lord just as much as they did the first year of their Chrisitan life. That is what Jesus expects, and not a love that declines so that He ends up far down on the list of priorities.
Jesus is not interested in being one of your possessions you just had to have, and then after the novelty wore off, got stuck in the garage or attic where it sits neglected because your love has found other objects to entice it. He expects to be on a first love basis with His bride, or she will be set aside. This is exactly what God expected from His people in the Old Testament, and why many of them were set aside, and only a remnant being used to fulfill His plan. In Jer. 2:2 God says, "Go and shout this in Jerusalem's streets: The Lord says, I remember how eager you were to please me as a young bride long ago and how you loved me and followed me even through the barren deserts." God remembered those good old days, but they did not. They took after other gods and lost their first love, and God had to send them away into exile.
The number one cause for all failure in life is the forsaking of first love. People fall in love and life is grand, but they don't stay there, or come back to that love when they drift away. They just keep on going and their love dies. They fall in love with God and the Lord Jesus, but then they get all tied up with many other things, and their love for Jesus is pushed to the back burner. The world is full of use-to-be Christians. They have now found other loves, and have lost their first love. The strange thing is that they are not necessarily no longer part of the church. These Ephesians were still going strong in the church, and they had all kinds of qualities, but they had forsaken their first love. Good Christian people who seemed to be busy as can be in church work can still be a victim of this dread disease of loss of first loveitis.
Love never fails, but lack of love sure does. In fact, lack of love is sure to fail, and this can happen to the best of Christians. Here is a good orthodox church. They were zealous and hard working, and ready to endure hardship for Christ, bu they were about to be set on the shelf because of their loss of first love motivation. They do not lose their salvation, but they lose the chance to be used, because without love a church is just not a useable channel for Christ.
How in the world can this be? We can assume it is a fairly common problem, for it is the first problem Jesus deals with, and it has the most servere threat of any of the problems. The removable of the lamp stand is the most radical warning Jesus gives to the seven churches. We can assume that over the centuries Jesus has closed up shop in many churches because they forsook their first love. How does it happen? Most see the issue here to be one of competition where good things become so dominant they choke out the best. We are deceived if we think that it is only evil we need to be aware of as an enemy. The good can be the worst enemy of the best. Many Christians lose their effectiveness for Christ by pursuing good things at the expense of the best. The best is love for Christ on the level of first love intensity. There is no value more pleasing to Christ, and more useful for both the church and the world.
The good, in the case of the Ephesians, seems to be there pre-occupation with orthodoxy. They have tested those who claim to be Apostles and have found them false. They have also been very intolerant of wicked men, and they hate the practices of the Nicolaiatans. They are doctrinally and morally sound, and this is a good thing to be. But apparently they have let these good things rob them of the best, for they have in their diligent pursuit of doctrinal and moral purity let their first love decay. They now have more enthusiasm for being doctrinally correct than they do for loving Christ and those He died to save.
What are they suppose to do? Are they to let a few heretics in once in awhile, and tolerate a little immorality in the church? Of course not! That is not what Jesus is seeking. He commends them for the good goals they have reached. It is just that they have paid too high a price to reach them. You can stay doctrinally correct and morally pure without becoming so fanatical that you forget your calling is to love God with all your being and your neighbor as yourself. It is life's easiest mistake to make, and that is why we are all guilty of making it. We let the good rob us of the best.
G. Campbell Morgan, the prince of expositors, told of a friend of his who loved to spend time with his daughter. They just enjoyed each others company, and then suddenly she was too busy for him, and always made excuses to avoid their usual walks. He was puzzled and grieved, but said nothing. Then came his birthday, and she gave him an exquisitely worked pair of slippers. "Darling," he said, "It was so good of you to buy me these." She said, "Oh, father, I didn't buy them, I made them for you." He said, "Is this why you have been so busy the last three months?" "Yes," she replied. He said, "My darling, I like these slippers very much, but next time buy the slippers and walk with me. I would rather have my child than anything she can make for me." She had robbed him of the best for the sake of the good. If you think only bad stuff is the enemy, you will be easily deceived. It is usually something good that is the enemy of the best.
Every neglected child and mate is usually neglected for something good, and every Christian who forsakes his first love usually does so for the pursuit of what is good, true, and beautiful. But it is not the best and what the Savior most desires. The poet David G. Ganton wrote:
O church of Christ,
Of native love bereft,
Come back again
To that first love you left.
Your prudent works
You have not failed to do,
But you have left
The love which once you knew.
And zeal for truth and right,
Your patient care
Are worthy in His sight.
But all is vain
Unless impelled by love,
Thrice-pledged, to Him
Who lives and reigns above.
Repent, Oh church,
And seek again to know
That first constraining love
Of long ago.
Knowing how to hate evil is good, but it is not the best. Knowing how to spot a phony apostle is good, but it is not the best. Hard work and perseverance is good, but it is not the best. Enduring hardships for Christ is good, but it is not the best. There is only one best, and that is first love, and without that all the good in the world will not make you qualified to represent the Christ who revealed just how much God is love. Christian zeal can lead to the same things as happens to the workaholic. The father and husband goes off to work to provide for family. It is the labor of love, but soon he is in love with his labor, and before long he is neglecting the family he is laboring to provide for, and he can get so obsessed with his job that he even loses that family for which he went off to work. It can happen to the Christian. He or she can get so into Christian work that they begin to neglect Bible study and prayer, and even church attention. They are working like the devil for the Lord, and they do not realize they are serving the devil rather than the Lord because they have let their love for Christ grow cold.
How would you like it if you worked on your master piece for 35 years and then showed it to the queen, and she said, "It is awful, amusing, and it is artificial." Well, that is exactly what happened to the great architect Sir Christopher Wren. After he labored 35 years to rebuild St. Paul's Cathedral in London, after the great fire of 1666, he escorted her majesty Queen Anne through his life's work and waited breathlessly for her response. And, believe it or not, he was pleased when she said it is awful, amusing, and artificial. Had the years of labor relieved him of his senses? Not at all! This was back in 1710 when these words still had their original meaning. Awful meant awe-inspiring. Amusing meant amazing. Artificial meant artistic. She was complimenting him.
That is what John Claypool was doing too when he said, "God is an amateur. People were shocked and felt it was a put down, but they were reading into the word amateur something that was not there in its original meaning. Amateur goes back to the Latin root amore which means to love, and originally it referred to a person who did something for the love of it. They did not sign a contract and get big bucks. They did not have a court order forcing them to do it. They did what they did because they loved to do it. They did it freely and for free out of love of the sport or whatever.
God was not forced to create the universe. God was not paid to provide a Savior for the human race. He was not coerced by a greater power to send His Son into the world. Why did He do it then? It was because He wanted to. It is was because He loved to do it. God does everything, not because He has to, but because He wants to. Nobody pays Him for anything. He is an amateur who does all He does because He loves to do it. The Gospel is not, God felt so obligated; God felt so duty bound; God felt so pressured, but rather, God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son. He did it out of love. That is what God wants in return from His children. He does not want slaves who feel bound to obey. He does not want pros who only do His will for a price. He wants amateurs who will do it because they love it, and it is their pleasure and joy.
When the Christian loses this amateur status and goes pro, he has forsaken his first love, for first love is amateur love. It is love that says, "I serve Christ and His church because I want to. I read the Bible because I want to. I pray and strive to witness for Christ because I want to. I do all a Christian should do because I love to do it." That is what a amateur is: One who does what he does for the love of it. But that can change, and the amateur Christians can soon be saying, "I have to go to church tonight. I have to study my lesson for tomorrow. I have to write out a check for the church. All of the sudden the Christian life is not lived for the love of it, but out of duty and obligation. The Christian slips back under law and now is a pro under contract with God. Everything is now part of a deal. I'll do this for God if He will do that for me. Such a Christian can do work for the kingdom of God, but as Jesus makes clear, if that is the kind of Christian he wanted, he never would have bothered to replace the legalistic system with the grace of the New Testament.
God had all the pros He could endure in the Scribes and Pharisees. He wanted amateurs who would live for Him and obey Him just for the love of it. Lose that amateur status and you are facing being taken off the team, for he who does not serve Christ for the love of it will not be a witness to the grace of God. He will more likely convey to the world that God is law, and not that God is love. When a candle begins to give off more black smoke than light, it is time to remove it. So Jesus says that He will remove that church which does not get back to being amateur for Christ.
The problem with hating evil is that we get so good at it that we don't even need the Lord. We can forsake our love for Him and forget His goal was to seek and save the lost, and get so wrapped up in fighting some evil cause that we totally forget why we are even here as the church. It is one of the of the high risks of Christians getting involved in any attack on evil. Jesus did not say don't do it, but He said to these Ephesians that it is in their favor that they do hate the Nicolaitans. But the fact is, they were pre-occupied with their hate and had forsaken their love. The end result is they lost their battle with hate also for they would be removed from the battle.
The bottom line for the church is never what are you against, but what or who are you for? A church that does not love is a failure no matter how much evil it hates. Though I hate all the heresy of our day, and though I despise the false cults and abhor the immorality of the culture, if I have not love, I am nothing:nothing that matters in the long run, for hating evil does not have the power to save anyone. God will judge all evil, and your hatred of it will add nothing to that judgement. Only love can save and make an ultimate difference.
Every Christian need to examine their emotions in the light of Christ's words here. Is my hate a flame that burns brightly where all can see while my love is a burnt out lamp? If hate is ever brighter than love, you have forsaken your first love. Love should always be conspicuous over hate. It is love that covers a multitude of sins. First love forgives and labors to keep the path smooth. Only when it fades does the flame of hate take precedence, and then one becomes very critical and no longer forgiving. The negatives of life form a team and life revolves around the negatives. This is why marriages fail. This is why churches fail, and this is why Christians become a pain in the world rather than a power to make a difference.
What is the answer to all the lack of love that spoils marriages and the ministry of the church? Jesus says the solution starts with remembering the height from which you have fallen. You remember what was; you repent for what now is, and you return to what ought to be. Here are the three R's for all renewal: Remember, repent, and return. These are three things all people can chose to do. You don't need any magic formula or religious ritual, you just do it. You start with remembering. Remember when your love for Christ was sacrificial and not superficial. You were willing go out of your way to serve Him. You would go the second mile. You were glad to be a servant of Christ.
Remember the good old days when He was the central motivating love of your life. When you remember this, you will recognize that you have let Him, who was the center, slip out to the edge of your life. Jesus will not tolerate being just one of many commitments. He expects to be number one on any list. Remember what is once was and get back there. This is a dear John letter in reverse. He is not saying, "Dear Ephesus I have left you, but, dear Ephesus you have left me. Get back to your first love, or I will leave you."
Jesus expects commitment to be taken seriously. Jesus is saying to His bride, "I miss the honeymoon where you were so devoted to me." The Lord is longing for that first love. This church is apparently so busy fighting evil they have little time for loving and worship. Maybe that is why the book of Revelation is so full of the scenes of worship in heaven. Jesus does not get much on earth, and He reveals to His bride how the angels of heaven adore Him, and they were not even redeemed by His blood. How much more ought Christians to adore the Lord who bought them by His sacrifice? Jesus not only longs for the love of His bride, He demands that they remember and return to their first love.