“From whence comes love?” asked the nineteenth century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. If love comes from inside a person, can we find it? Can we go deeper and deeper into his interior and find it somewhere there? Kierkegaard would answer, “no,” because the beginning of human love is God’s love. It is like looking at a stream. Though you may see the stream, you cannot see its source. Though the stream may flow or dry up, the source may remain full. So, it is with God’s love. We cannot fully behold its source, but we can see its outflow.
John the Evangelist points to two related outflows of God’s love. The first is that Christ laid down his life for us (1 John 3:16). This is the supreme demonstration of love. “For us” Christ gave up the glory of heaven and condescended to earth. “For us” Christ loved us and gave his life as a ransom for our sin. Though we spit on him, mocked him, and nailed him to a cross, his love “for us” remained. If you want to know what love is, look to Christ, look at his hands nail-pierced for you.
The second outflow of love John points to is our obligation to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters (1 John 3:16). If the goal of love was only to evoke an emotion in one’s self, love would be selfish. We would only extend acts of love, when they made us feel good or benefited us in some way. Christ has demonstrated that true love is outwardly focused, always looking out for the welfare of another.
How do we know if we are living in this type of true love? John gives an example, “If someone has the necessities for life and sees his brother or sister has need and bars his heart from them, how can God’s love live in that person (1 John 3:17 my translation)?” If we cannot do such a simple act, how can we say we are living in God’s love?
For centuries many Christian communities have been marked by this love. It has overflowed their communities into the larger society. The Roman Emperor Julian once lamented, “…the impious Galileans [an insulting reference to Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.”
Christian love is an open-hearted and open-handed kinship within a Christian community, which overflows to all society.