The gospel message of Jesus is about love. God is love, and God wants us to reflect this reality to the world around us. But while Christians have been taught this simple reality for years, it’s easy to complicate the love of God. Here are five common ways we continually mess it up.
1. By Idolizing Theology
If theology doesn’t help you love God and love others more passionately — you’re doing it wrong.
Unfortunately, too many Christians, pastors, theologians, churches, and institutions use theology to withhold the love of God. They idolize theories, formulas, ideas, doctrines, translations, interpretations, and denominations instead of loving their own neighbors as they would themselves (Matt. 22:39).
Suddenly, instead of looking at people with a Christ-like love, we start judging them. We ask ourselves: Are they sinning? Are they going to hell? Are their beliefs absolutely correct? Subtly, we start putting qualifications and limitations on our love, categorizing others and wondering if they even deserve to be loved — they do!
The Bible is divinely inspired to point us to God and isn’t meant to be an academic textbook creating divisions, rifts, and distracting analysis. Don’t let your study of God devolve into an obsession over data, facts, and information, turning into pride, judgment, and a way to alienate others — make it about strengthening your relationship with Jesus.
By doing this, we can achieve what Jesus continually preached was most important: loving God and loving others.
2. By Worshipping Religion Instead of God
Religious communities, churches, schools, organizations, and institutions usually help people strengthen their relationship with God — sometimes they do the opposite.
They can be co-opted by wayward leaders, misguided motivations, and poor management in order to prioritize growth, success, and power instead of focusing on God and loving others. If the fruits of the Spirit aren’t exhibited — it’s not the love of God.
We can go our entire lives faithfully serving a church, following a pastor, and adhering to religious traditions while simultaneously never following God — never mistake religion as the same thing as a relationship with Christ.
3. By Valuing Our Politics and Opinions More Than Our Relationship with God
The gospel of Christ isn’t meant to be a platform to support one political party over another, or prove that our ideas are better than yours, or to be wielded, manipulated, and contorted to fit worldly agendas, motives, and movements.
While the love of God certainty informs and inspires us to make wise decisions regarding such things, superficial political and personal intentions can cause us to abandon and ignore love in order to serve more carnal desires.
Whenever a religious, personal, political, or corporate tradition, practice, law, idea, or action supersedes the love of God, it becomes sinful. It’s tempting to manipulate the gospel to serve our own selfish ambitions, and although it will seem foolish, illogical, and downright crazy to prioritize God over everything, don’t let your political or religious opinions hijack Christ’s message.
Jesus certainly didn’t withhold his love from those who held different political, social, religious, and cultural beliefs — and neither should we.
4. By Obsessing Over Money, Careers, and Security
The love of God requires humility, generosity, sacrifice, grace, mercy, patience, and servanthood (among other things) — characteristics that contradict our society’s obsession with wealth, fame, fortune, and comfort.
Jesus’s instruction to help the poor, feed the starving, care for the sick, defend the weak, and love the world as Christ did requires Christians to go against the cultural norm of working for ourselves, acquiring money, and trying to create self-security while ignoring others.
Too often we’re so caught up in trying to advance our education, get a better job, earn more money, and become happier that we truly miss out on doing what Jesus did — loving others. Following Jesus requires immense dedication and real sacrifices — time, money, energy — and it’s not for the faint of heart.
If we really want to follow Christ’s example, we must reevaluate our priorities accordingly and decide whether worldly success is worth sacrificing for sake of pursuing God.
5. By Devaluing and Judging Others
Jesus broke all sorts of social rules by building relationship with criminals, prostitutes, and the outcast, ignored, persecuted, and alienated individuals of society. He didn’t care about appearances or maintaining “proper etiquette.” Instead, he radically loved others.
We often fail to love like Jesus because we’re afraid of what others will think of us, or we don’t want to be associated with certain people, or we have preconceived biases, stereotypes, and hateful thoughts towards certain groups of people, or worse yet, we’re simply apathetic.
One of the keys to loving as God loved is to realize that everyone — no exceptions! — is created and loved by God. Try imagining this truth; it’s life-changing. Instead of thinking as others as “them,” “him,” “her,” or “those people,” starting using the phrase: “individuals created and loved by God.” It transforms the value and respect we give to others.
Intentionally thinking about others through a Godly perspective changes our relationships with everyone and helps us identify others as they really are: individuals created and loved by God.
Overall, it’s easy to complicate the love of God. Maybe this is why Jesus tells us to approach the Kingdom of God like little children (Luke 18:15-17): innocently, genuinely, authentically, and simply — not overly complicated. God help us.
Stephen Mattson blogs at stephenjmattson.com. He's contributed for Relevant Magazine, Redletterchristians.org , and studied Youth Ministry at the Moody Bible Institute. He is now on staff at the University of Northwestern – St. Paul, Minn. Follow him on Twitter @mikta.
Image: Abstract image of Jesus' crucifixion, lubbas / Shutterstock.com