By Evan Kardaras, Sub-Deacon at St. Mary & St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church, Bexley, Australia.
Today we’ll be discussing the virtue of love and how to attain this virtue in our lives. We know we have two great commandments, and that all commandments are fulfilled if we can fulfil these two great commandments. They are loving God with all our being and loving our neighbour as ourselves.
From a worldly perspective love is defined as a strong feeling of affection. We know though from a Christian perspective that when we speak of the virtue of love, it is much, more than just a feeling. To fulfil the two great commandment of love for God and our neighbour, it isn’t enough to just have strong feelings of affection for God and our neighbour. We know as Christians that to love God and our neighbour means to demonstrate this love in a practical manner.
Thankfully our beautiful Lord Jesus has left us the Holy Scriptures as a handbook that teaches us what it means to love. In the scriptures we see before our lives the life of our beautiful Jesus. We see His amazing love, His great care and concern for people; constantly surrounded by thousands of people begging for His hep and with great love and care healing them all, bearing with them all, caring for them all, providing for them all, loving them all, and eventually, dying for them all.
We see Him not having time for his own needs, in order to cater to the needs of others. Many times when people think of the love of Jesus they speak of His cross, of His death and resurrection. What they don’t talk about is the 3 years prior to His crucifixion where he travelled from town to town, without a roof over His head, with thousands of people flocking from every region to see Him, to hear Him and to be healed by Him.
We read in Matthew 4:23-25 that His fame went throughout all Syria… and that great multitudes followed Him—from Galilee, and from Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan.” This was not just hundreds of people, it was thousands. We see this in the feeding of the 5 thousand and in the feeding of the 4 thousand that thousands of people were following Jesus everywhere He went. And remember that these numbers were the number of men, not including women and children.
Our Lord would constantly teach and heal everyone in need. He didn’t turn people away, but loved and sacrificed His time and energy to cater to the needs of others. He never prioritised His own needs, but rather went above and beyond as a self-sacrificing servant. We see him heal diseases, cast out demons, raise the dead, bring souls to repentance, show mercy and kindness to those despised and shunned by society because of their sins. Tax collectors, prostitutes; people deep in darkness repented and were transformed through His love and His message of salvation. Every minute of every day He sacrificed every aspect of His own life to serve and cater to others.
Eventually, after 3 years of self-sacrificial love and care for others, He was crucified without ever harming a soul, but on the contrary simply loving and helping as many people as He could. You can imagine his exhaustion, 3 years of non-stop service; 3 years of intense sacrifice, catering to thousands upon thousands of souls. All out of pure self-sacrificial love.
There are many things we can learn from the life of our beautiful Lord Jesus and His teachings. We ourselves know that our Christian struggle is one of becoming Christlike, of growing in holiness, so that our characters beam the same love, kindness and affection of our Lord Jesus. We know we are actually called to this, to a love that is not from this world, to the point of loving our enemies, of loving those who hate us. But how can we do this? How can we start growing in our love for the Lord and our love for others, even our enemies? How can we change thinking simply of our own needs and shatter our selfishness so that our lives as Christians resemble the love, care and concern of Jesus Christ, so we can shine His light in this world? How can we do this?
The first step is to assess our lives and see whether we are actually Christians in character or only Christians by name. If people look at me do they see a difference, or do I look like everyone else in the world who is without Christ. Do people see kindness, compassion, sacrifice, love? When I look deep into my heart, can I honestly say that I’m trying with all my heart to love the Lord and my neighbour and that I take my Christianity seriously?
If not then the first step is repentance. I need to humbly fall at the feat of Christ and confess my ego, my selfishness, my love of myself, my love for this world. To pour out my heart to the Lord and confess that I know the way I’m living will lead to eternal separation from Him and that I need Him to help me to live a life of love as he has commanded me. The next step is a heartfelt resolution that from today onwards I’m no longer going to be Christian only in name, but also a Christian in character.
We need to realise that to be a Christian, is to live a life that is radically different from that of those without Christ. To love with the love of Christ we require a power that is beyond our own nature. We need the grace of God, we need the Holy Spirit to empower us to love as the Lord has commanded us. We realise then that our question has been narrowed down a little more. How can I, a weak sinner, be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, so that the grace of God can work in and through me, and enable me to love Him and others as God desires?
Immediately we see in the question above, that a synergy is required between God and ourselves if we are to love in the way He desires. The grace comes from Him. The Holy Spirit must dwell in us powerfully, God must dwell in us powerfully so we can love. Thus meaning that God and I need to be able to work together in order to truly love others. Here we realise also the difference between those who try and love, or obey the commandments without a deep connection with Christ through the Holy Spirit. A man without Christ has no ability whatsoever to love with a love that even loves enemies.
This is why the majority of humanity, who doesn’t want to have anything to do with God, is caught up with egotism, selfishness, materialism, led by various lusts, worldly, and thus in darkness. Without the power of God, without the person of the Holy Spirit empowering us to love, we can do nothing.
This is where we also see the Christian who doesn’t have a serious relationship with God looking like the rest of the world that is without God. Without this deep connection with Christ they cannot obey the commandments, it’s too hard, so they are content to be Christian in name and not in heart. The solution then is to follow the teachings of the Church, that allow me to grow deeper in my connection with Christ, thus allowing the Holy Spirit to come and dwell within me powerfully.
The tools given and taught by the Church that bring this growth and lead to being filled with God’s grace are: prayer (individual and communal), fasting, repentance and confession, spiritual reading, service, Holy Communion. We realise then that to love with the love of Christ I need to be following the therapeutic path given by God, that will heal my nature from sin, bring me closer to Christ, and prepare my heart to be able to receive the King of all to come and dwell in it powerfully and thus enable me to love through His love. A holistic Christian approach of wholeheartedly following the ways set out by Christ, as taught by the Holy Spirit through the Fathers of the Church, will with time uproot our egotism, selfishness and self-love, and allow us to love just like Jesus loved.
Let us break this down even further.
If I pray daily, have a proper rule of prayer that I follow, that allows me to disconnect from the world and unite with God in the Spirit, then in that moment I am being bathed by the presence of God. I may not feel it all the time, or even perceive it. But in prayer my nature is bathed with God’s grace allowing the Holy Spirit to heal and renew my nature, little by little. As time passes and I follow this rule every day, for many years, I also start experiencing God more and more in prayer, changing the nature of my prayer from mere words to a dialogue of love from the heart.
If alongside prayer I devote time to reading God’s word every day; the Word that has the actual words of Christ, the actual life of Christ, the history of salvation, the teachings of the Apostles, the history of creation and God’s people, all inspired by the Holy Spirit, then again mystically I am engulfing myself in the presence of the Holy Spirit. He changes my mind, renews my thoughts, teaches me the way in which I should walk, secretly ministers to my heart, changing it and making it more like the heart of Christ. Filling my mind with truth and slowly cleaning it from the filth of this world.
If alongside prayer I fast enthusiastically as the Church prescribes. I deny myself my pleasures; I deny my heart the food for which it lusts, and instead give it that which the fast allows, thus disconnecting my heart from its love of food and freeing it up to love God a little bit more. If I curb my desires and become their master instead of becoming a slave to my desires, then through the fast, my heart experiences greater liberty to go deeper in prayer, delve deeper into Christ, thus experiencing God on a deeper level, again transforming prayer to a deeper encounter and participation in the Holy Spirit and thus being filled with the grace that enables us to love.
If alongside this I repent regularly, I confess regularly, I humbly poor my heart before the Lord acknowledging my weakness, my short comings, my ego and all the mistakes I make on a daily basis, then in essence every day I’m tearing my mind away from the ways of the world and bringing it back to that which the gospel commands, love, love, love, bringing my mind and heart to the feet of the Lord. With time this genuine repentance starts to bear fruit, in that I realise as the years pass the temptations weaken, or rather, through a longing for God and doing all the above, His grace is dwelling in me more and more, and I have the power to love and not to sin.
If along all that’s been said above I serve enthusiastically. I sacrifice my time that is spent on satisfying my own lusts, like watching Netflix, chatting on social media, and instead give my time to serve others, love others, build up others, serve Christ in the person of others; serve His body the Church, thus slowly denying my ego and learning patience and practical love, then I start to once again open myself up to God’s grace in my meeting with Him in the person in whom I serve. As our Lord said “When you did it to the least of my brethren you did it to me”. We thus again mystically partake of grace, of the power of the Holy Spirit which therapeutically reconstructs our nature, to help it go deeper in the love of God and partake of the blessings and joys of service.
If alongside all the above I eat God regularly through eating His precious Body and Blood, thus uniting myself to God who is love; who is life itself and the source of every good fruit and virtue, then I will start to also perceive greater ability and power to love as He has commanded, because God now dwells within me and empowers me to love as He desires.
I pray with zeal, read my bible with zeal, fast with zeal, repent and confess with tears, commune with longing, and thus as the years pass I have followed the path necessary to allow myself to become a vessel filled with the Holy Spirit, united to Christ thus enabling me to love in the way that God desires. With time if we follow the path as set out by the Church we will say along with St Paul, Galatians 2:20 “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” This is the end result brothers and sister and the only way that will enable us to love as God desires.
We see then that to be a Christian is not just about trying to do good things. No. To be a Christian requires a living and life giving relationship with the living God and following the prescriptions He has given us to heal our nature from sin and allow us to grow into His likeness, to become Christlike in virtue and holiness by His grace.
Okay, so we’ve talked about how we can gain the ability to love, we’ve also spoken about the example of our beautiful Jesus as a model of what love looks like. Now I’d like to break down ever further what love itself looks like from a Christian perspective. To do this we will explore the famous passage on love from 1 Corinthians 13:4-8. Can someone please read this passage for us?
“4 Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; 5 does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; 6 does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; 7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never fails.”
Let us now break down these passages.
Love suffers long, here we see the virtue of long suffering. To love is to suffer. You may have heard me speak about this before. For example to persist in loving prayer with the Lord when we are exhausted after a long day of work and service, requires one to push through the exhaustion to raise the mind and heart to God. In order to do this we need longsuffering, a desire to patiently accept the fatigue and pain, in order to commune with our beautiful God in prayer. To go above and beyond in service, again as someone exhausted with university commitments, work, family life, and to continue to love and sacrifice ones time and energy without whinging, without complaining, requires longsuffering.
Further in the passage we read that love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. We bear when people treat us with nastiness, when we are persecuted, we show long suffering. We believe all things, with hope that they will be fulfilled, and if someone goes back on their promise and ruins our hope, we again suffer long, not getting upset, but rather maintain our peace knowing we live in a fallen world and are only passing through, and that our joy and hope is from the Lord. We endure all things, again demonstrating long suffering, out of a heart filled with the presence of Christ and His love which empowers us to love like Him.
In short to be a Christian requires to suffer long with all our Christian duties, to push through the pain out of love for God and others. This is a form of self-crucifixion. This is why Jesus said pick up your cross and follow me. To be a Christian is to be crucified. Do not expect anything else, no other path, narrow is the path that leads to life and there are few who find it. It is narrow, as it is one that requires much labour, patience, and long suffering, until one day we are released from the bonds of our weak bodies and are united to the Lord in paradise, awaiting the resurrection of our glorified bodies.
Next we read that love is kind. How do we speak to others? Are we kind in our demeanour, or are we hurtful and nasty? Do we behave rudely as the passage mentions? St Paul in Colossians 4:6 says: “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.” Grace, sweet grace. Christ says we are the salt of the earth. In other words we are a preservative agent in the world. We are the light of the world. Does our speech and treatment of others show this? Are we gentle, caring, soft in how we treat others?
Do we bear long with the weaknesses of others, knowing that Christ bears so patiently with us every day with our many faults, weaknesses and sins? We are called to a genuine kindness and love for others as this is how Jesus treats us.
The passage also states that love is not puffed up. It’s doesn’t manifest itself in a pride spirit, it doesn’t parade itself, showing off. On the contrary a person with love looks out for the interest of others. A person with love will happily remain in the shadows while someone else receives all the glory. A person with love is humble and desires the benefits of others over him or herself. How can a person like this have envy or jealousy? They cannot. They are happy when others do well, they don’t care if they themselves are second or even last.
St John the Baptist said “He must increase and I must decrease”. This is the fruit of love, a humble desire to give the glory, reward or praise to others to whom it is due. We see then that love doesn’t seek its own benefit, love is always seeking how to give and not to receive. This humble love cannot be provoked, it cannot think evil. The person bearing this love has Jesus in their hearts. They rejoice to see truth, honesty, they turn away from evil and sin and are saddened by it.
We see then brothers and sisters that Jesus is our absolute model in that He fulfils all the above. This is why we need to read His word daily, to meditate on His life, and use it as a mirror to see how far we have become like Him in growing in our love. We are more blessed than we can even begin to comprehend. We have an all merciful, all loving God, who desires nothing more than for all of us to spend eternity with Him. A loving God who is constantly working as the Holy Spirit to save us in ways we cannot even perceive. Let us then hold absolutely nothing back, nothing. Let us make a firm resolution that we will start a journey of absolute longing and love for Christ, of heartfelt repentance, of a new start.
Let us all pick our cross and follow the therapeutic path laid out by the Holy Spirit and through the Church, so we can prepare our hearts as thrones for Christ and through His indwelling have the power and ability to love God with all our being and our neighbour as our wonderful Lord desires.
Glory be to God forevermore.