The Perfection of Fellowship with God: Loving Christ

Dr. Brian Allison

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), the father of Western mysticism, wrote an inspiring tract called 'On Loving God.' In Chapter 1 of this tract, he states:

You want me to tell you why God is to be loved and how much. I answer, the reason for loving God is God Himself; and the measure of love due to Him is immeasurable love...We are to love God for Himself, because of a twofold reason; nothing is more reasonable, nothing more profitable...And first, of His title to our love. Could any title be greater than this, that He gave Himself for us unworthy wretches? And being God, what better gift could He offer but Himself? Hence, if one seeks for God's claim upon our love here is the chiefest: because He first loved us (1 John 4:19).

Bernard of Clairvaux herein implies the essential means for enjoying the perfection of fellowship with God, namely, loving God.

Now, there is a threefold foundation block for perfection of fellowship with God, that is, for spiritually hearing and seeing God; for knowing that deep, intimate fellowship with the Lord. The first aspect of this threefold foundation block is prayer; we are to be persistently praying. Prayer is the practice of the presence of God. The second aspect of this threefold foundation block is meditation and contemplation; we need to meditate on God's Word and contemplate God's Person so that our hearts and minds may be transformed, with a view of assuming His holy image. The third aspect of this threefold foundation block is obedience – the demonstration of love, which is our present topic of concern.

Perhaps the key verses which teach both the actual meaning of, as well as the direct means of, spiritually 'entering in' and truly fellowshiping with the thrice holy God is John 14:21,23, "Jesus said, 'He who has My commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves Me; and he who loves Me shall be loved by my Father, and I will love him, and will disclose Myself to him...If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him, and make Our abode with him.'" Now, in respect to the perfection of fellowship with God, these verses are simply teaching that to truly love Christ is to truly enter into fellowship with God. To be sure, prayer and meditation/contemplation are required in order to enter into this fellowship with God because they are the basic and necessary means for knowing God and Jesus Christ; and thus they are the basic and necessary means for learning and growing in love for them. Thus, we attend to prayer and meditation/contemplation because through these exercises, we come to know God and Jesus Christ personally and experientially; and thereby we come to love them. However, the act of truly loving God and Jesus Christ is the direct means of actually entering into that fellowship. In other words, prayer and meditation/contemplation make mystical fellowship possible; they promote this fellowship. But actually loving Christ and God make this fellowship real; it sustains this fellowship. Augustine (354-430), in his Confessions, writes:

Who will enable me to find rest in you [God]? Who will grant me that you come to my heart and intoxicate it, so that I forget my evils and embrace my one and only good, yourself? What are you to me? Have mercy so that I may find words. What am I to you that you command me to love you, and that, if I fail to love you, you are angry with me and threaten me with vast miseries? If I do not love you, is that but a little misery? What a wretch I am! In Your mercies, Lord God, tell me what you are to me. Say to my soul, "I am your salvation" (Ps. 34:3).

Can you appreciate Augustine's love and devotion to his God? Loving God and Jesus Christ is the spiritual gateway into the depth of the heart and presence of God, where the fires of holy passion never subside. Let us consider three questions which arise from these key verses in John's Gospel as we think about this particular aspect of love.

What does it mean to love Christ?

To love Christ is to obey Him – "He who has My commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves Me...If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word." In personally embracing and possessing the teachings of Christ, and subsequently carrying out those teachings, we reveal our love for Him. Obedience is the proof, the test, of love for Him. Now, someone may reply that surely love for Christ means to feel strong devotion to Him; to feel some warm affection for Him; surely love is what you feel, rather than what you do. Now, admittedly, there is some truth in these remarks. If we really love someone, then we will feel accompanying affections; the emotions will arise in our hearts. Indeed, love involves the whole person. It touches our desires, our thinking, our willing, and our feeling. But in these key verses before us, love is not presented as absolutely synonymous with obedience; but rather, obedience is the evidence or demonstration of love. Love entails more than mere obedience, but if we truly love Christ, obedience to Him will, at least, be evident.

True love manifests itself through, and results in, a certain kind of behaviour, a doing. I know a couple who, at last report, were filing for a divorce. The downward spiral of the relationship began when the wife was having her second child. Apparently, the husband was too busy, too preoccupied, with other matters to provide the needed comfort and support to his wife. When the day of delivery came, the husband was not there. Apparently, other matters were more important than being with the mother of his new child. As a result, this woman became quite bitter; a bitterness that never quite disappeared, but became a undercurrent to subsequent interactions. She never forgot the absence of her husband and the lack of his support. So, true love must be demonstrated. It is measured in what you do, more than what you say.

Further, love is essentially a gift. It is a gracious giving for the good of another. It is a self-donation for the benefit of another. For example, I think of a mother who traveled to another city in which her daughter and son-in-law live in order to give help and support to the family while the daughter was having her second child. Love involves the giving of your time, your energy, and your resources. Again, love is necessarily measured in terms of action, rather than in terms of emotions. We read, for instance, "But whoever has the world's goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth" (1 Jn. 3:17,18). Thus, the ground for love is in the human will, rather than in the human emotions. Now the emotions, the feelings, can activate and motivate the will, and accompany the expression of the will, but unless the will is exercised, there can be no love; for love is essentially a giving.

Now, here is the critical point in this matter of loving Christ. The Lord requires obedience (as opposed to reading per se, or singing per se, or penance per se) – which is the proof of love – because obedience is not simply an exercise of our wills, but is the actual giving of our wills. When we give our wills, we give ourselves to the Lord, and He expects nothing less than that. Francois Fenelon, in his Spiritual Letters to Women, "On Conformity to the Will of God," writes:

We have nothing to call our own except our will – nothing else is ours. Sickness takes away health and life; riches melt away; mental powers depend on a man's bodily strength. The one only thing really ours is our will, and consequently it is of this that God is jealous, for He gave it, not that we should use it as our own, but that we should restore it to Him, wholly and undividedly. Whoever holds back any particle of reluctance or desire as his right defrauds his Maker, to Whom all is due.

Christ requires obedience from His people because He does not simply want our gifts, He wants us. Perfect love for Christ is expressed or revealed by complete conformity to His will, whereby we totally give Him our will. Do you love Christ? Are you obeying His teachings? Are you following His will? Again, Jesus does not simply want your gifts, or your talents, or your skills. He does not need them. He does not need anything that you have to offer. He wants your heart. He wants you; He wants all of you, and He wants all of you now. You are to give yourself as a 'living sacrifice' to Him (cf. Rm. 12:1). Everyday, in Spirit, you should come before Him in the temple, and ascend the altar of God, and present yourself as a consecrated offering. Nothing less will do. It is your spiritual service to do this because He purchased you; your spirits and bodies belong to Him; and each day you should present them to Him afresh. Do you love Christ?

So, to love Christ is to give Him our will, to obey His teachings; and in giving our will to Him, we will realize indeed that His commandments are not grievous (cf. 1 Jn. 5:3). When we begin to feel the power and warmth of love in the depth of our being, when our hearts experience the fires of holy divine passion, His commandments will not be grievous. His commandments will then be the joy of our hearts. But when we do not love Him, His commandments are grievous; we obey Him out of mere and, often, slavish duty, we obey Him out of guilt; and thus obedience becomes a burden. Have the Lord's commandments been a burden to you? In loving God and Christ, you will delight in, and meditate on, the law of the Lord and the Word of Christ day and night; and do them. Do you love Christ?

Having believed in Christ, His commandments are summarized in three little statements: Love God, love your neighbour, love one another (i.e., fellow believers). The story is told of the apostle John who, in reaching the twilight of his life, continued to preach the same simple message, "Little children, love one another." One day, a disciple asked him, "Why do you keep preaching the same message over and over again?" To which the apostle responded, "Love is all there is; when you have done that, you have done everything; for God is love." When you have loved with the love of God, loving Him alone, and loving others only for His sake, there is no higher attainment in the spiritual life. You and God are then perfectly one in Spirit.

What is the result of loving Christ?

Jesus invites us, and commands us, to love Him, and the result of our loving Him is that He and the Father will love us in return – "and he who loves Me shall be loved by my Father, and I will love him." This response of divine love is not so much a conditional love (though there may be a conditional element implied), as it is a reciprocating love. The absence or presence of our love does not determine and control the absence or presence of God's love. It is not that our love, in some way, forces or guarantees the very fact and expression of His love. God's love is foundational, and has the priority. It is unconditional. God loves first, and only because He has first loved us, can we love Him in return. So, we read, "In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins...We love, because He first loved us" (1 Jn. 4:10,19). As believers, this is our confidence and joy.

In responding to God's love (which has the priority and initiates the loving process), God, in turn, will respond to our love with greater love. His love is not only initiatory, but is also responsive and reciprocal. It is like the husband who is gardening, labouring away by pulling up the weeds, planting, and pruning; and the wife offers her assistance in order ease the load. The wife gives her energies to help her husband. Later on, the closets need to be cleaned out and the wife is busy at this task, and the husband remembers her previous act of love and is moved to respond in like fashion, and to help her. Later on in the day, he is cleaning out the basement, and she remembers his act of love and is moved to respond in like fashion, and so the process continues.

Giving invites giving. Now, I personally find this truth incredible and incomprehensible, that is, the growing, dynamic love of God. God's heart – though this is hard to fathom – is expansive! He first loves us; and as we respond to His love, He comes and reveals more love to us. There are degrees of love in the heart of God. For instance, He loves His elect more deeply than He loves the world. Jesus showed more love to John and allowed him to rest in His bosom, which he did not do with the other disciples. Is it not an astounding thought that God, who is love, may be pleased to love you more and more, as you respond to His love? Does that move you? Does that humble you? Does it break your spirit? Are you overwhelmed that it is possible for you to experience more and more of the love of God; that His heart is expansive? I cannot even begin to describe the wonder and glory of this truth. It is joy unspeakable and full of glory that the God of the universe is pleased to love His people in increasing and expansive ways; we who are so undeserving, mere wretches of the earth; we who are but dust; this God is pleased to lavish His love upon us simply for the sake of Jesus. And that is the glory of the Gospel! Do you want to know a fuller expression of God's love? Then love Him; love Him with a holy passion; love Him deeply; love Him with 'all your heart and all your soul and all your strength and all your mind.' Love Him, and He will love you; and will prepare you for more of His love.

What is the fruit of loving Christ?

The fruit of loving Christ is the deep intimacy of communion with Him – the perfection of fellowship – "and I will love him, and will disclose Myself to him...My Father will love him, and we will come to him, and make Our abode with him." First, in loving Christ, Christ will make Himself more real to us. It is self-evident that we are looking at a spiritual manifestation here. Now, remember that this blessing is for believers, those who have already entered into a relationship with Him; those who already personally know Him; those who already know the indwelling of the Spirit. Jesus, in effect, says, "I will come in that same Spirit; I will encounter your spirit, and I will reveal My beauty and glory to you, in response to his love." This is what it means to go deeper into the heart of God, and become lost therein, in which you will never want to be found. Jesus promises here an experiential encounter – the blessed believer will spiritually see (and hear) Christ. The blessed believer with spiritually gaze upon, and marvel at, the wonder of the revelation of Christ in the depths of his or her soul; wonders indescribable and full of glory. A depth of intimacy of union with Christ will be enjoyed, which only those who experience it can truly understand. The believer's faith will be taken to a new level; and that faith will become transformed into love itself; and he or she will behold God. Through that faith, he or she will enter the light, and in that light, discover both Light and Life.

Second, in loving Christ, the blessed believer will be graced with the special presence of God. The Father and the Son will 'set up house' with him or her. Jesus here promises higher levels of life with Himself. The Charismatic movement advocates the possibility of the Second blessing – that blessing that comes after conversion; that blessing where one enters more fully into the life of God, more fully into the freedom and joy of God, in which there is a sense of power and victory. Yet, there is more for the believer than that! Why limit it? We should not be content with just a second blessing (though I would not understand this in the same way as Charismatics), but we should seek a third blessing, and a fourth blessing, and a fifth blessing, etc. We can go deeper and deeper into the heart of God. As we love Him, He will love us in return; and we should love Him in response; and so He will further love us, etc. My Christian friend, do not stop at the second blessing. There is no end-point in the heart of God. What an amazing thought! For all eternity, we will be growing in the love of God, discovering more and more of who He is, feeling more and more of His affection, and knowing more and more of His power. 'Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the hearts of people all that God has prepared for those who love Him.'

Those who love Christ, by showing obedience to Him, eat the hidden manna with Him and know the secret of His covenant. J. C. Ryle (1816-1900) writes:

Here follows another encouragement to the man [or woman] who strives to keep Christ's commandments. Christ will specially love that [person], and will give him [or her] special manifestations of His grace and favour, invisibly and spiritually. [That person] will feel and know his or her own heart comforts and joys, that wicked [people] and inconsistent professors know nothing of...It is one of those things which can only be known by experience, and is only known by holy and consistent Christians. We should carefully observe here, that Christ does more for the comfort of some of His people than He does for others. Those who follow Christ most closely and obediently will always follow Him most comfortably and feel most of His inward presence.

Do you notice that Jesus did not say that He would come and be 'in' us, because He is already there; but that He would come and be 'with' us. The King of the Universe will come and grace those who love Him with His ineffable company; and those who experience it, will know its glory, though they may not be able to express it. Those who are fortunate enough to enter into this experience will understand what Enoch and Noah enjoyed – these ones who 'walked with God.'

This past week, I reread Brother Lawrence's book, The Practice of the Presence of God. He was a man who discovered what it is to truly know God's presence – that union of human will with the divine will – and the reality of that burning, consuming love within. When you truly know His presence, you will know His love. In truly knowing His presence, and surrendering your will to His will, not only will you love God for what He does for you; not only will you love God for who He is; but you will love all people for His sake alone because all you will experience is His love, He who is love; and that is what Christ calls us to. Do you love Christ?