Read CHAPTER II of Herein is Love‚ A Study of the Biblical Doctrine of Love, free online book, by Reuel L. Howe, on ReadCentral.com.

GOD IN THE WORLD

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son...." -- John 3:16

The concepts and attitudes of Mr. Clarke, Mr. Churchill, Mrs. Strait, Mr. Knowles, and Professor Manby lead them and the rest of the church away from God and the world. Their clericalism, pietism, moralism, intellectualism, and humanism represent ways in which frightened and disturbed people seek to make themselves secure. Unfortunately, however, their security then is purchased at the price of their freedom. Their lives become locked up in the small closet of their limited concepts. Their literal and rigid understanding of the Christian church and its faith makes them so loveless that their lives have an alienating effect on others, and they themselves fail to find God.

Concepts About God May Be Dangerous

They do not, nor shall we, find God in our concepts about Him or about His church. He is not to be found in assertions about Him or in abstract belief about His omnipotence or other attributes. God is not an idea, but Being itself, and our ideas are only our concept or image of Him. When we confuse God with our ideas about Him, we are misled into thinking that we know what He wants, and we tend to represent and act for Him uncritically. This confusion between God and our ideas about Him explains why the religion of so many people lacks humility and reverence. It is one of the reasons why true Christian fellowship is as rare as it is.

Not only may these ideas and concepts lead us away from God, but also they may lead us out of the world and away from that encounter with the world which began with the Incarnation. Separation of the church from the world, its assumption that its task is to defend itself from the attacks of the so-called secular, its defensiveness of God in response to the unfaith of the world, all are symptoms of church people’s lack of faith in God and of their failure to understand how and where He works. In other words, the otherworldliness of the church hardly harmonizes with the worldliness of God, Who chose to create the world, to speak and act in and through it, and Who finally entered it and made the life of man in history His right hand. Our belief in the Incarnation and our understanding of the love of God for the world should send us, as children of God, into the world, into the so-called secular order, eager to participate in its meanings, and to bring them into relation with the meanings of God.

As we work at this, we shall begin to experience true Christian fellowship, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, which I understand to be the fellowship of people who have the courage to live together as persons rather than to relate themselves to each other through their ideas and preconceptions. Christian fellowship is living with and for one another responsibly, that is, in love. "If any one says, ’I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar." And, "He who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him." If we would find God, therefore, and learn the meaning of life and love, we must live in the world by giving ourselves to one another responsibly. It is for this that the church exists. The church does not exist to save, build up, and adorn itself. Nor does it exist to protect or defend God. The mission of the church is to participate in the reconciling dialogue between God and man. Here is the source of the true life of the world. Here, too, is the source of the life of the church and its worship. Without this, everything, including worship, is false and idolatrous.

These are some of the things which Mr. Wise was trying to say to the group. He represents those in the church who see beneath the surface of things and behind the distortions of conventional and defensive Christianity. But the question that finally emerges is: How do we free ourselves from the distortions of our faith? What should we do?

We Find God at Work in the World

The answer is simple. We should look for God in the world. We shall find Him in the meeting between men. "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them." And, "gathered in my name" means gathered in the spirit and after the character of Jesus. It does not mean gathered only under special and separate religious auspices. To be sure, the gatherings of God’s people for worship and instruction are indispensable to the life of the church, but unless we translate our worship and instruction into action, our religious observances will be idolatrous and sinful, and will separate men from each other and from God. So we look for God where He works; that is, in the world and between man and man.

The place where we encounter God first, in the course of our individual lives, is in the family. The family provides the individual with his first experience of living in relation to other persons, and this is his first experience of Christian fellowship. Immediately we are confronted with the nature of God’s creation and, therefore, with the revelation of Himself and of how He works. We are confronted with the relational nature of all life; for nothing exists in isolation. Everything and every person finds full meaning only in relation to other things and persons.

We are used to thinking of persons as living in relation to persons; we are less accustomed to thinking of things existing in relation to other things. But does not the tree exist in relation to the earth, atmosphere, and water? And does not the hammer exist as hammer in relation to the hand that uses it and the object it pounds? The only difference is that persons are active participants in relationship and things are passive. But things may be made active symbols or instruments in the meeting between man and man, as, for instance, in the case of the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper.

God created man to live in relation with the world of things, with himself, and with his fellow men, and to live in these relationships in such a way that he will discover and grow in his relationship with God. The terms "man" and "relationship" are synonymous. An old Roman proverb puts it, "One man is no man at all." Alone we would cease to exist. We all have had the experience of being shut out from some important relationship and we know what a desperate feeling it produces. We lose whatever sense of well-being we may have had, and we begin to feel unwanted, depressed, and less alive. When we are warmly gathered again into an important group, we begin to come alive. Our blood runs faster, and we know the joy of life again. It is almost as though we had been resurrected. The sense of being a part, the experience of fellowship, makes the difference between life and death. I once visited in a home where a teen-age girl was having one of her frequent "tragic" love experiences. The boy she was currently dating had not called her up for three days. She was full of gloom, moped around the house, and lost her usual interest in everything. One evening the phone rang and the call was for her. First we heard her laugh, and then she burst into the room full of gaiety and enthusiasm. You would not have known her for the same girl. Alone and rejected, as she thought, she was dead. Restored to relationship, she came alive again. We may smile patronizingly at the emotional excesses of this teen-age girl, but on the other hand we understand deeply the fundamental meaning of her experience.

The patterns of relationship begin with our birth. We would not survive if the whole community, centering in the basic function of the mother, did not assume responsibility for us. Our dependence upon her for food and care is the occasion for the beginning of relationship. And both the infant and the mother have their part to play. She moves as a person toward her child with the gifts of her milk and of her love. The infant, on his side, in random and non-specific ways, calls out to her. He cries and makes his simple movements. She responds to his cries with her care. He responds to her care by sleeping and waking, by crying and cooing. And thus begins the dialogical nature of relationship.

Relationship Is Dialogue

Relationship is dialogue. Dialogue occurs when one person addresses another person and the other person responds. It is a two-way process in which two or more people discuss meanings that concern them. To whatever degree one part of the dialogue is lost, to that degree the relationship ceases to exist. A marriage, for instance, ceases to exist, except in form, only when either one of the partners ceases to communicate with the other, and the quality of address and response is lost. Likewise, true religion disappears when it represents only what God says and eliminates the meaning of man’s response. Religious dogma is sometimes used to shackle human creativity, and the form of belief is allowed to stifle the vitality of faith. Similarly, religion disappears when the address to God and the response of God are eliminated. The Pharisee in Jesus’ parable had lost the dialogical quality of his prayer because he "stood and prayed thus with himself...." He was not speaking to God and he expected no response, with the result that his religion lost its dialogical quality since he was separated from God by his self-righteousness. This dialogical quality is indispensable to creative living. It is out of the dialogical encounter that the individual emerges.

Only by the process of dialogical teaching can children really learn. The relationship between parent and child is not one-sided. The child may protest against the authority of the parent. This is the child’s part of the dialogue. The parent may recognize his child’s need to find himself as an autonomous person by making allowance for his protest and exercise of freedom. The next stage in the dialogue between them is the reassurance which the child experiences and reflects in his behavior in response to his parent’s affirmation of him as a person. He may show this by a more realistic acceptance of the parent’s authority. This in turn may reassure the parent, so that he feels more relaxed in the exercise of his authority. Gradually the parent and the child begin to experience a more mature relationship with each other.

We Are Responsible for Each Other

Because of the dialogical nature of relationship, we have responsibility for one another. Each of us has a responsibility to call forth the other as a person, and each needs to be called forth since none of us will develop automatically. We call forth one another in the same way that the conductor of an orchestra calls forth the powers of his musicians and the potentialities of their instruments. And they respond by calling forth the interpretive genius of their conductor. Each draws out the powers of the other.

The potentialities for development are inherent in us, but we need the warmth and stimulation of other persons. This is certainly true in the case of the newly born. The role of parents and teachers is to call forth and welcome the personal responses and initiatives of their children. This is also true of those who, because of the pressures of life, start to unfold as persons but then withdraw in order to protect themselves from further hurt. Here again, parents and teachers, pastors and counselors, and indeed all men, from time to time, are obliged to call forth some soul who is either in hiding or in retreat.

This role is easy to see in our relation with children, because children’s responses are sometimes so uncomplicated that the process we are talking about is clearly revealed. Susie, feeling that an injustice had been done her, retreated to her room and withdrew into herself. After seeing that she would need help in order to come to herself again, her mother finally asked her if she would like to help her bake a cake. Soon Susie and her mother were chatting happily together in the kitchen doing something that Susie loved to do whenever her mother had time to help her. During the course of their conversation, the mother had an opportunity to help Susie understand the situation that had upset her. As a result, Susie emerged out of the situation more mature and resourceful.

I once knew a bus driver who discovered that he, too, could call forth people by the way in which he greeted them and did business with them. On his morning runs he observed that many people were grumpy and sullen, and treated him and their fellow passengers discourteously. At first his inclination was to respond in the same way. Then he discovered that by taking the initiative and greeting his passengers with a smile and cordial word, and by making change cheerfully and being patient with their grumpiness, the spirit of his passengers underwent a transformation. Over the years a number of people told him how grateful they were for his good cheer. They said that his influence had often been decisive in their lives. It had affected their relations with other people. Thus, his attitude toward people and his method of relating himself to them as a driver of a bus became his ministry; and since he was a member of the church, the church’s ministry reached out and worked through that bus driver into the lives of many who may never have come anywhere near the church. Through such relationships. God is present and active in the world.

The relationship between man and man, therefore, not only is important to men, but also is a part of God’s plan for the reconciliation of the world unto Himself. It is given to us for our own sakes and also for the accomplishment of God’s purposes. Unfortunately, however, our relating to one another often is hurtful because of our anxiety and insecurity. We may attack others in order to make ourselves feel secure. Instead of calling them forth, we cause them to withdraw. Even when we undertake to love others, we may do it in ways that hurt them, because we love them for selfish reasons. Human relationships, in themselves, are ambiguous, and we need deliverance from the ambiguity of them, for these relationships can either destroy people or call them forth.

Human Love Is Ambiguous

Furthermore, because human love can be ambiguous, we do not know whether it is safe to give and accept love. It is a risk both to love and to accept love, and all of us, to some degree, are afraid to take the risk. Some people, to be sure, have more courage for it than others. They love more courageously, and are more courageous in their acceptance of others’ love. These people seem to have a power of being that others lack.

The giving and receiving of love implies responsibility for one another, and we may withhold our love and reject the love of others as a way of evading the responsibility of love. We are willing to love up to the point where it begins to be inconvenient to love any more. We like the image of ourselves as loved and loving people, but we would like the benefit without the responsibilities of the role. When the response to our love presents us with demands, we may begin to hold people off. We may say: "Yes, to be sure, I love you, but keep your distance. I am willing to give of myself, but not too much. I need to keep something of me for myself." By this attitude we are admitting that when we love another we have to give ourselves to him, entrust ourselves to him. Commitment to another person is a courageous act, and it is no wonder that we sometimes recoil from it.

What has been said about giving love is equally true of accepting love, for the acceptance of love also calls for trust and commitment. If I really respond to your love, I will open myself to the possibility of being hurt because your love cannot be completely trusted. Furthermore, if you should really love me, I am not worthy of your love and I do not welcome the judgment of me that is implicit in your love. I shall, therefore, make a cautious response to you and give myself to you guardedly. Then the person who is giving love is made lonely because his gift is not accepted. He, too, begins to withdraw and to dole out his love, which in turn increases the anxiety of the one to whom it is being given. This is an aspect of human fellowship which we need to recognize before we talk much about Christian fellowship. Human fellowship is both heroic and tragic; it is both renewing and destructive; it is both healing and hurtful, but it is indispensable to life. This is our human predicament.

Something is needed to cut into the ambiguity of human love. And this is what Christ does. He draws the confused currents of human love into the unifying stream of divine love, thus making possible a new relationship. As the apostle Paul makes clear, we become new creatures in Christ, and as such, a part of a new creation.

Having considered some of the characteristics of human love and fellowship, let us now look at Christian love and fellowship. One word of caution is needed before we begin. The fellowship of Christian men and women will still have its human look, but something new has been added that makes a difference. What is it? How shall we describe the new relationship?

What Is Christian Fellowship?

Christian fellowship is the relation of men and women who, by the power of the Holy Spirit, participate in the life and work of Christ. Christian living is participation in the continued living of Christ through the activity of His Spirit. This concept stands in sharp contrast to the ones held by the church members described in the first chapter. The source of the Christian’s life is not knowledge about God or even our historical remembrance of His incarnate life, although they contribute to it. Neither is it to be found in a determined imitation of Christ’s life, although that effort also will help. Nor is it in the good will of man which, along with his power of love, is likewise found to be ambiguous. No, the true source of the Christian life and of the Christian relationship is the incarnation of His Spirit in the lives of men. The presence and working of His Spirit transforms our own spirit and provides a new dynamic for our living. This does not mean that we cease to be human; the old conflicts are still there and the old battles must continue to be fought, but a new power of being and of love is given to us by the indwelling Spirit.

Just now we referred to the incarnation of His Spirit in us. The concept of incarnation is an ancient one in Christianity, and represents the embodiment of God in the human form of the historic Jesus, Who participated in the life of man as man in order that man, through Him, might participate in the Being of God. What happened is known to us all. The incarnation produced the life of Jesus, His death, resurrection, and the coming of His Spirit. These are not once-for-all historic events as was the life of Julius Cæsar or of George Washington. Through Him a new power of love was released into life that continues unto this day. B.C. and A.D. are not merely a way of dividing time, but are our way of acknowledging that in the life of Jesus of Nazareth something radically different entered into life, a new dynamic that changed the nature of creation. We participate in the historic incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth which took place 1900 years ago by the daily incarnations of His Spirit in our individual lives and in the life of the people of God. And since His incarnation meant God’s entry into the world, so likewise the indwelling of His Spirit in us also should mean God’s entry into our world and into its conflicts and issues.

We are Christians by doing what He did in the world, which was to have a care and a responsibility for others. His Spirit seeks to incarnate Himself in the day-to-day decisions of every responsible person in every sphere of his living. Thus the mother not only serves God by her decisions and actions in the home, but through these same decisions and actions she may believe that God is present and accomplishing His purposes for her and for the members of her family. So, likewise, a businessman’s sphere of Christian action is carried out in the decisions and work of his business, but also he may believe that in and through these same decisions and work God seeks to accomplish His purpose. So the principle of incarnation means that God is both served and met at the points of decision and responsibility of our daily lives. And this is what it means to participate in His life by the power of His Spirit, to bear the true mark of the Christian.

In the context of these thoughts, we may now look at the three parts of the earthly life of Jesus Christ, and, as we examine them, the idea of participating in His life may become clearer.

Participation in the Life of Christ

First of all, there is His earthly life, the life of the man Jesus, Whom we call Lord and Savior, the Christ. This life gives us the picture of what God meant man to be. Here is the perfect portrait of God’s creation man. It as a stirring picture and we love to look at it, contemplate it, read about it. It is a dull mind and heart that does not quicken in response to His amazing compassion and strength; and as we study his instructions to us, it becomes clear that He expects us to be to our generation what He was to His.

When we realize what His teaching and commandment require of us, our sense of the beauty and simplicity of His life is overshadowed by the terror aroused in us by His expectation of us. We know that the ugliness of our lives can never reproduce the beauty of His. From a human point of view, the imitation of Christ is a complete impossibility, and one wonders how so many Christians can go on, generation after generation, thinking that this is their task and that they can accomplish it. Yet it is clear that He expects us to be members of His body and to do His work in our time. Is it possible that He asked us to do something that is beyond our powers of accomplishment? If this is so, then far from being Savior, He is one of the most cruel of men. There must be some other answer.

The answer, of course, is that Christ did not leave us alone to carry out His commandments, summed up in the great commandment: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." He understood only too well the ambiguity of our lives. How understanding He was of vacillating Peter, and yet He called him the Rock. Had Peter possessed any self-understanding, he must have wondered why his Lord gave him that name. But after the resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit, Peter became the Rock, because then he incarnated the Spirit of his Lord. As with Peter, so with us. The presence of the Spirit makes possible an imitation of Christ. Now we can read the Gospels without dread, and not as patterns for us to imitate literally and slavishly. The New Testament provides the understandings that help us to test whether or not we are responding to His Spirit and letting Him accomplish His work in and through us. Thus, like Peter, we may become rocks, incarnating the Spirit of our Lord.

Nor do we need to be embarrassed by our humanity. We begin to sense that we cannot be Christian without first being human, which means that we shall be both loving and hostile, both righteous and sinful, both courageous and cowardly, both dependable and vacillating. We are in the world and of the world as other men are, and we share the lot of human existence. But in addition, we have been given the spirit of power and love and self-control, not that we may be condescending toward the world, or try to regulate it as if it were a recalcitrant child, but that we may be embodiments of the Spirit of God in human affairs through whom He may accomplish His purposes in the world. In the process, because His Spirit is in us, men will know that they have seen Jesus.

Thus we may come to understand the life of the people of God, and to find therein a basis for a true evangelism; and thus we may participate in the life and teaching of Christ, which are at once our ideal and pattern of living, and at the same time our judgment.

Participation in the Crucifixion

Since the life of the Christian is participation in his own time in the life of Christ, he must participate also in the crucifixion and death of his Lord, which were a part of His life. Christ’s crucifixion and death were a natural consequence of His teaching and of the way in which He lived. The acceptance of the unacceptable, the loving of the unlovable, inevitably produces the necessity of the Cross, which itself must be chosen and accepted if the life of love is to be triumphant.

We would like to evade this part of Christian living, if that were possible. The Cross and all that it represents is the part of the Christian gospel that we would prefer to skip. The lives of church people reveal only too clearly how much they wish it were possible to move directly from the contemplation of the ideal to its actualization, and to bypass the experience of crucifixion and its meaning for us. Lovers, for example, would like to move from the contemplation of the romantic ideal of their love to its realization in their lives. But the full meaning of their love cannot become available to them except as they pass through the challenges and crises of their relationship and die to themselves for the sake of the other. Nor can anyone master a skill or a field of study except as he moves from the vision of what he might do, to its realization through the path of self-discipline, which is a kind of dying to himself and to other values which he might choose and cultivate.

Jesus Christ affirmed by His teaching and life this principle of disciplined self-giving. If we would be partakers of His resurrection, we must be willing to be buried with Him in His death. We are expected to show forth His death till He comes, and we do this by dying daily. In one sense, the life of the Christian is a life of dying. Being buried with Christ in His death is symbolized in the act of baptism, especially when it is administered by immersion and accompanied with such a Scripture verse as, "We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life." In other words we have to expect the pain of our relationships and accept the responsibility of them for the sake of the glory in them that may be revealed later. We are to accept the unacceptable in ourselves and in others, because on the cross Christ accepted the unacceptable in all men. This is what produced the Cross. And so He died, bearing the sin of man while He perfectly fulfilled His own teaching; that is, He was perfectly obedient to the full meaning of love. We too have to die daily to our desire for peace at any price, to our desire to work out convenient and comfortable compromises, and to our desire to be God and to have things run our own way. Thus, we come to realize the meaning of His words, "Whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it."

The Christian fellowship, therefore, is the fellowship of men and women who accept dying as a part of living, and who are not surprised by the presence in human relations of selfishness, betrayals, misrepresentations, hostility, and all other violations of the ideal. When we meet these things, we should not run away, or pretend that such conditions do not exist. Instead, we should face these hostile and negative human responses with courage. Because we are participating in the life of our Lord, we may move through these experiences, knowing that nothing can really separate us from the love of God which seeks to make itself known in and through our relations with one another. We may trust that if we accept the pain that we have in our relations with one another and are obedient to the spirit of the love that seeks to reunite man with man, we may emerge on the farther side of the painful experience with relationships that are richer, deeper, and stronger than they were before.

An excellent illustration of this principle is to be found in Tennessee Williams’ play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the point of which many people miss because of what they regard to be the vulgarity, profanity, and licentiousness of its characters. In the play, Brock, the son, evaded his problems with himself, his father, his wife, and his work through an excessive use of alcohol. His father, Big Daddy, in his rough, profane way was greatly concerned about his son. Finally, in a tremendous scene between Big Daddy and Brock, the father pursued his son through every kind of evasion and rationalization in a determined effort to break through to his heart. Nothing that Brock could say to his father was sufficient to cause Big Daddy to turn away. He could easily have abandoned his sick boy and evaded the pain of what he was trying to do. Instead, he hammered at the door of Brock’s life with a love that was willing to accept every rejection that his son could offer. And he did not give up. Finally, he broke through, reached his boy, and brought him back to his life with his family and his work. Because he was willing to die to himself and every comfortable impulse. Big Daddy was freed to be the instrument of a saving love. Here was a dramatic portrayal of the truth which our Lord not only taught but exemplified, and which He would like to see reproduced in the lives of all of us.

Incidentally, it is ironical that so many Christian people missed the real message of this play because they were so easily offended by that which is not pretty in human life. It is a shame that we would rather be pretty than redemptive. We seem to place respectability above salvation. Christians ought to be able to see through and behind the dirty and sinful ways in which people live, and recognize them as symptoms of a spiritual condition that calls for that which God is trying to give them through us. It is tragic that some would-be Christians, like Mrs. Strait, become so moralistic that they condemn rather than help people. Christ could see behind the suffering of men, behind their sins, and He was not distracted by what they did. He was concerned for men first and for their behavior last. He knew that if He could reach the man, the behavior would take care of itself. We are supposed to be like Him, men and women who, because His Spirit indwells us and because we participate in His living and dying, are able to see the hearts of other men and women and to unite them with the power of God’s love and forgiveness.

Participation in the Resurrection

This kind of living would bring us to our third participation in the life of Christ, namely, in His resurrection. Because He was faithful to His love and willing to die in obedience to its demand, He was raised up in triumph, and with Him all things were made new. These were the events of His life. But His life affirms the principle of God’s life as it is lived in human existence. Since His Spirit incarnates itself in us, then we may expect that our lives will be triumphant also and be the source of renewal for others. Another criticism that we can make of Christians is that they do not have this sense of expectancy, this sense of deliverance, this sense of triumph, and this appearance of having been renewed. All too often we are grim and sad, discouraged and cynical, and our lives contradict the faith we profess.

However, because we participate in His resurrection, we are given the wonderful power of facing any problem with courage, even though it may seem, from a human point of view, that no solution is possible. We live in the faith that if we consent to be buried with Christ in His death, we shall be made partakers of His resurrection. And this, not in the hereafter, but now, in this present life.

A father told me of an incident with his son that illustrates the principle we are now considering. He and his son had become involved in a quarrel and both had lost their tempers. The father confessed that he had said some harsh and cruel things to his boy. Finally, however, he came to himself, realized what he was doing, and, dying to his pride, he acknowledged his fault and asked his son’s forgiveness. When the exchange was over, the boy was still rather subdued, but later when he came through the room where his father was seated, he called out cheerily, "Hi, Pop." The cheerful greeting of the son was a sign of the triumphant relationship between father and son, and, in the human relationship, the father was participating in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In other words, our participation in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ will give us courage, faith, and hope. This way of life will not save us from the pain of human living, nor will it save us from going through dark times of indecision and lack of faith. We shall, however, be able to live our lives out of the power of the triumphant life that God lived in human life.

Our worship is yet another way in which we participate in the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord. In worship we bring our lives to the judgment of Christ’s teaching and life, and these reveal how unequal we are to live His life, and how greatly we need His Spirit to transform our lives. By our confession of our sins we participate in His death for us and for our sins, and the assurance of His forgiveness enables us to participate in His resurrection so that we may rise to our feet, make a confident offering of ourselves, and sing our praises of thanksgiving.

The Christian, we conclude, is one in whom the Spirit of Christ is incarnate. By the power of the Spirit he participates in the life of Christ, so that the presence of Christ and His Spirit has contemporary power and meaning in the arena of human relations. The love of God is for the world, and this world-love of God should be reflected in the devotion of His people to His work in the world.