The Greatest of These

Fear is first, but love is the greatest.

Getting Love Right (1)

And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these
is love. 1 Corinthians 13.13

From the first to the greatest
The first affection which we must diligently guard in our hearts is the fear of God, as we have seen. When we fear God as He commands, His salvation is near to us (Ps. 85.9), and we can unite within our heart all the affections that move us to live as true sons and daughters of our heavenly Father (Ps. 86.11).

The fear of God is the first of the affections; love – for God and neighbors – is the greatest. The fear of God leads to love for Him (Deut. 10.12, 13), and when we love God with all our soul and strength, we will love our neighbors as He does.

Love is the greatest of the affections. Love most mirrors the way God’s presence comes to light in His creation, and love most fulfills the deep longing of every human being’s heart. Fearing God, we must give attention to loving Him and our neighbors, keeping our hearts with all diligence as wellsprings, quarries, kilns, and forges of divine love.

Love defined
A good bit of confusion exists concerning the true nature of love. The influence of pop culture, the aspirations of politicians and social activists, and the pervasive presence of relativist thinking in academic and everyday life have made of “love” a kind of catch-all for whatever anyone sincerely desires. Love is what we make of it, as is obvious from how we profess to “love” this or that food, film star, article of fashion, story or joke, work or person. Lacking a clear understanding of love, and knowing implicitly – because we are made in the image of God – that love is the greatest of the affections, we substitute the idea of love for other affections, not all of which are agreeable to love’s proper use.

In the most general sense, love is that disposition of the heart which seeks the presence of God for beauty, goodness, and truth in a situation, person, or thing. Rightly understood, love brings God’s perspective, presence, and will to bear in time, seeking His glory and presence in and for others, and, if necessary, at the cost of self-denial and even suffering in the one who loves. It is by love that God’s Kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven. Such love must be learned from God, from being in His presence and experiencing His love, and this makes it important that we fear God as we should, so that we may learn from Him the true nature and proper expression of the greatest affection.

The greatness of love
But why is love the greatest affection? A brief overview of its manifestations and ends should help us in answering this question.

Consider first that love creates channels of expression for all the best and noblest affections. Through love, patience, kindness, contentedness, humility, courtesy, self-denial, compassion, and the desire to bless and edify others are funneled into our words and deeds (1 Cor. 13.4, 5).

At the same time, love suppresses those affections which might deny the manifestation of God’s presence. Thus, love discourages covetousness, self-vaunting, rudeness, vengefulness, and gloating (1 Cor. 13.4-6).

Further, love is a strong affection. It is not given to whim or flights of fancy, and is not easily discouraged from seeking its proper end. It sees through a situation, no matter how demanding, to the goal of its manifestation, that is, the presence of God and His glory for beauty, goodness, and truth, and it is willing to endure whatever a situation may require for achieving those ends (1 Cor. 13.7; cf. Heb. 12.1, 2).

Such love covers a multitude of sins (1 Pet. 4.8). Like the love God has for miserable sinners, the love we learn from Him allows us to forgive when sinned against, put transgressions in the past, focus at all times on the hope of beauty, goodness, and truth, and undertake works of self-denial and sacrifice to lift sinners into a greater experience of the presence of God. We love this way when we know God’s love, and His love loves through us to make known His greatness and glory (1 Jn. 4.7-11).

The Apostle John reminds us that God is love (1 Jn. 4.8), and if we know God, if we possess the gift of eternal life through the love He has shown us in Jesus Christ, then achieving love will be our highest priority in every situation.

Such love must be learned, and it can only be learned from God, in the presence of God, and according to His Word. If we fear God, we will walk in all His ways, following the example of His love in all our relationships, roles, and responsibilities. The more we walk in love, the more we will realize just how great this greatest affection is, and this, in turn, will lead us to love God and serve Him with all our heart and soul (Deut. 10.12, 13), and to delight in and keep His Word as the best and surest way of living in love as He intends.

In a fallen world, populated with sinful people like us, many traps and pitfalls exist which can cause us to misapply this greatest affection in ways that neither glorify God nor bring His presence to others. The greatest danger of all is the powerful working of self-love, bursting its proper bounds and becoming the whole of love, whether as a way of life or the expression of a moment. Unless we understand how to love ourselves as God intends, and keep our hearts with all diligence for such love, we will pervert the true nature of love and make love a tool, not for the glory of God and blessing of others, but for satisfying whatever it is we may desire, no matter how banal or base.

For reflection
1.  Why does it make sense that learning to love must begin in fearing God?

2.  How can thinking about love in terms of God’s presence keep us from using love for our own advantage?

3.  In what ways do you experience the greatness of love from the people in your life?

Next steps – Transformation: From what we’ve seen thus far, in what aspects of love do you most need to improve? Make note of these, and seek the Lord for help in showing more of His love, more consistently every day.

T. M. Moore

This is part 3 of a multi-part series on Keeping the Heart. To download this week’s study as a free PDF, click here.

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Where does the heart, and all the soul, fit in our Christian worldview? Our free online course,
One in Twelve: Introduction to Christian Worldview, shows you how to understand the workings of your soul in relation to all other aspects of your life in Christ. For more information and to register, click here.

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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT. 

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