Friday, March 5, 2010

Understanding Jesus' Love

For my theology unit, one of the readings, Divine Teaching and Christian Beliefs (McIntosh, 2008), discusses the idea that theological beliefs could be tested by their effect upon the person with those beliefs. In other words, good practice equals right beliefs. McIntosh also discussed John Henry Newman’s idea that you can tell whether someone has healthy faith by whether they have love and compassion.

I disagreed with this view. Firstly, because Christians with good beliefs often do bad things. This doesn’t necessary mean their beliefs are wrong.

Secondly, it is not always easy to see what good practice - or even loving others - actually means. There are many Christians who all believe that they are modelling a Christian life of love, who are actually behaving in very different ways to one another.

How can we decide who is right? And if we start deciding that someone has an unhealthy faith because they are not loving, is it really that they are acting without love or is it simply that our idea of love is different to theirs?

Most people would agree that Jesus is our best example of how to love others. But still there is disagreement as to how we should love others, even when following his example.

To some, Jesus’ example is clear. He showed compassion and love on all occasions. Therefore, there should be no disagreement as to what our love should look like.

But Jesus’ example was not clear. Although he showed compassion, he also said things like:

‘You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?’ (Matthew 23:33)


‘And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. (Matthew 11:23).

Many Christians would suggest that mentioning hell to people is not a loving act. And yet if we are to hold Jesus up as the perfect example of love, we have to face the fact that Jesus mentioned hell.

The problem is that although Jesus modelled love perfectly, it is not always so easy to understand. It can’t be summed up in six easy to understand dot-points. It is not a one-sided view of love, that only seeks to love people in one way. It loves people in very different ways. And quite frankly, Jesus’ love is mind-boggling at times. Just when we think we understand Jesus’ love, He seems to approach it from a completely different direction.

I think the greatest mistake we can make is starting to believe we understand Jesus’ love. The first point is that we are not God. We cannot understand God’s love, because our minds our limited. God’s love is so much bigger than what we can comprehend.

Secondly, I think when we start believing we understand Jesus’ love, there’s a danger we may be seeing it from only one perspective. There is also the danger here that we may take that one perspective as the rule by which all our loving actions should be measured against. We must remember to consider the whole of Jesus’ actions and words, not just those that fit into our idea of what love is like.

It’s interesting to think about the Gospels from the point of view of the Apostles. I’m sure there would have been many times when they thought they were starting to understand where Jesus was coming from. But then Jesus goes and does something completely unexpected. Surely there were moments when they thought, ‘That doesn’t fit into my own ideas about who Jesus is. I’m going to have to rethink it all now.’

We like to put people in boxes. We like to figure out where they’re coming from and try and match all their actions up with that. But Jesus was far bigger than our little boxes. We can’t even imagine a box big enough to contain him. Whenever we think his example of love is easy to understand, what we’re really doing is reducing Jesus to a box that doesn’t extend beyond our own mind.

Jesus did not just have one approach to love. He didn’t come at love from the one angle. But we do. We tend to stress one aspect of love and ignore the others. We see love through very limited eyes. We cannot ever fully grasp how big love can be. Because we only ever see a tiny part of it.

Yes, we must always look to Jesus as an example of how to love. But we must never make the mistake of believing that we completely understand that example. We never will. Our minds (and our hearts) are too limited. His love is far bigger than our own ideas. And just when we think we finally get it, that we know how to love and what love means, Jesus is likely to do something completely unexpected. And we may have to rethink it all.

(Image details: Holy Trinity by Botticelli.)


  1. Dear Liz,

    My grandfather (on my mother's side) was a wheatlumper. It's very hard work. He was doing this work at the age of 68. One day, he came home and said, "I don't feel very well." He went and laid down on the bed. That night, he fell off the bed and died.

    I didn't know him very well in a personal sense, because he died when I was about 6 years-old.

    But I know him from the stories I've heard from people who did know him (which is like our Faith in a sense - we know Jesus from what others have said of Him).

    And Jesus was a worker. One day the Pharisees and Sadducees said, "How has this man come upon all this wisdom when he has never read letters?" (What they were saying was, We know everything because we've studied the theory of life, whereas all he's done is put those theories to the test.

    I will eventually get to the point I want to make about this post of yours. It is beautifully written, and speaks volumes of how Catholic your thought-process is.

    You've mentioned a very interesting point about Jesus' mercy, love and compassion, versus Jesus' anger. Jesus' anger is a just anger. And he reserved most of His 'outbursts' for men of the cloth who did not live as men of the cloth should live.

    He called them hypocrites.

    And, to my mind, this is why: They never did a hard day's work in their life. Their lives were full of the theory of religion, without every putting any of it into practice. I call these type of people 'Theory Monsters'. They know all the theory of life, but when it comes to putting that theory into practice, they fall so far short, it is laughable. In a sad way. God doesn't desire the death of a sinner. He desires their salvation. He wants to wake them up from their spiritual lethargy. But guess what? It's not only modern men who don't want to work physically. This stuff has been going on for nearly six-thousand years.

    David ...

  2. Hi David,

    I've been thinking a lot about the authority of scripture - because that's the topic of my first essay. And when I read your comment about how we know Jesus from what others have said of him, I immediately thought about how that ties into the authority of scripture.

    Because if our aim as Christians is to know Jesus, then ignoring the bible is a bit like trying to know someone who has died, but refusing to talk to the people who actually knew him. If anyone wanted to find out about a person who was dead, one of the first things they would do is try to talk to the people who knew and loved that person while he was alive.

    And I like the idea of the bible being a means through which we hear from the people who did know and love Jesus.

    Sometimes I write posts and think, as I am writing them, this seems quite Catholic. This wasn't one of them. I wasn't even sure whether what I was writing lined up with Catholic beliefs. Interesting that my thought-process sounds Catholic even when I don't realise it.

    And thank you for saying it was beautifully written. I can't say I had that thought as I was writing it either. In fact, it more like the opposite thought.

    I only wrote it because I was searching for a subject to write about. And I commented about the reading on my uni messageboard and thought, 'That'll do for the subject of a post.' I didn't really spend a great deal of time on it. In fact, I actually spent more time looking for a picture than I did in writing it.

    But maybe it worked because I did just write the first things that came to mind. Rather than thinking about it until I got confused.

    One of the things I have liked about the readings so far for my course is the idea that studying theology should have some effect on us. It should change us in some way. Studying theology has to be more than simply learning and discussing theories and doctrines.

    Maybe I'll do my next blog about that idea.




Bookmark and Share

Blog Patrol