Why do Christians find it so hard to love one another? I don’t ask the question as just one more critic of the church’s failures — I have trouble enough addressing the log of lovelessness protruding from my own eye. And of course, the question has as many different answers as there are Christians — many times more, actually, since we each have multiple reasons for why we find it hard to love God and others the ways we should.
We’re not surprised that humanity as a whole finds the kind of love described in 1 Corinthians 13 so difficult. Humans are fallen; it’s impossibly hard for sinful people who are separated from Christ to “bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, and endure all things” as love does.
But what can surprise us is that Christians have such a hard time with love. How is it that we who have been born again, have received a new heart, and have the Holy Spirit empowering us still find loving God with our whole being, loving our neighbors as ourselves, and loving our fellow Christians as Jesus loved us so difficult? Shouldn’t it be easier than we experience it to be?
Both the New Testament and two thousand years of church history say no. One reason for this is that the Holy Spirit isn’t given to us to magically turn us into people who love like Jesus. He is given to us as a Helper (John 14:26) to teach us how to follow our Great Shepherd along the hard, laborious path of transformation into people who love like Jesus. The Holy Spirit makes it possible for us to love like Jesus loved, which is impossible without him. But he provides us no easy shortcuts to God-like love.
Easy Yoke, Hard Way
What’s all this talk about a “hard, laborious path of transformation”? Didn’t Jesus say, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” and “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28–30)? Yes, he did. But he also said, “The gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:14). These two statements aren’t contradictions; they are two different dimensions of what it means to repent and believe in the gospel.
When it comes to the dimension of reconciling us to God, Jesus does all the impossibly heavy work required to “[cancel] the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands” (Colossians 2:14). In this sense, Jesus’s yoke is easy: he pays the debt in full for us. The only light burden required of us is to repent and believe in the gospel.
But when it comes to the dimension of God’s conforming us to the image of his Son (Romans 8:29), of “being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18), the way is hard that leads to life. In this context, for us to repent and believe in the gospel means learning to walk in “the obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5) — learning to “walk by the Spirit, and . . . not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16), learning to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him” (Colossians 1:10).
Our learning to walk in the way of Christ is no less a work of God’s grace in us than our learning to believe in Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins. But it requires us to exercise our faith in Christ through actively obeying Christ contrary to the sinful desires that still dwell in our members (Romans 7:23).
It’s Supposed to Be Hard
According to the New Testament, learning to walk in the obedience of faith looks like the following:
- Denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following where Jesus leads (Matthew 16:24)
- Putting to death what is earthly in us (Colossians 3:5), and not letting sin reign in our mortal bodies, to make us obey its passions (Romans 6:12)
- Dying every day to sin, personal preferences, and even our Christian freedoms out of love for Jesus, our brothers and sisters in the faith, and unbelievers (1 Corinthians 15:31)
- Doing nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility counting others more significant than ourselves (Philippians 2:3)
- Putting on compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other as the Lord has forgiven us (Colossians 3:12–13)
- Repaying no one evil for evil, but always seeking to do good to one another and to everyone (1 Thessalonians 5:15)
- Rejoicing always, praying without ceasing, and giving thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:16–18)
- Loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44)
- Wrestling against spiritual rulers, authorities, cosmic powers over this present darkness — the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:12)
And these are just a sampling. But it’s a hefty enough sample to give us a sense of how humanly impossible it is for us to obey the greatest commandments — for these are all expressions of love for God, our neighbors, and other Christians. Everyone who takes these imperatives seriously realizes that the transformational way of love that leads to life is hard. It’s supposed to be hard.
But why does the way need to be as hard as it is? Here’s one way Jesus answered that question.
Only Possible with God
Do you remember the story of the rich young man in Matthew 19? When forced to choose, he couldn’t let go of his wealth in order to have God, which revealed that he loved his wealth more than God, that his wealth was his god. As Jesus watched the man walk away, he said, “I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” And do you remember the disciples’ response? They asked, “Who then can be saved?” When they saw where Jesus placed the bar, it hit them: no one can possibly jump that high. Which was precisely Jesus’s point: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).
All we disciples must come to this realization. However morally beautiful and admirable we find Jesus’s love commands in the abstract, we cannot and will not obey them in our own strength. It’s impossible. Our flesh is simply too weak and our remaining sin too strong.
That bears repeating. It’s impossible to love like Jesus without being empowered by the Holy Spirit. Because striving to love God and others like Jesus exposes and confronts every unholy, sinful, selfish impulse of remaining sin in us, requiring us to daily put to death what is earthly in us and regularly deny ourselves for Jesus’s sake and the good of others.
None of us will consistently, continually walk in this hard way unless, by the Spirit, we truly “[behold] the glory of the Lord,” and see all the hardship as “light momentary affliction” that is transforming us from one degree of glory to another and “preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 3:18; 4:17). We will not walk this hard way unless we see that living according to the flesh leads to death, but putting to death the deeds of the body by the power of the Spirit leads to life (Romans 8:13) — that choosing the hard way is choosing the abundant life (John 10:10).
‘You Follow Me’
This doesn’t answer a host of questions that puzzle us along the path of love. Many of them, when viewed from our very limited perspective, may not seem to make sense. I know. I’ve pondered questions like these for a long time.
But when I get overly discouraged and critical of the church’s failures to love, something Jesus once said to Peter often helps me refocus on my own log of lovelessness — the failures to love that I’m primarily responsible for and can, by the power of the Spirit, do something about. When Jesus revealed to Peter the unpleasant way he was going to die, Peter essentially asked, “Well, does John have to die an unpleasant death too?” Jesus essentially answered him, “How I choose to deal with John is not your concern. You follow me!” (John 21:21–22).
God has woven so many mysterious purposes into the way he’s ordered reality, and I continue to learn just how unreliable my perceptions are when it comes to deciphering them. I am wise to heed Paul’s words: “[Do not] pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart” (1 Corinthians 4:5); I am wise to heed Jesus’s words, “You follow me!”
As Christians, our primary calling today is to follow Jesus, in the power of the Spirit of Jesus, on the hard way of self-sacrificial, God-glorifying love that leads to an incomparably glorious, abundant, and eternal life. We are not responsible for the loving witness of the whole church, or even of our whole local church.
But if we are willing to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus — as imperfectly as we all love this side of glory — then we will increasingly experience the result of the Spirit-born fruit of love: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).