TXAB: The Christ Almighty Blog

14 January 2016

What passes for love among Christians.

Christians know better than to pass off certain things as love… but we often overlook this thing.

So yesterday I mentioned a fifth Greek word for love which C.S. Lewis overlooked for his 1960 book The Four Loves. I only discovered it ’cause I was poking through my bible software’s Greek dictionary. It tends to be translated as other things, which is why most people, Lewis included, might not translate it as “love.”

ξενία (xenía) /zɛ'ni.ɑ/ fem. n. Welcoming attitude towards a guest; receptiveness, hospitality, love for strangers.
2. A guestroom. Ac 28.23, Pm 1.22

Ever heard the myth of Philemon and Baucis? (You oughta; it explains exactly why the Lystrans started worshiping Barnabas and Paul. Ac 14.8-18) They were a old married couple, and one day two strangers visited their farm; they showed them such hospitality, the strangers rewarded them for it by rescuing them from a flood. Turned out the strangers were the gods Zeus and Hermes. The Greeks loved to tell this story as an example of how we need to be hospitable to everyone—for you might be entertaining gods unawares. Or as the author of Hebrews reworded it, angels. He 13.2 KJV

The reason why xenía/“hospitality” isn’t straight-up agápi/“charity,” the sort of love we oughta be practicing, Ga 5.22 is because of the motive for hospitality: Reciprocity. (Or karma, as people call it.) Be hospitable, and people will be hospitable back. Maybe out of gratitude they’ll even give us some extra reward. Maybe not, but at least they should say thank you. Regardless we should expect something in return, otherwise those people we were loving to, were jerks who didn’t deserve anything from us.

Y’see, hospitality isn’t unconditional love. It’s entirely conditional.

What the world calls charity.

Here’s a passage which tends to confuse Christians:

1 John 4.7-10 KWL
7 Beloved, we can love one another
only because love is something which comes from God.
Everyone who loves has been produced by, and knows, God.
8 Everyone who doesn’t love doesn’t know God, because God is love.
9 God’s love for us was revealed like this:
God sent his one and only Son into the universe, so we could live through him.
10 Love is like this: Not because we loved God,
but because he loved us, and sent his Son to cover over our sins.

Why it confuses us is because John so matter-of-factly said if people love, it’s ’cause they know God. Problem is, we know an awful lot of pagans who really do appear to love others. They love their families, they love their friends; some of ’em even love strangers and do grand acts of charity. In fact, some of ’em are more loving than our fellow Christians. So what’s up with John?

Simple. The love these folks have for one another isn’t agápi/“charity.” It’s hospitality. They really do love their family and friends and strangers—as we English-speakers define “love.” But they don’t love them selflessly and unconditionally. There are all sorts of strings attached.

Pessimistic philosophers realize this, and claim there’s actually no such thing as selfless love: Every act of love is done for selfish reasons. It’s to make the lover feel good.

  • When they love their kids, it’s because these are their kids. Their possessions. The people they’re vicariously living through, molding into mini-mes. It’s why they get so upset when the kids choose a different path.
  • When they love their friends, it’s because these are valuable, beneficial friends. Friends who entertain them, who make ’em feel loved, who do stuff for them. Friends who don’t always need their help and support; friends whose lives aren’t a mess. They’ve unloaded those so-called friends long ago.
  • When they love the needy, they only love the deserving needy. Maybe these folks will never pay them back, but they’re good people, or they’ve suffered a lot, and their goodness and suffering offends their sense of reciprocity: Why, these people should’ve got something back by now. Karma owes them big time. No problem; they’ll rectify things. They’ll be the hero.
  • Plus it looks good. Plus tax deductions. Plus karma: Someone might remember our act of generosity, and help us out when we really need it. At some point this investment is gonna pay off. (Unless we can’t see how it could; then we won’t bother to invest.)

And our culture—and even our churches!—regularly teach us it’s okay to divest ourselves of difficult people. If someone’s falling apart, and we see no hope for their situation, it’s okay to just give up on them, and let things play out.

For certain twisted individuals, when we get nothing back, that’s fine too. They get a perverse pleasure from feeling like a put-upon, under-appreciated martyr. Perhaps God will grant them some form of heavenly consolation prize at the End. I mean, they earned it, didn’t they? ’Cause you know, martyrdom.

This expectation pervades our culture. We see it every Christmas: People expect the presents they receive will be more or less equal to the ones they’ve given. When they get something beneath their expectations, they feel insulted. When they get something above them, they’re delighted… unless it’s too generous, “too much,” something they now feel obligated to catch up with.

We see this every time someone refuses charity: Because they can’t afford to give back, they’d rather do without the gift. We see this every time a politician refuses a contribution to their campaign: They know people expect to get something back, and don’t wanna be (or look) beholden to that contributor. We see this every time a date refuses an expensive gift that’s “too much”—they don’t wanna be beholden to their suitor. We see it in America’s divorces: When one partner slacks on the marriage, the other feels shortchanged, decides to end the relationship, and get theirs back—in dollars and cents.

Hospitality is never done selflessly. There’s always meant to be some reward. It needn’t be big; a simple “thank you,” will do. Forget to offer a thank-you, and people will be irritated for weeks thereafter: “What is wrong with people? Doesn’t anyone practice courtesy anymore?” Courtesy’s not actually the issue: Someone was practicing hospitality, not love, and wasn’t repaid. Because xenía looks out for itself. And agápi doesn’t. 1Co 13.5

Christians do it too.

So. Scratch the surface of any pagan couple which practices what they call “love,” and I guarantee you’ll find hospitality.

Heck, scratch the surface of many a Christian couple. Lots of us Christians are practicing hospitality instead of charity, and can’t tell the difference. After all, hospitality appears to be all the things Paul described love as. 1Co 13.4-8 It’s patient, kind, gentle, humble, others-focused, good, truthful, faithful, hopeful, and consistent. Looks exactly like charity!

But every so often, the patience runs out. The hospitable person throws up their hands and shouts, “Y’know, I’m all these things to everybody else. And just once I’d like to someone to show me a little bit back!” We want payback. We’re due. Overdue.

When love expects compensation, it’s not charity. Charity keeps no balance sheet. 1Co 13.5 Love gives, and doesn’t expect back. You know, like God does. We can’t possibly repay him for the gift of his Son, much less his kingdom. And he doesn’t expect payback anyway. If he did, man alive would he be bitter.

There’s our guideline for how we know whether we’re actually practicing the charitable sort of love God is, 1Jn 4.8, 16 versus the hospitable self-seeking love the world does. We look to God’s example. The fruit of the Spirit is nothing more than God’s own character traits, overflowing into us. Our ability to love is entirely based on God’s activity among us. If our love doesn’t look like God’s love, we’re doing it wrong.

Watch how God does it.

How do we know what God’s love looks like? Read your bible. Read the gospels. Follow Jesus’s example. And when you find his example practiced among our fellow Christians, watch that too. (It’s not gonna be infallible like the bible stuff, but it’s concrete, so it definitely helps.)

Bible? Sure I’ll quote some bible. More from John:

1 John 4.10-21 KWL
10 Love is like this: Not because we loved God,
but because he loved us, and sent his Son to cover over our sins.
11 Beloved, this is how much God loved us.
We’re obligated to love one another.
12 No one’s ever seen God, yet when we love one another, God’s with us.
His love’s been expressed in us, 13 so this is how we get to know we’re with him and he’s with us.
He’s given us his Spirit.
14 We’ve seen, we’ve witnessed, how the Father sent the Son to save the world.
15 When anyone agrees Jesus is the Son of God, God’s in them and they’re in God.
16 The love God has is in us. We’ve known and believed it. God is love.
Those who stay in love, stay in God, and God stays in them.
17 Love is expressed this way among us, so we can be confident on Judgment Day:
In this world, we can be like he is.
18 There’s no fear in love. Total love throws fear out,
because fear focuses only on hellfire. The fearful don’t express love.
19 We love because God loved us first.
20 When anyone says they love God, yet hates their fellow Christian, they lie:
Those who hate their fellow Christian, whom they can see, can’t love God, whom they can’t.
21 Plus we have this command from him: If you love God, love your fellow Christian.

God obviously doesn’t expect payback. He loved us first—when we were in no position to pay him back, when we were (and are) totally unworthy of his love. He sent his Son to sort us out, and make us worthy.

True, God expects us to love him, and commands it. But it’s not to pay him back; our level of love can’t possibly. We’re ordered to love because really, it’s the only healthy thing for us. In fact, his instructions are to pay his love forward: Because he loves us, we’re to love one another. We’re to love as he does: Generously, self-sacrificially.

We’re spurred to do this because God’s in us. He’s not just observing from the outside, from some lofty position outside of time and space, cheering us from the stands as we run the race of life. He’s here, empowering us, making us able to love. He corrects us when we don’t, supplies us when our love is deficient. He drives out our fears so we learn to love from pure motives—not because we’re worried about hellfire, about the consequences of displeasing God. He drives out our desire for reciprocity, for compensation, for getting something back.

People who don’t know God, totally don’t understand that. How on earth can we Christians love people so utterly selflessly? How can we forgive murderers? How can we give charity to the unworthy, to people who won’t even say thank you, to people who exploit us and try to take more than their fair share?

They think we’re bonkers: We’re doing it because we expect divine reciprocity, some heavenly reward for all our good deeds, some pie in the sky when we die, by and by. They’re offended when we create charities which do this stuff, and they’re outraged when those charities can access government grants. (Worse, when government programs act like this too.) ’Cause that’s their tax dollars, which they only want spent on killing terrorists with drones.

This outrage is our tip-off that we’re dealing with someone who doesn’t know the difference between charity and hospitality. When we see pure, selfless agápi coming from a person—and we likewise have God’s love coming out of us—we can immediately identify them as someone who actually knows God. They might not call themselves Christian, but it makes no difference: They know God. You can’t love like God unless you live in God.

And, at the same time, you can’t live in God unless you love like God.

No, it’s not a formula. It’s a relationship.

So that’s the way we maintain the proper godly sort of love: Stay in God. Don’t so much concentrate on making sure the love we practice fits precisely with Paul’s definition. Don’t get legalistic about love; that’ll really warp it. Instead, concentrate on the relationship with God. Let him make sure we stick to Paul’s definition. As we live in him, we exhibit true, pure, charitable love. As well as all the other fruits of the Spirit.