Uniform 04.19.2015: Recognizing Our Lies

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1 John 4:13–5:5

In 1 John 3, John encourages us to remember that we show our love through our actions. Our faith requires us to act in love, he says. In chapter 4, John raises the stakes. If our outward love for others is evidence of our love for God, then our inner hate proves this love to be false. Hating others nullifies our love for God: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers and sisters are liars” (1 Jn 4:20).

Christians in all ages have forgotten this warning. Pastors stood in pulpits and offered passionate defenses of slavery. German Christians used their faith to justify the Holocaust. The Ku Klux Klan upheld (and still upholds) an ideal of Christian morality while terrorizing non-white people in their communities. Members of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church spout their contempt for homosexuality at military funerals.

These outsized examples make most Christians today cringe. It is difficult for us to understand how anyone could reconcile such actions and beliefs with the truth of God’s expansive love.

But failing to love others like God desires is not a sin reserved for the most depraved and sinister among us. Even the most well-meaning Christians can be guilty.

John further explains his meaning in the second half of verse 20: “those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” If we cannot love the people we see every day, how are we to love the God we only glimpse?

We may not commit atrocities in the name of our faith, but we often ignore the needs of the people around us. We see them, but we don’t see them. We know that people in our churches struggle with infertility, but we lift up parenthood as the best thing young Christians can do. We encourage women in our churches who seek ordination, but we hesitate to let them fill our pulpits. We are aware of members in our churches with disabilities, but we don’t make changes that would allow them to participate in our life together more fully.

We probably wouldn’t call these oversights “hate,” but to the person whose need and worth remains invisible, our inaction stings more than blatant rudeness might. John challenges us to really look at the people around us and remember that they all carry God’s image. Before we act in a way that would prove our faith false, John wants us to open our eyes. In truly seeing others, John hopes that we will extend them the same grace and compassion that God continually shows us.

Discussion

1. When have you been most disappointed by a Christian response to an issue or group of people?
2. How might our actions toward or judgments of others be undermining our love of God?
3. How can we help each other to see when our attitudes and opinions about other people are making our faith insincere?
4. What can we do to help heal the wounds that Christians have inflicted on others by failing to love them?
5. When have you felt invisible to others? How can we make sure the people in our lives feel seen?

Reference Shelf

Verse 20, with its conditional structure, sends one back to the first chapter of the Epistle (1:6, 8, 9, 10) and calls up an earlier pattern one last time. The grammatical structure is hypothetical, making the test applicable to all potentially, not just the secessionists. Sometimes the alternative contrast of saying is doing, but here saying love and doing hate. The opponents had apparently postured superiority in their relationship to God. The glaring inconsistency pertains to any in the community who declare their love for God while maintaining hate toward fellow believers (cf. 2:9-11; 3:15). The present tense suggests to “keep on hating,” a habitual behavior, not a single spiteful outburst. For the writer, the perpendicular and the horizontal, the love of God and fellow Christians, were indivisible. Loving God and hating constituted an incompatibility, indeed a religious lie! The declaration of loving God can be shown to be a falsehood, whether a self-delusion (cf. 1:8) or an outright prevarication or a calculated claim for effect.

The writer takes the position that if a professing believer fails to love a visible brother or sister in faith, then that same person is interestingly “not able” (ou dynatai) to love an invisible God (v. 20de). Once again he supports his own claims with follow-up argument, here introduced by “for.” What does he mean by this apparently obvious statement about loving those you can see and the One you cannot? Clearly it serves his purposes, but does he simply mean that the former is easier than the latter? Or is it that loving a fellow believer can be proved while in the nature of the case the latter cannot? Since this does go to his convictions about inseparables, failure in the one observable disqualifies for the other. For this distinctive Epistle, all religious claims can and should be tested by ethical outcomes. Then why is the one not loving others unable to love the invisible God? One suspects the answer resides in spiritual realities such as not belonging to the realm of God, not having been begotten of God (cf. 3:9), and not having known God. God’s love for us is not only more important than our love for God, but our love for God can only be verified by our love for fellow disciples.

Resource

Peter Rhea Jones, 1, 2 & 3 John, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2009) 194–95.

Bonnie Chappell is the editor of the Uniform Series Bible Study. She is a graduate of Mercer University and Vanderbilt Divinity School. She is an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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