"How To Say I Love You"
Jason W. Crosby, preaching
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1 John 3:16-24
One of the most stressful, anxiety-ridden, nerve-wracking moments that a person may ever face is telling someone you love them for the first time. Often, the source of that angst is worry about whether or not the other person shares those sentiments. This makes sense. No one wants to bear their hearts, reveal their most intimate thoughts, put themselves in a vulnerable position, only to have their heart broken, feelings hurt, and vulnerability exploited.
Deep down, at least from time to time, we all doubt that anyone could ever love us. When we search our souls we all find some things there we wish we wouldn’t. Occasionally, we end up dwelling on those aspects of our character that are less than pleasing and we lead ourselves to question whether or not we possess any redemptive quality. That doubt can quickly evolve into fear. And that fear about how someone will respond when we say, “I love you,” can be so intense it can preclude us from ever receiving, knowing, and sharing love.
When we refuse to say I love you or refuse to share our hearts with another, we end up setting up barricades around them. Overtime, we end up hardening our hearts bit by bit. In the movie, Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon plays the role of Will Hunting, an extraordinarily gifted mathematician. However, the deck had been stacked against Will his entire life. He grew up in an abusive home. He came from a tough South Boston neighborhood and ran with a rough crime-prone crowd. When the movie begins Will is working as a janitor at MIT. When no one was watching, he would covertly solve some of the most difficult mathematics equations ever devised. Will could solve nearly any mathematics problem, but he couldn’t resolve his own personal problems. He erected barriers around himself to keep others at arms’ length. Those very same barriers impeded Will from ever maximizing his potential and living his life the fullest.
The original audience for whom First John was crafted was seemingly trapped in this sort of downward spiral. They were a group of new Christians, who were two or three generations removed from the days when Jesus was alive, trying to figure out what it meant to walk in the in way of Jesus. Apparently, they were doubting the decision they had made. Others were encouraging them to drop Christianity and follow a different path. All this caused them to question their lovability and to condemn their own hearts.
The author takes direct aim at their doubts about whether or not they are loved by God. The author reminded them and reminds us who hear these words today that although our hearts may condemn us, God is greater than our hearts, and knows everything. According to William Self these words intend to remind us that “even though our feelings may condemn us, God is greater than our feelings. God knows our loves and our longings; God hears our confessions and is aware of our dreams, as well as our sins. The world around us may judge us by our actions, but God judges by the content of our hearts. Perfect knowledge of our hearts belongs to God and God alone, and this is not our terror but our hope. The biblical claim that God knows us altogether is directly tied to the biblical claim that God loves us altogether.”[i] Therefore, our ultimate concern need not be whether or not God loves us. Our greater objective is to cut through the thickets that we have built up around our hearts that keep us from fully experiencing God’s love. Or, as Rumi, a 13th century Persian poet puts it, “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”[ii]
Our actions, then, are not the gauge by which we judge whether or not God loves us. God loves us no matter what. One’s actions may tell the world that a person is a dirty-rotten scoundrel, but God still loves that person without condition.
However, the author gives anxious listeners something else to hang their hats on. Perhaps, the author realized that worriers are, well, prone to worry, and need some further concrete reassurance of God’s love for them on occasion. So, the author informs us that we will see that we are from the truth, that we abide in God’s love, when we convey our love not simply in word, but in truth and action.
Love known in one’s heart can never be divorced from action. Love flows directly into action. We convey our love for another not by saying, “I love you,” but by how we act. In fact, there may be nothing more detrimental that a hollow “I love you” that is not accompanied by corresponding actions. That’s why Christ didn’t just come into the world to say he loves us. Christ showed he loved us, ultimately, by laying down his own life for us. Our actions are not indicators of God’s love for us, but our actions do indicate whether or not we’ve opened our hearts so that we know and experience God’s love. Our actions serve as benchmarks that help us discern whether or not we believe that we are God’s and we are embraced at every turn by God’s love and goodness.
As the movie unfolds, Will Hunting falls for a Harvard student named Skylar, who comes from a world very different than Will’s. Eventually, Skylar tells Will she loves him and encourages him to move to California where she will soon begin medical school. Will, who still refuses to accept anyone’s love, tells her that she could never really love a guy like him and storms off. After much agonizing soul-searching and some combative counseling sessions with his psychologist played by Robin Williams, Will begins to chip away at the barriers he erected around his heart. As the movie ends, one sees Will driving off into the sunset to California in a Chevy Nova his South Boston neighborhood friends rebuilt for him. Love was knocking on the door of Will’s heart, but it was only once he let down his guard and opened his heart that he could experience it. Then, his actions naturally followed suit, and it became abundantly evident to everyone that his heart had been filled with love.
The author of First John tries to convey a similar message. If you really need some hard evidence of God’s love in your life, look no further than your actions. When you find yourself participating in God’s economy of love where, as Martin Luther King wrote in his 1958 essay “An Experiement in Love,” your “love is an overflowing love which is purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless, and creative. It is not set in motion by any quality or function of its object.” Then you will know, “it is the love of God operating in the human heart.”[iii] When you find yourself loving in a manner similar to the way that God showed God’s love for us, then you will know in your heart of hearts that you abide with God. When you find yourself laying down your life for the sake of others, then you will know that you are God’s child.
Laying down one’s life for the sake of another can take on many forms and facets. Yes, it can mean literally risking life and limb for the sake of another. There are rare occasions when out of love it may be necessary to risk one’s physical well-being for another. Much more often than not, however, laying down one’s life for another does not mean risking one’s physical life, but it entails changing the way in which we live for the sake of another. It may mean, as the author of First John alludes to, stopping what we are doing to care for those who come to us in need, which may, in turn, result in us having a little less time to do what we want to do, and result in us having a little less expendable income in our bank accounts. It may also mean caring for the environment for the sake of future generations, which may, in turn, result in us adopting different driving habits, eating habits, or home air conditioning habits. It may also mean warmly, hospitably welcoming those different from us into our lives, communities, and churches, which may, in turn, mean that our traditional ways of being or worshipping need to give way to new forms of being and worshipping.
These are evidences that we may know God’s love abides with us, but they are merely evidences for our edification. Whether or not we see through our actions God’s love in our lives does not mean that we are beyond the scope of God’s boundless love. For although our hearts may condemn us upon surveying the way in which we conduct ourselves, God’s knows our hearts altogether and God continues to love us altogether. And the first step toward becoming people who naturally, continually, without effort shout from the rooftops to our world in word in deed “I love you,” is to accept God’s love, which already there for the taking.
[i] William Small. Feasting on the Word. Ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Talyor. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
[ii] Rumi. http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/875661.Rumi.
[iii] Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “An Experiment in Love.” Feasting on the Word. Ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Talyor. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.