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Practical Doable Love


Dan Behrens, Co Pastor EFC

Over the last 3-4 weeks, our church has been preaching/teaching through a series on love. Specifically, we are focusing on the question: are we growing in love? That is, are we as Christians growing in our love for God and our love for other people? Or, put another way: have we stopped growing in love? stopped pursuing love? even withheld our love from others or from God?

For Christians, this should be an incredibly important focus. This should be a focus we are continually focused on. Love is the core ingredient of all that is of Christ, and therefore, all that is specifically Christian. A “Christ” follower should be known, above all else, for his or her love. Even more, a “Christ” follower should be known for loving those who are quite difficult to love—estranged family, an arrogant friend, the irritating neighbor, your dismissive boss, even that one who wishes you every ill-will in the world (your enemy). This is the love of God, the witness of Christ.

The witness of Christ in our life ought to align with the Spirit of God. God is love and his call of purpose in our life is love. The fruit of his presence—his love, his joy, his peace, his patience, his goodness, his kindness, and so on—ought to be evident in our relationships and interactions. We ought to be him where he is needed when he is needed. And it does follow that we can not do so if we are not growing in love, if we have stopped pursuing love, or are in any way withholding our love.

One crucial observation we come know from the New Testament is that “nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus”(Rom 8:39). We would do well, even for a whole day, to take all of this in slowly. But know also, that the incredibly assuring comfort that we have in this truth has a flip side. Indeed, nothing can keep us from love. On the one hand, nothing can keep us from being loved by God; God is love and God loves us. On the other hand, because we are unconditionally and inexhaustibly loved by God, we have love to give. We. Can. Love. There is nothing keeping us from loving others.

But here comes a real snag, it’s one thing to proclaim such a foundational fact: nothing can separate us from the love of God! It’s quite another thing to actually walk out our conviction. It’s one thing for me to have faith for my questions: are we growing in our love for others? It’s quite another thing for me to actually put feet to my faith, actually align my behavior with my words, in real life with real people with real practical outcomes as my goal. As I said before, this topic of love should be an incredibly important focus, one we are continually focused on. If love is the core ingredient of all that is of Christ, and as a Christian I really do want to be like Christ, simple, practical, doable love is a great place to start.

Examples of simple, practical, doable love are all over the bible. As part of our series, we looked at the apostle Paul’s letter to Philemon. Philemon is the shortest of all Paul’s letters, and is certainly the most personal and intimate in subject and tone. In some ways it stands apart from any other text in the New Testament. What has occasioned this letter is quite a backstory, including a runaway slave returning home, an interim pastor fending off heretics, a daunting request for reconciliation, and perhaps the most incredible risk for the sake practical, genuine love apart from Christ himself.

What you will not find in this short little letter is Paul laying out any significant doctrine or arguing any particular point of theology. Instead you will find that Paul takes enormous personal risk for the sake of love. Paul takes enormous personal risk for the advance of the gospel. Paul takes enormous personal risk to reconcile relationship. The question then is, am I? Am I taking on enormous personal risk for the sake of others? What is really at stake in my own relationships and interactions? Is my growing in love all that costly? Should it be?

When we come to the Philemon text (and I hope you do make a point to read and consider), we find that Philemon is acting as a kind of interim pastor or overseer for the church that meets in his home (Phm 2). Epaphras, a convert of the apostle Paul who is mentioned in Paul’s closing remarks in both Philemon and Colossians (Phm 23, Col 1), is the actual founding pastor of the church (the church of Colossae). But at present, he too has been imprisoned along with Paul. Philemon, because of his assumed wealth and property, his social standing among the community, and his spiritual posture inside the church, now finds himself the minister of God’s purpose and the recipient of Paul’s correspondence.

Here is the witness of Christ we’re up against. Philemon the slave-owner and Paul the apostle have never met. Yet Paul believes so much in the power of the gospel to heal and restore (Rom 1) that he is willing to get very personal and very practical. Paul believes so much that nothing can separate himself or Philemon or the church from the love of God (Rom 8) that he is willing to risk his own message. He will risk his own reputation as an evangelist. He will risk the claim of the gospel as good news. And he will do so for the sake of love.

Love pursues the very best for everyone involved. Paul knows this, believes this, ministers out of this. Love pursues the very best for everyone. Without hesitation, Paul acknowledges the very best in Philemon: “I hear of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints” and “because of your love, the hearts of the saints have been refreshed”(v4-7). Certainly Paul is advocating an outcome here: establishing rapport, requesting a favor, appealing for Onesimus, but he is doing so by pursuing the very best for everyone. There is in this one observation something for the contemporary Christian to rightly consider—it’s not about me. At the very least, it’s not about me first!

To that end, love is radically risky. Love takes risk for the sake of others. Love takes risk to reconcile relationship. Someone somewhere risked something to love you into a transforming encounter with Jesus and thus into the kingdom of God. Beyond that, the redemption of humanity as a whole is one big risk if you think it out. The God of all worlds, before whose face heaven and earth will flee away, did not create a race of automator. He created a human race, incredibly powerful and fully capable of receiving or rejecting, loving or hating. Why do such a thing? Apparently, He thought it worth the risk.

Paul’s appeal to Philemon is no less a risk: “though I have great boldness in Christ to command you to do what is right, instead, I appeal to you on the basis of love” and “I am sending him back to you as part of my very being”(v8-12). Paul risks not only the rejection of his personal request, but also a deficit against his reputation, not to mention potential retribution against the slave Onesimus. Paul is willing to risk the power of God’s reconciling love against any possible outcome. This for the sake of others.

Love may be radically risky, but is there any other attitude more congruent with practical, doable love than preferring others’ needs above my own? Love prefers what others need over what I want (Phil 2). Love prefers others first and me behind them. In short, love makes sacrifice. If we honestly want to grow in love, if we genuinely wish to address areas where we’re withholding our love, it will require sacrifice! To think otherwise is foolish and results in  spiritual ruin. Paul demonstrates how love is most readily expressed through the reconciling power of sacrifice—the witness of Christ in us. Genuine love makes the ultimate sacrifice for the needs of others: “I wanted to keep Onesimus with me, [Paul says] so that in my imprisonment for the gospel he might serve me in your place” and “perhaps he was separated from you for a brief time so that you might get him back permanently, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave—a dearly loved brother in Christ”(v13-16).

Before you burden yourself with condemnation over sacrifice—but I haven’t made any Pauline-type gesture, like prison or death, for the sake of others?—take brief inventory of your testimony in God. It’s true. You and I are no apostle Paul, nor were we created to be. Instead, we’ve been created to worship God and celebrate the work of Jesus Christ in our life. And a moments-worth of inventory (perhaps down on paper) of all that Christ has done through your love will account for a great deal of sacrifice. More than you can imagine. The maker of heaven and earth referred to above sees all that you’ve forgotten. All is before him, including your every kindness, your comforts, your songs, your words, your meals, your medicines, your worries, your prayers, and above all else, “your steadfast participation in the faith”(v6). If Christ is at work in you, and we agree that the work of Christ is top-tier, than you really do rest on a rock that is higher than us all.

Lastly, yet in no way less practical or doable is Paul’s bold invitation for Philemon to do what is right. Love invites others to do what is right. I have found this to be a tremendous hurdle to my growing in love—inviting others to love me in return. Perhaps it is for you too. Love desires and pursues what is best for everyone, including opportunity for everyone to love someone in return. In fact, the very best version of you loving others includes your authentic self behind the loving. The fictitious you, the you that appears all together and well-kept, is a despairing imposter who will inevitably be undone. Everyone loses at that point. What is often quite necessary for our own growth is allowing others into our need, our weakness, our struggle, our dependency. Our first attempts feel contrary, but the discipline is necessary. It is daily surrender.

Paul surrenders any position of leverage. He surrenders all authoritative posture. He invites Philemon to do what is right on his own steam: “if you consider me a partner, receive him as you would me” and “prepare a guest room for me, for I hope that through your prayers I will be restored to you”(v17-22). The God of love is always inviting us to do what is right. In a way, it’s almost a surrendering on his part, a restraint, an incredible patience, a gracious invitation for us to receive all that is good and right. God does not force us to choose him; does not force us to follow him; does not force us to let him lead. But He does call out to us to make a good choice. Calls out for us to come close. This is what He does. This is who He is. Now… are we growing in him?


Does God Speak


Dan Behrens, Co Pastor EFC

The boy Samuel ministered to the Lord under Eli. Now the word of the Lord was rare in those days; prophetic vision was infrequent. Yet it came to pass during that time, while Eli was lying down in his place, his eyes grown so dim he could not see, and before the lamp of God had gone out in the tabernacle of the Lord where the ark of God was, Samuel was lying down in his place. There the Lord called out. And Samuel answered him, “Here I am!” (1 Sam 3:1-4)

These scriptures are some of my favorites and I return to them often. They are a comfort and confirmation of my own testimony, of God speaking to me and calling me to follow him nearly 15 years ago. These scriptures answer the question “Does God speak?” And even more intimately “Does God speak to me when I see very little evidence of his presence?” The answer… “Yes!” and “Yes!”

This here introduction into the life of Samuel serves to remind me (and I hope you too) of two important things: (1) Belief, more than anything else, bears the marks of commitment. Belief commits to continue believing when we are full of doubt. Belief continues to stay put, be patient, come close, open up, and believe again, particularly in times of uncertainty, where there is no clear vision or direction, when we despair even of lifting our eyes. This commitment we call faith, and without it we really are lost at sea. (2) Every bit as much in our day as in the days of Samuel, the lamp of the Lord does not go out. It continues right along with us. Whether our eyes have gone dim with disappointment or our hearts have grown hard from perpetual hurdles, the glowing presence of God is aflame the whole night through… the whole night through. Do not despair over evidence. The externals we look for are only a shadow of the real thing we truly want. Believe instead. Believe like a couple of temple ministers that our constant companion walks us on toward morning, toward a Sabbath of sorts, a changing of the guard, a whisper of that long-awaited rest at the end of a shift, where our efforts shut down and His voice awakens.



Set the Captive Free


Dan Behrens, Co Pastor EFC

“Set the captive free.” I’ve had this thought in my mind the last couple of days. It first came to me after reading the following verses near the end of Philippians—the apostle Paul’s closing remarks:

Give greetings to all the saints there in Christ Jesus. The brothers with me here send their greetings to you. And all the saints greet you, especially those who belong to the household of Caesar. And now may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit” (Phil. 4:21:23).

What catches my attention is this: “especially those who belong to the household of Caesar”(v22). Caesar’s house represents the Roman guard who, whether on this occasion or some other, is responsible for Paul’s imprisonment and eventual execution. Yet somehow somewhere among the imperial ranks belief has taken hold. The power of the gospel of grace that is the righteousness of Christ for both Jew and Gentile has infiltrated the hearts and minds of the opposition. The ministry of reconciliation has slipped through the prison bars undetected. A covert rescue mission is well underway and the real captives are being set free.

It would appear that the early church apostles believed “set the captive free” is an actual assignment, and actually quite doable—possibly less “spiritual” than we first think and perhaps more “practical” than we’d like own up to. We do not know for certain Paul’s method of ministry on this last leg of the race, but for us “set the captive free” may be as simple as a word, a comment, a card, a call, an apology, an encouragement, a favor, a deed, a prayer, an obedient service of no real benefit to us personally except that God has ordered us to do it.

See, here’s the deal. All around us and even in our own personal lives there are beautiful people who all bound up, caged, and holding defensive posture. These may be persons of authority. They may persons under authority, receiving orders, or still searching for their place in life. Today, this week, or in the coming year, you just may be dropped into someone’s life like a secret spy on a rescue mission. You may be spotted, seized, and ushered into rooms you never could have imagined. But here you are—not the God of heaven and earth who establishes righteousness, but you are an ambassador with keys in hand. So quit stalling. Work the mission. Set the captive free. Retrieve whatever’s been lost. Love your unlovable neighbor as you do yourself. And if this requires you slip forgiveness into the room, so be it. Tuck it up your sleeve. Bury it in your sock. Do whatever it takes to disarm the opposition. For although the eternal outcomes are up to God, we do know that already Caesar’s household’s been compromised.