Do people know that we are Jesus’s disciples by the way we love one another (John 13:35)?
This is a good question, though perhaps not the best way to ask it. The use of the plural “we” can have an unhelpful distancing effect.
For instance, I might be prone to answer with a general critique of the state of love in “the church” and shake my head and lament how far “we” have drifted from the New Testament standard. In doing so, I can make myself appear to be more earnest about the New Testament love commands than others, and feel a subtle, false sense of superiority to the faceless mass of corporate “we” failing to love as Jesus instructed.
This kind of mindset typically results in nothing productive.
Me, Not We
I need to watch myself carefully when it comes to critiquing the church, because it’s so easy and cheap, yet can feel deceitfully significant. Analyzing and evaluating “the church’s” failure to love — and diagnosing, however correctly, large-scale theological, historical, cultural, and sociological forces contributing to this problem — can feel profound, when I’m actually not doing anything. Talking about the lack of Christian love mainly as an external problem places no personal, specific demands on me. This is not good, because Jesus doesn’t approve of love-talk with no love-deeds or love-change (1 John 3:18).
So, the way I need to frame the question is this: Do people know I am Jesus’s disciple by the way I love others?
I confess that my flesh wants to dodge this question because it places me alone in the spotlight — but that’s right where I need to be. It forces me to stop comparing myself with my own conception of “the church” at large and start comparing myself to Christ who said, “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34). And it helps me see the log of love-lack in my own eye, and my desperate need for God’s help to remove it.
Distinguishing Mark of a Disciple
Jesus, being God, is love (1 John 4:8). And his love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). His love seeks to serve, rather than be served (Matthew 20:28). His love seeks to save the lost (Luke 19:10) and lavishes the returning prodigal with grace (Luke 15:11–32). His love is patient and kind; it’s not envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude. His love is not irritable or resentful, does not insist on its own selfish way, rejoices only in the truth, and bears all things (1 Corinthians 13:4–7).
And Jesus said this kind of love would be the distinguishing mark of his followers, the most remarkable thing about them (John 13:35). Because they would love like he loved, they would be his love-ambassadors on earth (2 Corinthians 5:20). So, Christians are meant to be the most love-focused, love-pursuing, love-dispensing people on the face of the earth.
Is this me? Is this you? Do people describe you and me as remarkably loving?
Growing in Love
Oh, how we all need the merciful exposing spotlight of the Holy Spirit to illumine our levels of love. We have no higher priorities in life than loving God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, as well as loving our neighbor as we love ourselves (Luke 10:27). We should not waste one more day allowing anything to impede our pursuit of those two loves. And if we’re reading the great commandments carefully, the words “all” and “as” should drop us to our knees. They are there to make us desperate for God.
This kind of desperation — utter helplessness — is what drives us to prayer. People who pray are people who know that apart from Christ they can do nothing (John 15:5). They seek to abide in him because they desperately need him. Christians don’t always — in fact, shouldn’t always — feel the emotion of desperation when they pray. Saints who learn to rest most in God’s promises have learned most profoundly how utterly they depend on God for everything. And how faithful he truly is.
But none of us will prayerfully press into loving God with our entire beings, or loving our neighbor as ourselves, until we see clearly our profound lack of such love — how much we need to be filled with the Spirit of Christ in order to love like Christ. We will likely keep comparing ourselves against the low-bar of one another, and often feeling like we’re doing relatively okay, until we invite the Spirit of Jesus to examine us. His questions always penetrate deeper. “Do you love others as I have loved you?” “Do unbelievers know you are my disciple by the way you love the Christians I have given you to love?”
Do we really want to know how he views our love levels? He invites us to ask him, and he promises to answer us if we want to know (Luke 11:10). His answer may be devastating. But that will produce the prayerful desperation that brings the growth.
Whatever It Takes, Lord
Jesus is utterly serious about his commandment, perhaps more than we may think (John 13:34). He did not command us to love one another relatively well. He commanded us to love one another divinely well — to love as he loved.
It does not matter that this is impossible for fallen human beings, for we have a God for whom all things are possible (Mark 10:27). And since the Father promises to give his Spirit to those who ask (Luke 11:13), let us ask boldly (Hebrews 4:16) and persistently (Luke 11:5–8):
Whatever it takes, Lord, increase my capacity to love until I love you with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind, and love my neighbor as I love myself.