The Word of God often speaks to us rather bluntly and plainly, without the frills of inference or projection. The Word simply lays us on the mat as it were and counts the time out. This is a most uncomfortable situation and more often than not it places us in that same uncomfortable position of the people of Judah in Jeremiah 44:16. Upon hearing the plain instructions of God, they replied, “We will not obey.” Other times our discomfort from the plainness of the Word follows the Scarlett O’Hara tactic, “I’ll think about that another day.” This procrastination provides time in our self-assessment to find one guiltier and much more subject to the consequences of failure than we. If the Lord must point out our flaws, why must He do it so abruptly and precisely without giving us time to marshal our forces and enunciate our excuses? Time must be on our side.
But time is subject to its Creator who will expose our agenda as ours and flay naked our hearts reeking of self. Ask Peter. Faithful Peter—faithful even in the Garden as he whacked off the man’s ear—was actually working in accordance with his own agenda. There was to be a kingdom. His friends were in agreement. It was Biblical, and he would have the kingdom. Hadn’t he given up his family and his business and risked his very life? He had done it all for love. The kingdom would come, and the Lord would reign and Peter with the Lord; and Peter himself had helped to make it all possible. He hadn’t understood about the kingdom; he just hadn’t been able to hear for the noise of the Lord speaking.
Now the Lord stood before the crackling embers serving them all a meal in the most servile and humble fashion, when He asked of Peter one, simple question: “Lovest thou Me?” Why didn’t He ask Peter about the profanity? Why hadn’t He asked why Peter had taken the sword to prayer? Why hadn’t He asked, for that matter, why Peter had fallen asleep in prayer? All these things had justifiable reasons, surely acceptable even by the Lord. But no. The Lord must take His probing straight to the heart. How then could Peter lodge his complaints? How could he make the Lord see that he Peter had been heading in the right direction? Surely the Lord realized that all of their hopes of a kingdom were dashed, with nothing left to be done against Rome or the Sanhedrin. It was too late. They had missed their window of opportunity. Peter had no choice but to go back to his fishing. (Jn. 21:1-17)
“Do you love Me, Peter, with agape love—that self-denying, self-sacrificing love?” the Lord asked. Face to face with the risen Lord, Peter, no doubt, heard the echoing words: “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me…and hate…his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Matt. 10:37 and Lk. 14:26). Such a piercing gaze from the Master could only evoke contrition; for the last time their eyes had met, Peter’s vile utterances had denied knowledge of this very Man now inquiring the status of Peter’s love. (Lk. 22:61)
Such a simple question—such a peaceful scene. These friends sat eating a quiet meal together in sight of the boat and the net overflowing with the abundant catch of fish. This was the life they had once forsaken. “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these?” Of course, he had loved the Lord. He had forsaken all to follow Him. But now, certainly the Lord understood, it would be unwise to admit more than the love of friendship after all that had happened. Surely the love of friends—phileo love—was sufficient love.
Sometimes we are, analogously, busy with having gone fishing. Our hearts remain filled with a subdued love for our Lord, while our minds are perhaps nursing some remembrance of an ill providence against which we have drawn the curtains on our not-too-stellar performance. When the cock had crowed, we, too, had wept bitterly, yet still lodging complaints against our Lord. “How much better is it to take our lot where it shall please Providence to cast it, without anxiety!” William Cowper had written. Indeed, we agree, except when our lot requires, by our calculation, an inordinate cost for such a sparse return.
But it is not always the rude awakening of God’s Word that shakes us from our religious reverie. Sometimes in the harmonious routine of our lives, we set out on the complacent journey of a story in a book only to find our own selves wandering in the pages. Such may be so when reading Queen Orual’s complaints against the gods who had exacted unfair remuneration. Her testimony wends its way through her life of rejection and loneliness, finding solace only in her selecting love of three precious souls. But the goddess Ungit required the dearest of the three in sacrifice, and so C. S. Lewis gave to us the account of the epic battle that raged in Orual’s heart between the unreasonable requirements of the gods and the divine submission of her dear sister. Orual’s love required the disobedience of her sister to will of the god. Just as Peter had drawn the sword in the blackness of Gethsemane, the queen drew her dagger and plunged it through her left arm. Had not the Lord told the zealous Peter of the thrice-pronged denial that would pass his lips that very night? The test of Peter’s love was not with sword and blood. Nor could Orual abide Psyche’s response to her own blood-letting: “Oh, Orual—to take my love for you…and then to make of it a tool, a weapon, a thing of policy and mastery, an instrument of torture—I begin to think I never knew you.”
How shamefully we love. Our motives are selfish and pharisaical. “Let me love you to accommodate me,” we fawningly implore. Oh yes, we often risk our own comfort. We even pawn the benefits of others to aid us. But the fuel that burns our love is our own agenda. “I have put off my coat; how shall I put it on? I have washed my feet; how shall I defile them?” says the Shulamite. (Song of Sol. 5:3) Her Beloved’s call was inconvenient. And just as Peter expected the immediacy of the earthly kingdom and Orual wanted Psyche’s forsaking of the god, our service and our love for Christ take on a life of their own. His call to us to love Him unconditionally is inconvenient.
And then comes the request for yet another of our prized possessions. For Peter, as he sat among his friends, still filled with the plenty of the catch and in clear sight of his boat, the Lord simply asked, “Do you love Me more than these?” For Queen Orual, it was the death of the man she had secretly loved. Only when his wife was broken free of the chains of Orual’s demanding love, could she demonstrate any shred of compassion for the grieving queen. But her release also redeemed her to speak the hard words of truth to her queen. Loving the same man had in a sense made them peers; but the wife’s strength of true love had always held sway over her queen, even when, only briefly, Queen Orual had pulled aside her veil of deceit. Now the widowed wife’s wisdom gleamed brightly in the manifestation of her integrity and truth: “Oh, Queen Orual, I begin to think you know nothing of love…Yours is Queen’s love…the loving and devouring are all one...You’re full fed. Gorged with other men’s lives, women’s too…”
It is then our broken hearts drip with agony just as Orual’s arm had dripped with the blood of her self-inflicted wound. We weep bitterly as did Peter when our courage is spent and we have failed in our mission. But the service is not the focus of true love. Loving others is not the reason or the object of true love. The focus, the object, the whole being of our love must be Christ. Agape love makes no prisoners; it does not enslave. It is patient and kind; it beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Agape love seeketh not her own. (I Cor. 13)
For us, agape love is letting go; it is loving Christ preeminently and all others with an extended love, flowing out from and anchored in our love for Christ. There is no other way to meet the demands of I Corinthians 13. Our love for others is the fruit of our love for Christ. He is the Vine; we are the branches; our love is the fruit. Only when we come face to face with our Lord can we realize the terrible delusion of our own self-love and can cry out as Orual to Psyche, “I never wished you well, never had one selfless thought of you.” Her love wasn’t enough.
“But how can we love—how can we serve—with such a blemished soul?” we ask. Who of us lacks a blemished soul? Who of us could serve, if sin abrogated service? It is not our lack of sin that qualifies us, but our loving obedience. So wrote Anne Steele in her hymn: “And shall a pardoned rebel live to speak thy wondrous love?”
“Our love for Him—how can it be?” we venture again to ask. Loving Him is knowing Him. “That I may know Him…” Paul wrote. (Phil. 3:10) To see Him face to face and hear His voice in His Word, to behold with Orual the “most dreadful, the most beautiful” brings us deeper and deeper into such a fellowship with Him and aligns our love of all other things that we ourselves learn to define our love as she learned: “I loved her as I would once have thought it impossible to love…And yet, it was not, not now, she that really counted…it was for another’s sake.” This is agape love—the love that has a heart only for Christ. This is the love that binds us full-bodied to the altar as living sacrifices to be done with as He pleases. (Rom. 12:1-2) This is the love of Newton’s prayer: “Let me love thee more and more, if I love at all, I pray; If I have not loved before, help me to begin today.”
No other love is enough.
C. S. Lewis, TillWe Have Faces, (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1984), 165.
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