When people puzzle over the deep mysteries of the universe, the deepest one of all is the question of why. Why does anything exist at all? The Bible’s answer, in one word, is love.
On the last night of his life on earth Jesus told his followers what he expected of them. His final order was brief and to the point: “My command is this,” he said, “Love one another as I have loved you.”
Why does the Lord care so much about love? Why did he make it his most basic command? Not only is love the key to the Christian life, it is not too much to say that love is the key to life itself. When people puzzle over the deep mysteries of the universe, the deepest one of all is the question of why. Why does anything exist at all? The Bible’s answer, in one word, is love. God’s love is the power that called the universe into being. God’s love is the power that supports and carries the whole creation along and keeps it going. God’s love is the reason you and I were made and why we’re drawing breath at this very moment. Love is the very nature of God, and he wants it to be our nature as well.
Despite its importance, we still often misunderstand what love is all about. Most of us tend to think of love primarily as an emotion. We believe it’s a state of feeling a certain way about a thing or a person, a condition that just happens to us, and there isn’t much we can do about it. After all, you can’t control your heart, can you? We often talk about “falling in love” as if love were something that just happens to us involuntarily like falling in a lake. In ancient mythology love was the province of Venus’s son Cupid. He’s represented as a naughty little boy, shooting his arrows blindly at human targets who have no say whatsoever in the matter. Nobody believes in the old mythology any more, but a great many people still accept the understanding of love that it represents. Many of us still think that love is all a matter of feelings, and out of our control, beyond even our understanding.
WHAT LOVE IS LIKE
But when the Bible describes love, it doesn’t really talk about feelings. Did you notice that Jesus adds a definition to his command to love? “Love one another as I have loved you,” he said. And just how did Jesus love his friends? Well, he would show them the next day by allowing himself to be nailed to a cross on their behalf. Genuine love isn’t measured by how much we say to someone, or how deeply we may feel about them. It’s measured by how much we’re willing to give for them, by what we will sacrifice on behalf of those whom we love.
Sacrifice is not an idea that appeals to us naturally. To sacrifice one’s self in love for another does not mean giving up something in order to get something back. It does not consist in taking turns: “I’ll sacrifice for you this time, and then you sacrifice for me next time.” No, real love isn’t concerned with striking a balance, or equality of results, or making sure everybody gets their fair share. Real love doesn’t keep track of those kinds of things. It doesn’t keep a tally of who has done what for whom. Real love just gives. It gives itself. It spends itself. It sacrifices itself for the good of another.
The New Testament uses a special word for this special kind of sacrificial love. It calls it agape. And when it comes to define agape, as it does most famously in the 13th chapter of First Corinthians, the Bible doesn’t offer an abstract formula about what love is; it simply describes what love does, how love acts. Love is patient; love is kind. Love doesn’t boast or behave rudely. It doesn’t treat people with contempt, it doesn’t use people, it doesn’t hold grudges. Love serves, love helps, love believes the best, love hangs in there.
Let me ask you a question. If you had the choice of being either a success or a failure in life, which would you prefer? I don’t think I would be crawling too far out on a limb if I predicted that most of us would choose to be successful. But here’s another question that isn’t so easy. How do you know if you are successful? Who decides just what constitutes success in life? And what measurement can you use to determine how successful you have managed to become? Is success measured by how much money you make, or by how many things you own? That’s the easiest yardstick, I suppose. The quickest way of sizing someone up is to measure what we naively choose to call their “net worth.” Think of the fascination we have in our society with the salaries of high-priced athletes, actors or top corporate executives. But is it true that, if you are rich, your life is therefore successful? I don’t think so.
Is success measured by how much you achieve? We often talk about “climbing the ladder” of success. The idea, I guess, is that when and if you make it to the top-of your company, or your profession, or your class, or whatever-then you can know you are successful. If you are the best at what you choose to do, if others point to you as the epitome of what a preacher or a farmer or an amateur golfer or a mother should be, then surely you qualify as a success. But the world is full of people who seem to have arrived at the top and yet are not happy or satisfied. If reaching the top defines success, then why doesn’t it feel more like it?
Or how about this: Is success measured by how religious you are? Those who have the most visible piety and the most verbal faith are really the most successful in God’s sight, aren’t they? Well, piety and morality can be fine things, just as money and achievement can be fine things. But not one of these things, by itself, constitutes success in life according to God’s definition of success. In determining how successful each person’s life is, God’s is the only opinion that counts, and God spells success L-O-V-E.
Listen to the opening verses of 1 Corinthians 13:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
There you see it. The only definition of success that matters is God’s. He measures success not by how much money you make or by how much fame you acquire, but by how much you love. Whatever else you may lack, if you love, your life has been successful. Whatever else you may have, if you don’t love, your life is a failure. Listen to what Paul says over and over in those first three verses of 1 Corinthians 13: Without love, “I am nothing . . . I have nothing . . . I gain nothing.” He mentions a number of things that might be considered great, but which are all nullified by the absence of love. Without love, eloquence, even Spirit-inspired eloquence, is pointless. Without love, knowledge, even knowledge of the Bible and the secret things of God, is meaningless. Without love, power, even power which comes from stupendous faith, is worthless. Without love, zeal, even a martyr’s zeal to be burned for a cause, is useless. As the great theologian Karl Barth once observed, all of life’s accomplishments without love are like a string of zeroes without a number in front: however long the list, it still adds up to nothing. Indeed, we could go a step further and say that when love is missing, all of those otherwise wonderful gifts become deadly dangers. Eloquence without love leads to demagoguery; knowledge without love produces arrogance; power without love creates tyranny; zeal without love results in fanaticism. So love is the key, the key to success.
No wonder Paul concludes his great chapter on love with the words, “Make love your aim” (14:1). It’s Jesus’ command all over gain: “Love one another, as I have loved you.” So here is our challenge. We mustn’t just think about love, admiring it in theory. We mustn’t just talk about love, praising, describing and commending it. We mustn’t just dream about love, longing for it and wishing we could experience it. We must set out in pursuit of love. Follow love; practice love day-by-day and step-by-step. Keep making it your principal aim in life. Undertake to do love’s actions, to behave love’s way until it becomes second nature. Do this, and I guarantee your life will be a tremendous success.
INTERVIEW WITH DICK TER MAAT
The Rev. Dick Ter Maat has served for many years as Director of the Other Way, an inner city ministry on the west side of the city of Grand Rapids. David Bast recently talked with Dick about how he has tried in his life and ministry to put love into action.
David Bast: Let’s start with your ministry, The Other Way.
Dick Ter Maat: We launched The Other Way in 1967.
David Bast: OK. So 35 years. What made you come up with that name?
Dick Ter Maat: Oh, it’s a great name: “The Other Way.” At the moment, we were trying to shape this thing, we were trying to reach out to some white groups on the west side and, actually, some gang members. We tried everything. Nothing seemed to work. Finally I teamed up with a couple of probation officers, police officers and some dedicated lay people who thought, “Let’s open up a store front and have some recreation.” We wanted to tie it in, and chose The Other Way because that was Paul’s introduction to this wonderful chapter on love, 1 Corinthians 13. If you look at the verse before that, 1 Corinthians 12:31, it says, “And I will show you yet a more excellent way.”
David Bast: Yes, a better way, not just the other way, but the better way.
Dick Ter Maat: The better way, and the only way.
David Bast: So you really started it out of the context of a small urban congregation in a tough neighborhood and are trying to reach out into your community with the gospel.
Dick Ter Maat: Precisely. And we wanted to do that in any way possible. I was just a young chap. I came there when I was about 25. And in those first years, this was a wonderfully, recklessly obedient congregation that was so determined to reach that neighborhood for Christ. We went there with a small group asking for $200. We were going to rent this store front for $60 a month so that would give us three months lead time. The elders and deacons prayed about this, discussed it, maybe four to seven minutes, and said, “But where would we get any money? Sounds like a great idea; it’s of the Lord. Where can we get the funds?” And the only money they really had in the old Ninth Reformed Church in the inner city on the west side in the middle of a very depressed neighborhood was the money they had set aside for a building fund, and that had grown to $500. They were going to hire some professional painter to paint the peaks of the church and try to keep it up. They made a decision in those seven minutes or less to say, “We’ve got this $500. We asked for two hundred, they gave us five.” And those same people were up there on the peak painting-they painted it themselves.
David Bast: They painted it themselves.
Dick TerMaat: They painted it themselves, yes, that next summer. That blessed my heart. It wasn’t just the talk; it was action.
David Bast: So you started with a store front just to try to provide some after-school activities for youth in the neighborhood. And now, tell us something about the scope of the ministry, 35 years later. It’s grown in marvelous ways.
Dick Ter Maat: Beyond my wildest imagination, and I have a pretty wild imagination, God has blessed us. And now from rented facilities, we have our own store fronts. Actually we own a block or more. And out of that block we minister to about 700 people a week, mostly residents. We’re not so much a rescue mission where we just feed and shelter. We’re more of a Christian community development, an outreach ministry of the Reformed Church. We are trying to exalt the name of Jesus, lift high the cross. We have seven full-time staff, maybe another five part-time, and about 85 to 90 volunteers each week.
David Bast: Yes, the backbone is the volunteers.
Dick Ter Maat: That’s the secret, and dedicated, godly people with vision and passion who learn to love these people and love the city.
David Bast: So you’re doing a lot of the kinds of things that many Christian inner city ministries would be involved in, helping with food and clothing and tutoring. But there are other programs as well, some of them quite a bit more complex.
Dick Ter Maat: We also try to do some housing through West Town Jubilee Housing. That’s partly because we had so many rental units in our neighborhood. Sometimes city blocks would be 70 percent rental units. It’s economically devastating when $7 out of every $10 spent for housing leave the neighborhood. So we had to figure out a way to find some long-term renters, equip them, tool them up and teach them biblical principles of stewardship, how to manage their money. And we have launched 32 home owners which blesses my heart.
David Bast: Now, right in your community, in this inner city neighborhood, there are 32 homes that have gone from rental to home ownership-and all that that means for a person, for their family, economically, emotionally and with respect to their self-image.
Dick Ter Maat: True. I’m so blessed when I see that sparkle of hope in their eyes. All of a sudden they’re concerned about the quality of education in their local schools, who’s doing the crime, who’s picking up the garbage. I see them scraping paint and planting flowers. I love that stuff. I think the Lord must be so pleased just to see them get some roots down and raise their families. They’re involved in neighborhood associations. And the body of Christ does that with a minimum of bureaucracy and a maximum of personal touch and love.
David Bast: We’re looking at your program and we’re focusing on that chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, that great chapter that gave you the name of your ministry, “The Other Way,” the way of love. I want to talk about that a little bit. A lot of times we interpret that chapter very individualistically. And that’s important. Obviously we want to be loving persons, but it seems to me that the key of your ministry is the idea of a community coming together, of doing this with one another. It’s not enough just to try to love on my own little part or love my own little family.
Dick Ter Maat: When I read the book of Acts and it talks about the love and the sharing, that’s really genuine community. I’m convinced people long for community where they’re known by their first name, where they fit in, where they belong, where they can contribute something, so even intentionally we don’t try to fix everybody’s problems. We say, “How can we help you with your problem? How can we come alongside you?”
David Bast: But they’re still responsible ultimately.
Dick Ter Maat: Exactly.
David Bast: They just can’t do it alone.
Dick Ter Maat: And that’s a matter of dignity as well, putting some self worth back into them. We used to package their groceries and say, “Here’s your groceries.” And just think: Would I like that? No, it wasn’t very loving. I may have been helpful, but I wasn’t very loving and kind. So now I come into the pantry and look on the shelves, [and say] “You select what you need.” And they leave with a sense of self-worth and dignity. We haven’t solved all their problems, but we’ve come alongside and expressed the love you’re talking about.
David Bast: You’ve given them the gift of responsibility.
Dick Ter Maat: We try to. At Christmas, we go to a Christmas-store mode. Throughout the fall parents in the neighborhood invest time in the local school, cleaning up apartments, stocking shelves, child care, and then at Christmas, one week, we have a lot of new gifts. I think last year 3600 new gifts, wonderful things, alarm clocks and toys. . . .
David Bast: All donated by the greater community?
Dick Ter Maat: All donated. Every one of them. And then the parents come and cash in their vouchers. So instead of us saying, “Here’s a gift for you” so they might say, “Look what the nice man at The Other Way gave me, he must like us,” they can say, “Look what I earned for you, son, I love you.”
David Bast: Thinking about the nature of love, one of the things that has long impressed me in Paul’s love letter, 1 Corinthians 13, is the idea that when he comes to actually define love or describe it, he doesn’t talk at all about feelings or emotions. He talks about actions, purely actions. “Love is kind. Love is patient. Love is not rude.”
And you’re really talking about love in action too. I wonder if you could reflect a little bit more on that about how you really understand the command to love or the demands of love as a follower of Jesus Christ or as the body of Christ.
Dick Ter Maat: We’ve tried to put our faith into practice through love, and I think the city in my setting allows it. It makes it easy for me because people come with needs. And my first question is: What kind of kingdom resource can I rally to meet that need? How can I act out that love? How can I put my teeth into it? And I don’t have to be too bright. I think urban people are very transparent. They haven’t learned some of the North American Middle Class ways of disguising our hurts.
David Bast: Yes, “I don’t want you to really know what’s going on because I want to put up this facade.”
Dick Ter Maat: Yes, I can sit at peoples’ tables. They recognize me as a neighborhood pastor and pour out their hearts. I praise God for that because it gives me all kinds of clues as to where I can start, where I can love in action. And then we really follow up with 1 Peter 3:15 which says, “but in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”
Now if we really love these folks, and they’re asking, we ought to be listening intently. When they say, “What makes you tick? A lot of people give you money in groceries, why would people come from Wisconsin and sleep on a hard floor to remodel an old house all day? I mean, what’s in it? What’s the preacher man paying you? What makes you tick?”
And when they ask that question, we don’t want to cheat them. If we really love them, then we want to say, “Oh, I’m so glad you asked, and I’m not going to talk to you about urban renewal or about the book of church order. I want to talk to you about what Christ has done in my life, and what he’s calling you to be able to do.” And we testify in our own way of how we discovered Christ and express his love, and it works.
By that time you’ve got a relationship built. It’s done authentically, person to person. Then we want to funnel them into the body because we can’t raise orphans here. We need to get them connected with a local evangelical congregation where the Word of God is preached faithfully, where there is the discipline of the faith family celebrated. They need to be discipled and nurtured and that’s how they grow in love, by doing it.
Isn’t there an old verse that said, “More people act themselves into a new way of thinking than think themselves into a new way of acting?” We love those folks and love them genuinely, and we give of ourselves. The blessings are all ours. God is as good as his Word.
David Bast: You mentioned authentic and genuine. You’re not really helping people sort of as a bribe so that you can share the gospel with them. The help is genuine. It’s love. It’s authentic. But on the other hand, you’re not just giving people temporal assistance and leaving it at that. Ultimately you want to love them all the way by sharing Christ with them.
Dick Ter Maat: Precisely. In Luke’s Gospel, chapter 6, he said, “If you only love those who love you, what credit is that to you?” What we’re really called to do is to move out of our comfort zone. We’ve got some homeless folks. Just the other day I was embracing a guy who was so lonely and desperate. He had this big bushy beard. Finally when I told him I loved him, and I meant that, I thought, “Wait a minute, I’m missing it.” So I reminded him that God loves him too. And he just pulled me right into his beard and said, “Tell me more.” And I was more concerned maybe for the moment about my image than about his need! I was convicted. God has called me to love these people, and I want to love them like I have been loved.