Who God Is at Heart–1 John 4:8

Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. –1 John 4:8

A student of mine wrote a web-site review several years back. I’ve used that assignment for ages, reading reviews of crocheting websites, eBay, the Hard Rock Cafe site, and so forth. This writer chose one of my favorite sites: Amazon. I read his exercise in mediocrity–really, I don’t dislike all of my students’ work; that’s just the more memorable stuff–and fell quickly out of love with it.

After wading through several hundred words replete with usage errors and inexplicable commas, I came to a stunning realization. No where in this guy’s review of Amazon did he mention the word “book.” What is Amazon, after all, but the world’s most amazing bookstore? Take a look at the Amazon entry on Brandtags.net (be warned that this site is wide-open and incurs some really stupid profanity), and you’ll see that both the terms “book” and “books” are enormous, indicating that they are enormously popular.

Somehow, my student missed the fact that Amazon’s top category is books. He missed the fact that they sell more books than anybody on the planet. He missed all of that. Of course, he did discover that you can buy all sorts of electronics and digital media from Amazon, but that’s not who Amazon is at their heart. How did he miss it?

The explanation for this is fairly simple. Amazon uses cookies and personal information to show us interesting (to us) materials to buy. When I log on today, it offers me Wendell Berry’s Mad Farmer poems. My guess is that, since you probably haven’t bought several of Berry’s other books, they won’t offer those to you. For ages, they showed me Sherlock Holmes videos after I bought several of those–three years ago.

Because my student did not use Amazon for what it is at heart, he didn’t see Amazon for what it is at heart. Perhaps that’s how people get mistaken notions of God. Perhaps that is why some see God as the heavenly killjoy, a vengeful rulemaker. When we identify God as love, we are seeing him for what he is at heart. Yes, God can look like many other things when you don’t know him intimately.

Love and the Psychologist–1 John 4:7

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. –1 John 4:7

I just had a conversation with Marcie, a very secular colleague, a psychology professor. (Need I say more?) In the course of that talk, we happened upon the idiosyncrasies of one of our more unique fellow faculty members. As we reached a point in the discussion, we both groped for a word that would be both polite and accurate regarding this man. She then indicated that she tried to always avoid negative terms. Is that loving? It seems loving? Yet Marcie would, I’m fairly certain, chafe at the idea that she has “been born of God and knows God.”

Once again, John seems to be putting us into a bind by portraying a binary world. If you’re loving you know God. If you’re not loving, you must not know God. Does this mean that Marcie is a sort of crypto-believer or that the love John talks about is different from the love that Marcie seems to be describing.

As a mediocre Greek and theology student, I must confess that I don’t have a solid answer to that question, but as it turns out, I don’t need to have an answer. In applying John’s words to my life, I don’t have to know about the inner workings of Marcie’s mind. Might she simply be loving in order to be polite and socially acceptable? Yeah. Might her love have a definite boundary? Of course.

What I do need to know about is my heart. Am I ever loving simply to be polite and socially acceptable? My answer to that question is troubling to me. Does my love have boundaries? Will I love this far and no further? Will I love someone who is two steps out of my comfort zone but not three?

I’ll leave Marcie’s mind to her and God. Before I start dealing with whatever speck she has in the eye, I have plenty of work to do with the beam in mine.

No Swimming–1 John 4:6

We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood. –1 John 4:6

We live on a lake, a charming little eight-acre body rich with turtles, geese, and yelping beagles. More those who live in our house, Penny, me, and three of the kids, life on the lake means only good things. A generous proportion of the leaves that drop from our lakeside trees each fall make their way into the water. The sun plays off the water in endlessly beautiful ways. We can go fishing by walking across the back yard.

For my grandkids, however, life is not quite so simple. They find the lake far more fascinating than we do, a fascination inversely proportional to their swimming ability. Several times this spring we’ve found Ira out on the dock. Last week, Isa, all two years of him, decided to slide into the water in the backing-down way that he descends stairs. Ira and Sydney pulled him out of the knee-deep water, covering his front with mud.

Regardless of how many times we insist that the kids stay away from the water, they seem drawn to it. They just won’t listen. The call of the lake seems far stronger than the admonitions of parents or grandparents.

I must admit that I have a hard time listening to authority as well. Sure, if somebody tells me not to step out into traffic, I’ll listen. Everyone listens to things that seem reasonable, logical, and desirable to them. That’s an easy obedience. But who listens and obeys easily when the commands seem capricious or foolish? Not me.

Notice that in this verse, John doesn’t say that those with the Spirit of God listen to God. He says this person “listens to us.” Us who? Presumably “us” represents John and other church leaders. Did people all assume that John knew it all? Apparently not. If so, then why would he write these words?

Does that mean that I’m supposed to listen to, to obey my pastor and other spiritual leaders now? I know my pastor. He’s eminently fallible. He mispronounces words and commits factual errors. You’re saying I have to listen to him, even when I think he’s wrong?

I believe that’s exactly what John says here. No, John’s not saying that we need to drink the Kool-Aid or follow a pastor into heresy, but then that’s not usually the problem for us, is it? This sort of teaching is tough for me and most adult Americans to accept, but it’s there on the page. I think it’s reasonable to believe that obedience to God’s anointed will keep us out of the deep water, no matter how appealing doing our own thing might seem.

Worldly Wiseman–1 John 4:5

They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. –1 John 4:5

Dan wrote a persuasive paper earlier this semester. In it, he sought to prove that religion was evil and science was virtuous. To support his thesis, he arrayed a wide collection of examples, spread over centuries. He noted that Copernicus might have felt constrained not to publish his findings during his own lifetime. He assumed that the problems that Galileo had with the church were strictly of a theological nature rather than the political nonsense that made up at least half the disagreement. Finally, he cited the Scopes trial in which religion sort of played a role.

When I didn’t immediately fall all over myself in praise of his manifest brilliance, Dan grew a bit testy. (Okay, I’ll admit that my responses to him were probably more caustic than they should have been, but I knew he was a capable person and I wanted to challenge him to do better.) He shot back, defending his work, threatening to talk to my dean. After I offered to include the dean in our future email discussion, he simmered down.

My point, the point that he missed, was that persuasive papers were just that: persuasive. If the only person who agrees with you at the end of a persuasive piece is the person who agreed with you at the outset, then you are, by definition, not persuasive. His paper was laughably easy to dismiss. I will note that his ensuing research paper took much the same thought but presented it in a much more compelling manner. He received an A for a paper I really did not enjoy reading.

Why should I have been surprised that some like Dan thinks the evils of religion are so obvious that you needn’t work very hard to prove them? Why should I be surprised that people think immorality is acceptable? Why indeed?

John reminds us here that our minds do not work like those of non-believers. They hear and believe things that we cannot fathom. They view the world and speak of it from a vantage point we cannot share. Still, we act surprised when they arrive at conclusions that seem ludicrous to us. Indeed, we should not be surprised. What we should guard against most strongly is the temptation to take their worldview more seriously than it deserves.

The Eternal Yankees–1 John 4:4

You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. –1 John 4:4

Back in the 1950s, Kansas City had a baseball team, a team that was perhaps more consistently mediocre than the Royals of recent years. What really riles longtime Kansas City baseball fans, even after fifty years, is the sense that the A’s of those years were an unofficial farm team for the New York Yankees. As evidence of the supposed collusion between the two team’s front offices, students of the game note a series of sweetheart trades–sweet for the Yankees, but sour for the A’s–that sent washed up has-beens west and up-and-coming stars east. The two most notable exports from Kansas City were Bobby Shantz and two-time-MVP Roger Maris.

Maybe it wasn’t a setup, however. Maybe there was something in the water. There’s something about putting on the pinstripes it seems, that brings out greatness in players. Similarly, there’s something about putting on the uniform of a perennial loser to help a player underachieve.

Can you imagine giving the pep-talk before the Yankees take the field? “You’re the Yankees! Go out and win.” How easy must it be to go out into the field knowing the Andy Pettite or Roger Clemons is pitching? That is, I suppose, why Joe Torre received no love after last season. Handed a slew of superstars and the keys to the game’s most storied franchise, he couldn’t deliver championships for years on end.

How much more confidence should we have, Christian? We’re on the greatest team in history with the ultimate teammate in Jesus. It’s like having Cy Young, Nolan Ryan, and Sandy Koufax all rolled into one with plenty of ability to spare. Why, then, do we behave as if we’re playing for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays or some other long-time loser?

Greater is he who is in us. That’s too easy to forget.

…and my lungs and limbs and all the rest of me.