If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Thus begins one of the most inspired passages in the Bible. Written by Paul to the Corinthians, many of whom were doing wonderful things for God, it highlighted the uselessness of their great deeds because they lacked love, the most fundamental tenet of the Christian faith.
The world does not seem to have changed much in 2000 years. There are people still doing great things for God — preaching, evangelizing, healing the sick, building huge ministries — but they too appear to lack love in their hearts. As for the rest of us, the less said the better. I have seen so little love in the Church since I returned to it, I used to wonder if I got the religion right.
It is not entirely surprising, however, because of all the subjects in the School of the Holy Spirit, love is the hardest to learn. Part of the reason for this is that we don’t even know what love is. It is a word whose meaning has become so warped in our time, it has lost all connection with the divine meaning that it once had, and consequently has become a pale imitation of the real thing. Real love is God’s love described beautifully by Paul in the paragraph that follows the one quoted above.
Love is patient (Paul writes), love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
The education in the subject of love consists of learning these qualities — patience, kindness, self-control, trust and the rest of them — one by one, and each is almost a subject by itself. Before the Spirit begins with the lessons, however, there is something He asks you to do, which is love yourself. You cannot begin to love anybody if you hate yourself. You cannot begin to love yourself unless you deem yourself worthy of love. You won’t deem yourself worthy of love unless you live a life that is pure and this usually means a few lessons in the “School of Purification” first.
The second thing He asks you to do is to learn to love God. Loving people is not easy and there is an inertial reluctance to do so, but you might be willing to make the effort if you love God enough. Loving God is easy — provided you take the time to get to know Him. Which means a few lessons in the “School of Prayer”.
Once you have achieved a certain level of purification and the sense of self-esteem that derives from it, and once you have attained a certain degree of closeness with God, you are at a stage where you can commence your education. This, like most things of great importance, begins at home. You cannot take love out into the world unless it first fills your home. Understand this to be an absolute truth. You might very well spread love right across the globe but if you don’t have love for the people whom God has given to you to love, you would have failed in His eyes.
Unfortunately, the people whom God gives you to love are often the hardest to love. This isn’t so much because your spouse or your children are worse than anybody else’s (though you might imagine they are); they are not. This is simply because you are most vulnerable to the people closest to you and they tend to exploit that vulnerability. They know exactly which buttons to press to hurt you or get you upset or make you angry, and very often don’t hesitate to press these buttons. I never like to give the enemy the time of day, and I am not going to begin now by calling these button-pressing instances “satanic attacks”, because I treat them — and I suggest you do too — as lessons from God in learning how to love.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. When the lessons in love begin, the Spirit will let you know which particular quality you should begin with. The first thing that He does is lead you to pray for it. Not only does this open up the channels for grace, it also serves to highlight the relevant issue in your mind.
Now, when you pray for a quality, let us say self-control (“love is not easily angered”), God doesn’t take a shovel full of self-control from whichever sack He stores it in and pour it into your heart, making you tantrum-free for the rest of your life. He makes you learn to control your anger, and this He does by testing it continuously! The testing isn’t theoretical; it’s carried out in the field of life and can be a brutal experience.
I used to have a ferocious temper. When I lost it, I lost all ability to reason, and became exceedingly dangerous to those around me. It rarely took more than a few seconds for my anger to be spent, but I could wreak havoc in that time. Soon after my conversion, rather than it getting easier to control my temper, I found it harder, and this became very debilitating to my growth.
I did everything I could think of to rein my anger in, but it seemed like the more I tried, the less I succeeded. Finally, God took pity on me and took it away. But only for a short period. Three months later my temper was back, as fierce as ever. As I eventually discovered, God had his reasons. It was essential that I learned to deal with anger, because if I didn’t, I would not be able to learn other, more important lessons in future. It is like learning mathematics in school. Unless you know geometry, you won’t be able to learn differential calculus. God had put a temporary hold on my temper so that I could deal with other issues that needed to be addressed, rather than devote all my energies to controlling my anger. Once I had dealt with them, he released his hold on my temper.
It is very likely that he will be as generous with you. God is very gracious to those starting off in school and will often put a stranglehold on a demon that is proving a major hindrance to your growth. There is every possibility that he will release it later, however, when you are in a better position to confront it and conquer it. Being in a better position to learn a lesson does not mean the lesson is going to be any easier. It is still likely to be a trial by fire. In our example of practising self-control with the people near to you, having kindhearted people around you is helpful, but no guarantee that the passage will be smooth.
My wife is a wonderful woman with a beautiful heart, but yet there were times when I would have sworn she was determined to destroy the new life I was trying to build. Her words often cut sharper than knives and her constant references to a life I was trying to put behind me seemed designed to provoke me into returning to it. But there are lessons to be learned in everything and in these experiences, the Spirit taught me two more.
The first lesson was never to let your actions — and consequently your love — be dependent on the actions of another. You cannot say, for instance, that you will control your temper only if your wife stops trying to get your goose. You have to control it regardless of what she does, even if she pours boiling water on your head! This is a very important lesson that will come in particularly useful later in school when you begin to learn to love your enemies. Offering your other cheek when one is slapped is not optional to the Christian and home is where you learn to turn cheeks!
The second lesson was that love demands total and unconditional acceptance of a person for whatever he or she might be, regardless of the faults or failings that he has, the weaknesses, the idiosyncrasies, the foibles and, most importantly, the attitude. You are going to fail miserably if you do not accept a person in totality. Not accepting a person for what he is will make you try to change that person — a futile task, because you have absolutely no power to change anybody. That power lies solely with God. Understand this; it will save you immense frustration. (Wannabe evangelists please take note.) The only person that you can change is yourself, and you are required to do just that.
Eventually you get to the point when you begin to develop self-control, at which time the Holy Spirit leads you on to a new subject in love. Perhaps it is learning how to be kind, or learning how to be patient. The method is always the same: first the prayer; then the lesson — repeated over and over and over again until you get the hang of it; then a new subject. This is standard methodology for most lessons that the Holy Spirit teaches you. He uses the same system to teach you how to overcome the sins of the heart — pride, selfishness, jealousy, envy, bitterness, hypocrisy, deceit and worry — that we looked at in the “School of Purification”. Once you understand how the system works, it becomes remarkably easy to learn anything the Holy Spirit wants you to learn.
By the time you are done with learning all the lessons in love for the school term, you would nearly have completed all the other subjects too and are ready for the final exam, yet again no different from any other school. We will look at that and other exams next, in the concluding part to the School of the Holy Spirit.
May the Spirit be with you.
There are interlays in the levels here, but generally follow the pattern as indicated below.
Level 1 - Basic love: You learn to love yourself by purifying yourself of the things that you hate about yourself. You learn to love God by beginning to spend time in his presence. God often pours out a strong dollop of grace to make these early days easy for you.
Level 2 - Intermediate love: You learn to love your family. The lessons are often brutal and you might often weep in despair at the lack of "cooperation" and in frustration at your inability to succeed, but persist and you will.
Level 3 - Advanced love: You begin to have unlimited resources of patience and kindness and the rest of the qualities love demands and are ready to take it out into the world.
Graduate Level: Love just pours out of you. You need make no effort to spread it. People see Jesus in you. You are ready for the University of the Holy Spirit where you will learn to love your enemies, even if they nail you to the cross and hang you upside down.