If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have 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 do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have 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 2,000 years. There are people still doing great things for God–preaching, evangelizing, healing the sick, building huge ministries–but with an apparent lack of 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 was in the right place.
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; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
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 us to do, which is love ourselves. We cannot begin to love anybody if we hate ourselves. We cannot begin to love ourselves unless we deem ourselves worthy of love. We won’t deem ourselves worthy of love unless we live a life that is pure and this usually means a few lessons in the School of Purification first.
The second thing He asks us to do is to learn to love God. Loving people is not easy and there is an inertial reluctance to do so, but we might be willing to make the effort if we love God enough. Loving God is easy–provided we take the time to get to know Him. Which means a few lessons in the School of Prayer.
Once we have achieved a certain level of purification and the sense of self-esteem that derives from it, and once we have attained a certain degree of closeness with God, we are at a stage where we can commence our education in the subject. This, like most things of great importance, begins at home. We are not permitted to take love out into the world unless it first fills our home and we need to understand this to be an absolute truth. We might very well spread love right across the globe but if we don’t have love for the people whom God has given to us to love, we would have failed in His eyes.
Unfortunately, the people whom God gives us to love are often the hardest to love. This isn’t so much because our spouses or our children are worse than anybody else’s (though we might imagine they are); they are not. This is simply because we are most vulnerable to the people closest to us and they tend to exploit that vulnerability. They know exactly which buttons to press to hurt us or get us upset or make us 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 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 us know which particular quality we should begin with. The first thing that He does is lead us to pray for it. Not only does this open up the channels for grace, it also serves to highlight the relevant issue in our mind. Now, when we pray for a quality, let us say self-control (“love is not easily angered” [NIV]), God doesn’t take a shovel full of self-control from whichever sack He stores it in and pour it into our heart, making us tantrum-free for the rest of our lives. He makes us learn to control our 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, already described twice before. When I lost it, I lost all ability to reason, and became exceedingly dangerous to those around me. Soon after my conversion, rather than finding 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 we know geometry, we 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.
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 our growth. There is every possibility that he will release it later, however, when we 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 practicing self-control with the people near to us, having kindhearted people around us 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 our actions–and consequently our love–be dependent on the actions of another. I cannot say, for instance, that I will control my temper only if my wife stops trying to get my goose. I have to control it regardless of what she does, even if she pours hot water on my head!
This is a very important lesson that will come in particularly useful later in school when we begin to learn to love our enemies. Offering our other cheek when one is slapped is not optional to the Christian and home is where we 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. We are going to fail miserably if we do not accept a person in totality. Not accepting a person for what he is will make us try to change that person, which is a futile task, because we have absolutely no power to change anybody. That power lies solely with God. Understanding this will save us immense frustration. The only person that we can change is ourself, and we are required to do only that.
Eventually we get to the point when we begin to develop self-control, at which time the Holy Spirit leads us 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 we get the hang of it; then a new subject.
This is standard methodology for most lessons that the Holy Spirit teaches us. He uses the same system to teach us 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 we understand how the system works, it becomes remarkably easy to learn anything the Holy Spirit wants us to learn.
By the time we are done with learning all the lessons in love for the school term, we 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.
There are interlays in the levels here, but generally follow the pattern as indicated below.
Level 1–Basic love:
We learn to love ourselves by purifying ourselves of the things that we hate about ourselves. We 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 us.
Level 2–Intermediate love:
We learn to love our family. The lessons are often brutal and we might often weep in despair at the lack of “cooperation” extended to us by our family members and in frustration at our inability to succeed, but if we persist we will.
Level 3–Advanced love:
We 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.
Love just pours out of us. We need make no effort to spread it. People see Jesus in us. We are ready for the University of the Holy Spirit where we will learn to love our enemies, even if they nail us to the cross and hang us upside down.