Monday, August 20, 2012

Christian Character Development Part 4

Now we reach the last, but not least, of the character traits Peter listed dear friends and readers,

Love.  What differentiates this love from the brotherly love we looked at in the last post on Christian character development?  Is it the fact that one would be willing to die for another?  Hardly, men die for romantic love, ερος, they die for love of family, στοργη, and we’ve already seen they’ll die for love of a best friend, especially in a military context, φιλος.  But will somebody die for a stranger, or even a bitter enemy?  That is what the last character trait, or αγαπη, is all about.

Agape love, which is how that last kind of love is pronounced and known, is best defined as pure and unselfish love.  Every other love we’ve seen has an element of selfishness behind it.  Romantic love has the end of sexual relations as its motivation.  Familial love has an element of possession in it.  And love of a best friend is motivated by a mutual return in loyalty and deed.  But agape love seeks nothing in return.  In the case of such love for God it is motivated by an appreciation for the things we learn about God, his character.  In the case of man the fact that man was created “in the image” of God is enough for us to love those around us and even those who would harm us.

We have two examples from scripture of agape love which stick out beyond all others.  The first is Jesus’ sacrificial death for us.  But while he was on that cross he showed the extent to which he loved even those who drove the nails into his flesh and hung him up naked and bleeding for all to see.  It is recorded for us in Luke 23: 34, where he prayed “Father forgive them; for they know not what they do.”  The second is from the experiences of the early Church where Stephen was put on trial and then stoned.  As he was dying we are told in Acts 7:60 that his last words were a loud prayer to God, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.”  That his prayer had a favorable hearing is indicated for us by the selection of one of their number, the man who watched over their cloaks so that they wouldn’t be stolen Saul of Tarsus, to become the Apostle to the Gentiles and the twelfth foundational stone of the Christian church.

Agape love ties everything else together.  That was probably why it came last in Peter’s list.  We know that Peter knew of Paul’s letters to the congregations and probably read them (2 Pet. 3:15, 16).  So he may well have been familiar with Paul’s words in the thirteenth chapter of first Corinthians, where Paul used both the first and last verses of that chapter to show that love ties everything together (1 Cor. 13: 1-3, 13).  In the first verses Paul shows how important agape love is when he informs his readers, and that includes us, that if he did not have that pure and unselfish love all his impressive works would be for naught.

So the question then becomes do we have this kind of love so intensely for others that we would pray for our persecutors even as they pull tight the rope around our necks as they murder us for being followers of Christ?  I guess you probably realize why I can say those who contend that agape love is a cold, unemotional, exercise of the will are wrong.  Still, if we haven’t yet reached that point in our character development we may well want to work on it to the best of our abilities.

So there we have it, eight character traits.  We’re told that if we “diligently” cultivate faith, moral character, knowledge, self-control, endurance, brotherly kindness and love that it will “keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in attaining a full knowledge of our Lord Jesus, the Messiah.” (2 Pet. 4:8).

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