Ron Thomas
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Learning To Love, A
Lifelong Journey

By Pastor Ron Thomas
Rodgers Baptist Church
801 West Buckingham Rd. - Garland, TX 75040
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Every Day On

Learning To Love, A Lifelong Journey

Text: Matthew 22:36-40. "Master, which is the great commandment in the law? 37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. 38 This is the first and great commandment. 39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."

John 4:7-8. "Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. 8 He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love."

I John 4:11-12. "Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another. 12 No man hath seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and His love is perfected (brought to completion) in us."

Introduction: On Valentine's Day, which is every February fourteenth, every lover becomes a Romeo or Juliette. Valentine's Day is about idealizing romantic love. Romantic love is a chemically altered state of consciousness, that can last a few moments, a few months, or perhaps even a few years. Romantic love floods the brain with cravings and pleasure as strong as any drug, and dramatically impacts motivation, elation, and focused attention.

The world with its movies and romantic novels has convinced society that this heightened state of feeling and emotion called "falling in love" or "being in love," is sustainable. The world teaches that romantic love is the great measure of all relationships, and is supposed to last forever. We are told that when we lose this type of love, this feeling of love, the relationship is doomed. Happiness is lost, which also means we must find someone who can make us happy, someone who can bring back the feeling of euphoria, and make us young again! This is the false premise that has caused the divorce rate to surge in our nation, sad to say, even in the Christian community.

The truth is, romantic love is a temporary state. It is not sustainable, because it is not attached to the eternal One. It is often the pursuit of romantic love, that causes people to move from one relationship to another. This is not to say that romantic love is a bad thing. Romantic love is a good thing, and has it's place in the life of a marriage. Real love, agape love, is less about a "chance meeting," and more about a choice.

On Valentine's Day, which is one day in the year, every lover becomes a Romeo or Juliette. On Agape Love Day, which is every day of the year, every lover becomes a student! It is romantic love that often leads us to enroll in the school of agape love. Learning to love is a path we each have to choose. True love is something that must be learned and learned again and again. There is no end to it! Learning to love is a lifelong journey!

In our text passages, Jesus connects our love for God with our love for everyone else! Jesus tells us that it is not enough to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. If you really want to love and please God, Jesus tells us we must love others as our ourselves! Jesus lets us know that our love for God is attached to our love for people. Human love and divine love are not two separate oceans, but rather one body of water with many tributaries. We demonstrate our love for God in large part, by loving our neighbor, loving our spouses, loving our children, loving the people in our lives!

Learning to love, is the most important growth experience this life offers. Life is a classroom, a laboratory, a gymnasium, in which our capacity to experience and express God's love is strengthened and developed. Agape love is a love that is devoted to learning to love your spouse, your kids, your parents, your siblings, all of the most important people in your life. We remember the immortal words of Linus from the Peanuts comic strip, "I love humanity, its people I can't stand!" Is there anyone present who has "perfected" his or her love for God? Is there anyone present who truly loves the Lord with all his or her heart, soul, and mind? Who can say, "I have arrived. I finally and fully love the Lord perfectly." Can you say you love the Lord more and better than you did, say, a year ago? Are you working on it?

Learning to love is the commitment we make in our marriage vows. Marriage creates a climate where this love is supremely put to the greatest test. Before marriage you hear, "You take my breath away." After marriage you hear, "Could you take your breath away?" Before marriage, she loves the way you take control of a situation. After marriage she thinks you are a controlling, manipulative, egomaniac. Before marriage he is turbo-charged. After marriage he needs a jump-start. Right before her eyes he transforms from an Idol, to just "idle."

Before marriage you are like "Ricky and Lucy." After marriage you become more like "Fred and Ethel." Before marriage it's "Saturday Night Live!" After marriage it's "Monday Night Football!" Before marriage it's oysters. After marriage it's fish-sticks. Before marriage you hear, "I can hardly believe we found each other." After marriage you hear, "How did I end up with someone like you?" God uses the marriage relationship to stretch our love, and enlarge our capacity for love, and mainly to teach us how to be Christians. Jesus said in John 13:34-35, "A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. 35 By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another."

As I was doing some study and research for this message, I came across this touching story this illustrates what it means to enroll in the school of agape love. Jesus Himself used real life situations and stories to make His point, and it is my desire to do the same with this story.

In the Fall of 1987, a local men's group asked publisher Dr. John Barger, to speak at their monthly breakfast meeting. Dr. Barger chose to speak in some detail about his life with Susan, his wife of fifteen years, who had died of cancer just a few months before, leaving him with seven children for which to care. In the talk, which he entitled "Do You Love Me?," John spoke frankly of his own failings. He shared concerning the sorrow and anger that those failings had provoked in Susan, long before her cancer was diagnosed, causing their marriage to become a battleground. He talked about the change in his life from being a dictatorial husband, to becoming a servant-leader in his home. In his message, Dr. Barger expressed a profound truth. By learning to love his wife, he got a better grip on how he could love his God. Here are some exerts from his very personal journey in learning to love.

Dr. Barger said: "It's easy to scorn women, and most men do. We see women as physically weak, easy to intimidate, bound to the menial tasks of motherhood, emotional, illogical, and often petty. Or we see them as temptresses; in desire we idolize them and parade them across the pages of magazines, yet we scorn and hate them for their commanding sexual power over us. Male scorn for women, affects every aspect of our lives: our relations with our mothers, our girlfriends, our secretaries, our wives, our children, the church and even God Himself.

I swaggered through marriage for many years, ruling my wife Susan and my seven children with an iron hand while citing Scripture as justification for my privileges and authority. After all, Scripture explicitly commands wives to obey their husbands. Years of dominating my wife and children left them habitually resentful and fearful of me, yet unwilling to challenge me because of the fury it might provoke. I alienated Susan and the children, and lost their love. Home was not a pleasant place to be for them or for me. By 1983, Susan would have left me if it weren't for the children, and even that bond was losing its force."

Dr. Barger goes on to share a number of dramatic events that occurred in his life, which brought a profound change in his moral, psychological, and spiritual life. The first of these dramatic events was when Dr. Barger watched his wife endure a difficult delivery. Susan's placenta tore loose, and she started hemorrhaging. The baby was stillborn.

Dr. Barger continues, "At two in the morning in a stark, bright hospital delivery room, I held in my left hand my tiny lifeless son, and stared in disbelief at his death. I had the power to make [my family's] lives worse by raging against my baby's death and my wife's lack of love, or to make their lives better by learning to love them properly. I had to choose. And it was a clear choice, presented in an instant as I stared at my tiny, helpless, stillborn infant cradled in my hand. In that crucial instant, with God's grace, I chose the arduous, undramatic, discouraging path of trying to be good. I don't have time to tell you of all the afflictions we endured in the next four years: sick children, my mother's sudden death, my losing my job as a teacher, three more miscarriages, and finally a secret sorrow that pierced both of us to the very core of our beings.

In the midst of these many afflictions, I found that the only way I could learn to love, and to cease being a cause of pain, was to suffer, endure, and strive every minute to repudiate my anger, my resentment, my scorn, my jealousy, my lust, my pride, and my dozens of other vices. I began holding my tongue. I started admitting my faults and apologizing for them. I quit defending myself when I was judged too harshly, for the important thing was not to be right but to love. And frankly, once I started listening to Susan, once I began really hearing her and drawing her out, I was startled at how many and how deep were her wounds and her sorrows.

Most were not sorrows unique to Susan. They were the sorrows that all feel: sorrows that arise from the particular physiology of women and from their vocation as mothers, which gives them heavy duties and responsibilities while leaving them almost totally dependent on men for their material well-being and their spiritual support; sorrows that arise from loving their husbands and children intensely, but not being able to keep harm from those they love; sorrows that arise from the fact that in our society even the most chaste of women are regularly threatened by the lustful stares, remarks, and advances of men; and sorrows that arise because our society in general still considers women stupid, flighty, and superficial, and still places very little value on women and shows very little respect for them.

Women suffer these wounds far more often and with a greater intensity than most of us men ever realize. And unless we ask them, women generally do not speak to us of these sorrows, perhaps because we men so often dismiss their troubles as insignificant or write off women themselves as simply weak and whiny. Can men withdraw the sword of sorrow that pierces every woman's heart? I don't think so. Their problems are generally not the kind that have a solution, but rather form the very fabric of their daily existence.

One of my friends, when confronted at the end of a long workday with his wife's complaints about the noise, the troubles, and the unending housework, snapped back at her in exasperation: "Well, do you want me to stay home and do the housework while you go off to the office?" You understand his point: He couldn't solve her problems. What did she want him to do? I'll tell you. She wanted him to listen, to understand, and to sympathize. She wanted him to let her know that despite her problems, her exhaustion, her dishevelment, he loved her; to let her know that it caused him sorrow that she was suffering and that if it were possible, he would change it for her."

Dr. Barger's earnest efforts at renewing his love for his wife worked. He shared that it took three years of patience, listening, and growing in Susan's trust, but eventually her anger dissipated, which in turn softened her. Living in a renewed marriage, life became unusually sweet. John and Susan were on the verge of a long and happy marriage, when tragedy struck again. Susan was diagnosed with terminal cancer. An eight month battle ensued, and Dr. Barger was challenged to express his new love in very concrete ways. Even though Susan was given the best care, she breathed her last breath surrounded by her family and dearest friends, and holding the hand of her husband.

Dr. Barger discussed how this experience with his wife reflected on his relationship with God. I quote: "Consider the virtues I have recommended as necessary to a deep relationship with your wife: patience, listening, humility, service, and faithful, tender love. I hope it is not heretical for me to claim that in His dealings with us, God's actions in many ways parallels that of a woman. Women are capable of and sometimes commit magnificent acts that manifest incredible power and awaken in us men a profound awe, if not fear and trembling.

Yet when they love, they love quietly; they speak, as it were, in whispers, and we have to listen carefully, attentively, to hear their words of love and to know them. Isn't God also this way? Doesn't God intervene in most of our lives in whispers, which we miss if we fail to collect ourselves and pay careful attention, if we do not constantly strive to hear those whispers of divine love? The virtues necessary in truly loving a woman and having that love returned, the virtues of listening, patience, humility, service, and faithful love, are the very virtues necessary for us to love God and to feel His love returned.

As we cannot lord it over women if we are to know them and grow intimate with them, so we cannot lord it over God if we are to know Him and grow intimate with Him. We cannot successfully demand the love of a woman or the love of God. We have to wait. And just as a woman's heart is melted when she encounters in us weakness accompanied by our humble admission of it, so God's heart is melted and He is most tender and gracious to us when He encounters in us weakness accompanied by our humble admission of it." Both James and Peter inform us that God "resists the proud," but He "gives grace to the humble." They instruct us, "Submit yourselves therefore to God. Draw nigh to God, and He will draw nigh to you."

While this story targets men, the same principle certainly applies to all of us, male or female. A spouse, a child, a sibling, a work associate, a church member, whoever it is in your life that you find difficult to love, just may be your ticket, your gateway, your catalyst, to learning to how to love God more. This is John's message to us in I John 4:20-21. He says, "If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen? 21 And this commandment have we from Him, That he who loveth God love his brother also." The message here is blunt, but it is so true! Loving God includes loving people. It is not one or the other, it is both at the same time! Peter in I Peter 3:7 makes this connection when he says, "Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with them (wives) according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered."

The beauty of following Jesus Christ is learning to love, and few life situations test that so radically as does a marriage. It can be difficult to love your spouse. A man and woman are so different. They think differently, communicate differently, their perspective is different, everything is "apples to oranges!" Sometimes we ask ourselves, "How can I possibly love someone who is so different from me?" How different is God from us? Could it be that God has designed life and marriage to call us out of ourselves and learn to love the different? Not everyone is easy to love. Jesus Himself asked, "What reward is it when you love those who are easy to love, those who love you back?" If you truly want to love God, you need to learn to love the person in your life whether it is a spouse, sibling, schoolmate or work associate, who is radically different from you. It just may be one of the most spiritual things you can do! Learning to love is never easy. It is so much easier to walk away, which is why so many do. Instead of walking away, you must stay and work it out.

How To Learn To Love

First: You must trust. Trust is the foundation of any relationship, whether it be God or others. You won't love God or anyone else until you trust them. Trust God first. God will help you trust those you think you can't trust or love.

In order to trust, you must humble yourself before God and others. Agape love is not defensive, reactive, or argumentative. Agape love is able to laugh at it's own mistakes. It does not take itself too seriously. It is not too proud to be open, honest, and transparent. It is pride that keeps you from expressing your most tender, vulnerable emotions. It is pride that says, "I will, .....only if you will."

In order to trust, you must have faith. Control is always an issue in relationships. Releasing control over the situation can be scary. You must believe that God is in control.

Second: You must be a student. Students study a subject. In this case, the subject is a person, the individual you are learning to love.

A student listens. Listen to the person you are learning to love. Agape love listens without interrupting. It does not read minds, and is not judgmental. Agape love gives people the freedom, a safe zone, to share, to freely communicate what is on their mind and heart.

A student learns a new language. Learn the language of the person. All of us have a love language, and you have to listen to learn it. Consciously or subconsciously we all say, "When you do this or say this, I feel loved by you." Everyone is unique. You are an "expert" on what makes you feel loved. Be a student of your spouse. Ask, ....don't assume! Accept what they say, and begin to speak their language. Be aware love language is always changing.

Third: You must be a servant. True love requires some action and effort on our part. No action or effort means no love.

A servant is willing to work. Relationships require work. Agape love is willing to work hard and to suffer for God and others. Agape love does not weigh what it gives, in terms of what it gets. You must be willing and committed to working at the relationship everyday.

A servant is willing to wait. Agape love is patient. It holds on to the commitment, knowing that ups and downs come and go. It is determined to continue to love, no matter what. Be long minded and resolved. Refuse to give up.

Agape love knows that while love is unlimited, the time we have to give that love is limited. Are you continually learning and working at how to love God and others?

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