The Transformed Life – 3 Characteristics of Sincere Love
The meaning behind the name given to Ubuntu, an Open Source Linux Operating System, is fascinating.
An anthropologist proposed one game to the African tribal children. He placed a basket of sweets and candies near a tree. Also, he made them stand 100 meters away. Moreover, he announced that whoever reached first would get all the sweets in the basket.
When he said ready, steady, and go, do you know what these small children did? They all held each other’s hands and ran towards the tree together, divided the sweets among them, ate it, and enjoyed it. When the Anthropologist asked them why they did so, this is what they responded, “Ubuntu,” which meant, “How can one be happy when all the others are sad?” Ubuntu, in their language, means, “I am because we are!”
That’s love—not for self, but others. And the Bible repeatedly stresses this kind of love. The subject of love is so vital that even on the night before his death in the upper room discourse, our Lord emphasized loving one another in John 13:34-35, “34 A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Jesus’s love for us was sincere. It was a love that was without a mask! And that’s the same way we ought to love other believers! Also, loving others is proof that we, indeed, are disciples of Jesus!
Jesus was very particular that our lives should be dominated by love for one another—especially fellow believers [John 15:12,17]. And this is what the apostle Paul addresses in Romans 12:9-10 in this ongoing subject of living transformed lives as a result of being saved through God’s mercies [Rom 12:1-2].
Immediately after talking about spiritual gifts in verses 3-8, Paul moves on to the subject of love. I think this makes good sense. The Holy Spirit gives spiritual gifts to benefit others with an attitude of love. Elsewhere, Paul states that if there is no love, even the best spiritual gifts are of no value in God’s sight [1 Cor 13:1-3].
Notice how Paul starts verse 9. He says, “Love must be sincere.” The word “sincere” comes from a word that means “no mask.” It was a word used to describe stage actors who wore different masks to express the person’s emotions. If the actor were displaying happy emotions, he would wear a smiling mask; sad feelings would call for a sad mask, in keeping with the role. The actor would not feel the emotions the mask signaled. He was outwardly playing a role.
However, in the case of our love for one another, Paul says, we cannot just put on an outward mask of love. Our love must be sincere from the heart! You see, love and hypocrisy cannot go hand-in-hand. They are two extremes. Like Judas, who kissed Judas with false love, professing Christians often do the same. Here are the pointed words of one writer:
It is difficult to express how ingenious almost all men are in counterfeiting a love which they do not really possess. They deceive not only others, but also themselves, while they persuade themselves that they have a true love for those whom they not only treat with neglect, but also in fact reject.
The Pharisees were experts at wearing masks to show the world they were pious. However, in reality, they were wicked in the heart. No wonder Jesus often called them hypocrites and rejected their religion. He calls for love from the heart or, as Paul calls for, “Love without any mask!”
Paul then states that this sincere love is to be marked by 3 characteristics.
Characteristic # 1. Sincere Love must be characterized by: Holiness
After commanding us to love what is good, Paul says in the second part of Romans 12:9, “Hate what is evil.” It seems a bit odd that we are called to both love and hate simultaneously. However, that’s precisely the teaching of the Bible about love. We are to be discerning in our love—indicating that love is not a mere sentimental feeling. It is to be exercised with discernment. The same God who is love is also one who hates what is evil. And we are to follow the same path.
The old Methodist circuit riders were described as men who hated nothing but sin. They took the admonitions of the psalmist seriously, “Let those who love the Lord hate evil” [Psa 97:10], and of the prophet Amos who urged his hearers to “hate evil, love good” [Amos 5:15].
The word “hate” that Paul used here is powerful. It appears only once in the New Testament, and according to one Greek lexicon, it has this idea “to shrink from with abhorrence, to detest.” It has the idea of having a strong dislike. We are to hate what the Bible calls evil. We are not just called to avoid evil, but hate, loathe, and detest evil! If we can’t hate what is evil, we can’t love what is good.
Moreover, that hatred should cause us to run from it ourselves and also, in love, plead with our fellow believers if we see them practicing it. We cannot say we genuinely love a fellow Christian without hating what will hurt them. Sincere love will seek to protect them. We will, in love, warn them of the dangers of sin and urge them to turn away from it—even if giving that warning may come with a cost for us!
Paul does not stop by just telling us to hate evil but also tells us to pursue something positive, “cling to what is good.” The word “cling” has this idea of being glued or welded to something. We are to be glued to what is good, as described by the Bible [Phil 4:8], and not by our definition. In a practical sense, sincere love will cause us to cling to what is good in our own lives and encourage other believers to keep clinging to what is good. The same God who loves righteousness also hates what is evil. And since we are called to imitate God’s love in our love for others, we, too, should hate what God hates and love what God loves. So, we should pursue this in our hearts and lives and encourage other believers to do the same.
So, the first characteristic of sincere love is that it’s holy love. Paul then goes on to give the second characteristic of sincere love.
Characteristic # 2. Sincere Love must be characterized by: Family Affection
Romans 12:10 reads, “Be devoted to one another in love.” The word “devoted” comes from 2 other words for love in the Greek language—philia and storge. It describes the love for relatives and the love between friends. Tender family-type affection between one another. And the word love at the end comes again from philia, from which we get Philadelphia which means brotherly love.
The church is a family and no wonder we are to exhibit the love we would have for people who are our flesh and blood. “Blood is thicker than water” is the statement often said when it comes to love between family members that overlook their faults. In the same way, we are in the family of God due to the shed blood of Christ regardless of our backgrounds. We are united in him and are now part of God’s family. We are called the “household of God” [1 Tim 3:15]. So, we must display family affection towards one another. That’s the second characteristic of sincere love.
In these 2 verses, Paul uses almost all the words [agape, philia, and storge] in Greek for love except one other word [eros] used to describe sexual love. While the Bible often uses these words for love interchangeably, by using so many words in 2 verses, Paul stresses the importance of committing ourselves to a lifestyle of love towards one another.
So, family affection is the second characteristic of sincere love.
Characteristic # 3. Sincere Love must be characterized by: Humility
The last part of Romans 12:10 reads, “Honor one another above yourselves.” When we are devoted to one another in love, we would naturally seek to honor others above ourselves. The footnote has an alternate rendering as “Outdo one another in showing honor.” The basic idea is the same: Strive to put others above you. Rather than seeking honor for ourselves, we are called to promote others. Don’t stand in line to gain personal honor—but stand in line to promote the honor of others. That’s the call—love to arise from a spirit of humility.
Elsewhere in the Bible, Paul says the same thing: “3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” [Phil 2:3-4]. Why do this? Because that is precisely what Jesus did [5-8]! And we are to imitate him in our daily actions!
Even in the smallest of things, we are called to put the needs of others first. We must be glad to promote others and be content to remain insignificant. That’s what sincere love from a humble heart looks like! Always willing to take a back seat! Imagine if husbands and wives, parents and children, and church members strive to promote others because their love for the other person comes from a spirit of humility! And imagine how much more Christ would be glorified when our love is marked with humility!
So, there we are—sincere love ought to be characterized by holiness, family affection, and humility. These are not just suggestions. Instead, these are commands that are to be taken very seriously. Lack of love has severe implications, as indicated by John, often called the apostle of love, in 1 John 2:9-11, “9 Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. 10 Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble.11 But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them.” John equates love for one another as proof of genuine salvation. (Also see 1 John 3:10 and 1 John 3:16-18).
How, then, are we to maintain a life of sincere love? Here are 4 suggestions.
1. REFLECTION. We need to keep reflecting on the cross and the mercies we have received despite our many sins [Rom 12:1].
2. DEPENDENCE. We need to continually depend on the Holy Spirit, who alone can transform us to love others [Rom 12:2].
3. MEDITATION. We need to keep meditating on texts such as 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, which reminds us of the characteristics of biblical love and trust in the Holy Spirit to use God’s word to change us.
4. ACTION. We need to keep doing good to others as the opportunity arises without depending on our feelings [Lk 6:27-31].
I understand we are afraid to love others because of the possible hurt that may result. Past experiences seem to cause us to have this fear and thus withdraw. C.S. Lewis has a response to such a mindset.
Of all arguments against love none makes so strong an appeal to my nature as “Careful! This might lead you to suffering.” To my nature, my temperament, yes. Not to my conscience. When I respond to that appeal I seem to myself to be a thousand miles away from Christ. If I am sure of anything I am sure that his teaching was never meant to confirm my congenital preference for safe investments and limited liabilities.…
There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness.
But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell. (The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis).
Those who are heaven-bound as a result of being born again due to the mercies of God will long to love one another as prompted by the Holy Spirit. They will have the same mindset as those African children who said, “Ubuntu”—I am because we are!