I meet with a group of pastors every Thursday for prayer. This is not just any prayer meeting. About six years ago, at a time when I deeply needed a group of people I could trust and be transparent with, God directed me to these pastors. And I’ve been with my band of brothers and sisters since. To me, the meeting is a life-line.
Last Thursday, I facilitated the meeting. Wanting to gather us around a subject to pray, I shared the following story.
“Yesterday I got this email from one of the underground church leaders in the Middle East telling me about this amazing house church that has become well known for her good works and tenacity. The members are true believers, whom in the midst of all kinds of hardship and persecution, are trying very hard to please God and stick to their Christian faith. If you knew their story, you’d see how much they have suffered for Christ and yet, they’ve not given up being faithful to their Lord and savior.
Perhaps above all, they’re not only solid followers of Christ, but they’re also doctrinally sound. The teaching you hear out of that church puts most of us to shame. Throughout the years, this church has stood up to many bad teachers, but they have proven all of them to be wrong and have kicked them out of the church. What I mean is that their teaching is very biblical.
Now, let’s be honest. How many of us wouldn’t desire to have a church like that? Is there one church in America that wouldn’t do everything she can to be known by these qualities? Yet, with all her fine virtues, this church has a major problem. Let me read you the email…”
To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:
These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.
Well, I tricked everyone. The church wasn’t in the Middle East, but Ephesus. There was no email. I was simply reading what the Lord told John about this church in the book of Revelation. What is troubling about this wonderful church is what Jesus says next,
Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. (Rev. 2:1-5) NIV
Apparently, according to the Cornerstone of the Church, Jesus, having all those wonderful qualities means nothing if you don’t have that first love. Without that love, the congregation in Ephesus is doomed/will cease to exist.
But what is the first love?
In all my years of being a follower of Christ, I don’t remember having heard too many messages on this subject. The ones I have heard always referred to the first love as witnessing for Jesus like you used to, reading your Bible like you used to, going to church like you used to, and so on. They completely overlooked the fact that according to Jesus, the Ephesians did not “used to” do all that, but were doing it at the moment, and yet they were in danger of being put out. In fact, one commentator says, “They had yielded to the temptation, ever-present to Christians, to put all their emphasis on sound teaching. In the process, they lost love…”
So, what is this first love?
To me, it all goes back to the Greatest Commandment in the Bible.
Jesus said, “The first in importance is, ‘Listen, Israel: The Lord your God is one; so love the Lord God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy.’ And here is the second: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ There is no other commandment that ranks with these.” (Mk 12:29-31) The Message
The love that God requires of us, that first love, is an all-consuming love. It’s a type of love that demands of you everything that makes you, you. It requests not just your actions, but your zeal, passion, and yes, YOUR EMOTIONS and FEELINGS. In this love, the Beloved is the life-giving center of the lover’s life to the point that without him, life for the lover is meaningless.
If in loving us, God gave us of his own very essence, his only Son, then it’s only fair that in return, He requires the same from us, our very essence. This love demands that the lover becomes one with his/her Beloved. And in doing so, to wholly lose him/herself in him. His heart, his will, his thoughts, his strength, his feelings, and emotions become yours and vice versa.
Molana Rumi, the great Persian mystic poet of the 13th century, describes such love with the following story.
There came one and knocked at the door of the Beloved.
And a voice answered and said, ‘Who is there?’
The lover replied, “It is I.”
“Go away,” returned the voice;
“there is no room within for YOU and me.”
Then came the lover a second time and knocked and again the voice demanded,
“Who is there?”
He answered, “It is you” “Only you are at the door”
The voice said, “Now, since you are me, O me, come in,
since there’s no room for two ‘me’s’ in the house.
And Paul, the Apostle puts it this way,
I identified myself completely with him. Indeed, I have been crucified with Christ. My ego is no longer central. It is no longer important that I appear righteous before you or have your good opinion, and I am no longer driven to impress God. Christ lives in me. The life you see me living is not “mine,” but it is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I am not going to go back on that. (Gal. 2:20) The Message
As the author of The Cloud of Unknowing says, “Love is ‘ecstatic’ in that it takes us out of ourselves to live in the thing we love. If we love money, we live in money; if we love friends, we live in them, if we love them in God, we live in God. That means in love there is a real death.”
I’ve never claimed to be a theologian, but I’m convinced that what Paul is referring to is NOT some theological hypothesis, but an existential reality, which he has and is experiencing—a continued disappearing of Paul into Jesus. He realizes that to follow Jesus, it requires an actual dead to self/ego, a replacing of one identity with another, so that, as Rumi says, there are no longer “two me’s,” but only one “I AM.”
I believe the first love is the very river that guides every follower of Christ to strive to please him. Because when we learn to love with that intensity, we have no desire to do anything, but to please our Beloved.
But how does one learn to love with that intensity? Be assured that it isn’t something you just conjure up by yourself.
It first starts with God. He’s the one who initiates the relationship and comes after us. He’s the one who relentlessly pursues us until we are found in him. And as the Scripture says, He’s the one who first lavishes us with his unconditional love and makes us fall in love with him.
Have you ever been in love? When you fall in love, your lover is the total objective of your living. Every moment that you’re awake you think about him/her. Every breath you take, you take in his/her memory. You eat and drink dreaming of being with your lover. More than anything else, you desire to be in your lover’s presence even if he/she doesn’t utter a word. There’s nothing you will not do to be with him/her. As the song says,
Ain’t no mountain high enough
Ain’t no valley low enough
Ain’t no river wide enough
To keep you from getting to your lover
I love what Origen, one of the early Church Fathers, says about this love affair. “Without ceasing,” writes Origen, “the soul searches after the bridegroom, the Word, and when it finds him, it looks for him again, like an addict, in other things as well.” That kind of love is an addictive love. All one can do is to cry out for more of it and like a deer that pants after water pants after the Beloved — the only one who can satisfy that thirst.
Unfortunately, today, within much of western theology, this type of love is frowned upon because it is experiential and smacks of emotionalism. One of my Old Testament seminary professors used to say something like, “Through the influence of Hellenistic philosophy, we took a happy and emotion-filled religion (Judaism) and turned it into emotionless western Christianity.” And I can personally testify to that.
For most of my Christian life, my mentors taught me that my experiences and feelings are of little or no value because they can’t be trusted. Yet, as I read the Bible, I noticed that it is a book of human’s experiences with their Creator. Without those experiences, there wouldn’t have been a Bible. And if God wants me to love him with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength, then my feelings got to fit in there somewhere. Is it possible that in our own western thinking we have created a type of love that requires no emotions or feelings? In his book, Surprised by the Presence of God, Jack Deer gives the following illustration:
Suppose a husband comes home after work and walks up to his wife, who is cooking in the kitchen and says, “Honey, I want you to know that I’ll always be faithful to our marriage vows. I will never leave you nor forsake you. I will be your provider and protector for as long as I live. I’ll be a good father to our children. You will always have a roof over your head and food on the table. However, there’s one small issue that I hope you understand. I HAVE NO MORE FEELINGS FOR YOU!” How do you think the wife would react? One marriage counselor told me that he often hears wives complain that, “My husband is a good dad and provider, but he’s lost his passion for the marriage relationship.”
Is it possible that the church in Ephesus was being rebuked by our Lord for being guilty of the same thing? Like the above husband, she could be a perfect church, but without any passion and feelings, much like a robot? Are we guilty of the same thing in our relationship with our Savior? What if you had the exact conversation with Jesus, our Bridegroom? How do you think He would feel when you tell him, “But I have no more feelings for you?”
I often ask people why they attend church on Sundays. They often give me sound theological answers:
- “I went to church because it is scriptural.”
- “I went to worship.”
- “I went to fellowship.”
- “I went to hear a message and get fed.”
- “I went to find a mate.”
- And finally, “I went to get away from my mate.”
But I have hardly ever heard anyone say, “I went to meet with God.” Because as far as they’re concerned, their hard work, their refusal to quit, not stomaching evil, weeding out apostolic pretenders, their persistence, their courage in God’s cause, and not wearing out must be enough in serving Christ.
Can we be honest here? Have you lost that first love?