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  • Writer's pictureAdelee Russell

Characteristics of a Fervent Life Part 5: Selfless Love

Updated: May 7, 2022

Somewhere deep in my core a sense of dread rises up at the term “selfless love.” Like I’m afraid if I learn too much about it I’m going to lose something. Have you ever felt that way? If you’ve experienced abuse in the past, maybe a distaste rises in your spirit at the thought of selfless love, because where you come from, that means being used as a human doormat. That means letting evil win.

I get it. It scares me too. But the thing that helps me push past those fears is that I know my God is good. “God is light, and there is no darkness in him at all” (1 John 1:5, NLT). I know my God is both a God of love and a God of justice. He is compassionate and righteous; forgiving and holy at the same time. He offers grace beyond our ability to comprehend, and yet He punishes evil, and will eventually destroy it entirely.

So let me be clear--for my heart and yours--that when I talk about selfless love, I do not mean becoming a human doormat. I do not mean overcompensating to the point that we find ourselves enabling sin, because as close to righteous martyrdom as that may feel, God does not call us to enable sin (on the contrary, most of the disciples were martyred. And they were not martyred because they enabled others, but because they chose to stand for the truth of Christ and the Gospel, and they refused to renounce Jesus or sway from His Word. That is what being a martyr is).

I find it helpful to define what true biblical love is. In my opinion, true biblical love consists of words, deeds, and attitudes that lead someone closer to Jesus. True biblical love is rooted in the genuine desire for others to know Jesus as their Lord and Savior, grow to know Him more, and experience all the riches of His peace, joy, and fulfillment in their lives.

That said, let’s look at three characteristics of selfless love together. But before we do that, let me just say I have so much to learn about selfless love and how to put it into practice. If I’m honest, I don’t think I’m very good at it. But the good news is it’s not about me or you or our ability to love selflessly. It’s about Jesus and HIS ability.

The truth is, none of us are experts on this. God is teaching and growing each and every one of us every single day of our lives. Colossians 2:10 says, “Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him” (NLT).

Grace to Grow

I love how many times Paul references growth in practically every one of his New Testament letters. Because growth means it’s a process. In Philippians 3:12 he says, “I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me” (NLT).

To sum it all up: none of us are perfect. But we’re not supposed to let that fact keep us from growing, and learning, and walking out of deeper and deeper love for Christ. On the contrary, the fact that Jesus loves us so much and gave Himself up for us even though we’re not perfect and we didn’t deserve it, means we should be filled with joy and the desire to grow more like Him every day in hopes of bringing Him joy in return. Not out of obligation but out of love. We love Him because He first loved us. And sanctification is simply learning to walk in and for the love of Christ.

Three Characteristics of Selfless Love

Three characteristics come to mind when I think about selfless love (and again, I’ve already admitted I’m no expert on this. I’m sure there are many angles that could be explored on this topic). But these are the three things I believe God put on my heart to share, and each one ties back to Christ’s life here on earth and the Gospel. So here they are: Selfless love forgives, self-less love sacrifices; and selfless love holds others accountable.

1). Selfless love forgives. Again, this topic is difficult for many of us to grasp because of the rampant disease in our society called abuse; so first let’s talk about what forgiveness isn’t: Forgiveness is not automatic restoration of a relationship. Nor is it automatically restored trust or fellowship. Forgiveness, by definition, means to release someone from a debt. To no longer seek recompense or retaliation for the debt. To no longer burn with anger and bitterness because the debt has not been paid.

The reason we can forgive is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ not only gave up His life to pay the debt for our own sins; He also gave up His life to purchase victory for us to overcome anything this world throws at us—including victory over the sins others have committed against us. Because of Jesus Christ we no longer have to live our lives as victims.

God never tempts anyone to sin. James 1:13 assures us of this when it says: “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one” (ESV). God is never the author of sin. He has given us free will. Now He may raise up opposition to block someone from carrying out the sin that’s in their heart, but He never messes with their free will. And if God does allow someone to follow through with their sin He can and will use it for good. A greater good that goes far beyond anything we could ever imagine. He can redeem it. Because of Jesus our Redeemer we, like Joseph, can say to those who have hurt us: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20 NIV).

Because of Jesus we don’t have to become consumed by bitterness and hatred thinking “If only they hadn’t done that to me, I would have a better life.” That kind of thinking can rob us of the abundant life we have a right to because of Christ.

Many times—after we’ve gotten distance from those who’ve abused us—we can get stuck in the cycle of “if only.” We find ourselves saying “if only” every time something goes wrong. Every time we give into a sin cycle, every time we sabotage a relationship with unhealthy coping mechanisms we refuse to deal with. Every time our dreams don’t pan out. Every time we struggle. “If only, if only, if only…”

This lifestyle not only robs us of the abundant life Jesus promises is available to us (John 10:10) but it also blows the offenses of the person who hurt us long ago way out of proportion, and we can end up attributing guilt to them for things they never did and circumstances they never caused.

Perhaps they forced us into something evil long ago—and that is absolutely NEVER our fault. A victim should NEVER be blamed for the way their abuser treated them. But although we are never responsible for ways others have abused us, we ARE responsible for how we cope with it. In other words: we must choose to accept Jesus’ offer to restore us and bring us victory. Or else we’ll never find true healing, true victory, true joy, or true forgiveness. If we don’t accept Jesus’ offer of restoration then we are likely to continue the cycle of brokenness, and we can become the very thing we swore to hate.

The more I come to know the precious promises of victory and restoration that are mine because of Jesus, the more my feelings of bitterness and anger fade away. The deeper I delve into Jesus’ love for me, more He fills me with the ability to love and care about others. Even those who have hurt me. Instead of wishing destruction and pain on them, I find myself praying for them to find Jesus themselves, and the redemption and hope He brings.

Lastly, forgiveness means the willingness to reconcile if the person repents fully, seeks forgiveness, and does what it takes to build a path to restoration. Jesus tells us in Luke 17:3, "So watch yourselves. 'If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them" (NIV). We see here that a restored relationship requires two willing parties. One party must be willing to repent and change. The other party must be willing to forgive. We also see the steps of restoration: 1) The person who was wronged is to rebuke the person who hurt them, confronting them in love. 2) The person responsible for the wrongdoing must genuinely repent. 3) The person sinned against is to forgive.

We see this in the Gospel itself. Jesus initiated forgiveness. But we must repent, turn from our sin, and follow Him in order to receive and live in that forgiveness, and for our relationship with Him to be restored.

Jesus has a forgiving heart (we see that in Luke 23:34 when He speaks the words that blow our minds in the midst of excruciating pain on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing”, NIV). However, although Jesus’ heart is forgiving towards us, we must still choose to repent and accept His forgiveness—acknowledging and turning from our wicked ways in the process.

Reconciliation in earthly human terms, depending on the circumstance, does not necessarily mean the perpetrator will escape the consequences for their actions (I know a friend who has reconciled with someone who remains in prison). But the issue is with our hearts. And having a heart that is willing to reconcile--should the person repent--protects our hearts from bitterness and further destruction. It also paves the way to illustrate the grace of the Gospel should the person be willing to accept it and live in it.

2). Selfless love sacrifices. To grasp this one I must again remind myself of the definition of biblical love: True biblical love consists of words, deeds, and attitudes that lead someone closer to Jesus. True biblical love is rooted in the genuine desire for others to know Jesus as their Lord and Savior, grow to know Him more, and experience all the riches of His peace, joy, and fulfillment in their lives.

In light of this definition, selfless love sacrifices whatever is needed to bring someone closer to Jesus and deeper in their understanding of the Gospel. Sometimes this means sacrificing our money for those who are in financial need. Sometimes it means sacrificing our time for those who need fellowship. Sometimes it means sacrificing our own preferences in order to show them the lavishness of God’s grace and affection.

Other times it means sacrificing our own reputation by doing the right thing even when others don’t understand it. Sometimes it means enduring the backlash that might come from telling others God’s truth in love. Sometimes it means enduring a severed relationship because we told them the truth in love and they would not accept it.

Self-sacrificing love means the willingness to sacrifice whatever it costs to bring a person closer to Jesus. God made each one of us uniquely. And He has allowed each of us to have a unique story. And like a good Father, He knows exactly how to interact with each and every one of His children. He knows what will help them, and what will harm them. He knows what they need and what they don’t.

For example: a parent who constantly covers their adult child’s rent because that adult child is squandering his money or living in rebellion towards God is not helping him grow closer to Christ. Eventually they must stop protecting him from the consequences of his choices—not to condemn him but to point him in the direction of repentance and the love, redemption, and hope found in Jesus Christ. God is a good Father. He is the best parent to ever exist. And His discipline and correction is actually a conduit for Him to lavish His love and grace upon us. What may seem like neglect is actually the tool He is using to bring us into more abundant life in Him.

In order to sacrifice in a way that helps bring others closer to Christ we must seek discernment and wisdom from God at every step. It’s easy for us to think we should always sacrifice everything all the time for anyone in any situation, but that kind of life is driven by compulsion and, quite often, fear of condemnation if we don’t (and if driven by fear, then it’s not really love it all, since there is no fear in love, 1 John 4:18). That kind of sacrifice doesn’t help anybody. And it can quickly turn into an enabling situation that ends up giving a person what they need to wander further from Christ instead of drawing them closer to Him.

On the flip side, overcompensating by never sacrificing anything for anyone at any time is also a trap. It leads us to attitudes of apathy, fear, bitterness, and selfishness. In order to live out selfless love as we should we must be in close communion with God on a daily basis, saturating ourselves in His Word, abiding in His presence, and relying on His Holy Spirit to help us discern what will help bring each individual we meet closer to Jesus. The bottom line here is our willingness to surrender anything Jesus might ask of us in order to bring others closer to Him.

3). Selfless love holds others accountable. We’ve already seen snippets of it earlier, but now it’s time to dive deeper. Why is it loving to hold others accountable? Because it gives them the opportunity to draw closer to Christ. Accountability opens people’s eyes to their need for God. Accountability helps people avoid dangers that could otherwise harm them. Imagine you’re hiking with your best friend and you notice there’s a huge tree root sticking up out of the ground in front of them. If you really care about your friend you’re going to say, “Watch out! There’s a root. You might trip!” And I imagine your friend would be very grateful that you saved them from a twisted ankle and a large doctor bill.

That is the spirit of godly accountability. It’s not that we’re all hovering around each other with critical spirits and holier than thou attitudes waiting excitedly to find someone doing something wrong so we can prove how knowledgeable and pious we are. On the contrary our motives should be fueled by biblical love and concern for those we care deeply about. We want them to succeed. We want them to have abundant life. We don’t want them to get hurt. We don’t want them to be deceived by the enemy. So we have to say something in and out of love. It might be uncomfortable. It might be messy. But it is an integral part of selfless love.

Christians often quote Galatians 6:2: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (ESV). And when we quote that verse we usually feel the instant compulsion to become a mini savior for everyone we meet, and try to solve every problem they face and fix every situation they encounter. But that’s not what this verse is talking about. To understand the true context of a verse we should always read the portions before and after. The original manuscripts of the New Testament were written as letters to the church. There were no verses or chapters, so when we isolate a verse we can get a very unclear picture. If you read Galatians 6:1-3 all together it says, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. ” (ESV).

What is the situation? They’ve discovered a brother in Christ is going down a sinful path. What do they do? They restore him in a spirit of gentleness (i.e. speak the truth in love). What burden are they talking about? The burden of keeping their fallen brother accountable without falling into the same pit themselves, or getting caught in the trap of self-righteousness. Accountability should be done in a spirit of gentleness by a loving community that genuinely cares for each other and does whatever it takes to lead each other closer to Jesus.

God illustrated this Himself when He gave us the law. The purpose of the law was not to justify us. It’s purpose was to reveal to our hearts our gaping need for a Savior. And recognizing our need for Jesus is the best thing that could ever happen to us. The same is true of the sanctification process. All of my spiritual growth stems from recognizing my total dependence on God. And most of my biggest growth spurt moments come from God opening my eyes to the giant tree root that’s poking out of the ground in front of me. I end up thanking Him profusely for saving me from a spiritual fracture that could come with a price far greater than I’m prepared to pay.

I am so incredibly grateful for the brothers and sisters in Christ who lovingly and gently point things out that concern them about my spiritual walk. Without shame or condemnation they gently approach the issue and the Holy Spirit speaks through them and opens my eyes. And every time it leads me to deeper love for God and deeper trust in His Word. A corrected perspective brings peace. A corrected perspective brings joy. A corrected perspective brings the tools I need to go forward on this adventure to carry out the good works--the calling--God has prepared in advance for me to carry out (Eph. 2:10).

The Key to Selfless Love

You might be reading this post with a deepening sense of anxiety. You’re not where you want to be, but you’re scared to go any farther. You’re not skilled at this. You don’t feel good enough. You get discouraged.

But this verse should breathe fresh relief and joy into your soul: 1 John 4:19 says, “We love because he first loved us” (NIV). We can only love selflessly in direct proportion to the amount that we come to know Jesus’ selfless love for us.

Paul says in Ephesians 3:17-19: “I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God” (NLT).

So how do we grow in the area of selfless love? By kicking ourselves and forcing ourselves to “do better”? By beating ourselves over the head with sterner doctrine? No. We grow in selfless love (and every other aspect of our relationship with Christ) by delving deeper and deeper into the intimate, experiential understanding of His love. The one thing we’re called to do is to be rooted in His love. We can do this by forming our foundation in His love through His Word, and through dependence on His Holy Spirit.

The more I recognize God’s love for me, the more I’m able to show love to others. His love takes away my inhibitions and my fears, my bitterness and my selfishness, my apathy and my doubts. His love makes me feel safe no matter what lies ahead. It gives me confidence, and peace, and courage. His love is my hope. And the more His love fills my heart the more excited I get and the more He enables me to show that love to others.

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