The Biblical Call to Love

January 7th, 2013

No Greater Love

Dorwin Stoddard loved his wife, Mavanell, with all his heart. On Saturday, January 8, 2011, witnesses say that Dorwin proved his love for Mavanell by saving her life at the expense of his own. As the couple stood in a Safeway grocery store in Tucson, Arizona, shots rang out. According to his pastor, the Reverend Mike Nowak, “When they heard the gunshots going off, she didn’t know what it was. She thought it was fireworks, [but] he knew what it was. He pulled her down, they both dove for the ground and he landed on top of her.” Mavanell was shot in the legs; Dorwin was shot in the head and died as a result of his wounds. He was 76. “We want it to go down that Dorwin did what all husbands would do,” said Nowak, “that is, jump on the grenade for their mate. And that’s what he did.”

According to Nowak, Dorwin was a fixture at his church, serving as a maintenance man and helping out with whatever was needed. At some point, it is safe to guess, Dorwin heard the biblical call to love one another and the words from Jesus, “No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13, CEB).

As the nation mourns the shootings in Tucson and wrestles with how to respond in its aftermath, Christians are comforted by the love shown in this tragedy and are reminded once again that the greatest gift God gives us in the world is love (1 Corinthians 13:13). As South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “Love, compassion, gentleness, even when sometimes they seem to have a rough ride, in the end they prevail.”

The Bible’s Call to Love

Love is a central element of Christianity. In Matthew 22:34-40, Jesus said that loving God “with your whole heart, with your whole being, and with your whole mind” (verse 37, CEB) is the first commandment, and that loving one’s neighbor as yourself is similar to the first. In her sermon that opened The United Methodist Church’s 2008 General Conference, Bishop Janice Riggle Huie echoed Paul’s exhortation on love from 1 Corinthians 13:13 when she said, “Hope is the nerve center of the Christian life. Love is the heart. Faith is the muscle.”

There are hundreds of mentions of the word love in the Bible. According to, there are 686 mentions of the word in the New International Version and 442 mentions in the King James Version. Even casual students of the Bible know there are several different words for “love” used throughout the Scriptures. In Hebrew, the word most often used is ‘ahab, meaning “to have affection for.” In the New Testament, the Greek words for “love” include agape, philia, and storge. Agape is the most common word for “love” in the New Testament, and its meaning is closely associated with God’s love for humans and human love for God and neighbor. Philia indicates love that is more like friendship and is widely known as “brotherly love” (Phila-delphia = “City of Brotherly Love”). Storge suggests familial love and is used in combination with philia in Romans 12:10 to instruct members of the body of Christ about the marks of a true Christian. Romans 1:31 and 2 Timothy 3:3 criticize the absence of this kind of love by using storge in combination with another root that is rendered “lacking affection.” Eros, used to connote erotic or sexual love, is not used in the New Testament. In the Greek philosophical traditions, eros also indicated an intense desire or love for transcendent ideals of beauty and truth.

Love and Forgiveness

In Matthew 5:21-37, Jesus speaks about the consequences of anger against a brother or sister and about the benefits of reconciliation. At the Fetzer Institute, a Michigan-based foundation that supports efforts at studying love, forgiveness, compassion, and reconciliation, they are learning more about this complex topic. In October 2010, the institute published results from the “Survey of Love and Forgiveness in American Society.” What they found is that most Americans are hungry for love and forgiveness. According to the survey, 68 percent of Americans agreed that they need more meaningful love in their personal lives. This number grows to 89 percent in their communities, 94 percent in America, and 95 percent in the world. Sixty-two percent of Americans agreed that they need more forgiveness in their personal lives.

Love, Justice, and Mercy

The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. espoused peaceful resistance during the civil rights movement. King developed six “facts” to help people understand what peaceful resistance was––and was not.

One of those facts is that non-violent resistance is an act of love. Writing on the website, Annie Bond said that for King, “in non-violent resistance, one learns to avoid physical violence toward others and also learns to love the opponents with ‘agape’ or unconditional love––which is love given not for what one will receive in return, but for the sake of love alone. It is God flowing through the human heart.”

King himself wrote about agape love in his June 4, 1957, article “The Power of Non-violence.” In the article, he said that agape is a redemptive, overflowing kind of love that seeks good will for all. King stated that when a person reaches that level of love, he or she begins to love people not because they are loveable or because the things they do are loveable but rather because God loves them. We may hate the deed that a person does, but we love the person. King believed that kind of love––agape love––was at the heart of the movement going on in the South at that time.

The Hard Work of Love

John Ruegg is 83 years old and lives alone. His wife, Joan, who is around the same age, lives about 20 miles away because she is confined to a bed with Alzheimer’s. Every other day, in a ritual carried out thousands of times around the country, John leaves the house at about 10:00 A.M., gets in his car, drives the 20 miles, and spends the day with his wife even though she now no longer recognizes him. It is a habit, he says, that he has practiced for more than six years. Asked why he visits his wife three times a week, shares meals with her, reads the Bible to her, and holds her hand, John bows his head slowly and then, with tears in his eyes, looks up and says, “Because I love her and she loves me.”

Showing love to those suffering from Alzheimer’s can be hard work. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 5.3 million Americans suffer from the disease; and a new case is diagnosed every 70 seconds. In a report from last March, the association estimated that the cost for health and long-term care services for people with Alzheimer’s would top $172 billion in 2010. Caring for persons with Alzheimer’s––like John does––is very stressful. Over 40 percent of family and other unpaid caregivers rate the emotional stress of caring for a person with Alzheimer’s or dementia as high or very high, compared with 28 percent of those caring for other older people.

Practicing God’s Love

Christians proclaim that God is love (1 John 4:8), and we are called to practice God’s love so that all will know it and experience it. The possibilities for how people respond to God’s love and offer it to others are almost endless.

Gert Dunn is 86 years old and attends church every Sunday. She needs assistance to get out of a chair yet is involved in evangelism efforts at her church. Every morning, Gert pulls out her prayer list and prays, by name, for people’s needs. Then, once a week, she sends a hand-written prayer card to the people on the list letting them know they are cared for and loved by God.

Kathy Wells, a young adult, started an e-buddy system in her church. The group covenants to send Christian articles, Bible study tidbits, and devotions to one another by e-mail at least once a week. The 12 people in the group have now shared dozens of informational items with one another and help keep people connected in love even though they may now live far away.

Jilma Meneses, an attorney, first went on a mission trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo after September 11, 2001. After visiting an orphanage, she fell in love with the children and began to try to find ways they could be adopted in the United States. Meneses adopted a girl, Gracia, and started a mission called “Our Family Adoptions” (, which has led to over a hundred adoptions. “I am compensated emotionally and spiritually, but not monetarily,” she said. “The biggest compensation is seeing these children having new opportunities with loving families, absolutely. That’s the biggest compensation of all.”

God’s Love For Us

John 3:16-17 proclaims God’s love through Jesus Christ. It is God’s love for all that generates salvation, hope, and life. Our own capacity to love God and neighbor comes from God’s love for us. When we choose to practice love, we proclaim God’s salvation, hope, and life to our world.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs. The complete study guide accompanying this article can be purchased here.

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