“It’s only after having been loved that you respond with love. You love him (God) back, and you reach out to share with others a tiny portion of the love that you yourself have received.” (p. xix)
Love. It’s a small word with great potential. Its absence is destructive but the effects of its presence are incalculable. But what is it? Is it a feeling or an action? If an action, what does it look like? Where does it come from—from within, or without?
These questions and more are answered in William P. Smith’s new book Loving Well (Even If You Haven’t Been). Though it can be easy to talk about what love is on paper or in conversation, there remains an undeniable hurdle to clear when moving from the theory of love to its practice. It is out of a desire to help us see love in action that Smith has written this very helpful book.
Roots of love for others
If there is one place we cannot say love is rooted, it is in ourselves. We are, by nature, unloving people. In our unconverted state, even the good that we might do is tainted with selfishness. Smith roots our love for others within the love that God has shown us in Christ. The key passage is 1 John 4:10-11 (ESV), “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” Smith explains that our love for others comes not from ourselves but out of God’s love for us. “It’s only as the reality of his love becomes my present experience that I will be more concerned about expressing my love to others than insisting they express theirs for me” (p. xix). Thus, unless we are in a loving relationship with Christ we will never be able to truly love others.
Loving Well is broken into three parts: “Love That Responds to a Broken World,” “Love That Reaches Out to Build Others Up” and “Love That Enjoys Heaven and Earth.” Each chapter addresses one area in which we need to love others.
Part 1 is perhaps the most jarring of all three. Smith helps us see that in order to truly say that we love others we must be able to move towards others in love because this is what God did to us in Christ. Too often we want to turn tail and run from hurting people. But God came down to His hurting creation even though He knew we would abuse the grace we have been given in Christ and hurt Him. We respond to the broken world we live in with God’s love because that’s what God did to us in Christ. Here we see that we are to run to those in need, take on their sorrows, confess our temptations to one another, forgive each other by covering a multitude of sins and love in a longsuffering way with each other.
To be able to love in these ways requires vulnerability on our part. We must open ourselves up to others in order to love them. God opened Himself to us in Christ. He moved towards us so we can move towards others with His love.
One of the gems in this section is chapter three on “Struggling Love.” Here Smith digs deep into the confessions of Christ to His disciples. Not of sins but of temptations. While examining Luke 4:1-12 and 22:39-46, Smith points out that, given that the Gospels are eyewitness accounts of the words and works of Christ, the only reason we have these accounts is because Christ Himself told the disciples about them. He is the eyewitness to both of them because He was the only one there (save Satan in the wilderness). Smith’s point is that Jesus Himself modeled confessing temptations to one another by the very fact that he recounted these grueling experiences. If Jesus can confess His temptations to some of the roughest people in town, then we can to others as well.
Part 2 deals with loving others in ways which build them up. Too often we think we can love those close to us from a distance. But loving others well requires that we get close and personal. Here we are shepherding others, talking to others, serving others and meeting their physical needs. What is often missed in loving others for the sake of edification is that we don’t have to be compatible with others in order to do this.
God is good at befriending people who are very different, then calling them to befriend each other. He desires that his friends develop diverse, complementary relationships with each other that go deeper than sharing similar socio-economic status. (p. 89)
Part 3 shows us how we can love on earth now in ways that we will love in eternity, where we will experience pure, wholesome, healthy, delightful and enjoyable love. The key chapter for me in this section was on submitting to one another through humble love. This is “learning to bend yourself around what someone else needs from you” (p. 183). We see this so clearly in what Christ did for us on the cross. He humbled Himself in the form of a servant by taking on human flesh and submitted Himself to death for our sins. He died the death we deserved to die, in order to give us the life we did not deserve. This was both a humble act on the part of Christ and is humbling to meditate on.
….(Even If You Haven’t Been)
While defining love can be elusive and slippery, living love is more raw, concrete and messy. The subtitle of the book assumes something of us that we don’t want to readily admit – that if we are honest, we are not loving as well as we should. Quite frankly, Loving Well is a slap in the face to all of us, as Smith exposes both how loveless we really are and how even in our expressions of love we do not love well enough.
On the flip side there is great encouragement in the gospel that we can love others well. What is pervasive throughout Loving Well is its gospel-centered focus. Smith roots everything in the gospel and the life of Christ. Every chapter is rooted in the example of love for us we have in Christ. We can love other well because we have received the love of God in Christ. While I am normally turned off by books that have tons of examples I looked forward to each one in this book. One thing that was refreshing was how much Smith opened himself up throughout the book. He humbly showed how even one who writes a book on loving others well, often times hasn’t. He is very candid about his own failures, which is refreshing!
Loving Well would make a great personal devotional book or serve as a textbook for a small group study. It should be on every one’s reading list this year.
About the author
William P. Smith, M.Div., Ph.D., is the director of counseling at Chelten Baptist Church, Dresher, Pa., the author of the book Caught Off Guard: Encounters with the Unexpected God; and the minibooks How Do I Stop Losing It with My Children?; How to Love Difficult People; Should We Get Married?; Starting Over; When Bad Things Happen; and Who Should I Date?.
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