Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and actions. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before [God].
|"I am the light of the world"|
There is much to comment upon in these brief sentences. In the first place, notice that John calls his audience to love. This implies that love, as far as Christian ethics is concerned, is not primarily a sentiment or a feeling over which we have no control. On the contrary, love is something to which we commit ourselves, something we undertake to perform intentionally and voluntarily. Love is more of an action or a way of living, rather than a way of feeling. The feelings may not always be there, but we are called to commit ourselves to love, to practice it and to cultivate it so that it becomes a part of us.
Yet it might be wrong utterly to divorce love from feelings and sentiments altogether. For presumably, when we act out of love, we are choosing to identify with something within us that disposes us to wish well for the other person. In other words, in a typical situation where I have to deal with another person, I might be feeling a number of ways about the situation and about the other, and I must choose to act on that feeling of love which may even be hidden underneath resentment, hate, annoyance, etc.
Presumably if one person lacks any love whatsoever for the other, even when considered as another human being, something is wrong. John seems to make love the standard for whether or not we are truly born of God. Just a few verses earlier, he says this: We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death (v. 14). And he repeats the point here, as well. We will know we are from the truth -- we will know if we have truly met God in Christ, if we have truly believed, if we have truly been born from above, and have God's seed abiding in us -- if we live in love for one another.
This has to be a love that demonstrates and translates itself into action, not merely words. Of course, he does not mean that love has nothing to do with our speech whatsoever. After all, you cannot be acting out of love towards a person if you are intentionally verbally abusive and constantly demeaning him. But love must go beyond words and translate itself into action. This is proven eminently through Christ's own example: We know love by this, that [Christ] laid down his life for us (v. 16). This is nothing extreme or strange. We already do this naturally in a million other contexts: e.g., love for children, love for a person of the opposite sex, etc. It is quite possible that our love for God does not immediately translate into greater obedience and action because we do not really love him very much.
And of course, our love for one another is the condition of our participation in Christ. John says about Christ that he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins (2.2). Not Christ's death in isolation from his life, but Christ himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins -- as if the very identity and essence of Christ is to advocate on behalf of sinners and to make atonement for their sins. We might understand, then, that Christ's life is guided by this single principle: love. And we too, if we are to participate in Christ, if we are to be made into his likeness, if we are to become children of God by adoption as he is the Son of God by nature, then we too must be guided by this same principle of love.
Of course, we are called to love in more than words and speech. But we are also called to love in truth. We cannot compromise the truth in order to be more "loving." It is a travesty and a lie to love someone by withholding or misrepresenting the truth to them. This spells itself out in a number of ways. Consider, for example, the debate about gay relationships and gay marriage. Some persons reason that Christ would have been affirming of gay relationships on the basis of his commandment that we love our neighbors as ourselves. The problem with this argument is this: if Christ also considers marriage as only legitimate between a man and a woman, then it is no true act of love to affirm gay relationships against this truth. Whether Christ conceived of things this way is another question, of course, but the point is obvious enough: we cannot affirm the sins of others and refuse to address them out of "love," because true love does not compromise the truth.