Since you’re committed to Christ, spiritual development is a big deal. But here’s a newsflash for you: Once you’ve added virtues, knowledge, self-control, endurance, godliness—then your development is incomplete. Badly incomplete. In fact, so incomplete that you probably ought to stay away from other humans.
Why? Skip to the end of the list, and you’ll know where I’m headed—brotherly affection and love (2 Pet. 1:7). If you’re a man reading this, the word love doesn’t always resonate. It sounds like flowers and chocolates and old Air Supply songs. Let’s be honest. The amount of time a man spends in that kind of love is remarkably short (Unless of course, you’ve recently read a marriage book and you’re “trying to do better”).
Love is a word burdened with a lot of meanings. If you can set aside the bubble gum sentiments attached to it, we all know it’s theologically huge. Paul said even if he could accumulate everything from mysteries to knowledge to faith, but not have love, he was nothing (1 Cor. 13:2). You can build the world’s most impressive religious resume, and yet be a big zero. That’s a cause for concern.
Religious accomplishments can become plain dangerous without a basic warmth and love for people. A guy named Tom Hovestal wrote a book called Extreme Righteousness, which was all about coming to terms with the Pharisaical tendencies in our own hearts. In a chapter titled, “When Rightness Becomes Wrongness” he portrays what begins to happen when personal character accomplishments go awry. The first warning sign is a contemptuous view of others:
“How do we regard sinners who do not measure up and saints who have blown it? Do we subconsciously gloat over their misdeeds and glory in their shame? Do we subtly believe that we are incapable of their level of depravity and they are unlikely to achieve our level of goodness? Are we arrogant about our own avoidances and achievements? For me the answer is yes, and then some. I rarely verbalize these thoughts, or even acknowledge them to myself. But they are there. They surface in my secret reflections and in what I mutter under my breath. They come out in unguarded conversations about people not present. They pop out in my prayers as I lament the evils of the culture more than personal and corporate sin. They slip out in my conversation about failing parishioners and fallen fellow pastors…a critical, contemptuous spirit emanates from a self-righteous heart” (p. 50).
A guy in those shoes leaves a trail of busted up relationships behind him. Without love, even my relationship with God will take on sick, weird dimensions of legalism, pride, and vain glory.
Jesus told the story of a Pharisee and a tax collector who both went up to the temple to pray. The Pharisee prayed prayers of thanksgiving to God. Yet if you study the content of his prayer, his thanks were all about how God had made him into a supercharged awesome somebody, and “not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11). Without brotherly affection and love, contempt sneaks into everything, including our prayers.
On top of everything else you’re adding into your life and practicing, you can’t forget brotherly affection (2 Pet. 1:7)—good feelings about other folks. That is, when somebody fails, you feel sorrowful. When somebody succeeds, you’re happy. When somebody needs help, you kindly give it. But affection doesn’t just appear out of thin air, even in the confines of church fellowship. We need to think in terms of adding. And so here is a simple primer for growth in brotherly affection:
Check the way you think of certain other people. When you meditate upon their flaws and shortcomings, then nothing but disgust will grow inside you toward them. If according to your estimation, there’s nothing good about them, it may be time for you to come to Jesus for some good old repentance. You’ve been blinded by hate and now walk in darkness (1 John 3:11).
Fortunately, the alternate is true as well. Feed your mind the good stuff about the people you’re with. Whatever is good, honorable, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, or praiseworthy, “think about these things” (Phil. 4:8). You’ll also want to see other believers through the cross of Jesus, as “that brother for whom Christ died” (1 Cor. 8:11). You’d be amazed how affection will develop in such fertile soil.
Check the way you talk about others. James said, “the tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life.” (3:6). Talk trash about someone else and it will definitely affect you. You’ll find it almost impossible to like them when they’re around.
Go on a criticism fast—no ugly words about anybody for a week. Try speaking well of others instead: “Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body” (Prov. 16:24). Not only will your spiritual condition improve, but you’ll find yourself loving the “flawed” people in your church more than usual.
When love fails to permeate all the positive items of our spiritual formation, the result ends in a loss. Virtues become perches from which you can judge others. Knowledge makes you proud. Self-control makes you seem more like Mr. Spock than a Christian. Your endurance looks like empty hardheadedness. Even your brotherly affections turn into a good-old boys network, where you only like your favorite folks.
But love makes perfect. It’s the thing that intensifies everything else, and brings it all out in beautiful, sharp relief. It transforms. Whatever is worth admiring and adding to your faith, just remember: “the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13).