What is love, anyway? Meditations on love and hate in 1 John 3.11-18

“Love” and “loving” feature prominently in 1 John. Love is a notoriously tricky word in English—we all know that “I love pizza” and “I love my family” don’t really mean much of the same thing at all. Many people in church are also aware that there are several different Greek words which are often translated with “love” in English (someday, I’ll probably rant about the many ways this is misrepresented). When we work with a slippery word like “love,” it is best to let the context we read it in show us what is meant. What we see in 1 John is that love—the sort of love which John is talking about—is a divine reality.

Who is loving?

One way to approach understanding “love” in 1 John is to pose a question: who is able to love? On the surface, this sounds like a silly question. Anyone short of a fully deranged psychopath can most certainly love in some fashion or another. But when we look closely at the way John talks about love in 1 John, we have to give a more careful answer.

As 1 John 3.14 puts it:

“We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death.” (ESV)

We could look at many other ideas in 1 John, but a short summary is that the ability to love in the sense that John is talking about comes from being born of God. We come to learn what (this sort of) love is in the act of God sending his Son Jesus to the world (1 John 3.16; 4.10). This sort of love is both ‘from God’ (4.7) and in some sense identical with God (4.8, 16).

The (sort of) love highlighted here in 1 John is not a special quality of love. It is not as though followers of God have a level of love to give which is ‘more’ than other people. Indeed, there are many who reject Jesus in this world and yet certain portions of their lives are inspiring examples of giving up themselves for the good of others. What is special about this love is its source. The love 1 John highlights is love from God which those born of God have and those not born of God do not have. It is “divine” love, displayed in Jesus to the world. All those born of Jesus are born into this sort of divine love.

The answer to the question “who is able to love?” in the sense that 1 John is talking about is simple: followers of Jesus.

Love vs. hate

This insight helps to make more sense of the not-loving = hating equation throughout 1 John. If loving fellow followers of Jesus is a special capacity given to those born of God, then to treat others in any other way is to reject the very gift of divine love which has reached down to us in Jesus. We reject the gift by not extending it in our actions to those whom God has already extended it to.

One way to think about the sort of love which 1 John is highlighting is to think about giving people what they deserve. People deserve certain types of treatment from you. The exact way you were taught to treat other people varies, but people deserve certain levels of love in the sense of “generic-benevolence” because they are an important person in your life, a fellow member of your community, or just someone who happens to be in need. Acts of self-denying giving in these contexts are all good and they are fitting. God created us to live in relationship with one another, giving for the good of the other. But these acts are not what 1 John has in mind.

1 John focuses in on God’s special act of love, his choice of a people to give himself to in self-denying compassionate devotion so that they may benefit. Anyone can experience this love—you must be born of God. Having received this love and benefited from it, it becomes the pattern and model for the love we give towards each other. And, significantly, the family identity as children of God and the power of the Spirit within us empowers us to give this (sort of) love to each other.

Acting towards one another in ways that reject giving this sort of love, that is hate. It is hate because it is willfully choosing to reject God’s pattern of love for the family which he has already extended to us.

How to be loving

Love in 1 John is like a little piece of God planted into you. This seed of God is meant to grow and give a continual harvest of blessings towards other followers of Jesus and to the world.

While 1 John focuses mostly on loving other believers, the pattern of love we see in Jesus is a pattern extended towards everyone, whether they know and receive it and benefit from it or not (1 John 2.2).

Where to start? One of the wisest things to do is pray: Spirit of God, give me opportunities to be loving to others; show me how the love of God which is planted in me ought to be lived out day by day.

Jack Sparrows compass

If you have ever seen the movie Pirates of the Caribbean (preferably the first one, which was a good movie, as opposed to the rest, regarding whose quality I raise profound doubts), you may remember that captain Jack Sparrow has a compass that is unique. It doesn’t point north. Instead, it points the way towards whatever your heart most deeply desires.

The Spirit of God in our lives is kind of like that. God’s Spirit continues to point the way towards the heart of God—and God is love. We need to get better at reading the compass points because they will always guide us to acts of love for others.

Down the rabbit hole: redeeming the news, part 2

Alice falling down the rabbit hole into wonderland

In the last post, I noted how I’ve been falling into the rabbit hole of online news. To switch metaphors, it is like a bug-zapper. Something about it keeps drawing me in, even though I know that getting too close can be perilous. The endless stream of novel stories just waiting to be read beckons me on. How shall we be sensible and faithful in engaging with the world of digital news (or TV news, for that matter)?

Fitting the rabbit hole into life

Orienting principle: there is nothing wrong with reading the news. There can be great benefit in it. But if you find yourself in a place like me where turning to the news becomes a burden, a time-sucking draw, it may be time to climb a little out of the rabbit hole. Here are a couple things to consider for engaging with the news in a faithful way.

The limits of your time

It should go without saying, but needs to be said anyways, that our time is limited. Whether that be my time at work while preparing sermons and prepping other things for church, or our time with our families, or your time doing whatever it is you like to do. We all have limits.

An ever-present threat from online news, or TV news (or any sort of online activity) is that there is no end. There is no natural disengagement point. Movies end. Games end. But you never reach an end with online news, so you never need to stop.

Since the news never runs out, we must be careful of what amounts of time we allow ourselves to spend in engaging with it. Ask yourself how much time you can beneficially spend perusing news stories, then set some way to enforce that time limit.

I'm trying out a browser extension (LeechBlock) on my computer at work to limit the amount of time on different news sites the 10 minutes per every two hours. That's enough time to browse through, find some worthwhile stories, and get back to work.

The goal is to make engaging with the news a part of a broader strategy of preparing for ministry each week, rather than a way to escape from preparing.

It’s worthwhile for all of us to consider the limits of our time and how we engage with the news and other digital media.

Consider the limits of your circle of care

The global scope of online news makes it easy to forget that we have limited circles of care. What is a circle of care? There are only so many people, so many groups, and so many institutions which we can be involved in and meaningfully care about. There are only so many topics about which we can even be marginally informed, and a very tiny amount that we can be an expert on. It should be humbling to consider the vast number of topics about which each of us knows absolutely nothing.

The news provides a smorgasbord of information that far exceeds any individual’s circle of care.

It’s easy to think that my circle of care is far bigger than it really is. But at some point, you have to wonder how much should I really care about the pink dolphins in the Amazon river and how the global environmental situation affects them? While my heart goes out to people protesting in Iran over the recent death of Mahsa Amini, how much do I really care? Better yet, how much time and effort should I spend in caring about it? How relevant is it to my life and the lives of people I live with?

There are no easy answers to this question, but it is a question that we need to ask ourselves periodically.

A practical way to deal with the limits of your circle of care is to come up with a few areas of the news you want to be informed on. Then go find websites which address those areas. Avoid news aggregating sites; they will always bring you things outside of your circle of care. You’ll never hit the bottom of the rabbit hole you’re falling down.

Some news sources I frequent: WIRED, Christianity Today, and Spiegel (a major German news outlet)

The limits of your mental/emotional care

Related, it is important to consider the limits of our mental and/or emotional care. We all have a finite amount of love, concern, and care that we can give. There are more things in the world to care about (and that are worthy of caring about) than we can possibly care about in any meaningful way. Where we use up our care impacts every part of life.

If I have 10 units of emotional care that I can give in a day, and I spend five of them reading different news stories that have very little direct impact on my life, what effect might that have on the people who I go home to live with after work? I have to wonder, how much of my emotional and mental capacity am I spending trying to find and understand crises here there and everywhere around the world, and what sort of state is this leaving me in for when I go home and one of my children is having actual crisis that requires my mental and emotional attention?

Too much attention to the news can burn up our capacity to care for the people in our lives.

You are only human

In summing up these considerations, the main point is that I need to take a little time and remember that I am only human. And I mean that in the best possible sense that one can mean it. Being only human is not a bad thing; It is a glorious thing. But if we try to live as demigods, while only having the capacities of a human, we end up short-serving everyone we really live with.

One of the fascinating and wonderful things about being only human is that our abilities are well-suited for caring for and helping people who are connected to where we actually live in life. There are good and appropriate ways we can learn about and be concerned about things happening on the other side of the world. But the chief measure of loving your neighbor is not how much care you have for people on the other side of the world, but how much care you have for people on the other side of the street.

Pulling out of the rabbit hole

Over the course of this week, I’ve been doing some thinking and planning to engage with the online news in a more limited and focused way. I doubt I have the answer, but I want to engage in a searching for better practices in how to use online news in life and ministry. The rabbit hole is there, it is bottomless, and it has an endless draw for those who look to peek their head into it. I’m working on doing better at standing on my own two feet and not falling in.

Down the Rabbit Hole: redeeming the news, part 1

Alice falling down the rabbit hole into wonderland

The news cycle is shorter than ever. That is commonly accepted wisdom (though it is debatable whether there is anything more worthwhile to say in the endlessly shortening news cycle or not). One easily gets the impression that the news is a track of sad music on endless repeat. Recently, I am reminded that the news is an endless rabbit hole that you can fall into and never come back out from.

The news

I used to not really watch the news. In addition to occasional online browsing, I would catch a few minutes of NPR here and there while driving the kids somewhere or commuting back and forth between my house and school.

But recently, I’ve felt myself falling down the rabbit hole of online news.

Online news

Since starting into pastoral ministry in January, I have tried to be more aware of what’s going on in the world. The stuff in the world and community weighs upon the lives of the people who live in the community, so it makes sense to engage with the news. But there is also a danger, which is what I have been noticing recently.

I have started to fall down the rabbit hole.

The rabbit hole

In the last couple weeks, I find myself with a nagging urge to go check the news. Have a couple minutes? Pull up the news tab. Need a break from thinking about the sermon? Go scan the news. And so forth. After finishing a chunk of work, rather than taking a couple minutes to stand up, walk around, and stretch, I find myself browsing news headlines.

Note, browsing headlines is not a very good way to engage with the news to begin with.

Since the headlines change by the minute—even when very little of substance changes that quickly—there is always something new to look at, read, be interested in. Sometimes there are stories that are worth reading. Sometimes there are stories which promise a juicy tidbit. For someone who has not watched an NFL game in I’m not sure how many years now, so far this season I’ve seen all sorts of headlines about Tom Brady’s life both on and off the field.

How does the rabbit hole draw us in?

The pull

I suspect the draw to go and check the news is much like the well-known and studied way that social media apps work. In short, social media platforms use algorithms. All that means is that they use complex mathematical rules describing how data relates to each other.

Check out here for a brief explanation of how algorithms work on various social media platforms.

Combining these rules, and the scads of information the social media company has about you, its user, results in you receiving a continuous stream of content directed your way that you should like to look at.

 “Like” simply means content that the social media company believes you will take the time to look at, not whether you will find it pleasant, happy, or uplifting.

This all works on a pretty simple premise: our brains crave novelty. Said differently, we notice new things and tune out things that aren’t changing. Just think of the last time you walked into your favorite restaurant. When you first step in the wall of aromas envelopes you. Your nose is going wild as you soak up the delicious scents.

Within a couple minutes, you don’t even notice the smells anymore. But if you got up and walked into another restaurant, your nose would go crazy again. Why is this? Our brains prioritize paying attention to things that are new and changing, not to things that are staying the same. New stimuli—smells, sounds, images, touches—get high priority, but if the stimuli don’t change, in a short time they get downgraded and we no longer pay conscious attention.

Back to the digital world of social media and news. Online companies face one simple problem: the main way they make money is by selling adds, not by charging their users. In the online economy, you are the product. More pointedly, your attention is the product being sold by the tech company to an advertiser. It is in the tech company’s financial interest to keep you browsing as much as possible and coming back as often as possible.

The novelty-seeking brain is key. I want novel content. The news sites give endless novel content. Constantly changing headlines. The endless promise of something good.

Is falling into the rabbit hole good?

The dilemma

I‘ve been noticing that this increased intake of online news is complicated. On the one hand, I know much more about “what is going on in the world” than I have for quite some time. On the other hand, I’m not really sure that is a good thing. And I am not alone on this hunch.

It turns out, many studies note that watching the news can be deleterious to your health. Beyond the very real possibility that my stress (and yours, too) is heightened by watching the news, I wonder how all this casual news consumption relates to my ability to live well with the people I live with.

Staying out of the rabbit hole

In the next post, I reflect on some different things I am trying in order to put better boundaries around the news in my life. After all, as neat as it is to know things about what is going on all over the world, loving my neighbor as myself certainly should begin with my actual neighbors, not my digital ones.

Antichrist: the words behind the name

Jesus and antichrist manuscript illustration

In certain circles, the nature and identity of the Antichrist exercises immense amount of interest, excitement, and speculation. I’m not writing here to talk about end times speculation around this enigmatic figure. Rather, I want to take a step back and consider the Greek word of relevance: ἀντίχριστος (antichristos). What does this word mean? More pointedly, I want to look at how our usage of “antichrist” in English obscures certain important facets of what this word means.

⚠️Reader beware: this post strays into what is called etymology—that is, how words are formed and why. Nothing too technical. You have been forewarned. ⚠️

On making up words

The word antichrist (Greek, ἀντίχριστος) is a Christian innovation. First John contains the earliest recorded use of the word and no one besides Christian authors bothers to use it after that. We can treat antichrist (ἀντίχριστος) as a brand-new word emerging in the particular social and religious context of early Jewish-Christian circles.

When John mentions antichrist in 1 Jn 2.18, he mentions a figure the readers are already familiar with. Both he and they already know what the word is intended to mean. This doesn’t help us that much in figuring out what John intends to communicate. In such a case, we can observe how the word is built (etymology) to help understand it.

There is a potential problem with this otherwise sensible procedure.

A problem in the prefix

The problem is straightforward: the prefix anti- in English is far more limited in meaning than the prefix αντι– is in Greek. Said a little differently: when we see an English word with anti- on the front, we have only one main meaning possibility; Greek words with anti- on the front had many more.

The venerable dictionary.com defines the English anti- this way:

a prefix meaning “against,” “opposite of,” “antiparticle of,” used in the formation of compound words (anticline); used freely in combination with elements of any origin (antibody; antifreeze; antiknock; antilepton).

The English anti- has one core sense: against. When we as English readers encounter the word “antichrist,” we only have one meaningful option for what we assume the word means: “against Christ.”

English borrowed anti- ultimately from Greek, but most directly through Old French and Latin. These borrowings only brought one nuance of the meaning of αντι- from Greek.

When we read “anti-” in “antichrist” we do so with blinders on because anti- only has one meaning. When we read ἀντίχριστος (antichrist) in Greek, the ἀντι- (anti) part has a variety of possible meanings.

Summary of the problem

When we read antichrist (ἀντίχριστος) in 1 John, we need to be aware of a couple things:

  1. it is a word made up for a purpose
  2. the parts of the word, while both meaningful in English, have a greater range of possible meanings in Greek than they do in English

In short, John’s reason for using the word antichrist may be lost in translation to us because the way our prefix anti- functions is much more limited than it was in Greek.

So, what does anti- mean, anyways?

As a Greek preposition, ἀντί does not really mean “against,” in the sense of “adversarial.” Here is a summation of its basic usages, from The Cambridge Greek Lexicon:

  1. referring to physical location: opposite (side of)
  2. referring to comparison or preference: equivalent to, in preference to
  3. referring to substitution: in place of, instead of
  4. referring to exchange of goods: in return, in exchange for

The Greek anti- relates two entities to each other in a variety of ways. At its deepest, most abstract meaning, it probably envisions two objects in space facing each other, say on opposite sides of a valley, wall, or tree. This basic idea extends through a variety of uses into meanings which are more specialized, but still involve relating two entities together in space, in valuation (more in a monetary sense), or in how they are esteemed.

👉As a preposition, anti- in Greek most basically refers to “against” in a spatial sense, not as an adversary.👈

There are Greek words where the sense of “against” as in “adversary” occur. The core idea of “against” each other in space naturally extends to a sense of adversary. Two armies who are opposite to one another in physical space are also in opposition to each other in metaphorical space as well. We see this meaning appear in words like (the hyphen makes clear the anti– part of the Greek word):

  • ἀντι-λέγω “I contradict, speak against
  • ἀντι-λογία “contradiction, dispute”

Summary: antichrist and the many meanings of anti-

In some Greek words, anti- means “against” as a hostile action, something like “in opposition to.” This is the portion of meaning that the English anti- comes from. However, this meaning is far from the only way that the Greek anti- worked in forming words. Consider this list of ways it is used to form words (taken from LSJ, a standard Greek reference dictionary). Anti- can mean:

  • over against, opposite (spatial)
  • against, in opposition to (adversarial)
  • one against another
  • in return
  • instead of
  • equal to, like
  • corresponding, counter

When John’s Greek-speaking audience ran across the word “Antichrist,” had a variety of possible options of meaning for what that word might mean. We only have one.

‘Antichrist’ as ‘substitute-Christ’

I want to suggest a broader nuance of meaning for the word “antichrist.” It does not only mean “against Christ.” It would be better to think of Antichrist as meaning something like “substitute-Christ, a counter-Christ.” The idea from 1 John and the other relevant NT passages (the man of lawlessness from 2 Thess. and the beast passages of Rev. being the most notable) is that antichrist is not just a person fighting against Christ; antichrist is a rival. Antichrist is like the leader of an opposite army and like a rival presidential campaign. Antichrist is not just fighting against Jesus, but is striving to achieve the same position as Jesus. Antichrist aims to be a substitute-Christ.

Being on the watch for antichrist is more than looking for pentagrams, Satan-worshippers, schock-rockers with bizarre costumes and make-up, or other things like that. “Substitute-Christs” come in all shapes and sizes. And a lot of those shapes and sizes look attractive within the church. Remember, in 1 and 2 John where the word “antichrist” occurs in the NT, the main concern is people within the church. The antichrists are those who deny Jesus as the Christ, which implicitly means setting up someone or something else in his place.