We recently passed both the Fourth Sunday of Advent and Christmas, in rapid succession. With that much crammed into such a short time period, it doesn’t give us much time for reflection. Because of this, I would like to pause for a moment in this hectic Christmas season and do a bit of thinking.
I attended my parents’ church on Christmas Eve. In their tradition, the four candles of Advent are symbolized a bit differently than we Catholics may be familiar with. Many Catholics may simply know them as the three purple penitential candles along with the one pink candle of Joy for Gaudete Sunday on the third Sunday of Advent. We do, however, sometimes see them identified according to the readings in the lectionary: Hope, Faith, Joy, and Peace, in that order. However, in my parents’ church, and indeed in many churches throughout the world, the fourth candle was instead associated with Love. This seems fitting, as it is at the Annunciation that we see the love Mary had for God in her response “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). And indeed, it was because of the love God had for the world that the Son made flesh ever occurred in the first place: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
In light of this, let us take a moment to reflect on Love and the role it plays in our faith lives. There is a beautiful passage in 1 John which speaks to this. The full passage I have in mind is below. Read it carefully, and really take a moment to reflect on what the author is trying to say.
15 Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. 16 So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. 17 In this is love perfected with us, that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love. 19 We love, because he first loved us. 20 If any one says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot[a] love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also. (1 John 4:15-21)
“God is love”. Not simply “God is the source of love” or “God is the object of love”, but God is love. And it is by love that we know that we abide in Him, and He in us. But how do we obtain this love? Verse 15 tells us explicitly: whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God abides in love, and love in him. That is, whoever confesses that Jesus is God receives the Holy Spirit, the advocate whom Jesus has asked the Father to send (John 14:16), as it is the Spirit who abides in us. The Holy Spirit abiding within us perfects the love we have for God and for our fellow men (“In this is love perfected with us”), and it is this perfected love which gives us confidence on the Day of Judgment. That is, we know that we are saved because we love. We have no fear of punishment from God because we love God and we know God loves us, and in this love we know that we are truly “of God” (which, if you remember from the earlier portions of 1 John, stands in contrast to those who are not “of God”—the antichrists referenced in 1 John 2:18-23).
The next portion of this passage, however, interesting. We are told that in confessing Christ, we abide in God and God in us. And then we are told that it is this abiding which perfects love in us, and drives out fear. But the author takes time to specify situations in which one can claim to love, and indeed may even think he loves, but in fact does not. If you hate your brother, you do not love God, for example. One cannot love God without simultaneously loving your fellow men. And further, if you fear the day of judgment, you know that love is not yet perfected in you. This raises a question, though. If you struggle to love your brother (and I think we all know someone who is very difficult to love sometimes), or if you have fear of Judgment Day, are you somehow preventing love from being perfected within you? You can’t have both fear and perfect love, and neither can hate and love coexist. So if we have those, are we somehow stifling love?
That is the position taken by some theologians, most notably by Robert Yarbrough in his commentary on the Johannine epistles. Yarbrough places the onus on us to drive out our own fear and hate. If those must be cast out in order for love to be perfected, he thinks, then we must do the work of eliminating the fear and hate we have, or else we are preventing the perfecting of love within us (Yarbrough specifically ties this to the vice of pusillanimity). I, however, think Yarbrough misreads the passage, and puts too much stock in what man must do (and indeed, in what man is even capable of doing on his own).
Notice verse 19, “We love because he first loved us”. We cannot love God on our own. We love God because God loves us, and God’s love is so powerful that it transforms us such that we are made capable of loving God. It is also the Holy Spirit abiding in us, the Love of God, which perfects the love we have for God. The agent of this perfection is not man, but God. We do not do the work of driving out our fear, or eliminating our hate. God loves us, we love God, and through this relationship God perfects the love in us such that fear and hate are driven out. The author makes it clear that the agent of this perfecting act is not man, but God himself. Yarbrough flips the agency, as it is only if the onus is on man to drive out his own fear that one can say our fear prevents perfect love. He wants to make the text say “perfect love can only exist absent fear” rather than “perfect love drives out fear”. But this is not what the author is telling us.
The entire point of this passage is the transformative power of love. Love drives out fear, not that fear is driven out to make way for love. Through love our faith is strengthened, our hope redoubled, and our fears cast away. With that in mind, take a look again at the conclusion of this passage and we can see that this is just as applicable to hate as it is to fear. Hate and love cannot coexist, for whoever hates his brother does not love God. The reference to Jesus’ command may be taken as Yarbrough suggests. Read in isolation, we can read “he who loves God should love his brother also” as a command of moral obligation—we must love our brother if we love God, and to do otherwise prevents us from loving God. However, read in context, the author seems to be using this as an example of how to know whether we abide in love. It is, perhaps, logical consequence rather than moral obligation. “Whoever loves God will love his brother also,” for hate and love cannot coexist, and the love of God is transformative. In it we receive an entirely new identity as a child of God.
Thus we can see that the entire passage, the whole point the author is trying to make here, hinges on verse 19. “We love because he first loved us.” God is the agent who perfects love within us. God drives out our fear of judgment, God casts out our hate. If we have fear or hate, it is not preventing God from perfecting love within us. Our focus should not be on driving out hate or casting away fear, but rather on love. Love perfects us, and that love comes from God, for God is love.
 Yarbrough, Robert W, 1-3 John, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008.