In the mid-1970’s Linda Creed and Michael Masser wrote a song that was recorded in 1977 by George Benson as an R&B hit and then again in 1986 by a young woman with a powerhouse voice: Whitney Houston. According to the song, “learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.” The music is stirring and the lyrics are inspirational—but wrong.
I’m not saying that loving yourself isn’t important. It is difficult if not impossible to love others if we despise ourselves. But love of self pales in comparison to the truly greatest love of all: the love God has for his creation, especially for his children. Mother Teresa said, “We cannot all do great things, but we can do small things with great love.” What is this great love, and how is it different from other forms of love? I think the greatest love has at least three important attributes.
First, it is the gold standard for love. All other forms of love are measured against God’s love. The other day I was reading an interesting article whose author made a comparison between followers of Jesus Christ and the dogs at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. She said that the dogs in the show were not compared to each other or competing against each other; rather, they were judged against the breed’s standard. For each breed, the dog that most closely matched the traits of the standard or ideal was the winner. Perhaps we in the church, she wrote, could take a lesson from this: instead of comparing ourselves to each other and competing with other believers for “best in show,” we should be judging ourselves against the ideal human being, Jesus Christ.
Second, great love is sacrificial. When couples marry, I think the most difficult adjustment they must make early on is submitting to one another. If you as a single person are used to doing what you want, when you want, spending your money the way you want, then having to consider another person’s priorities, preferences, and feelings can be a real challenge. Selfishness is poisonous to marriage, as it is to friendship and parenthood. Years ago, when I told my parents that my husband and I were expecting, my mother said, “When you have children, your life is not your own.” I didn’t fully understand what she meant until our daughter was born. Raising her required me to set aside many of my own dreams and desires to help her fulfill hers and to ensure that she always knew that my love was not only unconditional but unshakeable. To prove His love for us, God made a great sacrifice. He knew when He gave us free will and laid down the law about sin that we would have to be rescued from ourselves, and it was His plan from the beginning to demonstrate the greatest love of all by withholding nothing from us, sacrificing Himself in our place so that we could have an abundant life with Him both now and in the future kingdom.
Third, great love is transformational. Something happens to us, or should, when we realize that Jesus gave up his heavenly throne to become one of us, to live among us, to laugh and to cry, to feel joy and pain, to die for us so that the rift between us and God caused by our sin could be repaired. My daughter frequently tells me that I am the best mom in the world. Although I appreciate the compliment, it is difficult for me to accept it because I am painfully aware of all my shortcomings and failures as a mother. She has either forgotten those failures or has chosen to overlook them, and her love challenges me to aspire to become the person she believes I already am. God’s love also is without condition but not without expectation. He does not want us to be content to be less than we can be. Once we experience His great love, we can humbly ask Him to remake us, to help us become the people He intended us to be when He first imagined us. We can be transformed by His love into a people who go on to share that great love with others in all the big and small things we do.
If I had to choose one word to describe this greatest love of all, I would have to say “quality.” God doesn’t just love more—He loves better. Our love is often impure, tainted with the residue of our sinful nature. We sometimes hold back our love because we treat it as an investment, and without the assurance of a good return we hesitate. But love is not capital. Its quantity is limited only by the degree of our generosity. God’s love is not only limitless, it is also pure and freely offered. What could happen if we accepted the full measure of this love and allowed it to overflow us, overwhelming our failures and shortcomings, drenching the world in the greatest love of all? I believe we would call that living in the kingdom of God.