As a language, I really like English. You can make up words, a process I like to call “enwordenate”. But for some reason English has only one word (love) to express a wide range of concepts. Greek had four words (storge, eros, philos, agape) to express that range. We translate all of these words as “love”. Needless to say, love can be confusing.

Why haven’t we come up with a new word to accompany love? We used to have one, actually. It was “charity”. It was probably the best way to translate the Greek word agape that we find in the New Testament. But then that became something else. And nothing else seems to fit the bill.

Coming up with a new word is a bit audacious, so I won’t try that. But I do want to help people understand what the New Testament means when it talks about [agape] love. 1 John 4:7-21 has, I’m guessing, the most agapes per capita of any passage in the Bible. But if we don’t know what that word really means, and we just fit it into our preconceived notions of what love is, then we’re probably going to miss the meaning. So I’m going to take “love” out of this text and put in something that might help you understand it better.

Dear friends, let us lay down our lives for one another, for self-sacrifice comes from God. Everyone who doesn’t demand his rights has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not lay down his life but clings to his rights does not know God, because God is the very definition of self-sacrifice. This is how God showed his willingness to lay down his life among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is self-sacrifice: not that we died for God, but that he died for us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so laid down his life for us, we also ought to lay down our lives for one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we surrender our rights for the sake of one another, God lives in us and his sacrifice is made complete in us.

We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. And so we know and rely on the sacrifice God has made for us.

God is self-sacrifice. Whoever lives in self-sacrifice by surrendering his rights and even his very life lives in God, and God in him. In this way, the lifestyle of laying down our lives for one another is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. There is no fear in dying to yourself. But perfect sacrifice drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in self-sacrifice.

We lay down our lives and surrender our rights for others because he first laid down his life and surrendered his rights for us. If anyone says, “I would die for God,” yet wouldn’t give up anything for his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not lay down his life for his brother, whom he has seen, cannot lay down his life for God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever sacrifices everything for God must also sacrifice everything for his brother.

A bit wordy, perhaps. But it changes the game entirely, I think. Love is suddenly much more concrete. It’s easy to get around obeying this passage when we think of love as some inner feeling or warm sense of affection. But that’s not the love of the New Testament. That’s not agape. I hope this little exercise in rewriting the Bible (actually, just the NIV translation) helps you to take a new look at love.

Your heart is a throne room, and what you desire most sits on that throne. Whoever, or whatever, sits on the throne of your heart is the king of your life. If your greatest desire is to be happy, then happiness is your king. If it’s to be wealthy, then money is your king. If it’s to be a good person, then morality is your king. Your deepest desire rules over you.

As you grow older you find that these deep desires are not benevolent monarchs. They are malevolent tyrants. They don’t lead you with a gentle hand, they crush your neck under their boot. They infest your soul and dominate your mind. You obsess over these desires until they make you their slave.

But did you know that you are created in the image of God? Of all the things God has ever created, of all the things that exist in the universe, only human beings are made in his image. You are the greatest thing in creation, and nothing less than you has any right to sit on the throne of your heart. That throne belongs to the only one who is greater than you–God himself. Remove the low things from the throne room of your heart, and invite God to take his rightful place as your King.

What are the major obstacles to your spiritual growth? Have you ever thought about that question? Have you ever tried to name those obstacles in very specific terms? It’s important to know what, exactly, is keeping you from reaching the next level of character and maturity. Naming your obstacles is the most important step in overcoming them.

I tried this exercise the other night. I wanted to brutally honest with myself because I’m tired of not advancing to the next level. I’m tired of dealing with the same crap every day. And I know that if I don’t define those obstacles in crystal clear terms–if I don’t see them with clear eyes then they’ll continue to impede my path. These are some of the major obstacles in my spiritual growth:

  • I want everything handed to me. I want to be given a trust and then prove that I’m trustworthy. I want someone to take a chance on me but I’m unwilling to take risks myself.
  • I’m afraid of not having the answer, of failing, of looking stupid, of not living up to my name, of not being able to provide for my family. I’m afraid that I don’t have what it takes.
  • I don’t have the endurance or strength to persevere through difficult trials with a godly attitude.
  • I rely too much on my gifts for success and don’t put in the appropriate amount of effort.
  • I hesitate to initiate and engage with others.
I came up with 12, and I’ll spare you the self-flaggelation. But it’s really not an exercise in defeatism or self-deprecation. It’s an exercise in truth-telling. If you don’t know the truth about yourself then you can never be the person God has created you to be. 
Moving to the next level is not simply about identifying obstacles. It’s also about identifying the way forward. It’s about naming those character qualities that you presently lack but need in order to more fully become the person God intends for you to be.
My obstacles can be summed up with the acronym FLEW. (I know, I hate acronyms, too.) Fear. Laziness. Entitlement. Weakness. So, naturally, I had to come up with an acronym to show me the way forward: CHALDI. (Take that bit of irony, O Urge To Create Acronyms! See, it’s not even a real word!) Courage. Humility. Agape Love. Discipline. Initiative. 
These five strengths of character are what I need in order to run with the horses. I need courage, humility, agape love, discipline and initiative in order to be the man God has created me to be. I need to know what my obstacles are, and where they pop up during my day. So what are the major obstacles to your spiritual growth? And what do you need in order to go to the next level of maturity and character?

How should Christians engage with culture? This is the question that is driving our discussion in the LOST class that I’m teaching (moderating, really) at church. Should we disengage from the nonChristian culture and create our own subculture? Should we fully assimilate into the culture and uncritically make use of new media and art? Should we create a sanctified, copycat version of every hip trend that becomes the latest flavor-of-the-week?

These are vital questions, particularly at a moment in history when Christians are said to be engaged in a Culture War with Secularism on the one hand and embracing a new breed of Hipster Christianity on the other. But did Jesus call us into a war with Secularism? Did he call us to have a faith that is cool and ironic? Maybe he did, but I think there’s a better way.
C.S. Lewis thought of the story of Christianity as the fulfillment of all the great mythologies of paganism. It is where religion has become full grown, he said. Where the myth has become incarnate. If this is true, then all the myths of pagan cultures are seeds and shadows of the gospel, planted there by God himself to provide a way for that culture to understand and to testify to our own culture that his story is the great enfleshment of all pagan myth.
And if that is true, then it is certainly possible that God is still planting seeds within pagan and secular cultures today. Wherever the gospel has not been preached, God is haunting the dreams of the artists and stirring the minds of the philosophers. And if that is true, then Christians should not take an antagonistic stance against culture, but rather engage with the culture redemptively. Our eyes must be open to see the seeds and shadows of the gospel in our culture because it is there that God is about his work of salvation.
This is precisely what I see happening with LOST. Of all the crap on television these days, LOST stands out as a thoughtful examination of what it means to be human, to find forgiveness, and to answer the call to self-sacrifice. It is high-art in a medium that tends to produce low-art and non-art en masse. It’s in places like LOST that Christians can find the seeds and shadows of the gospel for a secular culture, if only we can learn to stop condemning the culture and learn to engage with it redemptively.

As a Sunday School teacher (for lack of a better term), I’ve wanted to teach two classes for quite some time now. First, I’ve wanted to teach a class on Culture, particularly how Christians ought to engage with Culture. Second, I’ve wanted to do something with LOST, because there are all kinds of spiritual themes in the show that would be interesting to flesh out in the light of our faith. Well, last Sunday we began the convergence of these two desires of mine in a class called LOST, Spirituality and Culture. We’re taking a look at the spiritual themes of LOST and how Christians should engage with Culture, using LOST as the primary lens.

The first session went really well, I thought. There was a lot of discussion about the show (of course!) and how we, as both Christians and fans of the show, interact with it on a faith-level. The question of Jesus & Culture is an extremely important one, and it gets defined in various ways by various groups of Christians. (See also H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic book Christ & Culture.) At one extreme you have Christians who take the stance that Jesus is against everything in Culture, which means no TV, no film, and no music. (Or at least, no secular versions of all this.) On the other end of the spectrum you have Postmoderns who think that Jesus (and the Bible) are just another voice at the table, a mere product of Culture.

My hope is that we can find a middle ground where Jesus is redeeming Culture, where we can find spiritual value in the art, film, music, etc. of the unbelieving world. This is a place where we are not afraid of the media of Hollywood and the entertainment industry, but where we can view it critically and redemptively–where we come to a show like LOST not expecting a full gospel presentation, but rather an artful glimpse of the image of the gospel. If we can manage this perspective, not only will we no longer be so exasperating to a cynical and unbelieving world, but we’ll find doors of connection and evangelism opening for us that never would have opened before. Who knows but that God would want to use a silly TV show like LOST to bring some people into his kingdom.