I was recently blessed with the opportunity to travel to India and spend time with several of IDES' mission partners who are working hard to share the Gospel.
Throughout my time there, I was regularly humbled by the depth of love and compassion that our mission partners show to those they are ministering to, and to one another. There is an inspiring authenticity to their words and their actions. It was abundantly clear that God was at work amongst them and within their communities.
Their love stands in striking opposition to the wider culture's loveless perpetuation of the caste system, which willfully oppresses those of the lowest caste. Even as a fellow follower of Jesus, I couldn't help but think to myself, "what makes these Christian's actions so different from the rest of their culture's actions?"
Over and over again, it felt like God presented this truth in response: Love is a choice.
Society intends to persuade its citizens that love is only an emotional feeling or economical transaction; that love is only necessary when it has been reciprocated; that love is to be shown only to those one would deem of equal or higher social status; or that love is reserved for only those one agrees with or is similar to.
Our brothers and sisters in Christ throughout India deliberately choose to show the upside-down love of God to everyone around them. They choose to love their spouses with a soul-cherishing and gracious love. They choose to love their family members and friends with a loyal and self-giving love. They choose to love those of the lowest caste of society with a generous and uplifting love. They choose to love those who are opposed to them with a forgiving and prayerful love.
We can learn from their spiritual example. Here are four contexts in which the truth that "love is a choice" has convicted and inspired me. I pray that it may move you, too.
India has a long-standing cultural tradition of arranged marriages. In most cases, the parents of each man and woman to be coupled have several months of economic conversations before the decision is made and the couple meets for the first time. In the more westernized cities, men and women "fall in love" much in the same way U.S. culture presents, with many weeks of emotional rollercoasters and fleeting infatuations.
Interestingly enough, in many Christian families in India arranged marriage is still practiced -- but instead of economic conversations, there are spiritual ones. Families discuss how the couple may best serve God together, the couple meets, and then they choose to be united in Christ. From day one of their covenant relationship, the couple understands that love is something they must choose for each other every single day. This is something that most couples from the West usually learn in year 2 or 3 of their marriages.
Paul describes a husband's love as the sacrificial love of Jesus for the Church, and describes a wife's love as the respectful love of the Church for Christ. The language he uses in Ephesians 5:22-33 expresses a sanctified, self-denying love that we must choose to show our spouses at the beginning of every day. Even when things get hard, even in the middle of an argument, even when a wife feels unvalued or a husband feels disrespected -- we must choose to love despite our emotions.
2) Family members and friends
India's culture is grounded upon intertwining circles of fiercely loyal relationships. Friends and family members are the first people one turns to in a time of need, or even just for menial day-to-day assistance. Hospitality is the favored virtue, and meal-times with one another are honored and cherished. But, in India as in the U.S., sometimes those we are closest to can hurt us the most deeply.
In the Christian communities in India, grace and mercy abound regardless of minor differences and offenses. They are well-practiced in looking past faults and building one another up during struggles. They are very aware of one another's needs and hopes, actively choosing to pursue a love that brings the most good for the most people.
In Acts 2:42-47, Luke describes the early Church. "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers...And all who believed were together and had all things in common." The passage goes on to describe the people's pursuit of equality, joyful generosity, and grateful worship of God. We must choose to love our family members and friends -- even when they offend us, when they hurt us, and when they do things differently than we do.
3) The poor and suffering
In India, it is estimated that just under 30% of the country's population is living in poverty. Much of the poverty is perpetuated by the caste system, which forces the poor, the orphaned and widowed, the diseased and disabled, and the otherwise marginalized into desperate living situations. There is much suffering, some of which I witnessed first hand during my visit.
Local churches and Christian organizations are among the few groups of people in India breaking the mold of the caste system to meet the needs of those who are suffering. While authorities oppress the lowly, believers choose to lift them up. While society ignores the lowly, believers choose to intentionally reach out to them. Their sacrificial and generous compassion is beautiful and humbling.
James writes, "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world." Our brothers and sisters in India take this seriously. We can follow their example and choose to love the most vulnerable in our own society, and choose to love those who are suffering worldwide as we are able.
India is predominantly a Hindu nation. Idol-worship and historic traditions are deeply rooted throughout country. Those who follow Jesus risk their social status and their very lives to worship Him. Many of the brothers and sisters I had the pleasure of meeting have suffered through hard-to-believe persecution, including verbal abuse, physical beatings, torture and murder.
But, instead of the "Us vs. Them" mentality that we all sometimes fall prey to, believers in India choose to love those who oppose them. They actively reach out to government authorities, and pray regularly for those who perpetrate violence. They joyfully share the Good News of Jesus with everyone equally, regardless of background, belief, race, or lifestyle -- even if it means risking their lives.
Jesus spoke these words during His famous Sermon on the Mount, "But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust." We are called by Christ himself to choose love over hate. As sinful human beings, we have the tendency to offer love only to those we agree with, spend time with, or are similar to. But Jesus asks for more. As our brothers and sisters in India are exemplifying, we must choose to love whoever "they" are to us.
If it's true that "Love is a choice," I think it would be wise to humbly remind ourselves that in our fallen state, we cannot make this daily, self-sacrificial choice without the help and nurturing of our Heavenly Father. Because of Jesus Christ, we are blessed with the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit, who convicts us, motivates us, and guides us day-in and day-out. It is to His glory that we choose to love, not to our own glory.
Jesus said in John 13:35, "By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." Our witness to those around us of God's goodness in Jesus Christ depends upon whether or not we choose to love one another. If we don't choose to love, our witness will fall flat.
God chooses to love us every day. Our brothers and sisters in India are choosing to show love to their spouses, to their family members and friends, to the poor and suffering, and to their enemies. I pray that we can follow their example in response to God's love for us.
-written by Chase Cotten, Media Director at IDES