2 Corinthians 5.14-15:
For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.
Why is it so central to the Christian faith that we live our lives for Jesus, that we desire Him above all else?
I will admit the idea has often raised skeptical questions from me, even as a believer. First, I often had a visceral response to anything that approached me as an authority figure calling for adoration of himself. It approached me as having a self-centeredness to it. Second, I was familiar with the way that devotion to someone or something often had a way of diverting attention from the real pains and struggles of the world, that such exalted devotion could blind people to the realities of life. All in all, it approached me as something an authority figure would ask of his subjects, all to divert away all attention to what was important in life but to instead serve the interests of the leader. Indeed, there are good reasons for these concerns, as this is a pattern that can be exhibited among cults in which devotion to a charismatic figure and his interests lead people down dark roads. Furthermore, there are many Christians whose “devotion” to Jesus has lead them to turn a blind eye to the world.
Yet, what I have come to observe is that what I have seen is an all-too-fleshly distortion of the type of devotion that God created for us to have. To appropriate Paul’s language for a different purpose, these problematic demonstrations of religious devotion had the form of godliness but not its true power. There is indeed something good and beneficial to dedicating our hearts and lives to Jesus above all else, but only as it in a person whose whole life is being transformed by the Holy Spirit. These other forms of “devotion” have key, critical components that are missing and thus differentiate them from the life-giving devotion to Jesus Christ.
At the heart of Paul’s vision for human living is not just simply a devotion to Jesus as mentioned in 2 Corinthians 5.15. Looking back to vs. 14, Paul puts forward a summary of his motivation for his ministry: “the love of Christ urges us on.” While some readings of “the love of Christ” (ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ Χριστοῦ) may take Paul to refer to his own love for Jesus (objective genitive), it is much more likely that he is referring to Jesus’s love (subjective genitive). First, Paul describes how Jesus died for all in v. 15. Secondly, later in 5.21, Paul talks about embodying the righteousness of God in Christ. These two exegetical clues help to explain this summary vision of his ministry: Paul sees himself as embodying Christ’s love that motivates him to act as an ambassador for Christ (2 Cor. 5.20). Paul’s life is a reflection of Jesus’ love which guides him to be an agent through whom people become reconciled to God. Why?
Love compels making the beloved known to others. When a man falls in love with a woman, they want to tell others of her virtue, her beauty, her kindness, etc. Yet, even more apropos, is when people develop a fondness and adoration for people who are instrumental in helping them to be healed, physically or mentally. A client of a good physician or therapist will oftentimes recommend their physician/therapist to their relatives and friends so that other they too can become treated and healed as needed. For instance, my mother, a psychiatrist, has shared how sometimes wholes families would come to see her (she didn’t divulge any identifying information), which started from one person getting treated and then suggesting another member of their family see her. Those who bring healing to people’s lives can become the center of families, communities, and other social networks. When Jesus healed, he would often become the focal point of town gossip and could become popular in the villages; at times, Jesus told those who he healed not to share with others as it is often a reflex of thanksgiving to openly praise one who has done tremendous good for you. Healing begets adoration which begets testimony which begets more healing.
When people begin to share a common focus of attention that goes beyond themselves individually, it is often the context where good relationships are formed. As Daniel Siegel notes in The Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology:
Within healthy relationships there is a sharing of a focus of attention on something other than the individuals in the relationship. Often there may be a sharing of attention on a third object, a process called joint attention. As attention is the regulation of information flow, the sharing of attention in this way is truly the joining of minds. These relationships can be between friends, relatives, lovers, colleagues, parent and child, teacher and student, clinician and client/patient, and employer and employee.1
So when you combine healthy relationships, which beget health, with the common relationship to the one who heals, is this not a place of blessing where well-being and, to use a Jewish term, shalom can flourish? By mutually coming to know the healer, they each bear a relationship to each other that can end up intensifying the benefits of this shared relationship. They can share wisdom and insight from their times together so that what benefited them may become of benefit to others. The vertical relationships with the healer is also experienced through the horizontal relationships of the healed.
As a Jew, Paul would have instinctively understood the communal nature of common devotion to God. Jews were very communal in nature, as being a Jew was not just about believing in the God of Israel’s Scriptures, but it entailed a zeal for the traditions of the ancestors. The love of God was interconnected with a love for fellow Jews, past and present. So, when Paul talks about those who live as living for Jesus, he doesn’t have in mind an isolated, individualistic devotion. Indeed, Paul talks about how people are viewed by each other in 2 Corinthians 5.16 establishes the point: that one’s whole-hearted devotion to Jesus is expressed in the context of a community of believers.
The way this common devotion to Jesus gets expressed first by the way we learn to see each other. Rather than seeing each other according to the flesh, which most likely refers to what characteristics about people do we use to evaluate someone by, Paul encourages everyone to recognize that being in Christ means that one is a new creation. How often are the pains and difficulties of life inflicted on us by others who spoke of us in a negative fashion, who thought of us derisively and mistreated us accordingly? Because our sense of sense and identity is tightly intertwined with our relationships with others, such painful words, expressions, and actions can inflict some of us in a way that tears the confidence to be in relationship to others, an important need to some degree for all neurotypical people. Beyond this, Siegel notes what occurs when our own inner experience is not regarded and respected by others: “The mind we experience in our own subjective world can become filled with frustration if the other person does not see and acknowledge with positive regard our own inner world.”2
So, when the body of believers begin to recognize each other not according to the visible things of the flesh, such as, in our day, not being smart enough, beautiful or handsome enough, popular enough, etc., but according to the inner work that God has done in each of us, the healing that God is already bringing about in making us new creation becomes amplified by the experience of news type of relationships with each other. As believers learn to recognize and honor the work God has done in each of their own, inner lives (cf. 2 Cor. 4.16-18), people begin to experience new ways of relating to each other, that opens up and strength pathways towards love, respect, honor, and compassion that. Such repeated interactions can lead to new models of relationships and attachments to others:
Over time, attachment theory suggests, these repeated patterns of [contingent, compassionate, caring] interaction form the experiential crucible in which an internal working model is formed. When the patterns of communication are consistent, predictable, and filled with repairs when the inevitable ruptures in attunement occur, there is the creation of a working model of security, a mental representation of the relationship as reliably contingent.3
While Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians indicates that Paul thought they had not grown to this point yet, we can see that it is Christ’s love embodied in Paul that leads him to recognize the new creation of people. In so far as bodies of believers grow into Christ’s mindset, the love that Christ has for us in going to the cross so that He could make us new through the resurrection becomes the mindset of the community for each other, where in love we see the new creation emerging that Jesus purposed His life to create. One of the benefits of a maturing community of Christian faith is that people are learning and strengthening positive, trusting, life-giving attachments to each other.
To be clear here, this communal recognition of each’s other new creation is not about regular, flowery praise and compliments, nor is it necessarily about deep, intimate bonds between people that we can sometimes feel community is created to bring. Sometimes these things are an outpouring of seeing each other as new creation. Friendships that help each other see their strengths may initially build because of thier positive regard for each other. Deep, intimate bonds may be molded and shaped from the clay of this common recognition of each other’s newness in Christ. However, the primary benefit of recognizing fellow believers as a new creation is how our words, our expression, and our actions towards each other become increasingly focused on each other’s well-being in order to build up. It is the memory from many routines acts of respect, honor, trust, kindness, compassion, inclusion, interdependence, etc. that brings about a healing of our own ways of relating to each other from the pains of those who have torn us down.
Yet, the social amplification of the inner healing of new creation that comes from God doesn’t occur without our growing devotion to Jesus. It is in following the crucified and resurrected Savior that we ourselves participate with Jesus through our own pains and moments of powerful redemption. As we adopt that posture just as Paul did, our lives increasingly come to embody the purposes and desires of God’s righteousness and Jesus’ love. By living for Jesus we learn to love like Jesus. If the Lord is the servant of humanity, then to serve the Lord is to also serve humanity.
So, living our lives for Jesus isn’t simply about honoring some powerful authority far away from us. In fact, living our lives for Jesus isn’t about honoring the one who has powerful authority, but honoring the one who has powerfully loved. In so doing, we also learn to take on this same love ourselves. So to live for Jesus is to also live for the world, but with our hearts and minds opened to what brings life and shalom rather than the reputed wisdom of the world that provides at best only pale, partial imitations. To love and live for the Messiah is to have Jesus’ love that longs for and participates in the healing of others that comes through the cross and resurrection.