Greater Love Hath No Man than This
by Ray DeGraw
I have thought a lot in the past about the idea of charity “seeking not her own”, and I want to address that general principle today in light of another commonly quoted scripture – what I see as the ultimate expression of seeking not one’s own. It is found in John 15:13, which says:
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
My main point in tying these two ideas together is that this verse does not equate the greatest love imaginable as that which is exhibited by dying for someone. Rather, it is equated with the type of love that is required to “lay down one’s life” for another. I believe dying for someone can be a form (a subset) of this type of love, but I believe in many cases dying is the simplest, easiest manifestation of this type of charity. I want to use two common situations to illustrate why I believe this:
1) When someone sees another in grave danger (like someone who is in a burning building), there often is a natural urge to save that person, even when the outcome might be one’s own death. This is true in many situations even when the person inside the building is a stranger to the person who sees the predicament. This inclination appears to be a primal survival of the species instinct, or, if you prefer, the light of Christ that allows us temporarily in that situation to see someone else as worth saving at the cost of our own lives. It is love in a sense, but I do not see it as the greatest love imaginable.
2) When one’s child or spouse is sick and in danger of dying, it is natural to feel something like, “Take me instead; I gladly will die in this person’s place.” That sounds noble at first glance, but think about it a little more deeply.
If the person offering to take the loved one’s place believes in heaven or some other similar concept, the thought of death in this situation would bring feelings of peace and perhaps even a bit of joyous expectation. However, that death, in exchange for a spouse’s continued life, for example, would leave the spouse alone to deal with grief and pain, but also, in many situations, to deal with children and others who are devastated by that death. In other words, that desire to die for someone else, in the most practical terms, is a selfish wish, even if it is motivated by a sense of love.
I can’t see that as an example of the greatest love imaginable. So, what is left that would constitute such love and be consistent with the verse itself?
To lay down is an action verb, as opposed to lie down, which simply means to “recline in a position common to sleeping.” When someone lays down something, she takes something she has been carrying and lets go of it, placing it somewhere at rest and out of her grasp. I like to use the term set aside as a synonym, as in the following translation of John 15:13:
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man set aside his life for a friend.
The Savior’s ministry was the ultimate example of this, as his dying for others was just a subset of his living for others – the final part of the atonement (excepting his resurrection), but nowhere near the entire atonement.
Think about the following:
A man was raised by Mary and Joseph. We have a story of him being taken to the temple as a baby; we read of him teaching the learned men at the temple when 12-years-old; and we find a statement in Luke 2:52 that he “increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man” (probably the least recognized, acknowledged and understood verse in the entire Bible among most Christian denominations.) Other than that, we have no record of him until the age of 30, when he goes into the wilderness, is tempted, gathers followers, performs miracles and begins his ministry among the people.
Why is a record of the time between ages 12 and 30 non-existent?
I believe it is because those were the years of his life – the life he laid down for his friends. He set aside his own life, and I believe it is important to realize that Jesus had a life that needed to be laid down in order to minister, and preach, and teach, and heal, and testify, and die, and rise again.
I believe we hear nothing of wife, children, job, hobbies, and travel specifically because that was his life that he set aside for us, and that, for me, is much more powerful than if he had jumped into a lake to rescue someone and drowned. He set aside his own life and took up his cross, if you will. He left his own house and “ha(d) not where to lay his head.” He might have walked away from the children in his own immediate and/or extended family, some of whom might have died during his ministry, in order raise the dead relatives of others.
The example of my father setting aside his own life for his beloved wife (first told here) is the closest example I know personally, but laying down one’s life for others does not have to be so all-encompassing or singular in focus. It can be temporary, or sporadic, or as needed. It can be short-term and involve multiple people. It can be as simple as stopping to help someone change a flat tire and being late to a meeting as a result.
The key is being able to understand when laying down one’s life is appropriate and noble – and, even more importantly, having a heart that is willing to act on that understanding and actually lay down one’s life (seek not her own), no matter how long is required.