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"I know your works and your labour and your patience... Nevertheless, I have somewhat against you because you have left your first love". Revelation 2:2-4

This note from Jesus to some of his followers describes a problem that often arises in marriages as well as in our relationship with God. But I would also like to draw a lesson from it that could apply to our dealings with fellow Christians.

During courtship love is highly emotional, immature, and based primarily on the exciting prospect that the other person loves you. Over time, we learn to be faithful, to give as well as to receive, and to forgive. All of this goes to produce a superior form of love, which the world is sadly lacking today.

But there are aspects of the courtship love which need to be preserved and nurtured throughout marriage. Emotions are not as important as faithfulness; but they are important all the same. And those emotions usually stem from our conviction that the other person loves us.

In our service to God, we should not lose sight of the fact that what he has given to us is good news. Sure, he wants us to be faithful and obedient. He wants us to give up everything for him and go everywhere telling others to do the same. But it is very easy to make this sound like bad news instead of good news. The bottom line is that God loves us and wants to make our lives full and rewarding.

We recently had a situation where a longtime friend and supporter spent time with us in India. There was concern at first about the fact that he was not coming as a member of the community, and thus was not subject to the disciplines of others in the community.

"Just think of him as a guest," someone suggested. "Don't expect anything from him, and you won't be disappointed."

In fact, this approach worked so well that the friend felt drawn toward a closer relationship with us as well as with Christ. He cut down on his smoking, lost weight, exercised more than he had in years, and made a decision to give his life to Christ, including a decision to forsake all that he owned and to live by faith.

But then something went wrong. The courtship was over, and he was suddenly a "member" of our community. Members, you see, can be disciplined! Members can be criticised. They can be told to hurry up, to account for the use of their time and money, to forego personal interests for the sake of the community, to get their quota of work done, etc. And that was when our new convert had a sudden and tragic rethink.

Obviously any group (and especially one where up to 20 people live together in very close proximity 24 hours a day) must have rules; and they must be respected. But newcomers do not always appreciate the background to the rules; and as a consequence rules in themselves become detestable "laws"... no different from the meaningless traditions that we condemn in older and bigger organisations than ourselves.

Perhaps we need to be given the freedom to break the rules before we can begin to really appreciate them. That was the advantage the prodigal son had over his older brother. When he returned after a period of 'independence' he was far wiser than the brother who had never dared to question his father's authority. (Luke 15:11-32)

Tragically, most prodigals never return; and from what we hear through ex-members, it is often because of fear that they will be condemned.

I have noticed in discussions with ex-members that they often talk as though they never heard some of our most basic teachings. This seems to be an indication that all the while they were with us they had been only giving lip-service to something they never really understood. Perhaps if we didn't expect people to subscribe to all that we teach right from the start, they could grow into a fuller appreciation of our teachings, little by little.

Ross has probably had more success than anyone else in our community with recruiting new members. And his secret is that he always presents the teachings of Jesus as good news. His enthusiasm about the possibility of being free from the chains of the rat race, so that we can do the things that really matter with our lives, invariably spreads to others. Granted, some of the people he has attracted have fallen flat when it came to disciplining themselves; but at least they came. And several of us have stayed on as well.

The church at Ephesus worked hard and faithfully, and they exposed the false teachers of their day, who excused disobedience (Revelation 2:2-3). Jesus commends them highly for this. But he still says, almost with a sigh, "Nevertheless... you have left your first love." The romance of 'first love' is not a necessity for salvation; but without it, love can become something of a drudge.

And what was their first love? Wasn't it the love that John spoke of when he said, "Here is [true] love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us." (1 John 4:10) Think back to the romance of human love. Wasn't it the excitement of finding someone who trusted you? or who promised to care for and protect you?

And so the 'first love' for us as Christians is to remember that, before anything else, "while we were yet sinners" Christ loved us... enough to die for us. (Romans 5:8) Right from the start Jesus expected obedience; but everything about the bitter pill that he asks us to swallow is sugar-coated in reminders of his love and of his desire only to do what is good for us. (See John 15:11-16)

And we must keep this in mind ourselves when we make demands on one another. Sure, we have the right as leaders to expect obedience to the rules of the community. But if God can endure so quietly and so patiently all the disobedience of the human race for so many years, perhaps we, too, can give people a little more time to come to a personal realisation of the reasoning behind some rules before we set out so eagerly to enforce them.

One final note: This article is not meant to condemn those who tried their best to assist the new recruit mentioned above. I believe their intentions were quite genuine; and that's what matters most. Certainly some people need (and almost ask for) a kick-start to get them going. But people who show some ability to be self-starters after grasping the issues, are the ones who will benefit most from our patience.

(See also Smile, God Loves You!, and Pastors and Teachers.)

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