The Message of Love. Interview with the author, Patrick Mitchel
Our own Patrick Mitchel is author of The Message of Love, the newest Bible Speaks Today (BST) Themes Series published by IVP in September 2019.
Here he talks with Louise Halpin about the book.
What drew you to write about love?
I say in the book somewhere that it is either an act of arrogance or foolishness to write about love! I’m getting a fair amount of ribbing about being the ‘Love Doctor’. But the truth is that I feel drastically underqualified to write about love, I fail to be loving every day. I can only say I felt compelled to write about this greatest of all biblical themes. That desire grew over several years as I read, taught and preached the Bible. Love is everywhere in Scripture, Old Testament to New, and as a disciple of Jesus I wanted to understand more of love personally but also in the life and mission of the church. So, at one level, this book is a journey of discovery, but the wonderful thing about writing is that that journey can be shared with many others. My prayer is that the book is of service to the church and will be helpful to individual readers, groups, preachers and anyone interested in Christianity.
How did you approach writing about such a big topic?
It took me a long time to get a structure that felt right. One of the hardest things was what to leave out because I couldn’t cover everything. The book is divided into four sections made up of 17 chapters, each one being an exposition and application of a key biblical text. There are five chapters on love in the Old Testament; four chapters on love in the mission and death of Jesus; four chapters on love in the life and teaching of Jesus; and four chapters on love within the church. A conclusion draws together theological themes that emerged during the book. I can honestly say researching and writing it has been a labour of love – I enjoyed every single chapter. Love is such an inspiring yet also challenging theme that trying to do it justice is an exhilarating task.
The Beatles said ‘All you need is love’. Were they right?
In one sense, yes, they were. The strap-line of the book is ‘The Only Thing That Counts’ which comes from Galatians 5:6 where Paul says ‘The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.’ He means by this that the whole purpose of being a Christian (having faith in Christ) is a life of love. We could paraphrase James to say ‘Faith without love is dead’ – love is that important.
But in another sense the Beatles were wrong. Love in contemporary Western culture has become an idol. ‘God is love’ has been reversed to become ‘Love is God’. Love is what life is all about; nothing must stand in the way of love; love is what gives individual lives meaning and significance; love lives on after us in death and so on. Our culture is in love with love – we are endlessly obsessed with it, whether in music, art, books, plays or film.
Yet there are crucial differences between popular and biblical understandings of love. Modern love can be naively optimistic. While it may take years of training to be a nurse or electrician, anyone can fall in (and out of) love instantaneously. Biblical love is tougher and more demanding. God’s love is covenant love, a relentless commitment to his people despite their many failures. Christian love is not quick and easy, it is a virtue that takes time to grow and develop over the long haul. It takes discipline, practice and commitment, it involves loving even enemies and it means taking the risk of loving God whatever the cost.
What did you learn writing this book?
Lots of things but two stand out. One is who we are. The book builds on an insight articulated by Saint Augustine many centuries ago that we are first and foremost lovers; it is our loves that we orientate our lives around and give us purpose and direction. It is the heart, not the head, that primarily forms our priorities and character. If this is true, then the great question at the centre of the Christian faith is one of the heart - who or what do we love most?
The answer to that question has concrete consequences – our loves are revealed in how we live our lives. This is why love is such a major theme within the Bible and is the most important question in Christian discipleship. You see this in Jesus and his outrageous demand for his disciples to love him before anything else. You see it in Paul and how much he talks of transformed desires leading to love for God and others through the power of the Spirit.
Another thing that stands out is how the Bible overwhelmingly focuses on love within the community of the people of God. There is actually surprisingly little in Scripture about God’s people loving the rest of the world. The primary mission of Israel in the OT and the church in the NT is to be an authentic community of love and justice. This means that it is not the church’s job to fix the world – our calling is to be an alternative community of love within the world that embodies the presence of God. In other words, love is God’s ‘weapon’ in his battle with forces of sin and darkness and so it is to be ours as well.
In our sceptical post-Christendom world there is no more urgent missional challenge than for Christians to be walking the path of costly Christ-like love. The church’s task is not only to articulate what love is, but also to show to the world that Christianity is not about power or control or shame, but leads to a life of human flourishing within communities of radical love.
What are some theological and pastoral questions that come up in the book?
Three strands of love and associated questions emerged during writing.
Divine love: Is God really loving and utterly good? How can God love if he allows such suffering in the world? How is divine love compatible with divine judgement? Is God’s love unconditional? How does God show his love for the poor and marginalised? How is God’s love revealed at the cross?
Human love for God: Can love be love if it is commanded? How do faith, love and the Spirit connect together? How is the love of money the greatest problem in the church today? If love for God requires humility and submission, is Christian love a denial of life and our full humanity (Nietzsche)? How is love for God costly?
Human love for one another: Why does the Bible overwhelmingly concentrate on love within the community of the people of God? Is loving enemies an impossible ideal? What does the Bible have to say about erotic sexual love? What is the relationship between knowing God and loving one another? What does a loving Christian marriage look like? How is love God’s most powerful ‘weapon’ in a conflict with powers opposed to his will? What is the relationship between love and future hope? Where are you being called to walk in the difficult yet life-transforming path of love?
Do you have a favourite chapter?
That’s a tough one. I guess if you pushed me it would be between the chapters on the Song of Songs, walking in love in Ephesians and the story of the woman’s great love for Jesus in Luke 7. But I loved writing every chapter.
Where can someone get a copy of the book?
It can also be at online retailers including the IVP (UK) website.