19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.
(1 John 4:19-21 NIV)
John has been teaching on discernment, giving practical examples of how we can tell if we are following Christ’s example.
John begins today’s passage by reminding us that God was the one that initiated unconditional love toward us (v. 19). God was not required to love us nor was He under any compulsion to love us. God chose of His own free will to love us. Let’s remember that God chose to love us while we were unloving toward Him, and were unlovely by nature. There was no guarantee that we would change. But yet He chose to love us unconditionally anyway.
Based on John’s reminder that God showed us how to love unconditionally by His example (v. 19), John now lays down a very practical example of how we are to love others (v. 20). John does not mince any words here. If we say we love God but hate a brother or sister in the Lord, John says we are liars. We have lied to whomever we have told about our love for God, we have lied to God, and we have lied to ourselves.
When John says that we “hate” our brother or sister in the Lord, we automatically think about detestable or malicious feelings or animosity toward another person. The Greek word certainly covers those active conditions of thought. An example of this would be the often public and bitter feud between Sir Winston Churchill and Lady Astor. Lady Astor once said, “Sir Winston, if I were your wife, I would put poison in your coffee.” Churchill replied, “Lady Astor, if I were your husband, I would drink it.”
John continues this train of thought: if we can’t love those brothers and sisters in the Lord that we can see, how can we love God whom we haven’t seen and can’t see this side of eternity? It’s an impossibility.
This idea of living out our love for God by loving our brothers and sisters in Christ is a recurring theme in John’s letter:
Through these repeated references to loving our brothers and sisters in Christ, we see that unconditional love is not a feeling, not an external “thing”. Instead, unconditional love is a character quality, an intrinsic manifestation of God living in us and working through us, through our attitudes and our actions.
The same Greek word for “hate” or “hatred” also allows for a lesser version of that same feeling. This secondary definition involves a relative choice of one person or thing over another, a bias or preference. This choice is to choose one thing and ignore the other. This passive hatred is when we see a need and we have the means to take care of it, and we walk away without doing anything.
James addresses this same lack of love toward others in his letter:
15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?
(James 2:15-16 NIV)
If we say we love God, we must learn to love others unconditionally, as they are, where they are, with no promise of change. This is easy to say, and hard to practice.
Only by humbling ourselves, confessing our brokenness and inability to love others from our own means, and allowing God to work through our brokenness can His love pour through us to others.