The Agape Factor: 12 Ways to Love

Romans 12:9-16

November 17, 2006 | Ray Pritchard

There is an amazing scene at the end of the 1996 movie Marvin’s Room. Bessie, played by Diane Keaton, has cared for her ill father and her aunt for 20 years. After learning that she has leukemia, she receives a visit from her estranged sister Lee, played by Meryl Streep. Bessie tells Lee, “I’ve been lucky to have had so much love in my life.” Lee says yes, her father and her aunt really do love her. Bessie seems taken aback for a moment. Her sister doesn’t understand. Bessie doesn’t mean she’s lucky to be loved. She means she is lucky to have had so much love to give to others.

Lucky to love. What an amazing perspective. If we are full of God’s love, it will overflow to others. I received a note from a friend who writes:

Life is so good with God in the center. Now problems turn into solutions, fear turns into hope, anger turns to love. I’m free in God and it’s the best place to be. I’ve learned to take risks and face challenges. I take no credit for any of this. To God be all the glory. He never let go. He took me from a bitter, unhappy, depressed alcoholic and gave me the wings of eagles, soaring to heights I never dreamed possible. He’s given me his words to share with other alcoholics, he’s restored my family, and has filled me with His love each day.

That testimony is wonderful in many respects, not least because it perfectly illustrates what it means to have love overflowing in your life. Only God can do that, and he does it whenever he finds a willing heart.

Romans 12:9-16 seems at first glance to be an unconnected series of staccato commands, a “rag bag” of miscellaneous exhortations, but a closer examination reveals that these verses flesh out what love looks like in the Christian life. The theme of the passage is not hard to find: Love must govern all our relationships. John Stott calls this Paul’s “recipe for love” and notes that it seems to have twelve “ingredients.”

1. Love Must be Sincere.

“Let love be Genuine” (v. 9a).

The word “genuine” literally means “without hypocrisy.” It originally referred to an actor who played a certain role on stage. It came to mean anyone who acts contrary to his own true feelings. It particularly applies to those who put forth the appearance of virtue that they do not actually possess. Eugene Peterson (The Message) offers this paraphrase: “Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it.”

2. Love Must be Discerning.

“Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good” (v. 9b).

Love hates evil! Think about that for a second. Often we think of love as an ooey-gooey emotion that causes us to lose our sense of right and wrong, but that’s far from true Christian love. We cannot love evil and love God at the same time any more than we can love money and love God at the same time. Here’s another way to put it. Don’t ever get over being shocked by evil. That’s hard to do in a world where almost anything goes. Here’s a good test. When was the last time you blushed? In the olden days, we blushed when something risqué appeared on television. Now we hardly notice it or we laugh at it. Alexander Pope, the 18th-century English poet, offered this warning:

Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,

As to be hated needs but to be seen;

Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,

We first endure, then pity, then embrace.

Sometimes we say, “Love is blind.” God says, “No, love needs clear vision.” Our love needs discernment or else we will end up loving things we ought not to love—and entering into relationships that are not good for us. While love is supreme, it is never enough.

Not every relationship is a good relationship.

Not every choice is a good choice.

Not every friendship is good for us.

Not every job is a wise career move.

Not every roommate is a healthy choice.

Not every purchase is a wise use of our money.

There are really two parts to making wise choices: First, you must know what is right. This is crucial because we live in a world where many people evidently have lost all sense of right and wrong. Everything appears to them as shades of gray. Second, you must have the courage to choose what you know to be right. I happened to catch a few minutes of a televised speech by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. During the question time someone asked how he managed to deal with all the criticism that comes to anyone in a high-profile position. He replied that the most important thing in life is to discover what you believe to be true, and then to stand up for those beliefs no matter what. He then added these words: “If you do what you know is right, it doesn’t matter what people think.” True discernment gives you vision to see what is right and then the courage to choose to do it.

Please take Paul’s words to heart!

Never get over being shocked by evil.

Glue yourself to what is good.

3. Love Must Display Tender Affection.

“Love one another with brotherly affection” (v. 10a).

Paul uses two words that speak of the love of family members for each other. One of them is a word you already know–philadelphia. It comes from two Greek words that have been joined together:philos, which means tender affection, fondness, devotion,” and adelphos, usually translated “brother,” but it literally means “one born of the same womb.” So the word philadelphia literally means “tender affection owed to those born from the same womb.” It’s easy to understand why the early Christians adopted this word to describe Christian love. All Christians have been “born of the same womb” through the new birth. Everyone who is saved is saved the same way. God doesn’t have three different plans of salvation–Plan A for Protestants, Plan B for Catholics, and Plan C for everyone else. Jesus said, “You must be born again” (John 3:3). To be born again means to receive new life through personal faith in Jesus Christ. It means to be “born from God’s womb.”

Let me illustrate. I have three brothers—Andy, Alan, and Ron. I am the second of four Pritchard brothers. We’re all very different. Andy lives in Alabama, Alan and I live in Mississippi, and Ron lives in Arkansas. We have different personalities, different habits and hobbies, different likes and dislikes. Yet one thing binds us together. We come from the same womb. That fact means that there is a special place in my heart for my brothers so that even if I haven’t seen them for a long time, it’s as if I last saw them yesterday. There is a bond between us that time and distance cannot break.

The same truth applies in the spiritual realm. Everyone who belongs to Jesus belongs to me. And I owe all of them tender affection and brotherly love. Let us be clear about this. We are to love all true believers everywhere all the time. That’s hard because most of us have some inner qualifications. We don’t like this group or that denomination. Maybe we’re not comfortable with people who speak in tongues or with those who use a Prayer Book. We may even distrust people who have a different worship style that we do. Maybe we have some preferences regarding skin color or ethnic background. Put simply, all such thinking is simply wrong and must be abandoned. God’s kingdom is not limited to graduates of one seminary or members of one denomination or to people who look, think and act just like us. God’s kingdom embraces all true believers no matter who they are or what church they happen to attend.

4. Love Must Honor Others.

“Outdo one another in showing honor”(v. 10b).

The Greek word actually has a sense of competition about it, so the translation “outdo one another” is very accurate. We live in a day where the opposite seems to be case. We hear much about quotas, preferential treatment and affirmative action. In the Christian context, it means that we take affirmative action to make sure that others receive preferential treatment before we do. This obviously goes so much against our human nature that it is not possible without the infusion of God’s Holy Spirit in our hearts. President Ronald Reagan had this saying on his desk in the Oval Office: “There is no limit to how far you can go if you don’t care who gets the credit.” Paul would say “Amen!”

5. Love Must be Enthusiastic.

“Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord” (v. 11).

John Stott notes that religious “enthusiasm” is often derided as nothing but excessive emotionalism and a sign of fanaticism. Yet the man we call a fanatic becomes a fan when he goes to a football game and cheers himself hoarse. But Paul’s words have nothing to do with how loud we sing or how much we clap or whether or not we raise our hands when we worship. Those things are purely secondary. Paul is challenging us to put as much effort into our Christianity as we do into our work. The Amplified Bible catches the meaning very well: “Never lag in zeal and in earnest endeavor; be aglow and burning with the Spirit, serving the Lord.” The phrase “be aglow and burning with the Spirit” refers to a boiling pot. Serve the Lord with zeal and boiling intensity. The world will not be moved by half-hearted disciples who “sort of” serve the Lord. The story is told of a Communist who said to a Christian acquaintance, “If I believed what you believe, I would crawl over a field of broken glass to make sure everyone heard the news.” Living as we do in an age of terrorism and international instability, there is no time to waste. “The King’s business requires haste.”

6. Love Must be Patient.

“Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” (v. 12).

Behind these three phrases lies the hope of our Lord’s return. While we wait for Jesus to return from heaven, we must be patient in hard times, constantly praying, and rejoicing in the hope of better days to come. When V. Raymond Edman was president of Wheaton College, he often exhorted the students, “Chin up and knees down.” That’s good advice for all of us.

7. Love Must be Generous.

“Contribute to the needs of the saints” (v. 13a).

The word translated “contribute” is the verb form of the word koinonia, to share with others. On one level it means sharing in the hurts and heartaches of others. On another level, it means opening our pocketbook and giving so that the poor believers will have their needs met. Here is a true measure of your Christian faith. What are you doing to meet the needs of those who have less than you? We can extend this to supporting God’s work around the world. Do you give “off the top” or “off the bottom” of your paycheck? Your answer says something important about the state of your soul.

8. Love Must Pursue Hospitality.

“Seek to show hospitality” (v. 13b).

The Greek word for hospitality is philoxenia, a compound made up of two other Greek words –philos, which means “kind affection” or “love” and xenos, which means “stranger” or “foreigner.” Literally, philoxenia means “one who loves strangers.” Hospitality means “showing kindness to strangers.” This command shows up in various places in the New Testament because hospitality was a central mark of the early church. In the first century they didn’t have Holiday Inns, Red Roof Inns, Executive Suites or Hilton Hotels. When Paul came to Corinth, he couldn’t check into the Airport Marriott because it hadn’t been built yet.

The few inns they did have were ill-kept and dangerous. Many were little more than brothels and havens for brigands and robbers. As Christians traveled from place to place across the Empire, they didn’t have the option of staying in a motel. The only way the Christian message could spread would be for Christians to open their homes to others. The only way an evangelist from Antioch could make it in Ephesus would be for a family in Ephesus to open their home to him. The only way a teacher from Caesarea could visit Cyprus would be for someone from Cyprus to open his home and say, “My Brother, you are welcome to stay with me.”

I once preached a sermon entitled Confessions of a Xenophiliac. I began with a confession that there is no such word as xenophiliac. I just made it up by switching around philoxenia, the actual Greek word for hospitality. But I like xenophiliac because it sounds like it ought to be a word even if it’s not. Just before I preached the sermon, one of my staff members prayed, “O God, we thank you that you are the original xenophiliac.” At first it sounded odd. And then in a flash it hit me. It’s true. God is the original “lover of strangers.” For while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). While we were estranged from God, He sent his Son to the earth. And we who were once strangers and aliens on the earth have now been brought near to God by the blood of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:11-13).

We are no longer strangers, no longer aliens, no longer orphans, no longer far away from God. We are now as near to God as His own Son is, for through the blood of Jesus we are brought into His family. Because He loved us when we were strangers, we are strangers no more.

That same thing happens today when we show hospitality to others. We are only doing for others what God did for us.

9. Love Must be Kind.

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” (v. 14).

There are two parts to this that we must consider:

1. What happens to us.

2. How we respond.

We will be persecuted. We will be hated, mistreated, misunderstood, lied about, gossiped about, and there will be those who go beyond this to hurt us deeply, leaving scars that last for a lifetime. Sometimes the attacks come from those closest to us, sometimes from within our own family, often from our circle of very close friends, and sometimes from people we thought were our best friends. There is no escaping this reality, and to deny it is like denying the sun comes up in the east and sets in the west. Sooner or later people we loved and trusted will let us down, and some of them will turn on us. We can’t predict how or when it will happen or who it will be, but it will happen, and what will we do then?

How do you bless someone when you would rather curse them? Here’s a simple way to do that. When faced with someone who has mistreated you, ask God to do for them what you want God to do for you. Seek the blessing for them that you want God to do for you. Think of it this way: The greater the hurt, the greater the potential blessing that will come when we bless those who curse us. Remember that your enemy is a gift from God to you. Though you don’t know it and often can’t see it, the person who has hurt you so deeply is a gift from God to you. To say that is not to excuse evil or to condone mistreatment. It is to say exactly what Joseph meant when he said to his brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20). Our enemies humble us, they keep us on our knees, they reveal our weakness, and they expose our total need for God. Just as David needed King Saul to pursue him, to persecute him and repeatedly attempt to kill him, we need the enemies God sends to us. If we didn’t need them, he wouldn’t send them. Therefore, we thank God who knows best, and we love our enemies the best way we can. Often God raises up an enemy to see if we really want to be like Jesus. He will keep our enemies alive and well as long as we need them.

10. Love Must Show Sympathy.

“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (v. 15).

Love gets involved. It doesn’t stand stoically on the sidelines while others go through a hard time. Many of us probably find it easier to weep with someone else than to rejoice with them. It is a good thing when we can laugh with our friends, and then weep with them later.

11. Love Must Live in Harmony.

“Live in harmony with one another” (16a).

The Greek literally reads, “Think the same things toward each other.” This does not imply total agreement. After all, if two people totally agree on everything, one of them is unnecessary! The word harmony implies a beautiful symphony, a collection of instruments playing on the same page at the same time. They don’t sound alike and they don’t play the same notes. So it is in the body of Christ. We don’t all look alike or act alike or sound alike. We certainly don’t always think alike. If you doubt that, remember the last church business meeting you attended. Or better yet, just listen to the different conversations in the lobby of the church after the morning service. The church–both local and worldwide–is enriched by a variety of different opinions. But there is harmony amid the cacophony of sounds when we understand that the things that unite us are greater than the things that divide us.

12. Love Must Show Humility.

“Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be conceited” (v. 16b).

We can say it more directly. Don’t be a snob! The word translated “conceited” means “wise in your own thinking.” Don’t get the big head. Don’t think you are too good to hang out with people who are not in your social class. One translation says, “Make real friends with the poor.”

Say what you will about Jesus, but he was no snob. He associated with tax collectors, prostitutes and drunkards. And he reserved his harshest words for the Pharisees who robbed widows’ homes and claimed to be serving God. Jesus wasn’t a “front runner.” He was a true “friend of sinners” who welcomed everyone who wanted to be with him.

Someone told D. L. Moody, “Sir, I am a self-made man.” To which Moody replied, “You have relieved the Almighty of a great responsibility.”

Increase the Dosage! </font color></font size>

As we come to the end of the message, I can only comment that our churches would be happier if we took this passage to heart. It’s one thing to talk about love. It’s something else to put it into practice. When the late E. Stanley Jones preached on love, a frustrated church leader reported that he had saturated his congregation with love, but one man was causing trouble and threatening to split the church. What should he do since love didn’t seem to be working? “Increase the dosage,” retorted Jones. In light of this passage, that was a truly biblical response. Love doesn’t look the same way in every situation, and sometimes we must practice “tough love” that may be misunderstood by others. But “increasing the dosage” is still God’s prescription for dealing with unlovely people.

You may wonder how to apply a message like this because it covers so much territory. Here are a few suggestions:

1) Memorize Romans 12:9-16 this week.

2) Pray over it a verse at a time, asking God to work these qualities into your life.

3) Pick one or two areas where you need to grow, and write down about where you need to begin.

4) If that’s too difficult, just pick one of the twelve and make it your goal to put it into practice this week.

5) As you think and as you pray, ask the Lord to bring specific people to your mind.

It is easy (and spiritually dangerous) to be non-specific when it comes to love. If we are to grow in this area, our love must reach out to specific people we meet this week. They may come to us through an email or a phone call or a chance encounter or at a meeting or when we are in a big hurry and on our way to do something really important and we don’t have time to be bothered and we would be glad to help them later but they need help now, and what will we do then? That’s the real test of love. Or the test may come in dealing with the same old grumpy people you live with or work with or go to school with every single day. Grumpy people need love, and who will do it if not you?

A Community of Love</font color></font size>

The most powerful recommendation for any church is this–that the members love one another! The world pines for this … and flocks where it is found. When the unchurched are asked ask what they looking for in a church, the answer is always the same. They are looking for a caring church. Not just a friendly church or a relevant church or a church with plenty of programs for the kids. And not just a church where the Bible is clearly taught. As good and essential as those things are, they don’t touch the deepest heart cry of this generation. They want to be loved truly and deeply. When the people of the world find such a place, they stand in line to get in.

How does God help us grow in this area? By putting us in situations that force us to practice Christian love. Over the years I have observed God do this again and again. He allows two people to have difficulties with each other, often to the point of anger and bitterness. He does it because the only way we learn to love is by dealing with unlovely people. I have seen it happen between husbands and wives, parents and children, between co-workers, neighbors, fellow students and relatives. I have seen it happen between church members who couldn’t stand each other. By God’s grace, people who start out disliking each other often end up as dearest friends.

The church is to be a community of love. We owe it to the Lord, to each other, and to the watching world.

Let brotherly love abound more and more.

Let Christian sympathy go out to those in need.

Let us take the banner of God’s concern around the world.

Let us pray for one another and especially for those with whom we disagree.

Let our hearts overflow with brotherly for all of God’s children everywhere.


Dear Lord Jesus, teach us to love each other as you loved us, Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?