If you are a follower of Jesus, then you’ve probably asked yourself things like, “what am I supposed to do?” “How am I supposed to live my life?” “How can I know if I’m doing it right“? Some people have put it this way. What does it look like to produce fruit that is evidence that I am growing stronger and deeper in my faith?
Jesus gives us the answer in John 15. He used a metaphor and told his disciples to be like the branch of a grapevine. The branch’s job is not to produce fruit. The branch’s job is to stay connected to the main body of the vine. The vine draws nutrients from the soil and passes them up to the branch, through the branch, and then out to the fruit. The branch is simply a conduit for the sap of the vine to do its work in the fruit. The fruit is the overflow of the branch’s connection to the vine.
Jesus put it this way, “Remain in me,” “abide in me,” “stay connected to me.” How do we remain in Him? By obeying his commands. What were his commands? Simple.
A life that is connected to the vine will overflow the love of God to the world. It will be a life that is like sweet fruit. The apostle Paul calls it the fruit of the Spirit, which is love (Galatians 5:22-25).
This animation demonstrates how the Overflow Principle Flows from John 15.
Here’s the simple truth. God loves you. Always has, always will. That’s why God created you.
Let’s look at the Overflow illustration to see how this works.
A Balanced Heart
There is no sequence to the Overflow Principle. There is no process of step 1, then step 2, etc. The process of loving God is the process of loving others. We can’t love others if we don’t know the love of God, and the more we stretch ourselves to love uncomfortable neighbors, the more we experience the love of God. It is not a top-down flow, but is the dynamic flow of life, like that of the vine.
However, it is helpful to break down this loving process into smaller areas so that we can understand the process more deeply. We love God with the three essential parts of our being: our mind, our spirit, and our body. These are three very different, yet interconnected ways of loving. Each of us is naturally bent toward one part more than the other. Some are mind-centered people, some are spirit-centered people, some are body-centered people.1 Yet, all parts are necessary for fully loving God and loving others.
There are also different ways to think about loving others. The balanced heart illustration above identifies two kinds of neighbors: The church and the world. This is a helpful distinction when we want to focus on what the Bible teaches about participating in the professing body of Christ–called the church–as it stands in contrast to loving those who do not profess to follow Jesus. This is helpful, but also tends to create an insider vs. outsider mentality.
The overflowing pot illustration below helps define the neighbor in a different way. The first type of neighbor is the comfortable neighbor (not necessarily those inside the church). These are the people and the things that we find easy to love. The second is the uncomfortable neighbor (not necessarily those outside the church). These are the people and the things that we find difficult to love because of real and imagined barriers that exist between us and them. Spiritual formation is the process of expanding our love beyond these boundaries and loving those we would normally not want to love.
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recorded in 2015 at Grace Lutheran Church, Andover, MN
The Overflowing Pot
The balanced heart metaphor above reminds us that God’s love does not flow in a straight line, but circulates through all of creation. This next metaphor of the overflowing pots is helpful to describe the neighbor more clearly, however, it is also slightly flawed because it appears that God’s love flows in a straight line from top to bottom. All metaphors are limited, so take each one for its intended purpose.
Perhaps we can imagine that our heart is like a simple clay pot. God’s love is like a constant stream of fresh water flowing over us all the time. Our pot is either flipped over or flipped upright. If it is flipped over, then God’s love never enters our heart. It just flows all around us, but we never take advantage of its life-giving power. All we need to do is simply flip the pot over. What does that mean? It means simply this–believe that God loves you. The first step to radical transformation that begins with you and spreads out to the entire world is this: God loves you. You are special in God’s eyes, and have something wonderful to contribute to the world.
Now the pot is turned upward and is able to receive God’s love. The love flows in, fills up the pot, cleans out the gunk, and overflows God’s love. Here’s the beautiful thing about this picture. The constant here is God’s love. It is unconditional. It doesn’t stop flowing. God does not give to some and not to others. God loves everyone. The variable is our ability to accept it. Society, hurtful experiences, guilt and shame and blame from a number of sources (religious institutions being among the worst offenders) are some of the factors that have flipped our pot upside down and inhibited our ability to receive God’s love. Jesus came with good news. He called it the “Kingdom of God” and invited everyone to live in it, right now. The Kingdom of God is the way of living in the world where you believe that God loves you, you fill up with God’s love, and overflow it to everyone and everything around you. Imagine what the world would be like if everyone lived in that way, in that “kingdom”.
So, back to the illustration. With our pot turned right side up, we can now receive God’s love. To mix metaphors, we can enter into a dynamic, loving relationship with our creator. I’ve divided the concept of loving God with a “whole heart” into three categories: Loving God with our MIND, loving God with our SPIRIT, and loving God with our BODY. I think this is helpful because I believe that the human being can be thought of in these three areas — Mind, Spirit, Body. Hear me, please. I don’t believe that these three categories are separate from each other or can be divided from each other. They are interdependent and integrally connected systems that comprise the human experience.
The Mind is the cognitive, logical, information gathering component or our being. Simply put, it’s how we learn stuff. We observe with our five senses. We read, go to school, we constantly take in new data, process it, and store it in an ever-expanding index of categories in our mental file cabinet.
This doesn’t sound much like something you would use in cultivating a dynamic love relationship does it? We do, though. When you first meet someone who you are attracted to, what do you do? You learn about that person. You ask questions, find out about his background, discover her likes and dislikes. You study that person. The more you learn, the more you decide whether or not you want to pursue the romance.
It is the same with God. We must study God. Since God is the author of everything, pretty much all intentional learning is an effort to study God. Fortunately, God has provided some specific data for us to examine as well. The interaction between God and the nation of Israel has been recorded and passed down through the generations in a collection of documents called “The Book” You may have heard it referred to as the “Bible.” In this collection of 66 books, we have a historical snapshot of approximately 1500 years that spans from the time of Abraham to the coming of Jesus and the early work of his first disciples. It is very helpful to have this document for many reasons. One of them is that it gives us a common, objective, observable text around which we can discuss and share in our learning process. Unfortunately, this same text has served to divide us and create hostilities among us, but that is the subject of another article. In its purest form, the Bible exists to help us cultivate our mind and grow in loving God with our mind.
The spirit is the non-linear, abstract, emotional center of our being. It is supra-rational. It cannot be contained by words or categories. It is the life-energy within us. It is the breath of life itself, breathed into us by God. It animates us, inspires us, motivates us, drives us. It is passion. It is the fire of energy that fuels our life.
When we meet that special someone, we don’t simply learn about them. We don’t write a paper about her and then go home with the paper. That would be silly. When we meet that person, something sparks inside us. Our stomach flips and we start to tingle. We long to be with that person. Words cannot describe what we feel. It is passion. The love we feel inspires poetry and art. It keeps us up at night and gives us courage to do things we would not normally do.
The same is true with God. Loving God is not just learning about God. Our love for God in not measured in the degrees we have earned or the amount of scripture we have memorized. There is something else. There is a spiritual connection. There is something that tingles. Something that inspires. We have passion for God and it is expressed through various forms. Each of us have a different type of spiritual flair. Some are exuberant and flamboyant in their expression of the spirit. Some are contemplative and reverent. Some are artistic and expressive. No matter how the passion is expressed, the fire is the same. Loving God with our spirit is the fire that fuels our lives.
We have physical bodies in a real, physical world. With these physical bodies we interact with everything around us. Without bodies we would not be able to express love for another person. We wouldn’t be able to speak kind words, smell their sweet perfume, look deeply into their eyes, listen to their voice, or feel the warmth of their body cuddled close to ours. Because of the physical body, we can express concrete acts of love to another person. These expressions of love intensify as the relationship goes deeper into the inner sanctum of our heart. The person on the outer ring of acquaintance we greet with a friendly smile and a handshake. Familiar friends we will hug with a warm embrace. For the person in our family we hold hands, rub shoulders, cuddle on the couch. And then, for the person with the deepest relationship, the spouse who has been bonded to us through the life-long commitment of marriage, we express love through the ultimate convergence of mind, spirit, and body and bond through the love that produces life itself and bear children.
Throughout history and across religious traditions — both east and west — there has been a perennial conflict between the spiritual and the physical, the immaterial and the material, the sacred and the secular. This conflict has led some to deny the existence of the spiritual altogether and claim that the universe is nothing more than matter. It has led others to go the opposite direction and claim that the physical universe is simply an illusion and everything is pure mental energy. Still others claim that there is a division between the spiritual, which is good, and the physical, which is evil.
This perceived conflict is unfortunate. The mind, spirit, and body are intertwined and inseparable. God created the physical universe and called it good. God created the physical pleasures of eating, drinking, hard work, art, music, and love. They are a gift to us so that we may engage in the other-oriented love that is the very essence of the divine.
So, how do we love God with our body? God doesn’t have a physical body to embrace, or a hand to hold. Simple. We love others. We take all that we have learned through our mind, combined with the passion that has kindled in our spirit, and we demonstrate God’s love to the physical world. We begin with our own physical resources and realize that my “stuff” is not “mine”, but is a gift from God to be used for the greater good of everyone. I am not the center of the universe (God is) but am a contributing participant in this great family of humanity. Then, once my priorities are straight, I reach out. I greet my neighbor and offer a genuine helping hand. I am aware of the sick, the poor, and helpless and seek ways to fight for equity, assistance, healing, and reconciliation for those who cannot fend for themself. I look at those who are called my enemy and I seek ways to love them and bring peace. I look at the house my human family shares — the earth — and seek ways to preserve it and care for it, as God intended for us to do.
Hopefully, through the above description of loving God with your body, it has become apparent that it is actually impossible to love God without loving others. Huh? That’s right. The way we love God with our body is to love others. Jesus’ first followers — the ones who wrote the letters in what we call the New Testament — talked about this above all other things. If we cannot love others — not just those who love us back, but love the unlovely and the enemy — then the love of God is not in us and we are just playing a self-centered religious game.
Here is where the “Overflow” piece comes to play. If the love of God is truly present in our clay pot, and we are allowing it to flow freely, then the natural byproduct of that will be that it fills to the top and spills out onto those around us. Think of it like one of those cascading punch fountains that you see at wedding receptions. The top pot is the smallest and it overflows into a bigger pot below it, which then overflows into a bigger pot below it, and so on. The overflow of God’s love from our heart flows in a similar fashion where the pots below us are the concentric spheres of relationship that begin with our most intimate and spread out to our close friends, our family, our faith community, our geographical/political community, our enemies, and the planet itself. The deeper and harder the love of God flows into us, the farther out the love will spread.
Now, imagine if everyone on the planet had the love of God flowing like this and everyone was flowing into one another. We would be swimming in other-oriented love and grace. Enemies would not persist in self-preservation and other-annihilation but would seek to find mutually beneficial alternatives. Rich people would use their resources to care for the poor, the hungry, and the helpless. Powerful people would protect the weak. Fathers would love mothers, parents would nurture children, and families would work together to bring about good in their neighborhoods. Corporations would seek to offer fair wages and fair prices and ensure that they don’t harm or exploit our natural resources – both human and environmental.
May God’s love flow in and through you today.