I just finished David Baldacci’s novel, The Escape, gulping down one to two hundred pages at a sitting. That man can write. One of the elements of a gripping novel is the twist factor. Just when you think you have the characters or plot figured out, they take a sudden turn in an unexpected direction. The good guy turns out to be the bad guy or the bad guy is actually the hero. This ratchets up the tension and keeps us interested.
There’s a passage in the Bible which does that for me. In the book of Revelation, chapter two verses three to five, Jesus is sending a letter to the church in Ephesus. He begins by praising them soundly – a description that any of us would love to receive about our church.
“Revelation 2:2 I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. 3 You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.”
That’s a good report card, isn’t it? This is no fly-by-night, spiritual weather-sock church. These folks are sturdy in their commitment. They work hard. They take a stand for the truth. They stick with it. They put up with suffering. And this is a long-term pattern for them, not just a short “Jesus season”. Wouldn’t you like these descriptions attached to your life and to your church? I would.
Bu-u-ut. . . there’s more to this story. Here comes the twist – and it’s an abrupt one. Listen to Jesus’ next words to Ephesus:
“4 Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. 5 Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.”
Within the walls of this impressive church roamed a destructive beast, large enough to generate a stern warning from the Lord. The beast’s name? “Forsaken first love”. At first blush, this doesn’t sound like a big deal. Just as newly married couples go through an infatuated honeymoon phase, which, though wonderful, can’t be sustained forever, this seems to describe a similar phase in the new Christian’s life. New Christians are often refreshingly enthusiastic; reading their Bibles constantly, sharing their faith without hesitation, ready to jump into any available church activity. This too, tends to mellow, sometimes for the best. A new Christian evangelist, for instance, can be overly aggressive and over-involvement in church activity can lead to burnout. A mature Christian learns things like discretion and pacing.
Is this what the Apostle John is talking about – a loss of new Christian infatuation? I don’t think so. That’s a normal phase of Christian development and isn’t necessarily connected with doing anything wrong. Jesus doesn’t explain what “forsaken first love” means here, but let me explore some possibilities with you.
What does it mean to “forsake your first love”?
1. Forsaken first love means that I now love Jesus less than I did at first
This is more than a good guess, the text clearly implies it. By “love”, I don’t just mean affection. I mean the full package – affection, loyalty, commitment and service; in other words, what makes any relationship survive and thrive. In the case of the Ephesians, what’s odd, is that we’re not given any outward signs of forsaken first love. Often, those who lose their first love slack off in more obvious ways, which we’ll discuss in a moment. These guys, though, look spiritually fine – in fact, exemplary. Nevertheless, something was missing; something which was hard for others to see, but which Jesus could instantly spot and to which He strongly objected.
This Ephesian form of forsaken first love is the most deadly, since it’s easiest to miss, both in ourselves and in others. It’s an impressive, but second-rate Christianity. The defect is internal and, often, well-hidden. What was it? Probably my second suggestion.
2. Forsaken first love occurs when religion overtakes relationship
Now, I have no problem with Christianity being called a religion. I’ve written a whole article on this subject. Christianity is a religion, a system of spiritual beliefs and practices, unless you choose to give the word “religion” a special definition. The problem that religion often runs into, however, is the same one faced with every other good gift we receive from God – the means to an end so easily turns into the end itself. The Christian religion, with its beliefs and practices, is meant to lead us straight into Jesus’ loving arms. It’s all too easy, though, for religious beliefs and practices to distract us from Jesus and, even worse, to drive us away from Him. Sin and Satan often use religion for this very purpose. How does this happen? The next observations explore this.
3. Forsaken first love develops when devotion is over-taken by dutifulness
This one’s a bit tricky. If you’ve ever been married, you know that on some days you serve your partner with warmth and gladness and on others you just do what you have to do. On both days, you love them, but you don’t always feel that love. Maybe you’re tired, cross or discouraged. Maybe there’s been a disagreement between you. This is normal. The problem occurs when this dry, dutifulness becomes a pattern.
One wonders whether or not the Ephesians had lost their spiritual zing and zest; if what had once been a delight was now mostly dutiful drudgery. Paul challenged the Romans to “never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord” (Rom. 12:11). God wants to be our best and greatest love, not simply our Divine Supervisor. Obedience that comes from loving devotion has an entirely different quality than merely dutiful, “I ought to do this” obedience.
4. Forsaken first love lacks holy ambition for more
Those who have truly tasted Jesus’ love and beauty, even a sliver of it, find themselves hungering for yet more. As the psalmist said to God, “My soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you” and “your love is better than life.”(Ps. 63). God gives us just a taste of Himself down here, a sort of spiritual hors d'oeuvres. The first love makes us greedy for more. The forsaken first love has lost its holy lust and is far too easily contented with staying where it’s at.
5. Forsaken first love lacks powerful, practical love for other believers
When we deeply love Jesus, it follows that we’ll also deeply love His Bride; the church – just as the parents of a married child grow to love her spouse and their grandchildren. One love naturally leads to another. In the church, a strong interest in the welfare of other believers is a sign of an intact first love. A relative indifference toward their welfare; an unwillingness to invest in their lives, is a sign of a forsaken first love. Some think that this is what Jesus was referring to in the letter to Ephesus.
A forsaken first love is a big deal to Jesus. How can we maintain it or regain it? Tune in next time.