Learning to Love

One of the most maddening aspects of life is when we have conflicting emotions and our less noble emotion trumps the other one.  This was Peter’s case in his relationship with Jesus.  He was passionately loyal to Jesus.  This was genuine emotion.  It was deeply felt emotion.  But when push came to shove, the emotion of fear trumped his emotion of  loyalty.

This was utterly demoralizing to Peter because he knew that in his heart of hearts, he absolutely did want to be loyal to Jesus.  Yet there is no question whatsoever that his actual behavior displayed a deep lack of loyalty to his King.

It is against this backdrop of inner turmoil that Jesus queried Peter in John 21 about how much Peter loved Him.  Now Peter knew the intensity of his heart, but he also knew that his actions had betrayed him, therefore he hedged on the issue of love.

There is much available teaching about the two different words for love in John 21.  There is Jesus’ question about agape love.  There is Peter’s response about phileo love.  What is often missed in the story however, is the fact that Jesus was not trying to humiliate Peter. Jesus was trying to equip Peter.

John 21 is a three-step formula for learning how to have the kind of love that we want to have.  In Jesus’ three responses to Peter, we see a sequence laid out.  Peter was to learn how to feed the lambs, then how to shepherd the sheep, then how to feed the sheep.  These are three distinctly different tasks and it is vital that we learn how to segue from one to another if we wish to have deep, enduring love.

Feeding the lambs is the most commonly known skill.  The ewe eats the grass, digests it, and provides milk on demand for the lambs.  This represents a great many of the teaching ministries that are available today.  The expectation is that the listener puts forth the minimum of effort, because the food provided for them is a user-friendly package.

There is obviously a time and place for this, but there is also a time and place for weaning the lambs.  The second command to Peter was to learn how to shepherd the sheep.  Shepherding involves some diverse skills.  On the one hand there is the need to protect the flock.  On the other hand there is understanding and directing the seasons of a sheep’s life.  This art form is also done reasonably well by a significant percentage of the leaders in the body of Christ.

The third step was to feed the sheep.  Feeding the sheep involves taking them to a pasture where there is an abundance of good vegetation and allowing them to help themselves when they are hungry.  Certain times of year, under adverse conditions, the shepherd may supplement their grazing, but in general, mature sheep are to feed themselves in the field that the shepherd provides.

This skill of forcing sheep to graze on their own is not often found in today’s churches.  I ran across it recently in a most unusual place.

I have a friend named “Fred” who is pastoring a house church.  I watched from a distance as he carefully planned the beginning and then laid the foundation for the group that he had gathered around him. I was impressed with what Fred shared with me.

Recently he invited me to attend their Sunday service because a man I highly respect was also going to be there.  I was delighted to accept the invitation, both to see my friend, and to see Fred’s leadership style.

It became immediately evident that Fred was well past feeding the lambs.  He informed me that his sheep were well-trained in a number of different teachings and I did not have to preface what I was going to say to them.  I could jump right into the application.

I found out to my amusement later on during the day that the price of attending this house church is that everybody has to buy and bring their own chair!  Fred was very clear that he did not start a church in order to have job security setting up chairs on Sunday.

During the conversation throughout the morning, I could clearly see that Fred also knew how to do the second level of leadership in John 21.  I heard various comments indicating that not everything was done by him at his home.  There were groups within the larger group.  They each had different growth tracks and were encouraged to invest in themselves strategically.  There was one fascinating story of one of the small groups that learned the art of honor from the larger group, and then executed it in their own group in a new way.  Good stuff abounded.

But I was most amazed at his capacity to walk out the third level in John 21.  When it came time for the worship service, the worship leader was introduced.  I noticed that he was seated in the corner by the guitar and expected the same old, same old.  Instead he turned to a particular Psalm and said that this Psalm would be the worship portion for the morning.

He pointed to a table where he had created two stations that illustrated portions of the Psalm.  One was a tasting station and the other was a tactile station.  People could get up from their seats whenever they wanted, if they wanted, and try those two stations to facilitate their worship.

He indicated that some people might want to process the Psalm with a friend so they could go outside.  And then he announced that we had 30 to 45 min. to worship based on that Psalm.  And that was all the worship leader did!

Here is a pastor who understands feeding sheep instead feeding lambs.  Most people go to church on Sunday morning expecting the worship leader to have worked very hard to prepare a compelling package that would lift them out of their doldrums and into the presence of God.

This worship leader had learned from his pastor how to identify a good pasture for them to graze in, how to give them some minor props, then he made the sheep do all the grazing on their own.  Each person was responsible for getting his own worship experience from that Psalm.  The worship leader did not explain the Psalm at all.

I left profoundly impressed with Fred’s leadership ability and his understanding of the mature biblical model of raising up sheep that could graze for themselves.

What I was totally unprepared for was the expression of love that followed.  But remember that Christ told Peter that if he would learn these three levels of life giving, the love that Peter craved would follow.

A week after I was there, I received a check in the mail from the church.  May I be very clear?  I had not preached.  I had not gone there to minister.  I was invited by the pastor to come share their church life because a mutual friend was going to be there.  I had not even the slightest expectation of any financial dynamic from the visit.

The card that came with the check was from the pastor.  He had not told his treasurer how much to give me.  He simply instructed the treasurer to give out of love not out of duty.

I found that highly fascinating given the backdrop of the habitually unclean relationship between ministry and money here in the States.  The following sequence is not original with me.  It is been attributed to various people, so I don’t know who the original pundit was but it nicely captures the reality.

When Christianity began in Palestine, it was fellowship.

When it moved to Greece, it became a philosophy.

When it moved to Italy, it became an institution.

When it moved to Europe, it became a culture.

When it moved to America, it became a business.

The problem is that Christianity was designed to be a body.

And when a body becomes a business, it is called prostitution.

So today in America ministry is rarely separated from money.  And if someone has an anointing or a message, it is quite easy to prostitute the gifts of God for a dollar bill.

When somebody goes to a church to preach, there is generally more discussion about the financial arrangements than there is about the spiritual preparation of the congregation or the content of the message to be delivered.  And after the sermon is preached, the check that is given to the speaker is treated primarily as payment of an obligation incurred.  It is a commercial exchange.

This is exactly what Fred wanted to avoid with his congregation.  He did not want his treasurer to satisfy an obligation that the church has incurred with me (since there was none!).  Rather he wanted his congregation to express the quality of the relationship between us.

They had each drunk from my well for years before the individuals became a congregation.  I have cheered them on from the sidelines since they first began discussing forming a community of faith.  There has never before been any financial exchange between us.  But there has been a lot of love, honor and mutual support over the years.

So, they expressed their love (not their duty) with a gift.

Isn’t it fascinating how precisely the principles from John 21 played out?  Fred has progressed over the years from feeding the lambs, to shepherding the sheep, to feeding the sheep.  And simultaneously, his congregation has grown in their love for each other, their love for Christ, and their love for the larger community.

It’s not a coincidence.  It’s a principle.

Copyright November 2010, by Arthur Burk

From the Quarterdeck, in Anaheim

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12 Responses to Learning to Love

  1. Ellen says:

    INcredible! I find myself going to groups to learn, and know I do not want to be spoon fed, and yet newbies do that in trying to teach. I, as a teacher myself aim for the 3rd level…….Such good stuff to digest and ponder and digest again.

  2. Hannea says:


  3. Bruce Jacobs says:

    Learning to Love
    This is the type of body that exposed the world to our Redeemer. Why would it not be the most successful of them all. The need to return to the simple and let God handle the complexity is a key for all of our relationships with our God. I enjoy a good fellowship in a large church, but I am following His whispers in my life and it leads to Africa and building village bodies like Fred’s where conversations flow freely about the Lord.
    Arthur’s experiences are wonderful gifts of a God who loves and truely works with us.

    • Umm…may I push back just a little bit and enlarge the picture? I absolutely agree that it is easiest to do this in a small group, but surely it is within the power of our Great King to grace a fathering kind of leader with the skill set needed to feed 1,000 sheep with the same excellence that Fred feeds his smaller flock or the village communities in Africa achieve the same goal.

  4. Alex Skinner says:

    What a beautiful and encouraging story. Thank you for sharing it. It is so refreshing to hear of someone doing something different and right in a church setting. I love the generous and love-filled heart-motive behind your friend’s gift to you. Isn’t that what our Father does with us? Gives us amazing gifts just because. Just because He loves us.
    (not money, I’m talking about those precious things that mean heaps to us and would mean nothing to anyone else.)

    Secondly, marvellous, thanks, you’ve answered a question for me too as God had said to me last week to Feed His sheep and Feed His lambs and I didn’t know what that would look like. I’d been talking to him about discipleship/coaching/mentoring. Now I have a rich frame of reference to dig into and try to walk out.

  5. Janis Karabats says:

    I am on Facebook, and it’s fascinating to see the people who have gathered there from all over the world. One thing that Christians love to talk about is Love. Much of that Love talk is completely one-sided, without the responsibility part. I love to post your articles, Arthur! And Oswald Chambers. I do not attempt to re-write what others have said so well, so I just point. And some like it! The Church on Facebook is actually evolving.

  6. Grace Veatch says:

    When it comes to church groups, it’s fairly easy to figure out what we don’t want, but more difficult to describe what we do want. Seeing it modeled like that makes my spirit spark with inspiration.

  7. Sonia says:

    Arthur this post was so rich that I have had to read it through several times to be sure that I grasped it. I then had to process all of my Christian life going to church and place it somewhere in the sequence of love. I am still astounded! Like Jim this is so far from my experiences in the body.

    • So I am going to push back. That fact that others have not created that context for you is secondary. What are you doing to create it for others?

      Codependency in the Body of Christ is killing it. We have the life givers who give out of their need to be needed and the needy who take so they don’t have to grow up. Thus the whole giving and receiving cycle is corrupt on both sides.

      You don’t have to be a church pastor to be able to appropriate the power of the principle. In all of your relationships, you can assess whether it is the right time to do step one, two or three.

      And it does not have to be in a linear relationship with someone. The point simply, is to know that there are three options, and to consciously choose to move every life giving discussion in one of those three directions intentionally. Don’t let the lamb define how you treat it. You decide.

      • Jim Alseth says:

        Yep. I’m with you Arthur, and why I’m staying where I’ve been put. I wasn’t whining, just stating fact. It’s like you said in the Mercy Season set: God is asking what we’ll do with the sheep in our midst–father them or enable them.

  8. Jim Alseth says:

    Nothing more to add to this except to say, Beautiful.

    This is also so far from our experience in the particular Body we fellowship in. So mired in the Ruler season way of doing things. God has been doing some terrible, wonderful work in our immediate lives, but in every context outside of this my wife and I find ourselves surrounded by slaves, in a Teacher city sooo infected with a victim spirit. It can really get wearisome at times. And yet I know I’m called here…

  9. Irina says:

    This is so timely. I’m just beginning to work with some college students at our church. This post helps me to see how to actually carry out the goal of leading self-sustaining mature Christians.
    It’s interesting, because there is another group of adults who’ve come to a 2-day seminar on the RGs and want to continue discussing it. They have the assignment of creating their own discussion about their particular RG and leading the group however they want. I think I’m on the right track in building that framework, now I want to really examine level 2 & 3 more closely b/c level 1 has become the norm.
    I wonder if I should ask the adults from the latter group to speak to the college students! This would create a whole new paradigm.

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