“I could never do what you do. I would love the fostered children too much to ever let them go.” I hear this a lot. And when I do, I often feel a bit angry. At the heart of this sentiment—albeit from well-meaning, friendly people—there seems to be a fundamentally misplaced understanding of love.

First, this response could be interpreted to assume some pretty sad things about the love I have for the foster children in my care. It could come across like these people see me as a cold-hearted automaton who doesn’t get emotionally attached or invested. But the reality is that it breaks my heart to hear about the traumas each child I’ve cared for has endured. The truth is that every single time I hand a child over to his permanent family, a gut-twisting wrench of grief tears through me.

Second, this response seems, in some ways, to reveal a flawed understanding of the nature of love itself. It’s an approach to love that is so afraid of getting hurt it doesn’t get involved at all. The implication is that this sort of love would rather leave broken children without any homes than risk bringing heartache into one’s own home. It’s a love that is focused on self-preservation. It’s a love that thinks first and foremost about one’s own well-being and ends up justifying inaction in the face of injustice.

In our own individual ways, we are all susceptible to this sort of self-interested love. Left to our own devices, we humans naturally gravitate toward self-preservation. And, unfortunately, I believe this faulty understanding of love has infiltrated the church.

While we may believe that our standard of love comes from our understanding of the Cross, sadly there is much that betrays this might not be the case. For some, the Cross has primarily become a battleground for debates over the nature of the Atonement, the fight for penal substitution, or the forensic achievements of the death of Christ. For others, the Cross has become simply a moral example with no further impact on faith or life. But this kind of reductionism diminishes the Cross rather than protects it and undermines our discipleship rather than raises the bar so that we can truly love as Jesus loved.

The beautiful lingering account in John’s gospel of the last few hours before Jesus was arrested begins with these words: “Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (13:1). The events that follow this include Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, preparing them for his departure, promising them both persecution and the presence of the Holy Spirit, and going to Calvary to sacrifice himself for the world.

The death of Jesus on the cross is effective; it accomplishes our redemption. But the Cross is also demonstrative of God’s love for us. Paul joins these two ideas together in Romans 5:8, saying, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” This link is in John’s gospel too, illustrated in the way Jesus describes the gravity of the situation and leaves his disciples with a most simple—but most challenging—command: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (13:34–35).

Jesus’ life of love is not a self-preserving love. It is not a hands-off-for-fear-of-getting-hurt love. It is not a passive love. It is not a love that refuses to deeply invest in relationship. What we see in Christ is sacrificial love. Merciful love. Love that values the well-being of others above itself. Love that will generously and fully pour itself out, whatever the cost, in order that the beloved might benefit, flourish, and thrive.

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Jesus’ self-sacrificial death for his people is the benchmark for Christian love. This is not an option or a suggestion: It is a command from Christ himself. While the unique sacrifice that Jesus offered can never be repeated or duplicated, the Bible is still clear: Jesus’ death on the cross serves as the model for Christian discipleship time and again. Consider these exhortations: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). “In humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. . . . [H]ave the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who . . . humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Phil. 2:3–8). “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Pet. 2:21).

As the Cross is demonstrative for our discipleship, the work of the Cross within us shapes and transforms the love we have for other people. Mysteriously, even as we are commanded to love like Christ (which involves our will and decision), it’s also true that, by his Spirit, Christ is producing this love in us. The transforming grace of God is remaking us into the likeness of Christ. Similar to our salvation, in our love both human volition and divine sovereignty are at play.

Not only does Jesus say that his love is to be the standard of love we show in the world and the defining feature of our discipleship, but he also claims it will be our clearest and most effective evangelistic tool: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).

All sorts of people from all walks of life will understand that we belong to Christ because of the practical outworking of our love. We are told to love God, love each other, love our neighbor, love the stranger, and love our enemies. I am not sure that leaves anyone on the planet out of the envelope of Christian care, love, and compassion that Jesus commands of us!

It’s time that our definition of love be more deeply grounded on the Cross of Christ rather than the norms of our culture or our own self-interested inclinations. People who see the Cross differently and want to show Christ’s radical, generous, self-sacrificial love to others also see the world differently—and act accordingly. This might mean offering forgiveness to an offender or showing kindness to those who hurt you. It might mean welcoming a vulnerable child into your family through fostering or adoption or basing your next career move on a desire to maximize service to the needy. It may mean sharing your spare room, your precious time, or your most valuable possessions with the homeless, the elderly, the refugee, or those with a physical or mental illness.

For me this also means that just as I have been forgiven, I am learning to forgive others—even those who might seem to suggest that I don’t love my children enough. Indeed, as we saw in Romans 5:8, if Christ in his love was willing to lay down his life for us while we were still sinners, then how can any of us who are his followers seek to do any less?

Krish Kandiah is the founding director of Home for Good (a UK-based nonprofit). He serves on the faculty of Regent College (Vancouver) and is the author of 13 books including Paradoxology: Why Christianity Was Never Meant to Be Simple and God Is Stranger.

This piece is part of The Cross , CT’s special issue featuring articles and Bible study sessions for Lent, Easter, or any time of year. You can learn more about purchasing bulk print copies of The Cross for your church or small group at OrderCT.com/TheCross. If you are a CT subscriber, you can download a free digital copy of The Cross at MoreCT.com/TheCross.