Closing Your Bowels and the Meaning of Love (1 John 3:17) – Why Greek Matters (Part 5)


I’m unsure if you’ll believe me, but I am not preparing to launch into a discussion on bodily processes, but rather, New Testament Greek and the New Testament concept of love. I have often heard sincere Christian people define love as something like “acting to promote the well-being of others.” I can understand, both the perspective that would see this definition as initially odd, as well as those who would affirm it in reaction to sentimentalized or exclusively eroticized understandings of love. However, I would contend it is impossible to define love as “acting to promote the well-being of others.” This may be something we include in our understanding of love, or indeed make part of the core – but this in itself cannot occupy the place of primacy. As an illustration, the person working at a restaurant who washes their hands prior to preparing your food is certainly “acting to promote your well-being,” but one would be hard pressed to further assert that they were “loving” you. Like illustrations could be multiplied ad nauseum, demonstrating there must be something more fundamental to love than “beneficial action” that in fact constitutes it as love.

I think the one of the clearest Biblical portrayals of such is in 1 John 3:17. The NRSV for this verse reads:

How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

The NASB is a little closer when it says:

But  whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him,  how does the love of God abide in him?

The TNIV is closer still (though in a less literal fashion):

If any one of you has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in you?

The underlined phrase in each verse is literally the expression “closes their bowels from them” (κλείσῃ τὰ σπλάγχνα αὐτοῦ ἀπ᾿ αὐτοῦ // kleisē ta splanxna autou ap autou). The Greek work splanxnon (σπλάγχνον) literally means “intestines” or “bowels” and was understood as the seat of the passions and strong emotions.[1] Here John brings together what cannot be separated – action to alleviate the suffering and needs of others, which is motivated by a deep-felt concern. One apart from the other is not love. John is adamant – if one shut’s their bowels from another, if they fail to have deep and powerful feelings that motivate acts of service and kindness, “how does the love of God remain in them?” Failure to have compassion is a failure of love that cannot be compensated even with more action. Obviously, this is challenging, for we know it is impossible to turn on powerful emotions at will. However, let us not create a “theology of barrenness,” which seeks to justify our condition and surely falls short of God’s own nature and his expressed intentions for us. Does God act for us in a beneficial but detached manner? Is this the highest modality we could envisage for humanity? Rather, let us seek to know the Love of God. We love because he first loved us. Let us open our hearts rather than close them. Let us devote ourselves to consider, meditate on and receive the Love of God, and that as it remains in us, find ourselves transformed as people who love others from the depths of our affections.

[1] Stephen Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John (Dallas: Word, 1984), 197

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