This is such a precious truth and so representative of the Bible's ethic from Genesis to Revelation. Grace runs downhill - from the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit, to the church and then out to the world. Grace is God's gift of Jesus coming down from above. Faith is simply receiving.
But as Paul says in Galatians 5:6, faith expresses itself in love. Having received from God, we pass on to others. This is the whole spiritual and ethical dynamic of the Bible: God's love first, our love second. We're empty before God and poured out towards the world. The order and direction is crucial.
But let's notice what 1 John 4 doesn't say.
It doesn't say: "We love because we've first felt loved."
That might be the ideal situation, but it's not exactly what John says. The Bible is not so interested in giving a psychological explanation for how love is appreciated and relayed. Our feelings of belovedness are not emphasized, the fact of God's love is.
The difference might seem small, but focusing on the wrong thing can end up perverting both faith and love. Essentially what happens is this... we conceive of "faith" as an inner devotional work - a sentiment we must summon or nurse or "get". It's our sense of belovedness that we need to feel. And, we tell ourselves, we must feel loved before we love others - after all we believe in the priority of grace. But it's possible to twist the priority of grace into the priority of us. We consider our inner life to be our first duty and, therefore, service of others is secondary. And right there something's gotten horribly twisted.
You see, what's prior is not our inner life. What's prior is the external, historical, blood-earnest love of Jesus. Indicatives do indeed come before imperatives, but that's not the same as saying the internal comes before the external. No, the point is that Christ's work (external to me) is a tad more significant than my work (whether it's my internal devotion or my external service.)
I say this because I always hear (and I've often thought), "I don't get grace. I know I'm meant to feel it. But it hasn't transferred from my head to my heart, etc, etc." Ever heard or thought the same? What should we say in response?
Well for one thing, let it be said: it's a brilliant and biblical thing to want to 'know the love of Christ'. Just listen to Paul's prayer in Ephesians 3:
I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:17-19)
Here is something to pray for - grasping Christ's love in its infinite magnitude. It's not wrong to want to "feel it"! We are definitely meant to know this love. But notice, 1) it surpasses knowledge. We're never going to "wrap our heads around it", not fully. If we wait until we 'get it' we'll wait forever. And more importantly, 2) we experience this love together with all the saints, as we are "rooted and established in love." I think the 'love' here is very probably love for each other (given how we're meant to be 'together' with others). So you see Paul doesn't tell us to take a holiday from serving the church family while we 'go deep' with God's love. We comprehend God's love in the context of community, as we love and serve our brothers and sisters.
That's why Paul immediately moves on to chapter 4 (church life) and chapter 5 (life in the family) and chapter 6 (life in the world). These things are not a distraction from 'feeling it' but the very atmosphere in which we grasp the love of Christ.
Now, certainly, the order is important. Paul declares the love of God in Christ first. That's what Ephesians 1-3 is all about. He prioritizes the indicatives of God's gospel and he attempts to drive home these gracious truths to the heart. He also lets the Ephesians know he's praying for them - that they will get it. He believes that their appreciation of this love is vital and so he invokes God's almighty power in praying for it. But he moves on. He points them to their church family, their blood family and their obligations to the world. He sets them in the context of their defining relationships and urges Christ-like love upon them.
What should we do if we don't "feel it"? Well we should certainly put ourselves in the path of gospel proclamation a la Ephesians 1-2. (And, please God, may that preaching aim at the heart). We should pray to grasp the knowledge of Christ's love a la Ephesians 3. But we should also get on and serve others in just the ways that Ephesians 4-6 spells out.
If we baulk at serving others the way that Jesus and the Apostles command (because we're not feeling it and we don't want to pretend), what exactly are we implying about the Christian life? Do we think that Jesus has given us 'busy work' until He comes again? Hasn't He simply set out the Good Life for us? When He asks us to serve our brothers and sisters, speak the truth in love, forgive those who hurt us, fulfil our earthly callings, etc, etc, do we imagine that these are arbitrary hoops to jump through? What possible objection could we have to living the Good Life Christ calls us to?
Some will object, Isn't it legalism to do things without 'feeling it'?
Answer: No! Insisting you always have to feel it... that's legalism. As long as we're all clear on Ephesians 1-2, how can "walking in the good works Christ has prepared for us" be legalism? (Ephesians 2:10). Again we have to be clear - salvation by faith is not the same as salvation by feelings.
Other's will say, Isn't it hypocritical to do things without 'feeling it'?
Answer: No! Continually keeping up appearances is hypocrisy. Knowing you're spiritually dry, praying about it and serving others is a tremendous antidote to religious hypocrisy.
Is this just 'fake it till you make it'?
Answer: No! It's a call away from fakery. Our Christian lives do not hold good in our own emotional lives but in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Refocussing our hope there is the opposite of pretence. And it's the fastest route back to a joyful spiritual life.
In fact it's the path to ecstasy. The Greek the word literally means standing outside yourself. And Martin Luther, in The Freedom of the Christian, tells us how to enjoy that state:
A Christian is in ecstasy, outside him or herself, extra nos. A Christian’s ecstasy is in Christ and in the neighbour: in Christ through faith and in the neighbour through love. In faith one ascends above oneself into God and from God one descends below oneself and yet always remains in God and God’s love.
Here's what it looks like to remain in God's love: we live far above ourselves in Christ by faith and far beneath ourselves in our neighbour through love. This is what turns us out of ourselves entirely - it's ecstasy! And it doesn't depend on having to 'feel it.' The feelings will come. But if we start with our hearts we'll find it impossible to get beyond them.