Monday, November 22, 2010

Rethinking Christian love

People complain that Christians do a poor job of loving their neighbors, that for a bunch of self-professed followers of Jesus we rarely come off as very Jesus-like. But from an insider's perspective that's not such a big surprise considering all the hurdles you have to clear as a Christian just to obey what Jesus referred to as the second greatest commandment. The stumbling blocks come from the teaching you get at the average evangelical church. Honestly, the advice that I've come away with over the years on how to love people is probably the exact opposite of what Jesus actually meant and practiced. And after you've invested huge chunks time and energy believing this misguided advice, the process of figuring out how to deprogram from all the bad habits and how to adopt a more common sense approach while fighting the guilt that past sermons have instilled in you can take the rest of your living life.

You're told that your main approach in loving people should be confronting them with the gospel message, and you must put that front and center of every personal contact you have because, after all, if you don't care about someone's eternal destiny how can you say you care about them at all? How loving would it be if you just sat in the safety of your lifeboat and watched someone drown, huh? And so you file out of church service with the crowd, feeling determined to love the world by sounding an alarm. Your love takes on a shrill tone.

But after awhile you realize that your emergency broadcast is being ignored, which is when you take the next step of looking for ways to convince people that the crisis really does exist. They don't know they're drowning, so you gotta convince them. Now your love becomes argumentative and sales-pitchy. It's like talking to the Amway guy. "Hey, let me enlighten you. Let me show you what Jesus can offer. Don't run away, you haven't heard the whole story. I promise, it gets better!" Your concern for people's souls morphs easily into a concern for the sins in people's lives. Pointing out sin is a way of pointing out their need of salvation. It's all part of the argument: "See, I told you you were a sinner and this proves it." It gets to where you can hardly restrain yourself from delighting that you have an example of solid sin in this person's life that you can use to press home your very important point of how much they need Jesus.

Strangely, in pursuing a certain definition of "love," one coldly logical step leads to the next and pretty you never notice just how far you've strayed from the Bible's teaching on how to relate to others: "Do not judge, lest you be judged." "Love is patient and kind, . . . it is not rude." "However you want to be treated, so treat others." "As far as it is possible, be at peace with all men." Where did you go wrong? At which fork in the road did you take the spiraling path downward until you became--in the name of love--the preachy, self-righteous person that no one in the lunchroom wants to sit with?

The problem is you've been blind. The example of Jesus has been right there in front of you the whole time. And even though Jesus ought to know how to lead people to salvation, because he is salvation after all, for whatever reason you've chosen to listen to voices which you have judged to be wiser than his. "It's okay to love people, as long as you let them know where you stand . . . as long as you don't compromise on 'the truth' . . . as long as you don't give the impression you approve of their sin." As long as, as long as, as long as. Did Jesus cripple his love for others with so much fearfulness and petty concern for himself? Love was once a living, breathing thing, but now that we have surrounded it like a dangerous animal and poked and prodded it to death with our long sticks, it's become pale and limp, drained of all its blood. Love cannot be love when it is self-protective, self-serving, and pursuing an agenda for someone else's life.

Love always puts the other person first, their feelings, their comfort, their needs. Love meets them where they're at, understands things from their perspective, relates to their weaknesses, sits quietly with them in their sorrows, listens when spoken to, helps when asked, and sees the real human being beneath the bluster and folly. To do this you have to be unselfish, and tough. There is nothing wimpy or mushy or compromising about it. Jesus embodied this kind of love without people mistaking his compassion for compromise. He didn't become a "liberal" who thought sin didn't matter anymore. Quite the opposite, people became vulnerable before him. They felt their sinfulness in his presence. It is not judgment but kindness that leads people to repentance.

Love is supreme because it is the closest people come to having a direct encounter with God. When you love people the way they should be loved, they feel God's touch upon their souls. That does not happen by arguing or condemning. People don't come to know God by assenting to your prescribed list of theological tenets. They come to know him through your love. Brace every nerve in your body to have patience with their faults. Stretch every creative brain cell to imagine life from their perspective, to have sympathy and understanding. Let down the self-protective guard. Don't have all the answers. Get stepped on. Find yourself frequently ill-used. And be a blessing in someone else's life.