A profession of holy living without love is like a well without water, like a stove without fire, like a tree without fruit.” – B.T. Roberts
Allow me to open with a confession; people bug me. When people bug me, I tend to drift to a kind of default setting where I treat people as stupid and evil and generally not to be trusted. I am capable of shaping all sorts of chapter and verse biblical justifications for this particular default setting. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Consider also the red letters of Jesus from Mark 7:21–23, “For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come — sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”
Evil and folly, right there in the words of Jesus. If chapter and verse are not convincing enough, just following any news feed for a few moments provides seemingly endless amounts of evidence for a stupid, evil and untrustworthy humanity. Human evil is obvious, but is that all that people are? How can I be expected to love people when they are so sinful, misinformed and malicious?
Following my default setting toward people has led me to deal with people in three ways that fall well short of love. First, because of the sorry state of humanity, I treat people as problems to be fixed. When I perceive people as problems, my task as a Christian and a pastor becomes to identify the faults in other people so I can properly prescribe something from the Bible that will remedy the situation. When I recognize a moral problem, a spiritual problem, a relational problem or a problem in thinking within people, my default settings lead me to diagnosis and prescription. Once a problem is identified and managed, I can move on to the next one, as people seem to be endlessly problematic. Diagnosis and prescription are things I can do to fix people without ever loving people.
When people so willingly air their problems on social media, my task of identifying problems in people becomes much easier. I treat people as profiles to be viewed. When I can visit by Messenger, correct faults by commenting on a feed, and share the fullness of the gospel in 140 characters, it makes my fixing task so much easier. People’s internet profiles and presentations tell me who they truly are; don’t they? Believing that people are their profiles allows me to appear as though I am thoughtfully engaged and offering solutions without the hassle of actual, loving, human interaction.
Unfortunately, I cannot do the work of the church alone, despite my best efforts. Sometimes I need problematic people to do things so the church can function. In these moments, I treat people as products to be utilized. All I need to do is consider whether the profile matches the job and then set the person about doing the things I want them to do. If problematic people will just do what I want them to do, the way I tell them to do it, they become useful. If people meet all the criteria I set out for them, then I might be able to feel some affection for them. Strangely, as people begin to agree with me, they look far less stupid. As people begin to do what I want them to do, they begin to look far less evil and far more lovable.
I confess my default views of people are dark and destructive. I confess it is easier to drift to my defaults than to attend to the Holy Spirit. I confess I have mistaken fixing people for loving people. I confess I have mistaken viewing profiles for knowing people. I confess I have treated people as if their worth depended upon their utility. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.
The Command to Love People
As followers of Jesus, we are called to imitate Him by loving people. John 13:34–35 says, “A new command I give you: 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.” Celebrating Passover with His disciples and looking toward the cross, Jesus leaves His disciples this new command to love one another.
We are commanded to love the insiders: our sisters and brothers within the church. Beyond the command itself, our reason for loving one another is that Jesus Christ has loved us, and we as His followers are to do what He does. Our love for one another is a sign to the watching world that we are truly followers of Jesus. The love we extend to our fellow Christians should be without condition or qualification. This agape love does not depend on how our fellow disciples treat us or what they do for us. Jesus gives this command to love after washing the feet of one who would deny Him and after serving the bread and cup to one who would betray Him. The kind of love Jesus calls us to have for one another is a love that always welcomes and is well pleased with the other, even if the other does not reciprocate.
In his book “Life Together,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that “God did not make this person as I would have made him. He did not give him to me as a brother for me to dominate and control, but in order that I might find above him the Creator.” Bonhoeffer goes on to remind us that we must love our sisters and brothers with a, “spiritual love,” which “loves him for Christ’s sake.”
Along with loving the insiders, we are commanded to love our neighbors; those who are outsiders to us. In Mark 12:28-31, after a scribe asks which commandment is the greatest, Jesus says, “The most important one is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” We are to love our neighbors and outsiders with the same kind of love with which we love one another.
Our neighbors include people of every tribe, tongue and nation. We are not directed to love our neighbors with conditions. In the same way that there is no way we can earn the love of Jesus, our neighbors should never have to earn our love for them. The love we are to extend to our neighbors should be as freely given and as profoundly costly as the grace and love given to us in Christ Jesus. In the words of Thomas Merton, “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.”
Unfortunately, some of our neighbors are downright hostile. Along with loving insiders and outsiders, Jesus calls us to love our enemies.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:43-48).
The same kind of agape love we are to give to our brothers and sisters, and to our neighbors, Jesus calls us to extend to our enemies. We must meet our enemies prayerfully, recognizing that God’s mercies in Jesus Christ are every bit as available to them as they are to us. Perhaps it is no accident that the call to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” comes in relation to loving our enemies. Agape love welcomes endlessly. It walks the extra mile and gives the extra shirt even to those who hate us. Agape love is hospitable and invites in. Left to our default settings, we prefer to avoid our enemies, insult our enemies, or defeat our enemies. Only in Christ can we come to love our enemies. While we were sinners and enemies of God, Jesus loved us and died for us. There is perhaps no greater barrier to our ability to be complete, whole and mature (i.e. perfect) in the same way that God is, than our inability to love our enemies.
Changing Our Default Settings
By His abundant grace, God has not left us to the ravages of our faulty defaults. As the Holy Spirit bears fruit in our hearts and lives, we come to discover that people are not problems to be fixed; they are creations of God to be cherished. Before sin and consequence, God blessed humanity and called people good. Body and soul, all people are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). Our task is not to fix every human frailty but to love sinner and saint alike as Christ has loved us.
As the Holy Spirit matures us, we come to see that people are not profiles to be viewed; they are whole beings to be encountered. When we treat people as virtual, we end up loving them in words and speech, or clicks and comments. Such love is precisely what 1 John 3:18 tells us not to do: “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” As followers of Jesus, we are not allowed to settle for just clicking the little heart emoji and then claiming that we have loved our neighbors. People are embodied. We hunger and thirst. We hurt and suffer. Truly loving people must push past the profiles to cups of water, material possessions and even bodily sacrifice. Jesus did not just proclaim love from the mountain or sacred desk. He touched lepers. He washed feet. He fed the hungry. He bore in His own flesh the scourge, the thorny crown and the nails all out of love for His disciples (the insiders), His neighbors (the outsiders) and even for those killing Him (His enemies).
As we start loving God with all our hearts, souls, minds and strength, we come to realize that we are not God and not nearly as great as we believe ourselves to be. We come to discover that the value of human beings does not depend upon our opinions of them or their utility. People are not products to be utilized; they are bearers of God’s image. Our love for people cannot be based upon how well they conform to our will and whims. Human worth is not a product of my preferences or people’s doings. Human worth is derived from human beings created in the image of God. We must come to love God’s image in every person no matter their sins or sanctity, or our definitions and categories. In his book “In the Name of Jesus,” Henri Nouwen wrote, “It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.”
If we are to “love God, love people and make disciples” (fmcusa.org/uniquelyfm), we must confess and surrender our default settings and let Jesus do His redemptive work in us. We must come to see with Paul that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners — of whom I am the worst” (1 Timothy 1:15). We must come to love our fellow disciples, our neighbors and our enemies with the same divine love of Jesus. We must not mistake fixing for loving, profiles for presence or usefulness for worth. May the Holy Spirit bring to life the fruit of love in us that we might be more like Jesus. “Lord as you will and as you know, have mercy” (fmchr.ch/abbamac).
Tyler Boyer is the senior pastor of Knox Knolls Free Methodist Church in Springfield, Illinois.3