Our lives are filled with beautiful thoughts like “love people.” These beautiful thoughts are easy to clap for but hard to implement — beautiful thoughts like “save for retirement,” “eat less” and “exercise more.” Love people.
It’s a great idea. I mean, what kind of grinch wouldn’t want to love people? It’s a great idea, as long as we let the word “love” be a vague concept and “people” a theoretical construct. The problems come when we start talking about what “love” means and which people, specifically we’re to love. That’s where it gets messy.
If that weren’t bad enough, not only is it hard to love people, it’s impossible — at least if we’re trying to love them out of our own goodness. I cannot guilt or cajole you into loving more, because it’s not within you. I might just as well exhort you to produce more gold out of scrap paper; it can’t be done. But here’s how we can love more: not by producing it but by being a conduit for it.
There’s a huge difference between trying to generate love and simply allowing it to flow through us and overflow out of us. Aha! That’s the secret, isn’t it? There has to be an inflow of love into our lives from God, whose very nature is love, that can outflow to others around us.
What we do instead is parsimoniously ration out small amounts of love, only occasionally raiding our meager pantry of mental and emotional health. We’re careful not to waste love lest, in the giving away, we lose it.
We are good at loving people who love us back, because there’s no net loss. We give love to them, they give it back to us, and everyone is happy. But what about that person who is unlovely? I don’t mean people who aren’t beautiful, but people who are not lovable either in character or action: people who are mean, condescending, disrespectful, hateful, threatening or even violent. Who, in their right mind, would waste their love on that person? I know someone.
Someone named Jesus who shocks us by turning the age-old maxim
inside out, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven”
Want to be a kid of the kingdom? Then love your enemies. The amazing rationale for why we are to exhibit this irrational behavior is found several verses later, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”
What? Be perfect? What kind of metaphor might this be? Or could Jesus have really meant it? That we should anticipate our love being perfect, like the Father’s love for us. Love people perfectly.
So not only is God our source and our model of love, He’s also our rationale for loving. Because He is perfect, we desire to be like Him — perfect too.
But what does it mean to love people with the Father’s perfect love? Could our Father ever be accused of only showering love on a few and ignoring others? That’s exactly what the intervening verses argue against: “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45).
God loves the evil people and the unrighteous people by giving to everyone His goodness (sun and rain). His goodness is not reserved for good people. His love is not reserved for the lovely. Love unlovely people perfectly.
Love is more than being nice. Our Father’s perfect love could never be called single-faceted. His love is not only exhibited in His good gifts and acceptance, it’s also found in His heavy hand of discipline and justice. Love was what expelled Adam and Eve from the garden (Genesis 3). Love was the consuming fire that flared from the tent and consumed Korah (Numbers 16). Love was what dragged the exiles from Jerusalem to Babylon (2 Kings 24–25, 2 Chronicles 36, Psalm 137, Jeremiah 25–52, Ezekiel, Daniel).
Neither should our perfect love be a passive, hand-wringing, tongue-tied kind of love; but a love that reaches a hand of compassion toward the pain of our neighbors, that takes a valiant stand against evil in its many incarnations, that persistently dialogues with the humorless grind of postmodern despair, and that generously births unmerited good deeds. A fully inflated understanding of love has a reach that encircles the globe and a depth that motivates every action with sometimes surprising expressions.
Love unlovely people perfectly, and sometimes be nice.
David Roller served for 17 years as a Free Methodist missionary in Mexico and then for 10 years as Latin America area director for Free Methodist World Missions. He was first elected a bishop in 2007.1