My dad used to tell me a story about when I was a little kid and we were at playground at a public park. I was playing in a sandbox with another kid (whom I did not know), and this kid gets mad at me and throws sand in my face. While I have no memory of this event, my dad told me what happened next. I didn’t cry. I didn’t get mad. Apparently, I just stared at this kid in disbelief with this expression on my face that just said, “Really??”
I will never know why that kid threw sand in my face. I only know that a kid was furious me. Neither one of us was able to speak, walk, or understand great concepts like “agape” or “retribution.” It was a very raw experience that revealed the innate anger and hatred that simmers under the surface, even before we are old enough to call it what it is.
While I am not attempting to generate a discussion on the theology of original sin (though that is fun to do), I do believe that our default nature is not one of love, even when we think it is.
Even when we think it is. I wanted to emphasize that part, because I doubt many of us would want to own up to the idea that we are not “loving” when it comes to others. L-O-V-E is a great word. We want to believe in it. It’s the foundation of our relationships, right? We love sharing Bible verses about love, right? We echo it in everything from emoticons in Facebook chat to lofty church vision statements. Love is supposed to be that very nature that defines us, right? I know I read somewhere once that Christians are to be known by their love for one another (John 13:34-35).
But what if we’re wrong? What – if in spite of our best intentions – love is NOT what we default to? What if – in spite of all the biblical knowledge in front of us – love is actually something that is very elusive?
Let’s be honest. We are human. We are inherently selfish. And we reflect this in our everyday behavior. Okay, okay… maybe some of us are better at how we handle some situations better than others, but we all know where we fail:
- When we’re cut off by some jerk during rush hour traffic (who can’t possibly know that you need to be home before he does)
- When we find out someone has talked about us behind our back (so we talk about them behind theirs)
- When you pass a poor or homeless person and do nothing (and assume they’re just lazy or scam artists)
- When you hear a rumor and believe it (or worse, spread it)
- When we think we’re better than other people in ANY way (that we’re smarter, purer, wiser, deeper, and – ironically – more “selfless”)
- When someone does something wrong and commits a sin – great or small (and we treat them as if we’ve never failed ourselves).
- When we blame others incessantly for our own faults (after all, if they hadn’t been in the picture, things would’ve worked out, right?)
The list could go on and on and on.
Don’t get me wrong here. I am humbled how many people DO exhibit love in these situations. But more often than not, I am dumbstruck at just how poorly people calling themselves Christ-followers fail to LOVE in many situations – myself included.
Then it hit me: Maybe many of us just don’t know how to love. Though we know the concept, maybe – just maybe – it’s never truly been modeled FOR us.
- If we’ve come from unhealthy family situations…
- If we’ve come from unhealthy church situations…
- If we’ve not experienced unconditional love from friends…
- If people claiming to follow Christ have modeled a lifestyle of judgmental-ism and legalism and that’s all we’ve ever seen…
- If people claiming to love us only did so if we met their “conditions”…
If any of these situations apply to us, then love may be nothing more than a concept. We think we know what it means, but – having never truly experienced it ourselves – we cannot truly love others.
If I just offended you with that statement, please bear with me. I am generalizing for the sake of making a point about our Christian culture. I’m not attacking those who’ve found a way out of this cycle (and there IS a way out).
Sure, we can make an effort. We try to love. We may try to reach out to people. We may try to be nice to an annoying co-worker. We may serve once in a while in a soup kitchen to mark it off our “love” bucket list. We may try to smile at people we secretly hate. We may pretend to be open to people’s problems – even talk with them – but secretly wish we were somewhere/anywhere else. We can put it on our church signs. We can write about it – even preach about it. We will try to convince ourselves every day that we really love people, yet never acknowledge just how difficult it is to actually do it.
Love – for many Christians – is the awkward hug. You know how it feels. You open your arms, you reach out, then the most awkward 2 seconds of your life happens. You grimace. You ache inside. And you’re relieved when the hug is over. You may even feel compelled to go home and take a shower.
Love is just awkward. It’s weird. It’s not as powerful or as immediately self-serving as anger or hate. It is – too often – the most awkward thing we have to do, because it goes against almost every sinful fiber of our being. It means letting go of our hurts. It means putting others first. It is awkward because it is not the norm. It is not our default state.
Something has to change. Something has to transform our half- or non-love into something Christ-like that flows out of us naturally. But how?
GET IN THE WORD.
Let’s be real. In our church culture, it’s highly likely love has not been modeled to us very well (if you disagree with me, then start asking people who don’t go to church why they don’t go). So we have to turn to where it is described the best: Scripture. I do not believe you can spend any real time in the Word of God and not start to learn what it means to love others. Sure, there are a lot of people who “know” Scripture and use it to beat people up. But I would argue they are not actually paying attention to what they are reading. Love is the core of Scripture. It is modeled for us in the actions of our Lord and Savior. The struggle to remain a people of love (vs. a people of religiosity) permeates the letters of Paul, Peter, and James. The prophets were always trying to bring Israel back to a place where they loved the poor and would not tolerate injustice against people. God is Love, so Love is everything in the Bible. So we must be in the Bible to know it.
DON’T HAVE CHURCH; BE THE CHURCH
I have seen and been a part of churches that have incredible productions. I’ve seen how these productions have played a role in making people feel more comfortable in church (and, thus, a role in many of them coming to Christ). Yet I once heard the production manager of a VERY large church say, “No production element ever saved anyone from hell.” He made this comment to specifically remind people that it’s too easy to get caught up in the “stuff” we do as church. We get caught up in programs, productions, events, technology, choirs, building programs… you name it. Much of our time, energy, and money is spent making these things our priority.
But I cannot help but feel that we are so focused on HAVING church, that we forgot what it means to BE the church – to BE the Body of Christ. Let me put this as clearly as I can: Would Jesus be sitting in room somewhere with the door open waiting on people to come to Him, or would he be getting his feet dirty – going into the villages where people need hope – and healing the sick, caring for the poor, and spreading the good news to people that needed to hear it? BEING the church means taking this message to the world and living it out. Love is modeled for people as the body of Christ moves beyond its walls. And that’s how we…
…BREAK THE CYCLE.
Sooner or later, we have to quit perpetuating selfishness. We cannot expect people we want to lead to know how to love if we don’t model it for them. We need to quit building 3-5 acre kingdoms that show the whole world how we can’t even get along with each other. We need to be lifting people up when they fall. We need to quit ignoring the injustice in the world around us. We need to quit ignoring the poor and the lonely right under our noses. We need to learn to err on the side of grace. We need to break the cycle, so that new generations can rise up and say “I know what love is because I’ve experienced it.”
This starts with each one of us. This is our calling. Don’t awkwardly hug people. Open your arms, embrace those in need, and show people a love that is real.
If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)