Called to Love…But Maybe Not Trust

Last week on ESI, I posted some thoughts on what Christians can do to focus on those things that God’s Word seems to tell us matter most to Him (Living a Life of Discerning Servitude). While it’s true that God loves all of His creation – and called it “very good” – He made man “in His own image” and categorized the creation of humankind as somehow unique and worthy of His attention in a way set apart from the rest of creation (Genesis 1:27). While God certainly does not “need” us in any way (Acts 17:25), the Bible does tell us that He set His affections on us.

Love, Service, Trust and WisdomGod loves us. So much so that He created a plan for our redemption that cost Him the life of His own beloved Son. The Apostle John says that we love because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). In that verse, I think there might be a clue for us as to what authentic love looks like.

Is any word in the English language as badly treated as the word “love?” We say that we love a lot of things, but most of the time we are using that term far too lightly. I might say that I love Jamoca Almond Fudge ice cream (and I do) but I’d never risk my life to save some from being thrown out. I “love” it because of the way it tastes, and how it brings me pleasure and comfort. So in this case, my “love” has everything to do with what ice cream does for me. It really has nothing at all to do with my desire to “better ice cream’s existence” and everything to do with my self-focused desire for ice cream to better mine. In the biblical sense of the word, certainly, I don’t really “love” ice cream at all.

That’s a ridiculous example, I know. But how often can we apply the God-honoring standard of costly self-sacrifice to our love relationships with other people? How many times have friendships – or even marriages – fallen apart because, while we said we loved another person, what we really loved most was ourselves?

I think Jesus makes a similar point in the Gospel of Luke as He gives the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus exhorts those around him to live humbly, to be merciful, and to pursue peace. He then tells them to love their enemies and to do good to those who hate them:

“If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.
Luke 6:32-36

Sounds like “loving” others only when it benefits us – or when we receive love in return – is not really the “love of others” Jesus has in mind. That type of “love” is love of self, and it doesn’t reflect the kind of deep, authentic love that God lavishes on us.

But how can we truly love those who “hate” us? Isn’t that impossible? Well, yes…if we think that “love” has to engender a warm feeling of heartfelt affection. Realizing that Jesus would never call us to “play act” love for another when we really feel like wringing their neck, it has been massively helpful to me to remind myself that biblical love is a decision…not a feeling.

(If I wait to feel love for that person, I’ll never be able to obey Jesus!)

It also helps me to expand the words “hate” and “enemy” to include anyone who, in that moment, doesn’t have my best interests at heart. The kind of love God calls us to show towards people who are our “enemies” might include letting someone go first in line at the grocery store – without rolling our eyes! – when it’s clear they are in a hurry, when they think they deserve to butt in front of you, and when they don’t even pause long enough to thank you. Do they “deserve” to have us treat them well? Of course they don’t! That’s the whole point of love and grace. But your everyday testimony to Christ can be as simple – and as difficult – as deciding not to stare daggers at the woman in the Express Checkout line with 32 items in her basket.

That’s not so hard, really. But it gets harder when your emotions are in play.

“Loving our enemies” might also include forgiving an undeserving spouse, child or long-time friend who has deeply hurt us, maybe even betrayed our trust. Certainly, that other person has failed to love us sacrificially in some way. Now that trust has been broken, we know it’s wise to be careful in that relationship. Restoring trust too quickly after a deep betrayal can be a very dangerous thing – think about a marriage where sexual infidelity has occurred – so having good boundaries throughout the process of reconciliation is absolutely critical.

So much could be said here about what reconciliation might look like after a deep relational wound, so please don’t hear me saying that no matter what people do to us, we have to stay in relationship with them. This is where getting wise, godly counsel can help us live faithfully in that hard situation. But no matter the details, there are some hard questions we can ask ourselves to make sure we are doing our best to love others. So, how can you tell if you’re using boundaries in a way that is God-honoring, while still faithfully trying to love this person who has hurt you? Some simple questions I have found helpful to ask myself include:

  • Am I holding this person at arm’s length because it’s wise to do so…or because I want to punish him or her?
  • Is this really about what this other person has done…or is it more about my own comfort?
  • If/when I see true repentance in this other person’s words and actions, am I ready to let them get close to me again?
  • Is this more about loving them…or loving myself? And how is it about trying to do a better job of loving Jesus?

If we love only those we trust and who love and treasure us, what good does that do us? Jesus is pretty clear on this point: “None.” Of course we’re nice to those who are nice to us; in some ways, we love ourselves most when we surround ourselves with people who make our lives easier, better, or more fun.

It’s important to say that we simply cannot love the way God calls us to unless He himself provides the Spirit of God to give us the strength and wisdom to do so. Absent the Spirit’s active work in our hearts, we will always choose to love everyone around us for what they do for us. By definition, then, we will only love ourselves. By His will, however, and with His enabling…I can love the unloveable. Even if I don’t really want to.

Loving the hard-to-love individual and persevering – when I’d much rather not – truly expresses my faith in and trust of the God who created not just me, but the one I’m finding so very hard to love. After all, this other person I find so hard to love also bears God’s image…and is deeply loved by Jesus.

Right?  🙂

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