If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.
1 Corinthians 13:1-3 The Message
The point of this beloved passage of Paul’s is that of all the things we could do, loving people is the most important. Why?
- Because God is love, and we are to be like him.
- Because Jesus demonstrated love to the marginalized and outcast, and as his disciples we are to be like him.
- Because God searches for people after his own heart to work through and we want to be vessels used by him.
Love & ‘The Other’
There was a time in the recent past when many Christians did not show much love, but relied on power to do God’s redemptive work. As we saw in my post Note to the Church: Mistakes not to make again, as a community we made bad decisions how to respond to social and cultural change from the 1970s through to the 1990s by choosing to limit our engagement strategy to what we thought would be the supportive power of public opinion, the courts, and politics. What was lost in those years was our witness to God’s incredible love for all humanity.
Christians cannot be carrying out the redemptive work of Christ when they are treating ‘The Other’ (people not like us) as an enemy to be defeated. The enemy is not other people. The enemy is the evil power of this world that seeks to pull people away from God and life the way he designed it for us.
So, given that God is love, when there is no love evident in us for ‘The Other,’ we have to ask what that says about us. There is a place for speaking prophetic correction to society, but as Paul writes, “If I have the gift of prophecy…but do not have love, I am nothing.”1
But do we really have to show love to people who absolutely reject Jesus and even curse his name? For sure there are lots of verses in the Bible about loving “one another” (that is, people within the church), but do we really have to love those other people as well?.
Well, yes! When Jesus said that one of the greatest commandments is to love your neighbour, he was asked, “And who is my neighbour?” His answer was the parable of the Good Samaritan, which makes the point that we are to love the person who is not like us — ‘The Other!’
Okay so we have to love them, but how much? There can be only one answer: as much as Christ loved us before we loved him. Paul is very clear about the depth of Christ’s love for us: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. We should likewise love sinners even while still in their sin.
Love and Power
It is true that God works through whomever he pleases. The Bible shows us God working through pagan kings to chastise Israel. He worked through Jonah with smashing success even though Jonah did not love the Ninevites. But the point of the book of Jonah is the point I’m making here. Jonah should have loved the Ninevites. He should have seen them the way God sees them – people who need to repent and who can be redeemed. We know from the history of King David that God looks for men and women after his own heart, people he can trust to use his power wisely. So while there are exceptions, we are safe to assume that we will more likely be used powerfully by God when we make ourselves look more like him by loving people as he loves them. I don’t think we can go wrong with the following principles:
- If we want to walk in God’s power, we need to walk in God’s love.
- If we want to have God’s power flow through us, we must first have God’s love flow through us.
- Power without love is a recipe for abuse, and exercising power without love is no witness to God’s relationship with humanity.
How might our current relationship with the secular world be different had we engaged differently a generation ago using these principles?
When it comes to the law and politics, there are times when (like Paul) we should make use of the civil institutions which have been provided to us for our protection. But it is a terrible mistake to think that these should be our primary tools for change! The real power of our faith will for sure be manifested when we love all people, while standing up to those who would misuse power against the less powerful.
The primary goal of Christian leaders, particularly pastors, therefore, is to disciple those within their sphere of responsibility to live as excellent representatives of Jesus Christ expressing his love for all people. When we live like that, we are most useful to God and most likely to walk in his power to accomplish his purpose.
To change the world
Our ‘go to’ tools for changing the world must be those used by Jesus: love, prayer, spiritual discernment, and deep engagement with people who need to experience God’s love and care.
To use these tools well, we need to be mature Christians, which brings us to the topic of discipleship. If we were really serious about changing the world, we would be really serious about discipleship. Before trying to change the world ‘out there,’ let’s first do a better job changing the world ‘in here.’ Discipleship should have the goal not just of personal growth, but of mobilization – helping rank and file Christians engage the people around them with love, prayer, and discernment.
Discipleship and Spiritual Formation
The problem, according to some, is that discipling Christians isn’t thorough enough. We have faith, but our lives are formed much more significantly by our secular culture than most realize, which weakens our witness. James Davison Hunter wrote about discipleship in the church today in To Change the World:
If, for whatever reason, the culture of a local parish and the larger Christian communion of which it is a part does not express and embody a vision of renewal and restoration that extends to all of life then it will be impossible to ‘make disciples’ capable of doing the same in every part of their lives. In formation, it is the culture and the community that gives shape and expression to it that is the key.” 2
So the church should model living faithfully in every aspect of its life and train its members to do the same in theirs. If Christians are to be true Christ-followers, effectively representing Christ to their world, we must preach in our churches what salvation is for during our present life here on earth.
What the church can do
Here are some elements of a robust discipleship program.
- Help people learn how to think as a Christian. As already mentioned, many Christians are being formed more by our culture than by our faith. We must learn how to discern which aspects of our culture to affirm and which to challenge. This is NOT a list of “do’s and don’ts”, but understanding the principles that apply so Christ-followers can independently reason for themselves which is which.
- Teach people what God’s vision is for human society in the present world. What should society and culture look like and what can we, as individuals and as a group, do to move our world closer to that vision? Resources related to God’s mission and Christian ethics would be helpful. One book that addresses both is Let Justice Roll Down.
- Help people confront their own resistance to living a Christlike life. There is a cost involved. We all need to do the right thing, even when we want to do something else. For example, it is costly to invest yourself in relationships when you’d rather use your time for your own purposes. A helpful resource about making personal choices is Andy Stanley’s book The Best Question Ever, which I’ve blogged about. There are all kinds of Bible studies on submitting our lives to Christ and giving him full reign over us.
- Teach people how to make full use of Christian spiritual practices and discernment. My series Hearing God Speak and the category Spirituality of Leadership both have helpful posts in this regard. Christians must be able to discern God’s leadership if they are to live as faithful Christ-followers.
- Teach Christians how to help other people for the other person’s long term good. So often we respond to immediate needs and do things that we really should be helping them do for themselves. There is a dignity in allowing others to play a significant part in overcoming their own problems. Often, by doing it for them, or giving aid that is only a short-term solution, we create a dependency on aid. When Helping Hurts and Poverty Inc. are two resources that have many principles that can be applied in any helping situation.
- Train people to share their faith in a natural way. Propositions are not likely to work with most people today. People will respond to hearing your story after they have experienced compassion, love, and mercy from you. One of many helpful resources is Just Walk Across the Room.
- Get people to practice engaging others. This is what the local church is ideal for. In the world outside our churches, we are in the midst of ‘The Other,’ those people who are not like us. How do we prepare for meeting such people? Fortunately, Christ gave us the church. Because the local church is open to anyone who wants to attend, we have ‘The Other’ right among us. We need to practice loving them and drawing them into our lives. Who are they? Well, depending on your own demographic, they might be:
- the young or the old
- the rich or the poor
- the immigrant or the multi-generation Canadian
- the employed or the unemployed
- the single or the married
- the one with doubts or the one who has resolved their doubts
- the well-educated or the less-educated
If we were serious…
We need intentional discipleship programs to develop church members into mature Christians who know how to relate to, and love, the people whom God has placed in their sphere of influence.
Key Thought: When Christians love ‘The Other’ as Christ loved us while we were yet sinners, then we will walk in God’s power and change our world.