As America becomes more polarized, the Church finds itself torn between two ideals that it seems are getting harder to hold on to simultaneously: unconditionally loving people like Christ and standing for God’s Truth. However, I hesitate to say we are becoming less of a “Christian nation” – namely because I’m not so sure we were ever really one to begin with. Certainly, the Judeo-Christian ETHIC (meaning the framework by which we judged right and wrong and tried to build our laws on) once held more sway than it does now, but the moral practice, of both living as holy imitators of Christ and especially of showing Grace and Love towards everyone in the hopes of being a testimony of Christ’s love for them… I’ve grown more and more confident we never were that, not because of what non-Christians have written about the time, but because of what people of the time claiming to be Christians wrote and said.
Actually, their words and tone sound alarmingly similar to some of the loudest voices “defending the Truth” today – full of self-righteousness and arrogant pity on the sinful masses. Certainly, the sinful actions they condemned others for were not the same ones people in pews today are condemning, but that’s not really the point now, is it? But that’s for another discussion.
There are two key factors in being able to love others like Christ: seeing in them not only what should have been, but is (though broken and hidden underneath a lot of sin) still there, and seeing your own sin as God sees it.
First the more pleasant step: we all are created in God’s image. Sin marred that, but it did not remove it. Think about it, almost all sin starts as a desire for a good thing, but it becomes sin when we pursue that desire against God’s design and plan instead of trusting that he will provide what we need. For example, lust is a sin. But sexual desire is not. In fact, before sin ever entered the world, we were actually commanded to be fruitful and multiply. Like all things in the beginning, God made living the life he designed to be desirable and enjoyable, so it’s not surprising we have a deep longing to perform this action. As a result of sin and the Fall, our desire instead of now enabling us to live as we were designed to in joy instead enslaves us to live contrary to it. Yet, the solution is not to abolish the desire. Rather, it is to surrender it to God so that you find the fulfillment you are longing for – whether that be in a spouse you love more than yourself or in finding fulfillment as a single person devoted to God so that you willingly and joyfully forgo that pleasure because you find you no longer needed it to be content.
As you can see, part of becoming a mature Christian is simultaneously seeing the original good that is aching to be redeemed while still also seeing the taint. But rather than forsaking the good in disgust because of the taint, our desire to see the good be redeemed causes us to gladly brave the taint to hopefully see God break the chains holding the good that is drowning in it and maybe even get to play a role if we are fortunate.
The same goes with people. The first step is to see the good – the image of our shared, holy Creator – that is still in the human heart. Unfortunately, we do not possess God’s ability to look straight into someone’s heart. We are left with seeing how they act – and all of us are guilty of putting on a façade for the world, so that’s hardly a guarantee. Because of that, we can only see this on the deepest level of people we know incredibly well. The people I love the deepest are those that I have, at last, seen that. It doesn’t mean I agree with everything they do, think, or say. It means at some point, I saw that goodness that God planted in them and longs to bring back to the surface. Not a single good act – but an innate, persistent, and ongoing desire and pursuit for a quality originally found in our shared Creator to the point that they will even act contrary to their own self-interests because they cannot live without it. Once I’ve seen this in someone, I cannot stop loving them. Even if they did something horrible that I would rightly regard as heinous – I might not be able to defend them, but my love would cause me to weep in sorrow and beg God to find a way to fix everything beyond all hope it rather than angrily desiring to see punishment inflicted on them, however rightly deserved.
Once you see that in a few people, you begin to realize that God sees that in everybody, because he knows everyone better than the person you know best. When he looks at us, marred by and covered so deep in sin most can’t imagine what we were supposed to be, he can and does. He sees his likeness that he imparted to each individual, and he sees it in agony under its bondage to sin, and in love he feels the pain even deeper than us who were born into and are accustomed to it. It was this compassion that led him to willingly die on a cross that we, his image-bearers, might be freed. And when you remember that, you find it incredibly difficult to hate someone – because in faith you already know what you would find if you had the time and could dig deep enough.
The second part is very unpleasant, and there is no way to force it. You have to see and feel the full weight of your own sin. I don’t mean just the awareness and feeling of guilt that we all go through as we first begin to call out to God and he brings us into his Salvation. I mean an intimate encounter. A time or event that causes you to willingly dive as deep into your own filth as you can go, only to finally be brought back to the surface and in shame, fear, and trembling realize what your heart became whether it physically manifested so that others could see it or not. After all, at this point, you know if you could have done it, you would have done it, and that is the terrifying part. Just as the image of the good Creator is buried deep within us, so too is the twisted, repulsive mockery that the Enemy tainted us with. In that space in time, you see what you would become if not for God’s intervention, and it leaves you devastated.
It is at this point you begin to understand that God really does love the people you for a time thought were unlovable – because he still loved you, even when you could no longer love yourself.
When both of these parts combine, you suddenly find it very natural to love others – not in a condescending pity kind of love, but a deep hope to see God do for them what he did for you. It’s not that you become ok with what they’re doing, or what they are saying – far from it! But just as you aren’t ok with what you yourself were, even are presently, and still long for God to show his love to you, you also desire that same thing for others because you see and feel our kinship – that we are all fallen humans, and none of us deserved to be redeemed, but any of us can be. And once you truly believe any can be redeemed, you find yourself desiring for all to be redeemed and none to face judgment – and ache from knowing that some will turn to neither you as you reach out in love nor to the One who loves them beyond all measure. But, you find you still love them anyway – how can you not?
“Lesson One: Do note hide…
You can leave, you can run,
This will still be your home…
Not to undermine the consequence
But you are not what you do.
And when you need it most
I have a hundred reasons why I love you…
If you ever… lose your innocence, just remember: Lesson One.”
– Jars of Clay, “Lesson One”