As is often the case, this week has been a bit of an emotional roller coaster. We’ve been facing challenges from within and without which have sometimes tugged at the old heart-strings and other times tried rip them clean out of our chests. With this in mind I thought it would be a good time to write about something which has been buzzing around in my head for a while – how to love people even when it hurts.
One of the main facets of the kind of ‘ministry’ (still hate that word) my wife and I engage in is loving people who mainstream society would deem unloveable. Outcasts, misfits, struggling with mental health and addiction issues, outlaws and all other kinds of hurting people. Some call it ‘mission to the margins’. This is a little easier for us than some others because fitting in to the ‘mainstream’ isn’t something that’s ever interested us. We’re blessed and cursed with that quiet little nag at the back of the mind telling us that the American Dream, suburbia, the cute little middle-class life and all the crap that goes with it, is fake and meaningless. As I wrote in my post on ‘Befriending the Stranger‘, accepting the poor, weak and broken is the natural outworking of accepting God’s love for the poverty, weakness and brokenness in our own hearts.
This all sounds lovely and twee and often results in a nice little ‘pat on the back’ from other people, and comments like “that must be so rewarding for you”. But the truth is it usually isn’t. It’s damn exhausting sometimes. People who live chaotic and destructive lives will try to drag you into their chaos and bleed you dry. So how does one survive in this environment? How do you love the broken without burning out? In practical terms what does this love look like?
Read on to find out…
The Bible, our instruction manual for life and mission, is very clear in it’s command to ‘love’. It’s in the Ten Commandments, and the teachings of Christ are full of exhortations to love.
John 15:13 “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”
Mark 12:30-31 “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
John 13:34-35 “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Isaiah 58:10, 11 “If you extend your soul to the hungry And satisfy the afflicted soul, Then your light shall dawn in the darkness, And your darkness shall be as the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, And satisfy your soul in drought, And strengthen your bones; You shall be like a watered garden, And like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.”
The list goes on..
But what does it actually mean to ‘love’? Love has become such a twisted concept in our culture. How can I use the same word to describe my feelings towards a newborn child, the feeling I get when I ride my motorcycle and the physical passion I feel for my wife? And then use again the same word to describe my relationship with friends who are living in poverty? Generally the type of love we should have for our neighbour in the New Testament is described with the Greek word ‘agape’. The following is a pretty good definition of this word:
“If we could imagine the love of one who loves men purely for their own sake, and not because of any need or desire of his own, purely desires their good, and yet loves them wholly, not for what at this moment they are, but for what he knows he can make of them because he made them, then we should have in our minds some true image of the love of the Father and Creator of mankind.” O.C. Quick
For the Christian, there is only one true source to understand the substance and meaning of love. And what does God define himself as? 1 John 4:8b “God is love“. The only fully pure and true expression of love is in God. The love of God is not wrapped up in feelings of affection or emotional fireworks, but is based on his immoveable nature. The love of God (despite popular belief) is not the love of a quaint kindly old grandfather, but is a love which demands justice, which wishes righteousness for people even when they don’t like it. It is a kind of love which punishes the oppressor to free both oppressor and oppressed from the evil of tyranny. (Read the book of Micah for more on this).
This leads me to why loving the ‘unloveable’ is so hard. Because we are not like God. Our ability to love is broken in equal measure with our own brokenness. The reason so many in this kind of work burn out is that they try to love with a affectionate love based on feelings, but the feelings soon disappear. The love of God, agape love, is not based on feelings but foundational truths. Truths like the the fatherhood of God meaning the brotherhood of all men (and women), like the fact that all people are created in God’s image and therefore have innate worth as his image bearers. God’s love is not just affection but is inextricably linked with His justice. Throughout the Old and New Testaments God’s prophets testify to this righteous love which casts down the oppressor and liberates the oppressed. Isaiah prophesied about the coming Christ,
““The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, Because the Lord has anointed Me To preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives, And the opening of the prison to those who are bound; To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, And the day of vengeance of our God; To comfort all who mourn” (Isaiah 61:1, 2 NKJV)
It is so hard for us to love the broken because we cannot hold such seemingly opposing concepts as love and justice in our hearts. Certainly not to the extent that God exhibits absolute love and absolute justice simultaneously.
In my own journey I have come to recognise that I am a little too soft. My nature is to let things pass by, and not to make a fuss. I have less trouble maintaining an affectionate love for people but find it hard to marry this love with a sense of justice and righteousness that gently challenges people’s actions. But to truly love is to challenge people to leave behind the practices which hurt themselves and others.
“My child, don’t reject the lord ’s discipline, and don’t be upset when he corrects you. For the lord corrects those he loves, just as a father corrects a child in whom he delights.” (Proverbs 3:11, 12 NLT)
To love people truly, and without destroying ourselves, we must let our love be an extension of God’s love for us. We must love as God loves, a love that is not dependent on reciprocation, a love which is not based on feelings but that desires what is right for that person. We all lean one way or the other, towards an emotional affection or self-righteous condemnation. But God’s love expresses deep care for both the person and what is right. In John’s first epistle we are taught again and again that to love God is to obey his commandments, and in the same way to truly love another is to gently teach them to do the same. This doesn’t mean getting up on a soapbox, or relentless preaching at people, but is expressing love in a similar manner to what we’ve received from God. Firstly being a living example, secondly gentle instruction to a listening ear.
So to some up, if like us you wish to embark on a pilgrimage of taking God’s love the the margins of society, please learn from some of the painful lessons we’ve been through. Don’t get dragged onto the merry-go-round of chaos. Let your love be an overflow of the love you’ve received. Study the scriptures and see what God’s love really looks like. Love in a way which doesn’t need to receive love in return. And most of all, love God above all else, who is the wellspring from which all real love flows.
“Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions. Our actions will show that we belong to the truth, so we will be confident when we stand before God. Even if we feel guilty, God is greater than our feelings, and he knows everything.” (1 John 3:18-20 NLT)