Clearly, learning to truly love people is not an assignment that will ever be checked off my to-do list. It’s a lesson I’ll still be studying on my last day.
Here are my thoughts so far.
As I’m taking my early morning walk down the familiar path … I look ahead to see a woman walking towards me. Another person I’m supposed to love. “Ugh … Lord, please help me to love all these strangers!” “No worries”, He says. “You don’t have to feel love for them—you just have to act like you love them.” Oh yes, now I remember the plan:
Look into her/his face. Smile big. Say good morning in my happiest voice. If she/he starts a conversation, listen intently and make a kind reply. Repeat…
Many years ago the book The Renewed Mind, by Larry Christenson marked my life in a unique and lasting way concerning how to love people. In my loose translation, the author says we believers are to put on (wear) fruits of the Spirit. Then, by faith, God will make a permanent change in our hearts. It’s a collaborative team effort. Christenson says we build a form and God fills it. As an analogy he describes the wooden form that a carpenter builds to hold a cement foundation. After the cement is poured, it hardens. Then the temporary form isn’t needed because the concrete is permanent. The wooden frame is a picture of our role in learning to love. I don’t have the power on my own to make myself loving; but I am capable of going through the outward motions. Then God, in His infinite power, pours himself into the habits (frame) I’ve erected, creating a permanent solid foundation of love. The temporary frame (acting like I love) can be discarded. This is really a picture of our sanctification; changing to be more like Christ.
The book continues with a great analogy—it’s one I’ve recalled many times since I first read the book.
“Sarah” lives beside a very annoying woman. Similarly to me, she wonders why she can’t be patient and love her neighbor. She begins her “form” with a board called listening. It doesn’t matter that the neighbor never listens to her; she begins patiently listening to her neighbor and getting to know her. The second board Sarah adds is prayer; she begins to pray for her neighbor’s family to be blessed. Thirdly, Sarah offers to do something nice for her neighbor, even though her neighbor wouldn’t think of being nice to her! Maybe she’ll take her a small gift or offer to help with the children. The last board needed for Sarah’s foundation is kind comment. The other neighbors are just as repelled by the neighbor as Sarah is. Sarah, however, decides to drop into conversations, true and kind comments about their annoying neighbor. The nails that hold that frame together are called faith. We need faith to believe that all this stuff is possible. That it’s not a crazy futile exercise. We have to believe that as we’ve practiced loving acts, God will fill them in with His divine love.
Over my many years I have seen amazing things happen after I’ve taken the steps to act in a loving way. Many times Tom and I have hosted small groups. Sometimes I wasn’t excited about the prospective members because they looked old, boring and maybe a little difficult to be around. Only later did I realize that most of them were younger than me and not only were they not boring, we’d even grow to appreciate the ways they were different from us. Time after time Tom and I became close to people that were very randomly grouped together; we looked forward to being with them. We actually cared for them and loved them. A miracle! Sometimes it’s fun to watch how God will bring folks together instead of trying to orchestrate a group yourself!
I’ve learned so much, also, from C.S. Lewis. He shares in a slightly different vein about LOVE. Discussing the teaching of hating a bad man’s actions but not hating the man, he says,
“It occurred to me that there was one man to whom I had been doing this my whole life—namely myself. However much I might dislike my own cowardice or conceit or greed, I went on loving myself. There had never been any difficulty about it. In fact the very reason I hated the things was that I loved the man. Just because I loved myself, I was sorry to find that I was the sort of man who did those things. Consequently, Christianity does not want us to reduce by one atom the hatred we feel for cruelty and treachery. We ought to hate them. Not one word of what we have said about them needs to be unsaid. But it does want us to hate them in the same way in which we hate things in ourselves; being sorry that the man should have done such things, and hoping, if it is anyway possible, that somehow, sometime, somewhere he can be cured and made human again.
I can’t wait to have a conversation with that man in heaven!
I’d really love to hear your adventures in learning how to love people!