August 14, 2020

Easier Said, Better Done

Love is Not a Feeling. It is Action.

In the humble village of Mahomet, IL, there is a bit of confusion surrounding something we Christians seem to take for granted. The new school season is about to kick off, and a lot of things are going to be different this year. Not only do we have issues surrounding Covid-19, but now adjustments are being asked to be made in the teaching of history and anti-racism. School board meetings have lasted for hours at a time in attempts to get everyone on the same page about how all of these things will be accomplished, and somewhere in the fog of confusion, there has been a fairly consistent snag.

On more than one occasion loving our neighbors as ourselves has been offered as the bulk portion of the solution to racial injustices, bullying, and other forms of inhumanity. In every instance of this suggestion, there has been push-back that says that doing so is simply not enough to affect positive changes to systemic racism within our community.

To be honest, I also believe that loving our neighbors rightly is a gigantic step toward bridging the racial divide. However, I have to admit that it has taken me quite a bit of time to understand why the push back against such a simple and kind principle is so strong. After having several conversations with other citizens in the community, it has occurred to me that saying that we love our neighbors is a whole lot different from actually doing it. What we’ve been missing is the practical application of what it truly means to love our neighbors as ourselves.

As Christians, we bear a responsibility to everyone around us to live the life we profess to believe. Anything other than practicing what we preach is mere lip service and makes us disingenuous. The push back, in my observation, is mostly from those who do not believe as we believe but are asking us to walk our talk. In their own ways, they are saying that if we truly believe this works, we should be able to prove it. So, for the sake of everyone involved (that would be all of us), I’d like to provide a breakdown of what ‘loving your neighbor’ looks like, where we got it from, and how we can all put it to good use.

Of course, we Christians get our instruction from the Holy Bible. There are many translations of it, and we each use the one that we best understand. Personally, I use several translations as I study. For this piece, I will be using the ESV (English Standard Version).

In our Bibles, the request to love our neighbors is not an empty one. In fact, it’s actually not even a request. It is a commandment.

Mathew 22:36-40 describes a conversation between Jesus and a lawyer.

Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”

“And he” [Jesus] “said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Jesus gives the importance of His statement in Mark 12:31

There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Here’s why. Love, as explained in 1 Peter 4:8, covers a multitude of sins. This means that, when applied correctly, love has the power to diminish all wrongs committed by anyone. This isn’t saying that people can just run around doing whatever they please without consequences, but it is saying that we can choose how we treat people based on how much wrong we are willing to love them through. What everyone needs to understand, though, is that this love business is SO hard! Yes, I said it. Loving everybody is hard work. I cannot allow it to be thought that we Christians somehow have this magic switch that flips when we accept Jesus, and we suddenly become these perfect, lofty beings who automatically know what love really is and always get it right. Trust me, we don’t.

Life as a Christian requires us to do a lot of things that go against our human nature. We are tasked with loving our neighbor, practicing self-control, being gracious – in EVERY situation! I would be lying if I said I don’t struggle with it. Sometimes, I could force myself into days of repentance in exchange for one opportunity to put someone in their place. It’s never worth it, though. As hard and messy as love can be, people are worth it. We are all human and desire to be treated fairly. We don’t, however, always have a clear view of how to go about treating everyone fairly.

Thank goodness for a comprehensive list of what love looks like.

Many of us have read or heard of 1 Corinthians 13:1-8, but I want to paraphrase it for the purpose of perspective.

No matter what we do, none of it will matter if we do not have love. Whether it’s speaking up, educating ourselves, practicing our faiths, giving to the poor, or sacrificing ourselves, if love is not our basic motivation, we are wasting our time. We might make someone feel good for a moment, but the gain is woefully temporary. Love is faithfully enduring.

Love is patient: Being silent while someone else is talking, giving people time to think and process information, thinking before you act or speak, not being angry when things don’t happen in the time frame you’d like, letting life be a process, etc.

Love is kind: Holding doors for the people behind you, picking things up that someone dropped, cleaning the table where you eat, complimenting someone on their shoes or achievement, offering an objective ear, being there when you’d rather be elsewhere, etc.

Love does not boast: Keeping your good deeds to yourself unless asked about them, being a good winner and a gracious loser, not filming and posting that time you give a homeless person a sandwich, etc.

Love does not envy: Not being upset when someone has something you don’t have, congratulating others on their accomplishments, being a gracious loser (again), learn about new things you don’t understand, etc.

Love is not arrogant: Being humble in your victories, putting your pride aside even when you’re right, listening to understand, remembering to be grateful, etc.

Love is not rude: Being gracious in your answers to questions that might concern you, not saying anything if you don’t have anything nice to say, controlling your facial expressions and body language, putting a lid on your gut reactions, etc.

Love does not insist on its own way: Not having that fit when you don’t get what you want, adapting to the needs of the situation, being willing to compromise, considering the fact that your way is not the only way, etc.

Love is not irritable: Finding your calm before entering a stressful situation, choosing to walk away rather than argue, actively avoiding personal triggers, considering the fact that life is hard for everyone, etc.

Love is not resentful: Remembering to be grateful (again), learning how to forgive, allowing yourself to be forgiven, letting go of past wrongs, taking every situation on a case-by-case basis, etc.

Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth: Acknowledging a truthful thing from someone you don’t like, interrupting bullies, graciously calling out wrongful speech or behavior, standing up for the unpopular, etc.

Love bears all things: Not allowing everything to become a fight, walking away even when offended, understanding that every action has a root reason, etc.

Love believes all things: Accepting the struggles of others as belonging to them, validating the existence of another’s feelings, separating the thoughts of others from your own when in conversation, etc.

Love hopes all things: Desiring good for everyone, looking for the best in everyone, expecting the best when preparing for the worst, actively practicing the change you want to see, etc.

Love endures all things: Working your way through hard encounters, knowing when to leave the past behind, choosing joy over anger or vengeance.

Love never fails: The practice of the above definitions of love creates the atmosphere necessary for healthy relationships to prosper. While it is not necessary to have a ton of close friendships, it is necessary to keep our relations with one another civil and gracious.

Working backward through my Bible, I’d like to point out why God finds it so important for us to love our neighbors. Not everyone has an understanding of the depth of God’s love for us. I believe, however, that his primary motivation for our existence is so that He can love us and be loved by us in return. As the creator, He could very well demand this love, but He would rather it be our choice. Choosing to love Him makes our love authentic and solidifies the relationship between us. And so it should be with our relationships with one another.

For every relationship, there should be ground rules and boundaries. The commandment to love one another stems from the first-ever ‘ground rules’ given which are the 10 Commandments as listed in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 6. These commandments are guidelines by which we can all build enduring relationships and set healthy boundaries within them. To explain:

The first 4 Commandments give us guidelines and boundaries for our relationship with God.

1. You shall have no other gods before Me. (God made us, loves us, cares for us, protects us, and has given us dominion over every other living species on the planet. There is nothing else worthy of being placed above the God of all creation.)

2. You shall not worship any carved images of ANYTHING, not even Me (God’s power cannot be harnessed or controlled through any object, so there is no need to bother with statues of Him.)

3. You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain. (Unless we are praying to or speaking about God, we should not use His name loosely, especially as part of a curse or swear. If it isn’t holy, keep Him out of it.)

4. Remember the sabbath and keep it holy. (We all love our mental health days, and we could very well consider this commandment as such. Even God, the creator of the universe, took time to rest and reflect over all He had done. In like fashion, He wants us to take care of ourselves, and a big part of that is taking at least one day per week to rest and reflect on all that God has done for us.)

The remaining 6 Commandments are guidelines and boundaries for our relationships with one another.

1. Honor your father and your mother that your days may be long on the Earth. (While many of our child-to-parent relationships are strained, honor is still required from us as children. This guideline is not easy to follow at times, but knowing its purpose helps.)

2. You shall not murder. (This is all about respect for the value of human life. God knows the difference between self-defense and homicide, and He wants us to understand it as well.)

3. You shall not commit adultery. (This guideline warns us against having physical and/or emotional relations with a person who is…)

a. Not your spouse

b. Someone else’s spouse

4. You shall not steal (If it is not given, purchased, earned or inherited, leave it there.)

5. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor (God is not a liar, and bearing His image, we should be delighted in the truth. One of the best ways to avoid lying – speculating, judging, bashing, gossiping, etc. – on your neighbor is to mind your own business. It is way more profitable for everyone to have conversations with one another than to assume we know things that we really don’t.)

6. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house (To covet is to desire and to desire is to be tempted. To be tempted is to consider action. From there, it is a whole train wreck. Sweep around your own front door, and let others sweep around theirs. If you like something that someone else has, go buy your own, but there is no benefit to being jealous or sour over someone having something that you don’t.)

All of this is being shared to say that the position of the Christ-minded individual is not to only pray or to just passively observe with our hands folded in our laps. We are called to act, but our actions have guidelines attached. We see no need to be angry, force agendas, or inspire guilt. They weigh too much and are incredibly exhausting.

What we can do is include ourselves in the efforts being made within our community. It is notable that many non-believing members of our community are attempting to do things that we believers have also been called to do. They are fighting against bullying and racism, advocating for special needs individuals, donating to charities, fighting for equity, and pushing for policy changes to benefit everyone. While we might not like some of the ways these topics are approached, that doesn’t mean we get to dismiss them or avoid taking action ourselves. In fact, we too are asked to:

Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, please the widow’s cause.” Isaiah 1:17

By this instruction, we should be helping our neighbors in this fight. We have powerful tools on board that can add proper fuel to their efforts and help get things going in the right direction. We were never meant to oppose non-believers, but to instead, attract them to the love of Jesus by our own examples of that love.

There are way too many of us Christians butting heads with non-believers in this land. If we are arguing with one another, we are off course. If, however, we are using what we understand to walk alongside our neighbors without expectation of their seeing everything from our perspective, our relationships will become more solid, more enduring, and more productive.

To my non-believing friends and acquaintances, I am very sorry for the times I have been a bad example of my own beliefs. Please, forgive me and allow me to do my part in helping us all be the change we want to see. I have not always been gracious when you didn’t understand, and I regret that. Instead of pushing my own narrative, I should have been more patient and more kind. You deserve better.

My intent is to do better – to show what loving my neighbor truly looks like in thought, in speech, and in action. I don’t want to do it just because God commands me to do it. I want to do it because He loves me and I know He also loves you, too. Call me an old softy, but that’s good enough for me.