Updated: 8:50AM, 11/4/13
A few weeks ago, in a small-group I lead for non-Christians interested in Jesus, I heard one of the more terrifying stories I’ve heard since starting ministry (for the sake of privacy, details have been altered). It was a story of an older gentleman, a wonderful older gentleman named Theo.
Theo wasn’t a Christian (until recently). He knew of Jesus but, self-admittedly, he didn’t “follow” Jesus. Nonetheless, he had lived a full life, raised great kids, with healthy grandkids, and had been married to the same woman for twenty-five years.
From the first day I met Theo, I liked him. He had this soft smile that lit up the room, and a dignified manner that made me think he was secretly British royalty. He dressed nice, talked nice, and always had thoughtful questions for the group. Everyone in the group loved Theo, and that’s because they sensed Theo genuinely loved everyone in the group.
Then a few weeks back Theo shared his horror story. About six months ago, his wife of twenty-five years left him. Theo said she decided, “She doesn’t love me anymore.” For the seventh time, Theo caught her having an affair, and despite his best efforts to reconcile the relationship… again… she left him. Kicking and screaming the entire way. Blaming Theo for her years of infidelity. Leaving him standing there cold and alone.
When Theo shared, we didn’t dig too deep. We just prayed for him and told him the church would be his new family, if he’d let us. He seemed thankful to hear that.
A few weeks passed, and we didn’t hear much more about Theo’s story, until last week. The topic of discussion was centered around Jesus’ second great command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And we couldn’t hardly read the verse aloud before Theo interjected with a question, a question that led to a powerful discussion which dominated our group time, a question that surprisingly so many others in the room resonated with, and a question I’ve come to realize is much easier to theologize than to live.
Theo asked, “Do I really have to love my ex-wife?”
I wish I could play for you the conversation that followed because so many powerful insights were shared. I pulled out my pen and scribbled away as people honestly wrestled with what it looks like to love their, in this case, unlovable neighbor. I’ll try here to summarize a few points.
1. When I’m close enough to feel your pain, you’re close enough to feel my love.
It’s impossible to love someone in deep pain, like Theo, from a distance. To bring them up emotionally, you must be willing to be drained emotionally. To speak into their pain, they must know you feel it. To change their story, you must (in part) bear their story. This is cross-shaped love. This is incarnational-love. This is Jesus.
It was painfully beautiful to see the group truly feel Theo’s pain. Some apologized to Theo, even though they’d done nothing wrong. Others shared their similar stories. Others cried (not me, of course…) over Theo’s courage.
2. Love is more essentially an action than an emotion.
Ultimately, the group’s answer for Theo was, “Yes. You should love your ex-wife” …even though it seems impossible.
And that’s because while it may be impossible to conjure up the feelings of love, it’s never impossible to do the acts of love. Emotions are often uncontrollable, but our actions aren’t. That’s why, no matter the degree of loathing someone may have earned, Jesus still commands your love. This means doing the acts of love when the feelings of love are void … because that’s the way of the cross. I’ve blogged on this.
3. Own what is yours.
In every relational conflict, both parties own a piece of the problem and the solution, and thus the apology and the forgiveness. Your responsibility before God is to own what is yours.
Sometimes, like with Theo, you are only responsible for a fraction of a percent of the problem. Despite, own it. Own what’s yours, and do the necessary apologizing it takes to make amends.
Sometimes, like with Theo, you are responsible for a good majority of the forgiveness. Begin the process. In some cases, wounds are so deep forgiveness takes years. Others won’t even heal until Jesus comes back and does it himself. Whatever the case may be, don’t ignore your piece of the relational pie.
There is no healing in avoidance. Own what is yours.
4. When love means forgiveness, love means suffering.
When someone wrongs another, damage is done. Damage that can’t be ignored, but instead, must be absorbed somehow by someone. We all know the feeling. When someone hurts us, we want them to pay for it. There is a debt (whether it be economic, emotional, or whatever) that must be paid for the damage done. And it can’t be ignored.
As the one wronged, you really have two choices: (1) You can demand the offender compensate you for their damages; (2) Or you can refuse compensation (whether they offer it or not) and bear the damages yourself.
Real forgiveness is the latter. And that means real forgiveness inevitably involves suffering. So when love means forgiveness, love means suffering.
But there is no more perfect example of cross-shaped love than when someone chooses to truly, ever-so-agonizingly, forgive. Because at the heart of real forgiveness is, not me, but you.
5. There’s no peace in hate.
Our natural response to someone who hurts us, particularly as deep as Theo’s wife hurt him, is hate. And for a while, hate consoles us. We even feel like we have “the right” to hate! Evil has been done, hate has been given, so hate is the just response. Often, even our initial attempts at forgiveness are just a way seeking revenge, “I forgive you and all, but…”
Here’s the only problem though: peace can’t come from causing pain because causing pain doesn’t create peace. There is no peace in hate. Hate only creates more hate. Hate only creates more damage which requires more forgiveness which in turn calls for more suffering.
If you want to put out a fire, why throw gas on it? You can’t fight hate with hate. Someone has to be the grown up and say, “I’ll be the one who loves first.”
6. Love can start small.
Love gains momentum. It can start in small, private, seemingly insignificant ways.
7. When you run out of love, draw from the source.
As our conversation progressed, Theo described several things he’d done over the past few months to show love to his ex-wife, only to receive more scorn and abuse in return. He wondered where in the world he could find the energy to continue loving her, even from a distance.
Answer? The source. When you run out of love, draw from the source. Dip deep into the sea of grace God has immersed your life with.
Theo loved this.
8. Loving the unlovable is practice in, perhaps one of the most fundamental Christian virtues, humility.
It takes humility to love when someone doesn’t deserve it. A humility that recognizes, “I’m not beyond that.” Part of the reason we have trouble loving those who hurt us is because we refuse to empathize with them. But refusing empathy can often be a form of self-righteousness. And self-righteousness is the opposite of humility.
Fact is, we’re all messed up. We’re all deeply marred by the brokenness of sin. And so we’re all desperately in need of saving grace. Yes, even you. And coming to the recognition of your own personal need for grace makes offering grace easier.
Really, loving the unloveable, at its core, is grace. And you can only give grace in so much as you actually have received it. So aren’t you glad you’ve received?
I’m not saying that love is a call to be abused, exploited, and oppressed (although, inevitably that sometimes will happen – and Theo caught that vibe). I guess what I’m saying is this – Aren’t you glad God loves you despite you?
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