When I first came to Christ many years ago, the idea of Christian love was massively confusing. The commands to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” and “do good to those who hate you” made no sense at all (Matt 5:44, Lk 6:27). I practiced just the opposite for twenty plus years and, honestly, this sounded like dangerous and even bad advice. I remember the first chance I had to put faith into action regarding forgiveness and how beautifully strange it felt. On the one hand, I was giving up my right to retaliate and win. On the other, I was gaining victory by choosing to love, relying on Christ's power at work in me. This was about as close to walking on water as I could imagine – exhilarating and yet risky.
Fast forward thirty years and I find myself in all kinds of situations that continue to challenge this call to love and forgiveness, especially when I receive mixed messages. Trying to understand what a person actually means and what his or her intentions are can be incredibly disturbing. And it is tempting to focus on discernment, rather than love, to guard my heart from further pain. I reason that if I learn to discern well enough, I can avoid difficult relationships altogether. But, this is not the call of Christ – to measure out love and forgiveness only to those I consider deserving or trustworthy, while protecting myself from the others. His call is to love them regardless -- when they say what they mean and mean what they say, and when they do the exact opposite. Why? Because that’s what he did.
The disciples said they loved Jesus, but they slept when he was sweating blood and continued sleeping in spite of his pleading that they wake up and pray. They denied him and tried to use him for position and power. But none of it deterred Christ from showing them love. He could have easily left the boat rides, the mountainsides, the dusty roads, the garden and the cross with a well-documented and justified declaration that these people were not trustworthy and did not deserve His love. His case would have been clear cut, even among his family members who refused to trust and follow him. Surely, no one demonstrated perfect love toward him in word and deed, and yet he kept giving.
Christ loved profoundly, extravagantly, sacrificially and wisely, never blindly or selfishly. He knew the heart of man was deceptive. And while he was committed to lavishly giving love, he never put his hope or trust in the return of it. He knew the Father alone could give the faithful love that never fails, and only he as the God-man could perfectly live it out by the Spirit’s power. Because of this, he is the only one who can teach us how to love, setting an example that is etched on all believer's hearts by the Word and the Spirit. We witness him blessing his enemies, refusing to retaliate, feeding those who are needy but do not see their need for him, healing many who are not thankful and leading those who are struggling to accept His divine position as their very creator.
We can look to him, the great author of our faith, and see that he did all this not for the immediate gratification of getting his needs met but for the joy set before him (Heb 12:2). He was able to scorn the shame of rejection, hatred, humiliation and contempt because His goal was love -- to give each one of his children the ultimate gift of His righteous life. He pressed past the stares and glares, the broken promises and the insults. He refused to be discouraged by the unbelief and the slander, the lack of dedication and the breaking of promises, not because he believed these responses would change but because he was on a divine mission to pour out the most downright, beautiful love mankind would ever know. His eyes were fixed on the prize of the mysterious cross, where sin and death were defeated by resurrection power and shame was eclipsed by honor and glory unimaginable.
As his daughters and sons, we share in his glorious mission by the power of his indwelling Spirit. We, who have no good in ourselves apart from him, have with him the ability to practice this mind defying, life transforming mercy and kindness, even to those who harm us. But it does come with a cost. It demands our right to be treated fairly and to see immediate justice, our innate desire to retaliate, and most of all our often obsessive longing to be loved in return. In exchange, we receive the promise that he is with us and will comfort us when our hearts are broken, that he will love us perfectly in the way we long for and that he will give us the grace, strength and wisdom we need to keep loving and giving, over and over and over again, until our death is ultimately swallowed up in his resurrection victory and we receive the eternal prize he has promised. At that instant, all brokenness and pain from imperfect love will cease, and we’ll experience all of the fullness of the perfect love of our Father (Eph 3:20).