A friend asked a question recently that I have been pondering ever since I read it: Jesus said His disciples would be known by their love. So why are some non-Christian people more loving than Christians?
It’s not a new question. It’s one I have considered before.
And it’s a general question. Many Christians are very loving and kind and put me to shame. And there are unbelievers who are most definitely unloving and unkind.
But the observation still stands, especially if you spend much time on social media. Christians, who should know better, can be just as vitriolic as anyone else. Worse, they would probably not describe themselves as hateful. So how do they miss the total lack of love in their responses?
The fact that people who don’t know God in a personal way can be kind hearkens back to our being made in the image of God. The fact that we have a distinction between kindness and hatefulness even before becoming Christians points to God putting that in our hearts. He made us like Himself, but that image has been marred by the fall of humankind into sin.
C. S. Lewis pointed out that people can be nice and still be rebels against God. In Mere Christianity, Lewis brings up a placid Dick Firkin and a nasty Miss Bates. You would think by their personalities that he is the Christian and she is not, but it’s the other way around.
You cannot expect God to look at Dick’s placid temper and friendly disposition exactly as we do. They result from natural causes which God Himself creates. Being merely temperamental, they will all disappear if Dick’s digestion alters. The niceness, in fact, is God’s gift to Dick, not Dick’s gift to God. In the same way, God has allowed natural causes, working in a world spoiled by centuries of sin, to produce in Miss Bates the narrow mind and jangled nerves which account for most of her nastiness. He intends, in His own good time, to set that part of her right.
The question is what Miss Bates’s tongue would be like if she were not a Christian and what Dick’s would be like if he became one. Miss Bates and Dick, as a result of natural causes and early upbringing, have certain temperaments: Christianity professes to put both temperaments under new management if they will allow it to do so.
But it does seem like, especially with redeemed temperaments, Christians should be more loving than they often appear to be. Jesus said, “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” (John 13:34-35).
So why aren’t we more loving?
I don’t know all the reasons, but here are a few possibilities:
We feel “safe.” We know we’re saved by grace through faith, not by our good works (Ephesians 2:8-9). But we forget we’re saved unto good works (verse 10). Because we expend no effort in order to be saved, we forget there is effort involved in living the Christian life. The Bible describes Christian life sometimes as a battle or a race. We don’t become Christians and then coast our way to heaven without paying any attention to our words and actions. We should be continually growing in grace and the knowledge of Christ and bringing our words and actions more in line with His.
We know Biblical love is not just a feeling. One of my former professors defined agape love as a “self-sacrificing desire to meet the needs of the cherish object.” But that, even more than warm feelings, should spur us on to be careful of our words and actions, to sacrifice that desire to lash out.
We stand for truth. Sure, love involves telling the truth, and the truth can be hard to hear. But we’re to speak the truth in love. If love is a self-sacrificing desire to meet the loved one’s needs, how loving is it to club them over the heads with truth? How is that meeting their needs? It seems, rather, that it’s driving them further away from the very truth they need.
We misread Biblical examples. One man with a harsh demeanor felt he was following the example of the OT prophets. But who were the prophets preaching to? Israelites who were worshiping false gods and showing marked injustice to their neighbors. Some point to Jesus’ stern words to the Pharisees as an excuse to speak that way generally. But the Pharisees were those who added to God’s requirements and led people astray. These were serious issues that could lead people to a devastating end. We don’t need to address every disagreement in these ways. Somehow people who want to be as fiery as OT prophets miss the compassion and pleading those same prophets express. They also miss the NT admonition to “Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness” (2 Timothy 2:23-25).
There are different tiers of differences in our beliefs and practices. At the very top are things one must believe in order to be a Christian. If you don’t believe that Jesus is the Son of God or that you’re a sinner, you don’t understand true salvation yet. Doctrines like the virgin birth of Christ are vital, but people probably wouldn’t be able to articulate them or understand why they are important before becoming a Christian. (There’s a difference, of course, between not understanding something and rejecting it.) People have a variety of interpretations about end-time events or styles of worship, but can still fellowship together. Further down are differences that are not clearly spelled out in Scripture but that we derive from Scriptural principles. Some people don’t have television or Netflix in order to avoid setting worldly images before their eyes, but they shouldn’t insist that no one should have those things.
The problem is, some Christians treat everything as a tier one issue. I’ve seen Christians argue for their choice of a lower tier issue with more vehemence than they would a more crucial doctrine. Romans 14 tells us to allow for differences on these lower-tier issues without despising or passing judgement, even when our choices are better or wiser in our own eyes..
We’re not listening. We’re instructed to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry” (James 1:19). We’re warned that “He who answers a matter before he hears it, It is folly and shame to him” (Proverbs 18:13, NKJV). This is what I most often see in online exchanges: it’s easy to share a drive-by response without taking the time to truly understand the nuances of what has been said in context. Not taking time to truly hear leads to making assumptions
We have blind spots. I was going to write a post specifically on our blind spots, but then I remembered I already had, here. God told the Laodicean church in Revelation, “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:17). In Malachi, God leveled a number of charges against His people, but they, in essence, said, “What are you talking about?” We need to pray, as David did, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24). And if someone mentions something to us—especially if a number of people comment that a stance we took or an answer we gave was unkind, we need to prayerfully and humbly look into it. We know—or we should—that we’re not perfect and have a lot of growing to do. Spurgeon said:
Brother, if any man thinks ill of you, do not be angry with him; for you are worse than he thinks you to be. If he charges you falsely on some point, yet be satisfied, for if he knew you better he might change the accusation, and you would be no gainer by the correction. If you have your moral portrait painted, and it is ugly, be satisfied; for it only needs a few blacker touches, and it would be still nearer the truth.
We’re not forbearing. We’ve forgotten we’re “to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3).
We want to be right more than we want unity. I’ve written several times that we can be both right and kind. When people say we should choose being kind over being right, I am concerned that they want to cut corners of truth that we shouldn’t in order to be unified with those whom we shouldn’t be. But there is a sense in which we hold our own opinions higher than anyone else’s and feel the need to leave a verbal smack-down with those who disagree. This has been a big temptation with all the differences over masks, vaccines, opinions about how the church should respond. etc. How are you supposed to be in fellowship with people in your church who have ridiculed your views on Facebook? I’ve had to “hide” some people who constantly ranted against my own (unstated) positions because it was constantly stirring up hurt feelings and wrong responses. We really don’t have to say everything we think. And for love of the brethren, we should be able to disagree on issues without demeaning those we disagree with. We need to show grace.
One of the lower-tier issues in NT times was what kind of foods were okay to eat (whether the OT food laws were still in effect, whether it was okay to eat food that had been offered to idols). Paul said, “Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God” (Romans 14:20). We need to be careful that we’re not destroying the work of God over COVID or politics or anything else.
We fail to hallow God’s name in all we do. In what we call the Lord’s prayer that Jesus taught to His disciples, the first request is, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” The ESV footnote says “hallow” means “Let your name be kept holy, or Let your name be treated with reverence.” This involves not only carefulness about how we use His name, but carefulness in how we act as those who bear the name of Christian.
We’re basically selfish. This is my biggest problem, not so much in public verbal arguments, but in everyday life.
We feel superior. We lack the humility to acknowledge we might be wrong or might have misunderstood or might not have the full picture.
We assume the worst. 1 Corinthians 13:7 says love “believes all things, hopes all things.” One pastor put it something like “Love cherishes the best expectations of others.” Instead of jumping on what others have said and assuming their meaning or motives are bad, we need to assume they have the best intentions until we find out otherwise.
We fail to see people as God does. If they are not Christians, they’re not going to be led to consider the claims of Christ by people who handle those claims with an air of superiority or hatefulness. If they are believers, they are His precious ones, future glorified saints, fellow citizens of the household of God, sons and daughters of the King. C. S. Lewis said there are no mere mortals. They are our brothers and sisters in the Lord. Perhaps thinking of someone as a sibling makes you think of conflict. But we should love family even if we don’t always get along.
We’re not filled with the Spirit, Whose fruit is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).
We’re not gazing enough on Christ. “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18). How do we behold Him? In His Word. Is it possible to spend time in the Bible every day and still not behold Him? Yes, if we’re just performing a duty, or if we’re not specifically looking for Him in the passage, or if we’re trying to fit Him into our preconceived notions.
Of course, we’ll never be perfect in this life. But we should be growing, becoming more like Jesus, more loving, until we’re truly.
It’s comforting to know that even someone Iike Elisabeth Elliot struggled with these things. In talking about meekness in her book Keep a Quiet Heart, she says:
But how shall I, not born with the smallest shred of that quality, I who love victory by argument and put-down, ever learn that holy meekness? The prophet Zephaniah tells us to seek it (Zephaniah 2:3). We must walk (live) in the Spirit, not gratifying the desires of the sinful nature (for example, my desire to answer back, to offer excuses and accusations, my desire to show up the other’s fault instead of to be shown my own). We must “clothe” ourselves (Colossians 3:12) with meekness–put it on, like a garment. This entails an explicit choice: I will be meek. I will not sulk, will not retaliate, will not carry a chip.
A steadfast look at Jesus instead of at the injury makes a very great difference. Seeking to see things in His light changes the aspect altogether.
May God give us grace to “be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1-2).
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