I am always getting a raised eyebrow or two when I point out that Jesus was somewhat vague in many of His teachings. I do think the lessons are there, and quite powerful, just not in a prescriptive or legalistic format, which so many people find comforting. He often taught via story and parable and very often suggested we learn how to treat one another by example: “follow me.” In combing through the Gospel for concrete commands from the Son of God, I come up with two very definitive statements, and through those two have been able to define a playing field for dealing with some of life’s more challenging moments. I don’t think Jesus could have been more clear than He was in the several places where He said we are to love God and love others. In fact, He even referred to that concept as the new commandment. That’s clear enough. For me that statement and His examples that follow are the “starting line” for how we are to deal with life’s difficult situations and life’s even more difficult people.
Now that we have a starting line, we need to find the finish line. What other clear, simple commands did Jesus give us about dealing with people. For me, I define the finish line in the words of Jesus: “do not judge.”
So, here we have our playing field of Christ-like behaviour laid out for us: you start with Love God/Love Others and end with Do Not Judge. In between, what we do is pretty much up to us as long as we stay between those two lines. Along the way Jesus gives us powerful story-style examples of how this all plays out. He shows us mercy and redemption as He spares the adulteress from a stoning. He shows us graciousness and forgiveness as He chats with the Samaritan woman at the well. He even teaches us how to be the life of the party with His generosity and celebration at the wedding in Cana.
How does this play out in everyday life? How does this effect our behavior with our friends, brothers and sisters going through a divorce? First of all it sets the stage for successful interaction. Love is a verb! It implies action, not feeling. We are called to love people the way God loves people: hugely, proactively and unconditionally. So when we hear the news of marital distress, of the seams coming apart, of discord and strife, we can confidently jump in with both feet and simply let our friends know we love them. We love them in any and all conditions. We love them at their best behavior. We love them at their worst behavior. We don’t need to fix them. Or teach them. Or scold them. Or even approve of their behavior if it happens to be something we find offensive. We simply have to love them and care for them. That is how we start any interaction with the people around us in need or in distress. We need to let them know we love them by showing them love. Darn simple in theory, but sometimes a little difficult to pull off in real life.
So now we’re engaged in loving our neighbor, how far do we go? We go the distance. Here’s where it gets both tricky and sticky. A lot of what is missing for people going through divorce is a safe place to be themselves. A place where they can openly express their fears, concerns, confusion and pain. This means love looks a lot like listening. Truly hearing and understanding the point of view of our friend. It means resisting the temptation to jump in with a Bible verse or two to prove them wrong. We can skip our platitudes and other sanctimonious pronouncements. If our friend is crying,we might need to cry with them. If they are suffering, think of what we can do to bring comfort. If they are lonely, simply be there. In all of this we must resist the temptation to judge. Judging can be a comment to them of what’s right and wrong, from our point of view. Judging can be something in our heads and hearts that screams our friend is wrong or living out a sin. It’s our nature to go there. But God has forbidden that. The finish line, do not judge them, is tricky, isn’t it? Sometimes every fiber of our being wants to give our buddy a dope slap, a wake-up call, a good talking to. Yet how often does that help the situation if our approach makes our friend feel defensive, judged or condemned. The fact is they are more likely to shut down and shut us out. It’s really better if we continually let them know they are loved. If we listen. If we wait to be invited in to share our perspectives.
(By the way, I’m not condoning bad behavior. In future posts we will converse about our roles in protecting our friends and sticking up for the underdog, and otherwise espousing noble causes.)
Sometimes I think our desire to jump into others’ lives with lots of free advice (worth every penny!) may be rooted in our gut level inability to take God at His Word. Or to believe that His Word has the power to heal, or that He actually loves our friends unconditionally, even in their darkest moment and deepest sin. When we are confronted with a situation that is hard for us to deal with, we need to dig deep to find and practice love. That is because our first instinct is to jump in and fix. We can resist the temptation to fix and by our example demonstrate to our hurting or misbehaving friend when we accept that God really does love them. This is particularly true in times of marital distress or divorce. We can be so ready to pounce with stories of how God values marriage, or about mutual submission, forgiveness, long-suffering or other sound Biblical concepts. What I have found with my friends caught in the throes of discord or divorce, is not a lack of Biblical foundation, they know what God says. What they don’t realize (or deeply believe), and what can help them get through the tough times, is the truth that God loves them. We open them up to that reality by continuing to love them the best we can where they are at the moment.
Our scope of influence becomes very straight-forward. God calls us to love people. God does not allow us to judge people. Between those two points, we’re free to care, listen, cry, comfort, understand, help and be a humble messenger of God’s enduring love.
What are your stories of loving your neighbor?