Two years ago I wrote a rather critical and sarcastic post about the Church, at a time when I felt particularly unloved and unappreciated in the churches I had attended over the previous few years. My attitude was actually defensive: I felt offended and disappointed. I was so concerned with how I felt that it didn’t occur to me that I was part of the problem.
(ANASTASIOS PAPALIAS “Fairy Tale”)
I have one or two suggestions in the defense of us unloving ones, but first, I must have a bit of a whine, and I apply the criticism as much to myself as to anyone…
Jesus said that the second most important commandment is to love our neighbor. Paul went so far as to say that without love we are “nothing”. That is, even if we do all the churchy things we think are such righteous acts but fail to love, we are no better than the worst heathen or pagan, and we certainly aren’t pleasing to God.
There are a few-a very few- people who are naturally and genuinely loving. They make other people feel good when they’re around. They smile, they’re polite and considerate, they put the concerns of others before their own. I could count all the people I’ve known to be like that on my fingers-perhaps on one hand. And the worst of it is that I know I’m not like that myself. Oh, I can love my kids all day and night, and sometimes I manage to love my wife, but it’s all the others I have a hard time loving-I mean, all the rest of you out there. And may I be so bold as to say that you have an equally hard time loving me. Don’t deny it-it’s obvious. But Jesus said,
“If you love (only) those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?” (Matthew 5:46 NIV).
He told us that we are to love even our enemies- a stiff order for all of us, no? (Matthew 5:44). We tend to love only those who are like us, or who make a fuss of us, or who do us favors. And in this sick, materialistic, worldly Western culture, the majority of people- at least those under say thirty-five years old- have a hard time loving anyone who isn’t visually attractive and “cool”.
Like it or not, I have to say that the same problem exists in the Church. Worldliness is thriving in the churches, where in many circles you can only join the circle if you look right, have the right job, the right income, and say, wear and like all the right things. My wife has cleverly observed that it’s very rare to see poor people in churches: everyone comes from the “right” side of the tracks, drives a good-looking car, and has a lifestyle to impress with.
This is not godly love. This is the tax-collector and pagan type love. In fact, many pagans do a better job of loving each other than we in the church do. I experienced the pub and bar culture for many years. The pub was my “church”, where I found more friendship, fellowship and love than I’ve found in most Christian circles since leaving that life.
That’s a scary thought, because John said:
“Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:8).
So how many people in the Church actually truthfully know God, and how many of us are fooling ourselves?
What’s the point of all the programs and huge buildings and fancy brain-tickling sermons if there’s no love? Surely, in that case, we are “nothing”, and we’re wasting our time-we may as well go out and dig the garden or play golf.
In defense of us unloving Christians I would first suggest that we’re all raised in a world where it’s not cool or fashionable or acceptable to go around showing affection or love to just anybody, or to anybody at all. We can sometimes feel people backing away from us if we move into their comfort zone, or if we act in a way which is markedly different to other people. Most men are afraid to give other men the slightest idea that we might be gay, so we fail to treat other men with the kind of love and kindness they should be treated with. Is it not possible that this is one reason some men are attracted to caring men?
We’re also aware that at times our own wrong motives or bad judgment or clumsiness can get the better of us-we don’t want to give someone the wrong impression, and we don’t want to upset anyone or scare them away. We haven’t been loved so we have no idea how to live it ourselves. The last thing we want is to make fools of ourselves, right?
We also know how we feel to be on the receiving end of unusual care and attention. We get so uncomfortable when someone we aren’t close to gets in our face and starts saying nice things and touching us, because part of the problem is that we’ve lived a lifetime of inhibitions, social norms, red flags and false impressions so that we just aren’t able to allow ourselves to be loved. How then are we going to let ourselves go by showing love to anyone except those closest to us?
Loving is something which for most of us can only be learned, in the context of the Holy Spirit of God. We’re all at different levels of progress in this endeavor. Some of us won’t start loving until someone close to us has died and it’s too late to love them. Some of us manage to shake hands and make small talk. Just a few of us are able to really let go and express love and warmth, whether the person on the other end of the love likes it or not.
In church on a Sunday (or Saturday) morning are quite a few people who are inwardly longing to be loved, but their defenses can only allow so much display of care and interest. They are likely to be the same people who are incapable- or who have no idea how-to express love, except perhaps by making the coffee or setting out the chairs for the service. And service is loving, but it’s not enough.
There’s a lonely, hopeless world out there that’s convinced that Christians are unloving and cold. In many cases, they are right. In some cases, they are simply observing the results of years of social norms and inhibitions, overwork, lack of training or teaching, and lack of practice.
However, it’s not enough for us to smugly excuse ourselves and claim that we “just aren’t like that”, because love is something we are to DO, i.e., it’s a verb, not something we can just claim to “have” but never manage to show.
Neither is love a feeling. Love may give us certain feelings, but they’re no good if not put into action. If we can’t show love, we aren’t giving love. And Jesus didn’t say “think nice thoughts about your neighbor and then tell yourself you’ve loved them”. He said to LOVE your neighbor.
If only we could demonstrate love for each other-including those who are not like us, we would see people flocking into the churches. They don’t need entertaining, they need and want love, company and fellowship. And by “fellowship” I don’t mean a cup of coffee for ten minutes after the service.