So this post has been a really long time coming, since I first wrote down some thoughts on how to show mercy to people clear back on November 28, 2016. So two years later I'm finally getting around to writing this post... ;)
This is definitely an urgent message, though, that of how to love people, especially when that doesn't come naturally to you or isn't one of your spiritual gifts. What I mean by that is we all have our own strengths and weaknesses. Some people are actually really good at being patient, but obviously you know that's one of my weaknesses. The same is true with showing unconditional love and forgiveness. Some people are better at it than others. That doesn't mean they do it perfectly, but for some, it just may be one of those things they've either been blessed with or have worked hard to grow at. For example, I think my grandma has this gift of loving and forgiving people. Does that mean she does it perfectly all the time? No, she'll even admit to that. But I still really admire her desire to see the best in people and her recognition of all people as people God longs to save.
No matter how good you are with forgiveness and unconditional love, this post, I'm hoping, will still be able to speak to you. Before I go into what I've learned about how to do it, I'll tell you how good I tend to be with doing these two things, from an honest perspective and not just what I hope I do, haha. I'll also tell you why forgiving and loving people IS NOT OPTIONAL and why it is so crucial.
Forgiving and loving people is not optional for a Christian.
In one of my Bible studies, I remember I read something very convicting. It was a chapter about loving the unlovable—literally what it was called in the book I was reading—and the author was listing Bible verses that show how loving others is the most important command for a Christian, second only to loving God. So... I basically sighed in my head because my attitudes on people lately have been far from loving, so I knew I had to change. But lots of time, of course, loving people is one of those things easier said than done. But that's why I'm writing this!
Anyways, here are the verses she had that prove loving people isn't a choice:
There's also this verse about forgiveness:
So it's definitely not optional. And I would bet that most people wish that wasn't the case. I think nowadays we live in a very apathetic, bitter society where loving unconditionally and extending grace are not the norms. Look at the media and how grown adults behave towards each other. Look at the crime rates. Look at the overall brokenness. You know the reason most people are broken? I would be willing to bet it's a lack of love. Not always. But I would bet that's the main reason why people are so depressed in this society. And even though we have people that may say they love us, I think nowadays with the shifting and creation of new media, we don't even know what authentic love is anymore. But we as Christians are defined by the way we love other people (John 13:35).
How good am I with forgiving/loving unconditionally?
So I promised I'd share where I think I fall on the spectrum of forgiving and loving people. I feel like it depends on the day. ;) Some days I feel more compassionate than others, but I will say that I have the tendency to be overly judgmental. In a society where people want to think anything goes, I feel like I’ve almost had to be, because there are behaviors that should not be tolerated. With that being said, God has opened up my eyes to see that behind those behaviors are people who need Him just as much as I do, and He loves them just as much as me. Because of that, I feel like I’ve been able to be more empathetic, but it can definitely be a challenge giving people grace in the real world.
The secret, I’ve found, that has changed the game for me is not to look at people’s behavior but to their heart. When you look at someone’s behavior and how bad it may be, that is not going to help you at all when it comes to loving them. I think some people naively believe that if we love people, we can just sweep their behavior under the rug, but I disagree. Bad behavior doesn’t need to be excused even when you’re loving someone because what’s sin is still sin. I think this is where I struggled, is because I felt like to love someone, you had to be okay with everything they did in life. But that’s far from true. True love extends to the people who have done some of the worst things, and true love will not say it is okay. And I wanted to emphasize this, about how bad it is that someone acts a certain way, but then I realized something else about love.
What I’ve learned is that yes, you can condemn someone’s bad behavior, but then what are you going to do? Where is it going to get you? We still have to get along with people. You can scream at people and condemn them all you want, but it won’t change someone’s heart. The only thing that can do that is love, God’s love. And we are commanded to display that love through the way we live (John 13:35).
So back to looking at people’s hearts. I’ve found it helps if you think deeper than their behavior. If they behave badly, WHY? Is it possible that there are underlying hurts they’re running from, hence causing them to act that way? Behind every person who behaves darkly lies some inner pain. That’s NOT to say this just makes their behavior okay. But pain is easier to empathize with, and it can show you more of an understanding behind why someone behaves poorly, and you can also see your own inner darkness, which gives you the potential to be the same way. That helps you to better relate to that person and display God’s redeeming love all the more. Think of them with needs and desires just like you that have probably gotten perverted along the way. Because we all have those. And that really is one of the main causes for any sin, is a perversion of some desire.
How did I learn this? The main thing for me was being able to see firsthand that my salvation is truly a gift from God, and that without His grace alone to do that, I could have been just as “bad” as someone else. Take prison ministry, for instance. Not a lot of people would be too keen on going into that because most people don’t have a lot of mercy for criminals. And while their behavior is absolutely not acceptable, we forget that they are still people God loves and created. We have the same potential to do bad things, and besides, knowing God shows you that everyone does bad things, regardless of the severity, and are still in need of His salvation (Romans 3:23). If I just see a crime story on the news with some random person, it’s easy to just dismiss them and condemn them. But one time there was a more local story, and the person who did it was a lot younger and not a typical “type” of person you would imagine to do what they had done. When I did some research on that, it really opened up my eyes to see how any person, even someone like me, can be successful in society and yet turn to the dark side, so to speak, when bad attitudes, pain, and selfishness go unchecked.
And that opened my eyes, because maybe, without God’s grace alone in helping me become better through my pain, I could’ve been just like them. Turning to bitterness, letting my pain rule me and cloud my judgment and do the same horrible things. EVERYONE has sin, and therefore everyone has the potential to do bad things like that.
It is only by the grace of God I'm not out there, dead in my sin, like some of those hardcore atheists or criminals—whatever it may be. Because we are all perfectly capable of that. And when you learn that tremendous gift you've been given, it really humbles you. It is only out of God's grace I'm saved. I could just as easily been an atheist, a criminal, whatever. Now that I've recognized that, I truly remember I'm not better than anyone. And it makes me desperate for the people who are dead in sin. We have to quit hating them and go reach out to them. God may just use the spark you send, the seed you plant, to save their life. And if you were in their position, wouldn't you want that?! It goes back to what I talked about in this post: how do you want people to remember you?
It is terribly frustrating when people don’t do what they know they should. But it’s also a gift to know what you’re supposed to be doing in the first place. And when you do know that, we cannot be shy in talking about it or exclusive in who we share it with. That is Jesus. He has put in us our sense of what is good and what is not—He defines goodness, after all, and He is love (1 John 4:8).
There is a Bible verse that says, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13 NIV). I have to be honest, when I was younger and read this, I did not like the idea of love being the most important. I wasn’t as mature about it as I am now—I cared much more about hope, for instance. Focusing on God to save me from all the other dumb people, is probably what I thought ;) And the same goes for faithfulness. I wanted to just focus on myself and my behavior and how good I could be. But thankfully God opened up my eyes. There’s more to life than living for yourself and your own faith. If you want to change the world, it has to be done through love. That’s the only way to do it. Because true love—God’s love—does not condone bad behavior, but it also does not disregard the hearts that struggle with it. And glory to Him for that. When I learned this, it’s filled me with that much more urgency, to be gentle and kind, because that is what people respond to. Being arrogant or trying to be right or more intelligent about a concept does not change a person’s heart. But true love does. It has the discernment to know when to be gentle and understanding, and when to be gentle and truthful.
I also feel like I need to define true love as God intends for us to have, and I really believe it is reflected most truly by cultivating the fruits of the Spirit: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). I’ve been striving to have all of those character traits—patience is one I am still working on desperately—but that is what I want people to think of when they think of me. I remember all of a sudden how one time in middle school at some assembly emphasizing kindness or something with character, I believe we did some activity where we had to write three traits about somebody we were assigned, and it could be good or bad—yikes. I remember for one of mine, someone wrote “gentle,” and that stood out to me because I didn’t understand what that meant and I was almost embarrassed by it.
Society thinks being gentle is a bad thing, but it’s not at all. It’s a beautiful thing, especially because not a lot of people have it. Being gentle doesn’t make you a pushover—having no boundaries or values does that. As you know about me, I am still very confident about my values and will not change them for anything, BUT being gentle means that even in spite of that, you can still be kind and loving while at the same time sticking up for what you believe in. This is what people are searching for most, I think, are people who are real about what matters in life and set in their values but are not mean about it. They have Jesus’ peace about life, and the sin that is so prevalent in the world does not steal their joy or love. And I’m not just saying this because I’m a female, either. Why do you think women are so attracted to guys when they see them doing sweet things like interacting with little kids? Because Jesus Himself was the most gentle person and yet also the most truthful person about what is good and true in life. It doesn’t make you any less masculine or feminine to be gentle—just all the more like Jesus for showing His love to people. (Seriously, I just watched a video of a hockey player I like doing something sweet for a little boy, and it melted my heart. #iwanttomarryhim)
I can also tell you so many stories about how I’ve done this at school and how I’ve seen it work like nothing else. This true love does not make you any less worthy as a person or take away your worth (like people think when they imagine it making you a pushover), instead, actually, it makes people have all the more respect for you. Like I said, I could tell you stories about how this has been true for me. Most of all, showing love to others pleases God, and that is what is most important.
If this is something you struggle with, don’t feel guilty. I’ve struggled with it as well—every person does. But as long as you have the desire to obey God and ask Him for help in this area, He promises to help you (James 1:5). He will give you the wisdom needed to do this.
It’s definitely not always easy to love people, and sometimes it feels overwhelming, but the key, really, is to know and love God because with that comes His wisdom and His love that He puts in your heart, and people can tell when this is present in a person. His love is what changes people’s hearts and can spark any change in the world.