A New Approach to Christian Love

As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.

Editor’s Note: This year, The Banner hosted a writing contest for young adults exploring the topic, “Christian Love in Divisive Times.” This article was one of the runners-up in that contest. To read more runners-up and the winning articles, click here.

Humans have a natural tendency to categorize things. For example, strawberries are classified as delicious, whereas holly berries have been classified as poisonous. When it comes to other human beings, we are not immune to this classifying behavior. In its simplest form, our classification puts human beings into two categories: friend and foe. Based on this classification, we then shower one in love and ignore or hate the other.

We categorize people based on many things: nationality, political leanings, or sports team affiliation to name a few. If a person roots for a different team, you may consider them a foe. If they root for your team, a friend. The two are treated differently based on that classification. But above that, you consider even those who root for a different team a friend in that you enjoy the same sport. While it might not be enough to overcome the disdain of a supporter of a fierce rival, it is a unifying force to counteract the divisiveness of your categorization.

As Christians, our life is guided and directed by God’s law. While there are many details in this law, it can easily be summarized into two parts: love God and love your neighbor (Luke 10:26-28, Matt. 22:37-40). Love is the driving force behind God’s law—and our obedience to it! For if we cannot love God or our neighbor, then we cannot successfully follow God’s law.

Thus, it appears that out of all possible people, loving only your neighbor is what is required by God. One expert in the law realized this and asked of Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). This parable makes clear that the label “our neighbor” includes those who we would otherwise deem our enemies. Earlier in Luke, and in Matthew, Jesus issues the command to “love your enemies” (Luke 6:27, Matt. 5:44). Through his ministry, Jesus makes clear that everyone is our neighbor, not just those who we deem to be. On this topic, John Calvin writes “nothing is more obvious or certain than that God, in speaking of our neighbors, includes the whole human race” (Commentary on Matthew, Mark, Luke - Volume 1, Christian Classics Ethereal Library).

All of this is rather common in the realm of broader Christian understanding. Most Christians are familiar with the parable of the Good Samaritan and the command from Jesus to love your enemies. Yet one of the most frequent modern criticisms of Christianity that I have heard is that we as Christians proclaim to the world one thing but do another.

While we intend to love our neighbors and boldly proclaim that we should, usually we do not as well as we say we should. This command is by no means an easy one, especially when we are naturally inclined to hate God and our neighbor (Heidelberg Q&A 5). However, I find that we as Christians approach this task in the wrong manner. Often, I hear the argument that all are made in the image of God, so we must love everyone. It’s not wrong, but it’s not particularly helpful when it comes to loving our enemies. When we interact with our enemies, we usually experience their fallen nature rather than the image of God. We are disappointed when we look for saints and find only sinners. It becomes much more difficult to love our enemies when we look for the image of God but can only see fallen humanity.

Instead of approaching our enemies seeking the image of God within them, we should look at ourselves—and our enemies—in the light of the fall. First, this changes how we can classify others. All of humanity becomes our neighbors in sin. Instead of expecting the image of God from those who hate us, we expect fallen human nature. And when what we see matches our expectation, our response isn’t hate for seeing fallenness where we expected the image of God. Rather, our response is one of compassion and empathy. We see our enemies in light of their fallenness—no more or less fallen than we are ourselves. Now instead of praying for God’s vengeance upon those who we call our enemies, we can pray for God’s grace to restore what the fall has tainted. 

Second, it is not limited in who it can apply to. While common nationality, political affiliation, or even favorite sports team can provide some form of unity, there are other nations, political parties, and sports teams that people can be a part of, limiting the amount of people you can classify as your neighbor. Even within the body of Christian believers, denominations, or other fellowships can draw us together, but they can also be their own source of disunity. Only the starting ground of approaching others as equally and totally fallen people can provide a framework to see everyone as your neighbor in need of love and God’s grace. Our fallenness supersedes any differences we might have. Our fallenness can be a strong, unifying force within the church and the world.

And is this not the center of the gospel? That God sent his son to atone for our sins? And that this is the ultimate expression of Christian love? Love despite the brokenness and sin that are so pervasive. Love that sees beyond our mistakes and fallen nature and offers salvation. Christian love turns our enemies into our neighbors. This is why it is so important in divisive times. Christian love in divisive times is not something to numb the growing disunity, nor is it something to be relegated to a talking point. No! Christian love is a radical call to action to imitate Christ in his love for all the world that he came to save, not condemn (John 3:16). Anything less is a disservice to the perfect example set by Christ.

About the Author

Willem Hoogendam is a student at Calvin University studying physics and mathematics with a minor in astronomy.

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