There are so many teachings in Christianity that are countercultural. In fact, they seem unnatural. I can’t think of any aspect of our faith more contradictory to our nature than Christ’s teachings on love.
The kind of love that Christ calls us to is truly a paradox. And I love how G.K. Chesterton explains a paradox: “It is truth standing on its head in order to get the world’s attention.”
The way Jesus calls us to love is very different from how we might define the word “love.”
We often have a certain affinity for things like chocolate, sunsets, puppies and flowers. There is a natural draw to these things, and there is nothing wrong with saying we love them.
The ancient Greeks referred to this type of love as “storge.” It was particularly used to address the natural love parents have for their children. It is a very familiar type of love, and it is probably the most common way we use the word “love.”
However, when Christ teaches us about love, it is similar but different than storge. It’s similar in that it includes these natural affinities we have. The natural loves we experience are present in Christ’s teachings; however, His call to love goes beyond those bonds and attachments. In Matthew 5:43-48 we see what this fuller type of love includes. It is referred to as agape love—a love without conditions, and it is perfect.
Jesus states, “‘You have heard the law that says, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect’” (NLT).
Obviously, perfection doesn’t develop overnight. But we do have Jesus’ direction on how to get there. Perfecting our love for others comes through loving the difficult people in our lives—the people who speak ill of us, the people who think poorly of us, those who lie about us and to us, even the people who wish death upon us.
I know this might sound impossible, but Jesus understands how we feel. He felt those things, too. He literally experienced the worst of those things.
Remember His prayer for His enemies right before He was crucified by them? He asked the Father to forgive them. They didn’t understand what they were doing. Jesus saw beyond their sin and prayed the best for them. He returned a curse with a blessing and showed perfect love.
There are several things we can learn from Jesus’ love for others that will help us grow in perfecting our love for others.
The first is forgiveness. I have a friend who had a motto posted on his social media page: “Be difficult to offend, and quick to forgive.” I think this is very Jesus-like.
Jesus was quick to forgive. It was the means by which He would achieve His mission on earth. He never seemed to get caught up in how people treated Him; He was much more concerned about them. Jesus looked beyond the sin of a person. He could see the good that was tainted in them and the good that could become of them.
Another skill we need to develop in order to grow in love is looking for the best in people, which is difficult at times. The easiest thing to do is see a person’s shortcomings. Nothing comes more natural to us than spotting faults. But as the saying goes, “If you spot it, you got it.” That’s why Jesus teaches us to forgive, as you have been forgiven.
With Christ as our model, and the help of the Holy Spirit, we can reach toward this perfect love, the kind of love that covers a multitude of sins. If we look for the best in others, and forgive their worst, I am confident we can get there.
It will require turning the other cheek. It will demand we empathize and seek understanding. But ultimately, it will lead us to die to ourselves so that another might live.
Nathan Thompson is the family pastor at Southeast Christian Church’s Blankenbaker Campus.