Loving Like a Saint

August 1st, 2008

Jesus Christ gave an instruction on how Christians could be easily identified. Jesus said, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).

So love is the distinguishing characteristic of Christians. You can always identify followers of Jesus by the love that they show. If this is the sign by which people know us, then we need to learn how to be good at loving like saints.

Is it as easy as just deciding to love others? How does this actually work?

Former President Jimmy Carter tells the story of a Cuban immigrant pastor named Eloy Cruz, a man who focused his life and ministry on Puerto Rican immigrants to the United States, people who were among the poorest of the poor. President Carter asked this pastor about the secret of his success. Cruz responded in humility and with a certain measure of embarrassment. “Señor Jimmy, we only need to have two loves in life—for God and for the person who happens to be standing in front of us at any time.”

These “two loves” are well summarized in 1 John 4:7-21:

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us. He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us. If we say we love God yet hate a brother or sister, we are liars. For if we do not love a fellow believer, whom we have seen, we cannot love God whom we have not seen. And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love one another.

Here we have the mother lode of biblical teaching about loving others, and it really can be summed up very simply. God loves us; we love God and others.

That’s easy to say, and—and as anyone who has tried to do this unconditionally—hard to do. Perhaps we need some guidelines.

Principle #1: Just do it

To be a Christian is to be a lover. There’s been much misunderstanding about this, because often we think of love primarily as an emotion—something we have to feel toward someone else. Of course there is a dimension of love that is emotional. However, the biblical definition of love is action that is in the best interest of another person. Love is bent toward action.

I would never say, “Go ahead and hate everybody; just make sure you act like you love them.” That’s not what the Bible tells us to do. But if it comes down to a stand off between how you feel and what you do, biblical love is more about action than feelings. It would be ideal to combine them both in all of their fullness so that you felt an emotional love toward somebody while demonstrating love through action. But those things don’t always come to us as a set. Christians love others whether they feel like it or not. Love is action—doing.

So do something! Show your Christian love. When somebody is standing in front of you, whoever that person is, react with the loving action that comes to mind. Just do it. The goal is to get into the habit. When you start a healthy, new life change—exercising, eating better, reading your Bible daily—it’s difficult at first. You do it once and it’s just plain hard. You do it twice and it’s still difficult. You do it ten times and you start planting the seeds of a habit. At a hundred times, the habit will be established. Just start doing it.

“Okay,” you say, “but what if I don’t feel like it? What if I mess up? Here’s a person whom I don’t even like, and I’m supposed to act as if I love them? What’s that going to do? I’m going to come across as a complete hypocrite.”

Does it help to know that you are not the only person to face the embarrassment of difficult love? David Yonggi Cho is a pastor and the founder of a church in Seoul, Korea that is said to be the largest church in the world. He is a marvelous communicator and in great demand around the world as a speaker. Pastor Yonggi Cho actually told God he would be willing to go to anywhere in the world as a representative of Jesus Christ—except Japan. He had a good reason for this: the deep animosity that he and other Koreans felt toward the Japanese people because of atrocities committed during World War II. In Pastor Yonggi Cho’s case there was family experience with these atrocities.

So, of course, he was invited to speak to 1,000 Christian pastors in the country of Japan. He accepted the invitation because he knew that it was the right thing to do, but he didn’t want to go. Pastor Yonggi Cho prepared what he was going to say, stood up, looked at this audience of a thousand, and what came out of his mouth was absolutely not what he had prepared. He said, “I hate you. I hate you. I hate you.” Good start for Christian love!? When he realized what he had said, he broke down and cried in front of all those people. Watching him weep, one person stood and then another and then another. One by one, a thousand people came to the front of the auditorium and asked him for forgiveness. It was such a stirring experience that at the end of it, he looked at them and said, “I love you. I love you. I love you.” His attempt to express Christian love in a difficult circumstance was a bit shaky, but he got started.

Take heart. In this challenge of Christian love, we are not alone. There are thousands, perhaps millions, of fellow Christians who are also taking steps to get better at expressing the love of Jesus. The Spirit of God is engaged with us. God is in us. We merely need to get started and do it. We’ll be amazed at what God will add in value to our efforts.

Principle #2: Start small

When it comes to loving as a Christian, teachers may encourage us to start really big. The challenge sounds something like this (I’ve probably said this myself!): “Think of the person whom you most hate in the whole world. Yes, think of that person who did you in, wounded you deeply, and betrayed your trust. There isn’t another person you resent as much as this one individual. All right, this week go out and love them.”

I don’t know what that does for you, but it makes me feel guilty and rotten. I’m quite sure that most of us, if forced into this situation, would fail the test.

When we hear the story of an enormous, overwhelming act of love it only makes us feel even more inadequate. For example, I read a story of amazing heroism and love that occurred during the Battle for Fallujah. It was November 15, 2004 and a United States Marine was in an enclosed area when a fragmentation grenade was thrown in. He grabbed the grenade and cradled it to himself. When the grenade exploded, the marine lost his life, but he saved the lives of his comrades. When confronted with stories like that, I fear that if I were in those circumstances, I would behave very differently. I fear I would not measure up to the standard of Sergeant Rafael Peralta.

So take off the table this business of first trying to love the most difficult person in our lives. Let’s remove from our list any extreme acts of heroism. Instead of starting with the hardest people, let’s start loving the easiest people. Who’s the easiest person you can think of to love? And what is the smallest thing that can be done as an expression of Christian love? Start there.

Principle #3: Start with Christians

When you’re just starting out with this behavior, you might find it easier to love fellow Christians. You may immediately think of a few exceptions to this notion, but, overall, it will probably be easier to begin expressing your love to those who are followers of Christ. Jesus said that’s the way it’s supposed to be. “Dear friends, let us love one another…” (1 John 4:7). Love is the mark we wear each day. Practice. Practice on Christians. View another Christian as a target for your Christian love, and follow through. Pick any believer you want and target them with shots of love.

Get out there and do it!

You may have all kinds of great ideas. Good for you. That’s wonderful. But others of us really wish that we had ideas to implement right away without thinking too much. Here are a few concrete exercises.

Smile. That’s fairly simple and a quick place to begin. We can wonderfully bless other people with a smile.

Some people are natural smilers. I am married to one. My wife Charleen’s face at rest is friendly. But I’m not a natural smiler. My face at rest is neutral (at best) and sometimes grouchy. I can be absolutely happy and content, and yet those feelings don’t show on my face. I have to work at smiling. Sometimes I have to think things through and make myself do it. It doesn’t seem as natural and as good as some people who are natural smilers, but it gets easier.

Give it a try. Right now. Practice smiling.

How did that feel? Strange? Unnatural? Keep practicing. Smile into the mirror. If you really want to ease into this, do it on the phone.

When you’ve mastered that, go out into public. Look someone in the eye and smile. If you don’t have the courage to do that at first, smile at someone who you know will smile back—an acquaintance or a friend. Now branch out. Try strangers. Find someone who is not smiling and target him. See if by smiling you can actually get him to crack a smile, too. Don’t get carried away, but make it part of every day. If it still doesn’t feel natural, go back to practicing. Try it ten times. Branch out. Try smiling at work. Show Christian love with an intentional smile.

Practice giving. It’s another way to show Christian love. I was in a downtown McDonald’s, in the line near the cash register. Ahead of me was a mom with her little child. I could sense that she was ordering very carefully to make sure that she got the most for her money. She opened her wallet, and I snooped. I looked over her shoulder to see how much was there. She had a few dollar bills and coins. She counted out the coins to pay for the food. At the next register was another woman, who I could best describe as a bag lady. Her clothes were dirty, her hair was disheveled, and she was being even more careful with her purchase. She made an order, but as she counted the coins onto the counter, she didn’t have enough. I watched as this single mom reached into her wallet, took out her singles, and passed them, low down under the counter, into the hand of the woman next to her so no one else would see. Nothing was said, but I caught the glance and saw what was in that woman’s eyes as she looked up at the mom who had given her the gift. That’s giving. It’s a simple, profound, and spontaneous act of Christian love.

Giving can be habit-forming. Jesus said that giving is more blessed than receiving. It’s the better end of the deal. Christians who start giving get hooked on it. Give, and you receive the blessing. You want to do it more and more until it becomes an addiction.

Encourage. Encouragement is one of the very best expressions of Christian love, and it is something that everyone needs. How important is it?

Dan Baber posted encouragement for sale on eBay. He promised that the person with the highest bid would receive an email from his mother, Sue Hamilton, which would make the recipient feel like the most special person in the world. The starting minimum bid: one dollar. You are probably thinking what I thought: “Who would pay to receive an encouraging email?” It turns out that there were 42,711 hits and 92 cash bids. The winning bid was $610. If you are now thinking of posting encouraging notes for sale on eBay, may God forgive you, because that is not the point! The anecdote demonstrates how much we want and need encouragement. Some people are willing to pay over $600 to be encouraged.

So here’s your challenge: Send an email to somebody this week—an email that she won’t delete because the thoughts you express are exactly what she needed to hear. Send a letter on stationery that will be read again and again. Leave a voice mail message of encouragement for somebody that will be saved because the recipient is touched by your thoughtfulness and kindness. Or just walk up to somebody face-to-face and build him up. Encouragement is love in action, an expression of Christian love.

Count the opportunities

What do you think about before you go to sleep at night? Some people fall asleep in three minutes or less. I’m one of them. Other people have to work at getting sleepy for two or three hours before actually falling asleep. Yet in those moments or hours, we all think. In bed tonight, don’t count sheep. Think about ways that you expressed Christian love today and count them. Think about ways that you can express Christian love tomorrow. Put yourself to sleep thinking about what is possible if your loving action gets into full swing.

Find a symbol to remind yourself to deliberately love others. Perhaps you’ll come across a small, heart-shaped rock to put on your desk at work. Cut out a paper heart and tape it in the window. Hang a heart painting in your home. Wear a heart necklace. Every time you see the heart symbol, remind yourself to love like a Christian. Find a way to remember daily that love identifies you as a follower of Jesus Christ.

Next time you’re listening to a song about love, let it motivate you to go out and express Christian love to whoever crosses your path. Put into regular practice Jesus’ words: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love one another” (John 13:35).

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