One of the Hardest Things God Calls Christians To Do
I don't know any Christian who would disagree with the statement, “We should love all people." Scratch that, I don’t know anybody – religious or not – who would disagree with it. What’s not to like about it? Wouldn’t it solve the world’s problems if everyone just loved each other?
Our near-unanimous cultural agreement with that statement is one reason why passages like Romans 12:9-21 and 13:8-10 are beloved by so many people. And yet the more time I spend reflecting on these passages, the more they seem to unsettle me. As Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:46-47), it’s easy to love those who love us back or can give us something in return. But to imitate God’s love requires us to go a step further and love those who give us good reasons not to love them. The reason these passages in Romans are unsettling to me is that I’ve never really appreciated how high a standard Paul sets for our love. Consider the following examples:
- “Let love be genuine.” (Rom. 12:9) – Does my love come with strings attached? How many times have I done something for someone not because I wanted to help them, but because I want to be perceived as a helpful person?
- “Outdo one another in showing honor.” (12:10) – Am I glad to highlight other people? Or do I demand recognition for my own achievements?
- “Rejoice with those who rejoice.” (12:15) – When another person has something to celebrate (new baby, new job, etc.), can I rejoice with them as much as if I had been the one to receive it? How about when their blessing means disappointment for myself (i.e. being passed over for a promotion)?
- “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them… never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God.” (12:14, 19) – Do I retaliate when someone talks behind my back? Do I complain about them, even if only in my head?
- “‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.’” (12:20) – Beyond just not retaliating against those who persecute me, do I actively seek opportunities to bless them and seek their good?
I could go on, but the point is that demonstrating the love of Jesus to others can be costly and inconvenient. It takes time, energy, resources, and sometimes heartbreak. When a lawyer tested Jesus by asking him how to inherit eternal life, Jesus responded by telling him the two greatest commandments: love God and love your neighbor. In response to a follow up question (“And who is my neighbor?”), Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which a Samaritan came upon a Jewish traveler who had been beaten and left for dead. Having already been ignored by a priest and Levite who were passing by, the Samaritan (whom Jews despised) had compassion on the traveler, bandaged his wounds, took him to an inn, and paid for his expenses. By giving this parable, Jesus is in effect saying that the question is not “Who is my neighbor?” but rather, “How can I be neighborly?” When this is our question, our “neighbor” is anyone and everyone God puts in our paths.
The Good Samaritan demonstrated the kind of love that Paul describes in Romans 12:9-21. And in Romans 13:8, Paul says that as Christians we have a debt to extend this same kind of love to those God puts in our lives. Christopher Ash issued this challenge from Romans 13:
“Always the debt remains outstanding between me and every human being whom God place before me: that I should love them. We must not weaken this by waving our hands and saying we ought to love everybody without exception. This makes it too vague and therefore too easy. We should love those whom God sets before us. It will include our parents. For those who are married, this will always include husband or wife, children if there are any. It will include those in authority over us. It will include the fellow members of our local church. And it will include all sorts of others, including some we find difficult (as no doubt they find us difficult).” (Teaching Romans, vol. 2, p. 177)
Ash goes on to encourage us to think of specific individuals in our lives who are difficult to love, recognize that God has put them in our paths, and strive to love them day after day with the love of Christ.
Loving all people sounds wonderful in theory. But in practice it can feel like the hardest thing you’ve ever done. It’s difficult to love the person who only calls when they need something, or the person you have nothing in common with, or the one who is constantly critical of you. But the Bible is clear: there are no exceptions to the command to love those God puts in our paths. We are to love the unlovable, remembering that God had no reason to love us but did anyway at great cost to himself in order to have a relationship with us. If our worst wasn’t enough to exempt us from his love, neither should the worst in others exempt them from ours.