Dear Pastor Matt,
Your sermon last week (click here to watch) is haunting me. How do you love someone that you simply just don't love? Due to an abusive childhood, I am struggling with this issue. Please help!
Thanks for writing such a deep and provocative question. I am sure that you are not the only person that is asking this question.
Usually for every time someone asks me a question like this, there are ten others who wanted to ask the same thing but held back for one reason or another.
Since Jesus told us to love "one another" (John 13:34-35), love "our neighbors" (Matthew 22:39), and even love "our enemies," (Matthew 5:44) it does seem inescapable that He is commanding us to love even the most difficult people in our lives. This would include those that have hurt us in the past.
But here is where we need a good, solid, Biblical definition of love. Certainly we can't find such a definition in our culture which seems to confuse love with either sex (certainly not the same thing!), warm fuzzies (nope!), or unquestioning acceptance and tolerance (not that either!). We are going to have to press on in our sermon series on 1 Corinthians 13 to articulate a more Biblically moored definition of love.
For that reason, I say: Hold on! We're getting there!
But until we get to some of those later verses (like 1 Corinthians 13:6 for instance) let me try to jump ahead and make a few things clear about loving the unlovable.
1). To love them does NOT mean that we necessarily even like them. I am separating feelings from actions here. There are certainly people that we feel a fondness for, like to be around, and genuinely enjoy their company. Others, not so much! Some people we can't even stand to be around. But I still think it's true that it is possible that I can love someone that I genuinely don't enjoy being around. (See #'s 4 & 5 below). But also,
2) To love them does NOT mean that I need to trust them. I would never, ever, put myself or my loved ones in the same room with someone who would or could possibly hurt another person again if they have done so in the past. Even if they've apologized. Even if they've done jail time and "paid their dues to society." To love them does not mean that I must give them another chance to hurt me, or anyone else for that matter.
3) To love them does NOT mean I approve of their behavior. Certainly this is true of the way that God loves us. He loves us, and yet that does not mean that He gives us carte blanche approval of our behavior and actions. If I owned a "logic-hammer," I would beat this point into the heads of everyone in our culture. Where in the world did we get the idea that if I "love" someone I must approve without qualification of their lifestyle, actions, behaviors, predispositions, and inclinations? Worse yet is the idea that if I don't tolerate their behavior unquestioningly, I therefore "hate" them!
4) To love them DOES mean that I pray for them. I may never want to be around certain people again (such as former abusers, molesters etc.) but I can certainly pray for them. I may even pray the impreccatory (cursing) Psalms against them if they are yet unrepentant! There are many Psalms in the Bible which are to be used to call down God's justice and judgment upon the wicked. Ultimately, loving is doing what is right or doing that which accords with the truth. I may have to pray that those that have hurt me in the past have an encounter with what the Puritans used to call God's "severe mercy," meaning His rod of rebuke that corrects and hastens repentance.
5) To love them DOES mean that I pray for their salvation and sanctification in Christ, and work, as much as it is humanly possible, towards those ends. Here, I believe, we arrive at the highest and purest form of love. We love them by praying that God would transform their lives, cause them to repent, experience grace, and grow in the faith. This is a prayer that I can pray even for my worst enemy: The drunk that killed the innocent pedestrian. The terrorist who would detonate a suicide bomb. The gossiper who slanders my name. The abuser who hurt me as a child. I think we can (and should) genuinely love people by praying for their conversion, new life in Christ, and sanctification by the Holy Spirit.
Do that, and you have truly loved the unlovable.
Yours, Pastor Matthew