What is the most recognizable feature of Christianity? I don’t mean in terms of visuals, like the cross or skinny jeans or bad movies or something like that, but in terms of actual characterization, how do people see Christians? Often I hear the words “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” or “always pushing an agenda.” I admit, these qualities aren’t hard to find if you look in the right places. But it’s also true that there are some churches who take Jesus commandments very seriously, especially those to love God and love others. It’s easy, especially now, to become discouraged by everything happening around us. It’s easy to look at the world and only see the ugly, petty, ungraceful conduct that people seem to live by. There is one mark of Christianity, however, that I think goes entirely unmatched by anything else; one mark that can save us from the discouragement that’s almost overwhelming at times: the mark of love.
I know how sappy that sounds, believe me, but I also think it’s well founded. It’s not a cheesy, all-tolerating, reserved kind of love. It’s a tough love. It’s a painful love.
Before He was crucified, Jesus said to His disciples two things that caused me to think this way. First He said in John 14:15, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Then, in John 15:12-13, He said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have love you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” The Christian life should be characterized primarily by one thing, that we love God and do what He says, and what He says is to love others by laying down our lives for them.
There are two things in John 15:12-13 that, if lived out, would show the true Christ-loving heart of His followers. First is the qualifier to the way we are supposed to love. We can’t love people the way we think we ought to. By command, we are supposed to love people the way Jesus has loved us, and if you read through the Gospel, you see Jesus do a lot we have trouble with. Look at the Pharisees. I fully believe Jesus loved them, but He also called them snakes, hypocrites, blind guides, and fools. Jesus was not hesitant to call sin out when He saw it, especially when it came from people who thought themselves righteous.
The thing about Jesus’ love is that it’s not tolerant. Don’t misunderstand me; Jesus was and remains absolutely accepting of us despite our sin. Romans 5:8 is clear enough, “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” It’s a continual showing of God’s love for us that Christ died in our place. But God does not accept us without an expectation of change. We are to “put off the old self with its practices and put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:9-10). As much as God loves us, He doesn’t want us to stay the same as we are. I would even say because God loves us, he can’t let us be unchanged. In His love for us, He pulls us towards Himself and away from sin.
If we are to love each other as Christ loved us, and this is the kind of love with which He loves us, then we have to mirror it. We have to push each other to God and out of sin, as much as is in our power to do so. Granted, we can’t change anyone’s heart as God can, but we can encourage each other and protect each other, even if it means protecting someone from themselves. If I have a desire to sin, then the most loving thing someone can do for me is to keep me from it, no matter how I may protest, not try to help me justify it.
The second thing from John 15 is the greatest visible show of love possible. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” Laying down one’s life isn’t limited just to dying for someone. I would go so far as to say it’s any kind of self-sacrificing behavior done by the power of God’s work in our lives, up to and including dying for someone else. Seeing it this way does two things for me. 1) It lowers the bar of what “great love” looks like. I may not have to show great love for someone by dying for them if I can do something as simple as talking to them, even if/when it inconveniences me. 2) It increases the responsibility we have for others. Denying yourself and taking up your cross daily, even in the small ways, is an act of great love that we are commanded by Jesus to do. There’s no getting around it. If you love Jesus, you will keep his commandments, especially when it doesn’t cozy in with your schedule.
This is the kind of love we need right now. And it’s the kind of life we’re told to live by the God who loves us more than His own physical life.
In our current political/societal climate, we Christians have to show that our leader is more than anything or anyone found in our world. He hasn’t been elected to office. He’s always had absolute power and is the only one able to wield it. The way we show His kingdom here on earth isn’t by visceral rhetoric against any opponent. It is by acts of true, Christ-like love. Ours is a practical faith, not a theoretical one, and when we actually put it into practice as we’ve been called to do, we speak louder for our King than anyone shouting about a president.