People are watching, and they watch more closely when they know we are people of faith. It has been said that we are the only Bible some people will ever study. They have the right to expect our walk to reasonably match our talk even though consistent love and compassion don’t come easily.
Dionysius, a second-century bishop in the city of Corinth, wrote letters describing how Christians behaved in the grip of a rampant plague:
Most of our brethren showed love and loyalty in not sparing themselves while helping one another, tending to the sick with no thought of danger and gladly departing this life with them after becoming infected with their disease. Many who nursed others to health died themselves, thus transferring their death to themselves … The heathen were the exact opposite. They pushed away those with the first signs of the disease and fled from the dearest. They even threw them half dead into the roads and treated unburied corpses like refuse in hopes of avoiding the plague of death, which, for all their efforts, was difficult to escape.
The world is watching how we treat each other. Will they see a difference?
The biblical standard for love is simply to love one another. But now we come to the difficult part. If we stayed with the basic standard to love each other, our faith would be little different than any belief system in this world. But there is a higher standard of love, and Jesus came to give us the definitive expression through His life and teachings. In the words of Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, He said, “If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody, can do that” (Matthew 5:46 MSG). Paul builds on this and tells us we are to love everyone when he uses the phrase “one another” and the the higher standard when he adds, “and to all.”
1 Thessalonians 3:12 “and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all”
Loving loved ones is a good start. If we can’t do that, we definitely have a problem. The higher standard, on the other hand, sends a strong, clear message that we, the people of Christ, are not your average, everyday human beings. Those who are watching us don’t weigh the size of the Bibles we carry. They don’t keep a calendar for totalling the number of Bible study meetings we attend, nor do they give us a test on mastery of biblical trivia. But they watch with intense interest to see how we treat others; first, those close to us and then – the championship round – everyone else. Paul writes “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and to all” (1 Thessalonians 3:12). Those final three words are the tricky part.
For the Thessalonians, ALL was a difficult word. ALL constituted certain people who were abusing and persecuting them. “As you abound and increase in love,” Paul is saying, “Don’t forget these!” We don’t like that at first because we know we can’r individually get it done. Just as Jesus said, we can love our families, our buddies, and our friendlier neighbours all by ourselves. So can those who don’t know God. But if we are going to love beyond those comfortable boundaries, if we’re going to advance this love into hostile territory — well, we’re going to need to rely on a greater source. We’re going to need the power of the Holy Spirit. And of course, once we realize that, He has us right where He wants us. We need to call upon the love that He deposited in us (Romans 5:5) when we were first born again. We need to love others like He loved us – unconditionally. And, we can, with His help and His love.
C.S. Lewis helps us with this in one of his writings. He says that an unbeliever makes his choice as to whom he will show kindness, but a Christian has a different secret. He writes that we shouldn’t waste our time worrying about whether we love our neighbour — just act as if we did. The difference between worldly people and Christians is that the worldly treat people kindly when they like them; Christians try treating everyone kindly and thus find themselves liking more people — including some they’d never have expected to like!”
Christians, in other words, let their actions lead and their feelings follow. Human nature feels its way into acting (which can be a long wait). Christ-centered faith acts its way into feeling (which is quick, powerful, and liberating). To put it simply, we followers of Christ are realists. We understand that, naturally speaking, we are never going to like certain people. We know we’re not prone to doing the right thing when left to our own devices. But for the sake of Christ, we’re going to walk in the Spirit and treat others well because it’s the very nature of who Jesus is. Therefore (if we’re living as we ought to), we treat our enemies as benevolently as our friends and soon enough discover we have no enemies anymore.