(I wrote this originally in May of 1996. As I reviewed, I realized it was back-handed and theoretical. To put it simply, I believe that our little expressions of love, both words and deeds, if genuinely loving, as I explain below, have incredible power to change for the better. I know because I have been doing it, to one degree or another, for most of my adult life. I look a a person, often a teenager, and I see a precious individual, gifted, often more intelligent and attractive than they believe, sometimes already hurt by others. I love them. One time, I said in a sermon that I loved teenagers, and a mother called me to say her son wanted to talk to me, because I said that. Once in a while, I get in trouble for expressing love, not necessarily the word, but with enthusiasm for him or her, and they misinterpret it. Our culture has so saturated the word love with sex and romance that my kindness and interest seems like that to them. I tell kids who think they’re stupid that they’re smart; one student was sure he couldn’t do math, and later he was bragging about passing without my help! Adolescents, under the enormous pressure of hormones and peers, know that their parents “have” to love them and wonder if anyone can love the unlovable person they fear they are. On occasion, conflict between parent and teen has already added more tangible reasons to doubt. Regardless, I try to show them their worth by loving them unconditionally when I don’t “have” to. I give them time when other adults don’t seem to have the time or perhaps have made it seem they’re not worth the time. In all of this, I have seen positive things happen. I am convinced, without reservation, from both my understanding of the love of God and my experience, that love is redemptive, powerfully redemptive, even miraculous. )
For Christians living in a post-Christian world, the temptation is to do the sin-corrupted, human thing. Our natural inclination is to adopt love’s counterfeit, as it is portrayed in television and movies. For those who are lonely and alienated from other people and starved for love, their need drives them to look for love, to seek to be loved, even to demand love. While the blessing of being loved is undeniable, trying to find someone to love you doesn’t work. To become mere seekers of love is to become people incapable of love, assuring that eventually, everyone will be looking for love, instead of learning to give love. Sin has always corrupted the ability to love, but this cultural shift, under the dominant influence of electronic media, is pernicious. People of God need to understand what real love is, that which Christ modeled at the cross, and demonstrate it to those overcome by the common misperception.
Concern about crime, economic dependency, or terrible social wrongs like abortion, even the normal hopes of parents, can twist compassionate intent into oppression. Wanting to change people and society to encourage morality, civic responsibility, and self-reliance too easily leads to coercion. Sometimes bad behavior and crime do come from cultural attitudes and conditions that warrant changing. Welfare reform has proven that undue dependence is counter-productive. For Biblical Christians anyway, public acceptance of sin is a problem. One of the strangest ironies is the manner in which sinners saved by grace manage to become “holier than thou,” at least in the view of nonbelievers. Even children may come to see their parents as unapproachably righteous, despite their acknowledged sinfulness. Loving and compassionate influence can be difficult in all of these cases. If well-meaning reformers become condescending in their view of certain people or punitive in their efforts to change them, they will fail. Though some respond favorably, others find new ways to sin or angrily, even criminally, resist the reformers’ efforts. Laws can’t change hearts. Heavy-handed parental discipline may lead to rebellion rather than confident piety. Overt behavior does not insure faith or a godly conscience. People of grace should never forget this.
Whether it’s to know love ourselves or train others in love, we must learn to emphasize the giving that defines real love. As the Bible affirms, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Unfortunately, our natural instincts to force, control, or dominate often impair our ability to love. In our desire to seek the best interests of those we love, we combine a self-centered view with a lack of faith and distort love. Subtly, self-centeredness seeks to shape the one we love into our own image. We try to duplicate ourselves, thinking to find a better partner or child; we deify personality and may even loom god-like over our loved one(s), as well as over those we deem less fortunate or less appealing. Subtly, our loving intentions morph into self-gratification. Since our love is defined by our limited experience, we imagine whom we know, ourselves, and what we like, our own character, as the ideal, when it’s only preference.
On the other hand, if our self-image is poor, we may try to shape a person who is better than the one we know, ourselves, seeking to prevent what we believe is faulty or undesirable. In some cases, the
template we seek to destroy is a spouse or other influential person, although the result may be panicked overreaction rather than constructive influence. In all of this, we tend to avoid the one, true mark of love, which is to allow others to be themselves, become what they uniquely ought to be, and do what they wish to do, as long as it isn’t immoral or disobedient to the Word of God.
To be genuinely effective, we must embrace several truths. First, each individual is unique as God designed, although still in God’s image, intended to become a beautiful “one-of-a-kind.” Like a
diamond in the rough, each person is a jewel waiting to be revealed. Love is a jeweler, looking at the raw material of the person, “seeing” the beauty within. We, seeking the final cut, must see past the roughness of the present shape to the magnificence within. It is often necessary to help a person find their own inner beauty, the unseen talent, or the undiscovered gift. Too often, a child, or a child inside an adult body, has heard the very opposite, condemned by harsh, irresponsible words to see only ugliness; such people are in even greater need of a loving vision of themselves.
Unpleasant and destructive characteristics in those we love arise from a need to hide this ugliness. Too painful to acknowledge, insecurity, self-doubt, perceptions of inadequacy, failure, and bitterness may turn to apathy, despair, or abuse of self and loved ones. As above, the likely response by others may be threat, confrontation, domination, or abuse. Though caused by poor self-concepts, self-protecting behaviors may still harm and intimidate; loved ones then respond, in ignorance, to the overt effect rather than the underlying cause. Corrupted by fear, loving intent produces the very evil it meant to avoid. Victims of abuse often abuse another generation of victims.
Genuine love is redemptive. Real love can break the cycle. Love, demonstrated through understanding, acceptance, affirmation, patience, and trust, is able to reach through ugliness to the beauty inside. Kind words, assertions of belief in a person’s abilities, unconditional love proven out in faithfulness, and persistence in seeking and mirroring the beauty only loving eyes may see–these nurture the redemption of the otherwise “hopeless” individual. Active, authentic love frees the encumbered soul, reclaims lost innocence and self worth, and discovers untapped potentials for insight and accomplishment. Those who would see the good released must begin with an attitude of hope, forgiveness, and optimism; these are the qualities of genuine love.
True love is redemptive. It changes people. Consider what Jesus did. He loved His disciples, and a dozen nobodies in turn changed the world. The Creator has always loved His rebellious creatures. Into the midst of their rebellion, He sent His Son. He came and died at the very hands of the rebels. Unlike those who were “blind guides of the blind,” who abused when they ought to have been lovingly teaching truth, he didn’t criticize, condemn, or force change. He lived as an example, He loved tenderly and unconditionally, He walked the land as living truth, and then He gave Himself to redeem those He loved. He taught truth without compromise, but he did so with patience and understanding. He is our model, out mentor, and our motivator, showing us how, urging us to try, and empowering, redeeming, and filling us with His love. He calls us to do the same and energizes our love to redeem others, in His name and by His Spirit.
The errant spouse, a problem child, an oppressive supervisor, the annoying neighbor, our dearest friend, or even the vilest criminal–each is an opportunity to prove again the redemptive power of love. While shielding them from the natural consequences of their behavior is harmful, adding our own vengeful ideas of justice is worse. Sometimes even our tough love attempts at correction or
rehabilitation are counterproductive. The realities of life may cultivate responsibility and growth, but without even one redemptive view, despair is more likely. Unconditional love fosters hope and nurtures progress. If we only punish, criticize, or disapprove condescendingly, we condemn rather than redeem. When we look beyond fault and failure, if we love the one who like us is imperfect but of incredible worth, when we stand by the wayward as they face the circumstances of their sin, we stand like a beacon in the darkness. Sinners, like alcoholics, may need to see the destructive potential of their addictions, but they must also see the possibility of redemption. Love encourages hope and faith, which enables the lost to discover the possibilities of redemption. When Christians love expectantly, they provide a sense of confidence. Such love redeems.
Loving redemptively follows the example of Christ, the one who loves us redemptively. The final, perfect redemption comes by faith in the Redeemer. Our mission is to be doors of love that open to His welcoming invitation and lead to the sinner’s salvation. Too often we use only words to reveal His love. We need to show His love, become His love, and make visible what is otherwise too hard for the lost to see. When we do, we love truly, and true love is redemptive.
By the way, it is impossible for a sinner to love redemptively although attempting to love is far better than many other actions. To be capable of fully redemptive love, you need to be in a love relationship with God. We do that simply by entrusting ourselves to him, particularly by accepting his gift of abundant and eternal life, its price paid by Jesus on the cross. God requires nothing except our trust, and even that may be small at the start. He supplies everything else we need. Need more information, just ask me.
I love listening to Josh Groban, but I was overwhelmed by “You Raise Me Up.” I have written about it elsewhere. You can also find YouTube videos by Groban, Selah, and others, since the song is rather famous (Somehow I had missed that).