“And He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’”
A young man visiting a very small town in Virginia struck up a conversation with an older gentleman siting on a loafers’ bench outside the gas station.
“Just look at this town!” The young fellow remarked. “Fresh air, no traffic, you sure don’t have much of a population problem around here!”
“Wrong, son!” The old man replied. “Dang near every problem we have here is caused by the population!”
It’s true everywhere, isn’t it? Man’s greatest problem is man himself.
The Population Problem
In 1998 there were 18,000 murders in the United States. Since 1960 rape is up 165% in this country. The FBI revealed that for the first ten months of 1998 there were 2116 bombing incidents in America. On the average, nineteen violent crimes occur per minute. In the last three years over 350 law enforcement officers have been feloniously slain in the line of duty.
Do you realize that four of our last six presidents have either narrowly escaped or been victims of assassins?
The Root of the Problem
Man’s broken relationship with other men goes back to the fall of Adam and Eve in Eden. Before the fall there was harmony. As the twosome shared a face to face relationship with God, so they also shared a face to face relationship with one another.
In the first negative statement in the Bible, God said, “It is not good that man should live alone” (Genesis 2:18). So the Lord made a companion fit for him. And that the man and woman shared a face to face relationship together is evidenced by the fact that of all animals, man is the only species that enjoys sex face to face.
I love the part of the story in Genesis 2 when Adam opens his eyes and sees the woman for the first time. Fleeing the realm of prose, he utters the earliest poem in all of human literature … .
“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
She shall be called woman,
because she was taken out of man.”
But such face to face harmony was not to last, for with sin came social hostility. Adam and Eve began to bicker and blame one another, their children picked up on their behavior, and Cain actually murdered his own brother Abel in a fit of jealous rage (Genesis 4:8).
Peace had deteriorated so rapidly that by the time one gets to Genesis 4:23, the second poem in the Bible, we find that the language of married love has turned to the language of war. For there Lamech boasts of killing a man who had only struck him.
There you have it: marital strife, sibling rivalry, domestic violence, murder, and warfare all coming fast on the heels of the first human sin. And these stories of man’s inhumanity to man have been told and retold down through the ages form ancient Babylon to modern Main Street.
Where Is The Cure?
In William Shakespeare’s play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the fairy Oberon searches for a love potion that can make people fall in love. Oberon’s search has been the search of mankind throughout history. Marriage counselors, diplomats, political scientists and religious leaders have all sought it. But where is it? Where is the tonic, the potion of love, that can end hatred and bring face-to-face love? We haven’t found it in the age of Aquarius. The United Nations has not brought it to us.
Sociologists poring over their textbooks still agree that political science is the least developed of all academic disciplines. So, where is it?
The good news is that this love we so desperately need is in Jesus Christ!
We have already seen in Mark the fifth chapter how God’s saving work in the man Legion’s life brought a significant measure of healing in his social life. Why, the man went from a misfit in chains who lived alone in a cemetery to a minister who went home to his friends and effectively evangelized them. And there is healing offered here for each one of us as well.
One of the mistakes of the church has always been to tell people what to do with out showing them how to do it. For instance, we might be told, “Love your neighbor!” And we might intensely desire that end, it’s just that we don’t know how to a achieve it. Yet God not only commands us, He informs us. For Jesus Christ’s life among people is a living demonstration of God’s command to love.
So, to that living demonstration we now turn that we might learn how to love.
Getting to Know You
The first step Jesus took in loving His neighbor was to find out who His neighbor was. To do that Jesus came in person. He made Himself available. He spent time with people. He asked questions and listened and interacted.
One of the amazing things about Christ Jesus is that He had intuitive knowledge. This means He had the ability to know all about people even though He just met them. One may see this most clearly in the gospel of John.
In John 1 the man Nathaniel said to Him, “How do you know me?” And Jesus replied, “Before Phillip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.”
See this intuitive knowledge also at work in John 4 where Christ encounters the woman at the well. Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” The woman answered Him, “I have no husband.” And Jesus, knowing all about her, said, “You are right in saying I have no husband, for you have had five husbands, and he whom you have now is not your husband.” Well, needless to say, the lady was amazed that her private life was completely known to Jesus even thought she’d just met Him. So she called Him a prophet and hurried into the city, saying, “Come meet a man who told me all about myself.”
Taking time to get to know people, gathering data, this is the first step in loving people.
But Jesus had the gift of foreknowledge. He knew people even before He’d met them. Most of us do not have such a gift. Hence it is necessary for us to learn to dig into other people’s lives by other means.
John Donne, the poet, wrote, “No man is an island.” True enough, for we all live in a world growing ever more crowded day by day with nearly 6 billion people! Yet, in a very real sense we are not connected to other people in meaningful ways. There are so few people who have time for us, who really know us from our best longings to our deepest hurts. And we are lonely hermits living on desert islands in a sea of humanity. Yet if, indeed, we are islanders, there is certainly no limit to the number of bridges and harbors we can build to other people.
The best way to build bridges to people is to spend time with them, act interested, ask questions, and listen. Words like who, what, where, why, when and how should never be far from our lips. “Why are you here?” “How did you do that?” “What will you do next?”
I can still remember how the relationship between me and one of my best friends began. He walked into my room, patted me on the back, and sat down to ask, “Stephen, I want to get to know you. Tell me about yourself!” And followed the first of many long conversations that have nurtured our friendship for 20 years.
The second step Jesus consistently demonstrated in loving people is affirmation.
A woman was caught in the act of adultery. The crowd wanted to stone her to death. But Jesus affirmed her. “Woman, neither do I condemn you” (John 8:11).
Zacchaeus, a hated Roman collaborator and unjust tax collector, had climbed a tree to watch Jesus’ parade go by. Seeing him out on a limb, Christ spoke. But His words weren’t hot with rebuke. Instead, they were softened by affirmation. “Zacchaeus, come down. I must have supper with you!” (Luke 19:5).
Then there was Legion, that nude, smelly, crazy man from the tombs. Most men ignored him. Not Jesus. He came looking for him! And when Legion ran up to Jesus in a demonic froth, the Lord did not flee. Instead, He stayed and touched him with love.
So, you see, in example after example of Christ’s human encounters the Lord consistently chose to treat people as if they were special. And He did so by affirmation.
I’m afraid we fall short of Jesus’ example here. Our first problem is that we know so little about our neighbors. We are tiny little islands of isolation. We live lives of such self-imposed loneliness. And when we do encounter another human being we are anything but complimentary. We are critical. “It’s your fault!” “Don’t you ever do anything right?” We are indifferent. “I could care less.” “I’m just not interested!” And we are sarcastic. “Jane, what a nice dress. It’s a shame you couldn’t find one in your size.” “One of these days you’re going to bite your tongue and poison yourself!” “Jim, you were born dumb! And it is amazing to me how you’ve expanded that birthright.” And, of course, there is hate. “I’ll never speak to him again!” “I’ll tell you what I think of you!”
We are really warped in our ability to respond to people affirmatively, aren’t we? Have you ever noticed how we often describe people by their defects?
“Mildred? She’s the big fat lady with the bottled hair.”
“Sam? You know him. He’s the man always telling a dirty joke.”
And it seems we are forever describing people by their flaws— scars, bad habits, deformities, sins, problems. “You know John. He’s the alcoholic who works construction.”
“Sure, I know Sarah. She’s the one who’s having the affair.”
Jesus refused to judge people by their negative qualities. Check me out on this! Not one place in the New testament did Jesus Christ ever call another person a sinner!
Someone heard a fisherman swear. They turned their heads and clucked their tongues. But Jesus said, “That’s no weak man. He is a rock! Follow me, mister. I tell you, you are Peter and I’ll build my church on people like you!”
Someone saw a prostitute in the dust. But Jesus said, “Underneath that sin is a beautiful woman. Come, Mary, follow me!” She was Mary Magdalene, last at the cross, first at the empty tomb.
Another man saw only a greedy, cheating tax collector. But Jesus said, “No! No! That man is no criminal. He is a disciple. Come, Matthew, follow me!”
Christ refused to see people from their negative sides. He looked at them positively. He looked for the beauty that is somewhere underneath the sin in every person.
And the Scriptures teach that we who call ourselves by His name should do likewise. The Bible says, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:80).
It takes a practiced effort. It takes a prayerful dedication. And it takes a continual vigilance, but all of us can learn to see and affirm people as God does. All over the world are people just aching for a word of encouragement. And you can learn to affirm them like Jesus. To learn how to make a person feel worthy look not only to Jesus. Take a lesson from the dog, the greatest winner of friends the world has ever known! You might meet him tomorrow coming down the street. When you get within ten feet of him, he will begin to bark happily and wag his tail. If you stop to pat him, he will all but jump out of his skin with appreciation. A dog makes friends by being friendly. He makes friends by being sincerely interested in people, not by trying to get people interested in him.
I hope you see how important affirmation is. And I hope you see that God has marvelously equipped us with many tools with which to do it. You can do it with a smile, a gesture, or with a gift. You can affirm people by eating with them, taking them on a trip or helping out with a chore. Even having a listening ear can be complimentary. In the New Testament, early Christians, we are told, had a beautiful way of expressing their esteem for others. They greeted one another with a holy kiss (1 Cor. 16:20).
After you have gotten to know something about the other person, and after you have affirmed them, a trust relationship will begin to develop between the two of you. The other person will think to himself, “Hey! This guy is okay! I’ve let him peek at who I am and he hasn’t insulted me, criticized me or ignored me. He didn’t even laugh at me! I think he must really care!” When your relationship has developed to this point, you are ready to go on to step three in Christ’s method of loving others. And this third step is that of beginning to deal with a person’s problems.
Legion’s problem was demon possession, and Jesus helped him deal with it (Mark 5). Zacchaeus’ difficulty was likely bitterness and resentment that manifested itself in his nasty habit of over-taxation. And Jesus dealt with it around the dinner table (Luke 19). Then there was the woman caught in the act of adultery. Her distresses were loose morals and a group of men who wanted to stone her. And Christ helped deal with her problems, too.
Jesus gained a reputation as a helper. Folks knew He cared. They sensed He had not come to condemn them but to heal them. And by the thousands people flocked to touch the hemline of His garment, to beg for healing, to state their need and pray for His deliverance.
People still have problems today. There are the sick, the lonely, the deformed, and the poor. There are those that suffer from low self-esteem, alcoholism, or marital problems. Some people are just plain confused and tired. Others have formed bad habits and are now being overpowered by them. People and love quite often are going in opposite directions. The big question is, will be like Jesus and help them?
The other day the phone rang in my study at the church building. When I answered it, the man’s voice on the other end sounded angry. He asked if this was such and such church and if I were the pastor. I said that he was correct, then without further explanation, he said, “Well, you can tell the church that I said they can go to hell!” Then he slammed the receiver down. I must admit that his call angered me at first. I was confused. But then the man’s advice began to make sense to me. The church should go to hell! Christ did! He descended into every valley of human need to minister in the name of Christ. And we are called to follow in His steps.
You must know that helping people deal with their problems demands sacrifice. It takes time. It takes effort and money. You may miss a meal or a good night’s sleep helping someone. It takes involvement. There can be in no love without involvement. This is the message of Jesus. He came. He got involved even though He didn’t have to. And His involvement cost Him dearly— blood, sweat, and tears, disappointment, denial, betrayal. Why, eventually it cost Him His very life on the cross.
People all around us right now are looking for someone who will get to know them, love them, and get involved with their problems. If we get on an airplane, sit down, smile, and introduce ourselves to the businessman next to us, it is not five minutes before he’s telling us all about his heartaches. It could be alcoholism, a son who’s run away, or even a wife who has left him. How much do you care about him? How much are we willing to get involved? Do you care enough to listen to him? Could you write him a letter? Do you care enough to find a way to tactfully share the gospel with a man like that?
Where Do I Go From Here?
How did Jesus build love between Himself and people? He found out who people are. He affirmed them. And once He had built up trust, He helped them with their problems. Then Christ went one step farther. He helped people set realistic goals for their lives. To the woman caught in adultery He said, “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). With Christ’s help Zacchaeus set his goal saying, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold” (Luke 19:8). And sometimes Jesus even rejected goals people had set for themselves and helped them set more valid priorities. Legion begged Jesus to let him go with Him. But Jesus said no. “Go home and tell them there how much the Lord has done for you” (Mark 5:8-19).
As a pastor, I know how demanding a goal setting relationship can be. It requires all of the lordly humility and dependence, wisdom and tough, compassionate love a man can get. As a minister, I give out medicine just like a physician. Whether it is meditation, repentance, Bible study, fellowship, or a book to read— I actually write people prescriptions. If you won’t follow a doctor’s orders, he will tell you not to come back, not to waste his or your time. And I sometimes find it necessary to tell people the same thing. If you want to get better, if you want healing, if you want to lick a defeating problem, you have got to follow the gospel cure. You have got to take the medicine. But if one isn’t willing to do that, then no one can help him. So, I sometimes have to point to the door and say, “I’m sorry. Please leave. I cannot do a thing for you until you are willing to cooperate.”
Jesus loved like this, too. When a rich young ruler came to Christ for help, the Lord went right to the source of the man’s problems and that was his money. He said, “Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor and follow me.” Well, that was more than the young fellow had bargained for. Sure, he wanted to be helped, but he didn’t want the goal, the medicine. And the Bible says he went away sad (Mark 10:17-22). Jesus didn’t call him back. He would not dilute it. Instead Jesus let him go away. Christ calls us to a ministry like that, too. We are sometimes called to express our concern for other people like a surgeon does with a scalpel, like a gardener does in pruning, like a father does with discipline for a son. And Jesus said, if people won’t receive you, if they reject your teaching, shake the dust off from your feet and move on (Matthew 10:14). “Cast not your pearls before swine” (Matthew 7:6). Even though your heart be breaking, move on! There will be other times and other places. Perhaps people farther on will accept the gospel.
The world today has a hard time accepting this dimension of love. People think of love only in terms of acceptance, romance, mercy and grace. But love is also judgment. It is justice. Love can be a spanking, a warning, even a firm kick in the right direction. Did you hear about the boy playing football in the “Funky Winkerbean” comic strip? A girl came running toward him carrying the ball. The boy looked, hesitated, then refused to tackle her because she was a girl and he was afraid he might hurt her. The referee threw the lad out of the game for “unnecessary gentleness.” A lot of our ministry is disqualified because of unnecessary gentleness. We are too limp, too wishy-washy, too easy in our relationships with folks. They go out and break themselves into pieces because we weren’t caring enough to be firm with them, because we weren’t willing to frankly point out the cure and hold them accountable.
Love Waits To Be Accepted
I must say that these four steps Jesus followed in building loving relationships cannot be forced on people. Some folks are so barricaded they won’t let you into their lives. All you can do is wait and pray and hope. But if you begin to build these steps into your character, into your habits, you will find loving your neighbor is possible most of the time. Why not start with your family and work out to your friends? Find out all you can about others. Learn to listen and to compliment others. Little by little get involved with people. Go to hell for them if it is necessary! And gently, but firmly, help them set the kind of goals that bring God and love and success into their lives.
Wrapping Your Flesh Around It
An episode in the “Peanuts” cartoon strip points to a problem we all face in our quest to be lovers. Piano-loving Schroeder and his constant admirer Lucy were pictured. Lucy interrupted Schroeder half-way through one of his concerts. She asked, “Do yo know what love is?” Schroeder stopped, stood, and spoke, “Love. L-O-V-E. Noun. To be fond of; a strong affection for or attachment or devotion to a person or persons.” Then he abruptly sat down and resumed playing. Stunned and puzzled, Lucy murmured, “On paper he’s just great.” That’s the problem we face. On paper we have the love potion, the people tonic, this broken world needs. The problem comes in getting the message off the paper and into our very lives. Will you make the effort? Will you wrap your flesh around God’s love?
Jesus, teach me to love like you! Amen!