Hello again! I know, I’m a day late with this one. It’s not even very long, so that’s not my excuse. Mostly, I was letting an idea marinate, to see if it was what was really supposed to go up this week. And I think that it is. Today I want to share with you something that seems so simple, but yet is often so difficult for Christians to put into practice. It’s one of the central features of Jesus’ life, and yet probably the one we least like to imitate. What is it? Simply put, it is loving sinners. I’m not interested in discussing specific lifestyles, actions, or choices that you or I believe are sinful. That’s not what’s at issue here. The sin isn’t the issue; our action is. Let’s use a bare-bones definition of a sinner – anyone who has not believed in salvation from sin through the death of Jesus. That’s who we’re talking about this week.
We like to say that we love sinners and want to bring them into God’s family. But many of us (I’ve been guilty of this too) only love people “outside the fold” in an abstract sort of way. We don’t go outside of the church and love them (socialize with them, care for them in times of need, encourage them, etc.); we hope that they will “get saved” so that they can be like us and then we can really love them.
Why do we do this? I think there are lots of different reasons. Sometimes we are afraid that if we associate with people who don’t follow all the same rules as us (this can even apply to other Christians sometimes, sadly) we will become “less saved” and fall into sin. If we associate with someone who uses profane language, we’ll start using it too. If we socialize with someone who drinks too much, we’ll become alcoholics as well. If we befriend someone who’s living with their boyfriend or girlfriend, we’ll become sexually immoral. While we certainly need to be on our guard to not be sucked into sin or worldliness, we are promised that we have not been given “a spirit of fear, but one of power, love, and sound judgment.” (2 Timothy 1:7) God doesn’t save us and then allow us to be weak and fragile in the face of sin. If that were true, wouldn’t He just transport each person to heaven as soon as they believed, because they would be too delicate to remain in the world? We need to have more faith in the spirit God has placed within us. If we are loving the lost in the way that God has called us to, we don’t have to worry about being dragged away from Him.
Sometimes we avoid people we see as sinners because we just don’t know how to interact with them. We may have been sheltered by our parents during childhood, and by our church during adulthood, that we feel that we have nothing in common with those outside the church. They don’t understand our “holy-speak” and we don’t understand the things that they enjoy or that they are upset by. This is a legitimate obstacle, but one that must be overcome if we want to claim that we really love the lost. How do we do it? A little bit at a time, I think. Look for ways to find common ground with the unsaved around you. If you were homeschooled, went to a Christian college, and then worked in a parachurch organization, you probably don’t want to start out trying to connect with a biker gang. Baby steps, folks. What about the neighbors who have kids the same age as your kids? Or maybe fellow athletes on a community team? Start by finding the things that are the same about you, and hopefully they’ll see the differences between you in a positive light that turns them towards Jesus. (Which means that you’ll have to be careful to make those differences positive!)
Finally, I think a huge reason we neglect to actively, tangibly love sinners around us is arrogance and pride. We have our list of the really bad sins, and people in our lives who commit one of those sins are just too “dirty” for us. We can’t be friends with that guy at work, because it might expose our children to the evil in the world if they found out how he lives. We can’t let our daughter invite the neighbor girl over to play because her mommy doesn’t have good enough morals. We see ourselves as “good” and “pure” and these others as “bad” or “corrupted” and we’re afraid that they will rub off on us, or somehow diminish our goodness. We think that it is a case of oil and water, and that mixing is simply impossible.
Friends, that’s not how it works, for so many reasons. First off, you are not so great. Before you were saved, you were, in the eyes of God, just as lost as the most sinful person you can think of. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11) In His mercy God saved you, and in His mercy He can save others. There is no award for being saved, because you didn’t earn it or accomplish it. If God can love and have grace and mercy for the lost, surely you should be able to. If you are not a slave to sin, it is because Jesus paid for your freedom, and not because you were inherently strong or good.
Second, the sin of others can’t just “rub off” on us. It’s not like the flu – it doesn’t just spread, I promise. I’ve spent a lot of time around a lot of people with all the different brands of sin, and I haven’t become ensnared by any of them. But don’t ask me, ask Jesus. He spent more time with the lost than most of us ever will, and yet he remained without sin. Jesus loved a fraudulent tax collector (Zacchaeus – Luke 19:1-10), an adulterous woman (the Samaritan at the well – John 4:1-26), and so many others that he and his disciples were infamous for their associations with the moral and religious outcasts (Matthew 9:10-11, Mark 2:15-16, Luke 5:29-30, Luke 7:34). Jesus didn’t see his righteousness and purity as something to be jealously guarded and protected, but as something to be shared. He knew the importance having faithful friends who loved and worshipped God and set that example for us in his choosing of the disciples. We all need a community of people who share our faith and can encourage us. But Jesus also showed us how important it is for us to let the love we receive from our relationship with the Father spill over into the world around us, particularly to those who have not yet experienced the love of God. Jesus didn’t come so that good, moral Christians would have something in common; he came so that the sinful, the lost, the broken could be saved, healed, and restored (Matthew 9:12) And that is the job he left to us when he returned to the Father (Matthew 28:19-20, Acts 1:8).
To wrap this all up, I’m not sure exactly why this is what I felt compelled to write about this week. Perhaps it will be a timely challenge and reminder to some of you. Maybe it will convict someone. I know it has challenged me just thinking about it, evaluating how I live in relation to the lost around me. Do I judge, or do I love? So often Christians feel that we have the right, the responsibility even, to judge the sinners around us. But we don’t. Of all the commands and instructions and responsibilities that God gives us after we are saved, judging is not one of them. Not the unsaved, not the saved. He kept that job all for Himself. I get so frustrated by people who claim to be Christians, but then make Christianity so unattractive by loudly and obnoxiously judging and denouncing sinners. Yes, sin is a problem. It’s a huge problem. It’s the problem. But we don’t win people to Christ by telling them how terrible they are and how they are ruining society. We don’t make Christ attractive by proclaiming our own goodness and righteousness. It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict people of their sin, and it is the kindness of God that leads to repentance, not our bashing or our boasting. (Romans 2:4)
Loving the lost is a risky proposition. It opens your eyes to see people the way that God does. It allows for the possibility that you will care about someone who refuses to answer the call to salvation. You may see those you love lost for eternity. God calls us to love the way that He does, and that kind of love opens the door to all sorts of pain. God’s heart aches continually for the lost who refuse His loving advances. And yet the rewards are just as infinite. When you see the lost saved, broken lives made new, sick souls healed, and people transformed by the power of Christ, there is nothing more amazing. You get to be a witness to something that causes all the angels to rejoice. I don’t know how God is calling you to love those around you. But I do know that He is calling you to it. Please seek Him this week, and don’t just wait for an answer – get out there and start loving some sinners!