During a recent sermon, one of my fellow pastors asked a vital, if not the pinnacle question for all followers of Jesus: what does love require of me?
Recently, several in our congregation shared with me their troubling circumstances. All of them came to me hurt by the response of trusted friends and family. They were seeking love, support or comfort but what they received instead was well-meant but overzealous advice-giving.
Can you identify? You know those situations where you share something personal and someone immediately says, “Well, have you tried…” or “what you need to do is…” or “what works for me is…” When this happens, don’t you walk away feeling lonely, unheard, and frustrated? The underlying problem here is that often our attempts to love each other turn into attempts to fix each other.
In 2010 I was unemployed for nine months. As the months stacked up and my bank account dwindled, I became increasingly anxious and struggled with diminishing self-confidence. I felt lonely and anonymous. I was starkly aware of my inability to control my life. It was painful stretching time for my faith and I couldn’t cope with it alone. As I shared these challenges with the people I love, almost every one of them responded by asking if I proofread my resume, wrote good cover letters or needed to practice my interview skills. Those conversations left me deflated. I didn’t need someone to try to fix me or my problem – as if they could! I needed people to listen to my story, to try to understand what I was feeling and to remember me in their prayers. I wasn’t looking solutions but empathy and intercession!
As followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2), to love others like Christ loves us (John 13:34-35), and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves (Luke 10:27). Sometimes it is appropriate to express our love through practical actions like providing meals, fixing a leaky sink or even editing resumes. But if that is the only love we offer, then we’ve miss the opportunity to love the core of the person – their soul.
All of us have sincere love and concern for others. The real challenge is to translate the love we feel into acts of caring that are a balm that soothes rather than a bandage that just covers over an ugly wound.
How can we love each other in ways that avoid treating another person like a problem to be fixed? How can we move beyond problem/solution focused love to person/soul focused love? Here’s a little chart I made up to flesh out my understanding of the difference. Under which column do you think you’d fit?
Problem/Solution focused Love
Person/Soul focused love
|Feels the urge to fix||Feels the urge to listen and understand|
|Makes comments||Asks questions|
|Responds with “Have you tried?” etc.||Responds with “That sounds ______. What is this doing to your heart/faith/confidence?”|
|Gives advice||Assumes you have some valuable perspective on your own life and asks questions like: what do you think you need, what would help/support look like to you, what do you think will bring you comfort?”|
|Quotes scripture one-liners like a sage||Inquires whether/how God has spoken into their situation through scripture reading or prayer|
|Go-to response: “I’m sorry. I’ll pray for you,” which is often followed by an awkward silence, a quick escape and zero follow up.||Realizes there is no go-to response. Acknowledges the significance of the person and the problem by either asking to spend quality time together or referring them to someone who may better equipped to care for them. Asks the person how to pray for them and follows up.|
The first important step toward person/soul focused love is self-review. We each need to unearth the answer to the question, “Am I someone who offers problem/solution focused love or someone who offers person/soul focused love?”
Listening is a fundamental act of love. It should be our first response to someone’s pain. To love well, we must learn to listen well and that means resisting our cultural instincts to hurry or to allow ourselves to superficially hop through daily human interactions. For many of us, listening is a call to put away or turn off our cell phones and sit face to face with someone – actions which have become far too rare!
Sunday’s sermon reminded me that when we look into God’s commands we see the heart of the commander, which is love. Christians, like all humans, are well-known for rushing into acts of either fixing our neighbors or escaping from them. Maturing disciples must continually ask, “What does love require of me?” Like the needle of a compass, that question will keep us moving toward true love. We see true love expressed in the life and death of Jesus Christ.
(To listen to the sermon that inspired this reflection go to: http://hopechurchchandler.com/sermons. The sermon is titled “Loophole Christians”)