Loving our neighbor is not a project
Have you ever received a call from an old friend and you were ecstatic to hear from them? You could not wait to catch up on all that has been happening in their life. Then you quickly find out that they were only interested in talking with you because they wanted to sell their product. Sadly, I know that I have been on the giving and receiving end of this type of transaction. If you have a great product, that is all good and well; however, you never want to make someone else feel like they are just being used so that you can get something you want, like attention or money.
Jesus, during his earthly ministry, even though he is God, took the form of a servant and did nothing from selfish ambition or vain conceit. (Philippians 2:2). In fact, in John 5:30, we see Jesus say that "I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgement is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.” Every word and action Jesus did was done in perfect obedience to God the Father. As the God-man he perfectly obeyed and fulfilled the Old Testament command to love God and love neighbors (Matthew 5:17; Romans 13:8-10). Jesus’ active obedience in fulfilling the law in his life means that he was able to be the perfect mediator between man and God the Father and be the perfect sacrifice on our behalf (1 Timothy 2:5). In fact, the first half of the ten commandments are about loving God and then the second half are about loving your neighbor as an overflow of our God centered love. We are not able to rightly love others when we don’t first supremely love God first. When we properly love and view God as our source of joy and satisfaction, we don’t need to use people for sinful and selfish reasons.
Wait a minute! Isn’t it possible for unbelievers to do good and moral actions to others, though? Yes, when measured against a human standard, an unbeliever can do good to others in relationships and may seem to conform, in their actions, to God’s moral law. In fact, Paul the apostle affirms in Romans 2:14 that the unbeliever or “Gentile, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.” Romans 2:14-15, NKJV
However, God looks not only at the outside, he looks at the inside as well. God looks at the inward motives for every action. For the unbeliever, since these outward actions come from a heart that is still guilty and in rebellion before God, they are not acceptable to God. If actions are not the result and fruit of faith in Christ, it can’t be pleasing to the Lord (Romans 14:23; Hebrews 11:6). Indeed Isaiah 64:6 says that “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” before God. Since God’s standard is perfection and a pure heart (Psalm 24:4), how can a few good deeds be enough to fix our infinite guilt before a Holy and just God?
The sad truth is all of us have failed to perfectly love God and others. We have broken His commands. Yet, the good news is that in Jesus’ passive obedience took upon himself the penalty for breaking God’s just commands: He took the curse of the law of God upon himself and died on a tree. He was obedient to God “to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8) to become our propitiation (appeasement of the just wrath of God against sinners) for our sin (1 John 2:2).
Therefore, the greatest way we can love others, is to for us to first trust in Jesus as our Savior to give us a new heart with new desires. At the moment we repent and “believe in him, [we are] sealed with the Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 1:13) and we will have the inward and outward motivation to obey God’s moral law. In one of the most incredible passages in the Bible, we see the prophet Ezekiel talk about how God’s people will one day (ultimately fulfilled through the work of Jesus) receive salvation:
"Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes, and you will keep my judgments and do them.” Ezekiel 36:25-27, NKJV
Did you catch that? God’s Spirit in us will cause us to obey His statutes/commands! As God’s Spirit moves and works through us, we desire to love our neighbor in a God honoring way. Yet even when we fail to do that as believers, which we will, Christ’s perfect record of righteously obeying God’s law and paying for our sin is counted towards us (Romans 3:21-22). He is our continual mediator between God the father and man (Hebrews 7:25). Praise God for Jesus and his perfect work on our behalf!
As a result of Jesus’ perfect work, we are compelled to love others in a God honoring way.
Thus, we must always labor in showing people that we genuinely care about them, their experiences and why they think they way that they do. We build trust with people when they know that we are working on cultivating a relationship with them and not primarily to change their mind or fix them, but because they matter to us. If someone truly matters to us, and since Jesus has risen and is returning someday, out of our love for them, we should try to persuade them to place their trust in Christ. However, people can tell when we are not actually interested in getting to know them, but they are just our project for the moment.
The question we must continually ask ourselves: Are we interacting with every person we encounter as someone loved by God who deserves our full attention or are we interacting with them simply so we can have an “evangelism project” that makes us feel better about ourselves for checking off our “evangelism” box.
Yes, there may be few times at the airport or an Uber ride where you have an incredible conversation on important topics about life, morality or Jesus in a brief interaction. In fact, I have seen several people leave those type of conversations very encouraged or even place their faith in Christ. I believe that there can be great value in short conversations. To add to this point we should look at what the apostle Paul said about how we should handle every conversation. In his letter to 1st century Christians, He reminds us that in every conversation we must always “[make] the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (Eph 5:16), and “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” (Col 4:6).
However, most of our significant conversation opportunities will be with people whom we have built rapport and trust with. I believe that most people want to open up to someone about their fears, doubts, insecurities, weird thoughts and more. The fear is that they will be treated differently if they do; so many times they will stay in silence and go along with things for the sake of “appearances” in the family, the church, the workplace or more. This can be detrimental for people to process through all that they need to for their faith to grow.
In fact, recent research from Dr. Kara Powell (youth ministry researcher and professor) confirms this principle. She recently did research on youth group graduates and found that 70% of churchgoing high school students report having serious doubts about faith. However, the ones with more opportunities to express and explore their doubts actually grew in faith maturity.
Dr. Kara Powell, decided from her research that “It’s not doubt that’s toxic to faith; it’s silence.”
This is especially true with teens but also everyone else.
When we don’t feel safe to be honest with others in the church about things that really matter, our faith will not grow.
Too many times I have seen someone admit to a struggle or having a lot of questions about faith and then people begin to view them as a project to fix. They may try and schedule a “sit down meeting” with them to talk about their problems or questions. I’m not against these intentional meetings, but I do think it can miss the point and make people feel like a project if that is the only time you intentionally visit with them. These types of meetings should complement an ongoing, consistent, interaction within a community of other believers. This ongoing interaction should involve many side conversations and genuine care and concern for people exactly where they are at now. I believe we under-estimate the power of showing our family or friends that they can belong in our community exactly how they are now and how transformative that itself can be.
Are we willing to be patient (i.e. be long-suffering) with our unbelieving friends who have questions about God’s existence and if we can trust Him and how he rules the world? We must be patient if we hope to help people see the truth of who God truly is, especially in a culture that has inundated us with false ideas about who God is and discipled them into a worldview that sets itself up against the knowledge of God (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). It may take a while to work through what is true and what is not in conversations with our neighbor, but people are worth it. We must love others sacrificially and patiently because Christ has first loved us perfectly.