Loving people isn’t easy. Loving people who are different from you is even harder. During His time on earth, Jesus said aside from loving God, loving our neighbor is the greatest commandment. Paul said that we can preach with beautiful words all day long, but without love, we are like clanging cymbals (1 Corinthians 13:1). God’s word is very clear about how important it is to love the people around us, regardless of who they are or what they’ve done. But what does that actually look like in practice?
People, Not Programs
On our Real Hope podcast, I recently interviewed speaker and author Bob Goff, who has a few things to say about loving people. His books “Love Does” and “Everybody, Always” are all about what that means in real life. Bob told me that one of the major keys to loving people well is doing it without an agenda.
“When love has an agenda, it’s not love; it’s a program. We don’t need any more programs,” he says.
Bob explains that we all have hidden things about ourselves we feel shame about — lurking like rattlesnakes under brush — that we’d actually like to uncover, if someone would just take the time to look past the brush and see them. Often, like rattlesnakes, they’re not so intimidating when we look at them head on.
“We need people who authentically want to uncover what’s there, deal with the ‘rattlesnakes’ and get on with the discovery,” Bob adds.
As people who work in ministry, it can be even more challenging to foster agenda-free love for the people around us. We want to serve as many people as we can, and though our intentions might be good, it’s easy to fall into the trap of turning people into projects.
Brad Roth, a Mennonite pastor in Kansas, had this experience when he moved into a rural church community. He had heard about the town’s former “glory” and its state of disrepair. He assumed his job would be to use his gifts and talents to bring restoration wherever he could.
“It was perfect, the kind of tumbledown place that matched my hankering to put my faith into practice and really live the gospel,” he writes in Christianity Today, noting that his “fixit” attitude not only applied to the community, but to people as well.
“Maybe if I could get that divorcing couple to sit down with me, or counsel the young man who was slipping into gang life, or incisively—yet gently—point out the doctrinal weak spots in the theology of those folks who rarely showed up in church, things would work out. All these people needed was for someone to apply a bit of spiritual elbow grease. And all I wanted was to save a few lives.”
As he got to know the people in the community, though, he realized he had turned loving people into “fixing” people. A conversation with a church member prompted him to reconsider the spirit with which he was pastoring.
“He startled me out of our comfortable conversation with a passionate statement: ‘I don’t want people to think we’re just a sorry little town!’ I had no doubt he meant it for me, though he was kind enough not to spell that out,” Brad remembers. “It began to dawn on me that while I had gotten quite good at analyzing brokenness and concocting plans to fix it, I had failed in the one thing needed. I had failed to love.”
Brad had unintentionally turned people into programs.
Love in the Time of an Election Cycle
Loving people without trying to change them is a daily practice of dying to yourself — of putting the other person first, even when it’s not easy. It’s much more comfortable to love people similar to you, but loving without an agenda means doing so across the board.
This is particularly difficult when we have conflicting beliefs, politics or opinions on social issues. Our natural bent is to try to convince others why our position is the correct one, or take it a step further and declare our position to be the God-approved position. The interesting thing about this approach, though, is that even if we weren’t called to put away selfish ambition and vain conceit (Phil. 2:3), research shows we are very unlikely to be successful in our attempts to change people anyway.
First of all, today’s landscape is more divided than ever. According to a 2017 article in the Atlantic, “the most recent data shows that 2015 had the highest rates of polarization since 1879, the earliest year for which there’s data.”
Second, persuading someone to change their beliefs, especially when those beliefs are tied closely to a sense of identity or belonging, is a grueling uphill battle. Brendan Nyhan, professor of government at Dartmouth University, has discovered that attempting to do so can even have the opposite result.
“Nyhan’s work has shown that correcting people’s misperceptions often doesn’t work, and worse, sometimes it creates a backfire effect, making people endorse their misperceptions even more strongly,” writes Julie Beck in the Atlantic piece.
The only way experts seem to think progress can be made in changing someone’s closely held beliefs is, not surprisingly, through close relationships over a long period of time.
“If the changes are going to happen at all, it’ll have to be “on a person-to-person level,” says psychotherapist Daniel Shaw. He says one of his patients who has perceived problems in the beliefs of his fundamentalist Christian parents, may actually succeed in influencing their views because of his long-term perspective and compassion.
“[He] maintains a relationship with his family in which he tries to discuss in a loving and compassionate way some of these issues. He is patient and persistent, and he chips away, and he may succeed eventually. But are they going to listen to a [news] feature about why they’re wrong? I don’t think so,” Shaw tells the Atlantic.
So how do we become ambassadors of hope, loving people unconditionally, with no agenda? We engage with others. We listen to them. We focus on what matters most, discovering the real person underneath that off-putting behavior or the details of their worldview.
“I’m not trying to be right anymore,” Bob says in our interview. “I think one of the things we can do is be really picky about the fights we engage in. You don’t need to swing at every pitch. What you can do is just be engaged and present, and if someone says something wonky, I just don’t feel like I need to be the one to straighten them out.”
A simpler way to say it is to just be a friend — not in the nice, “I pat your back, you pat mine” kind of way, but true friendship — one with no strings attached.
“Friendship allows us to accept people as they are rather than converting them into projects to be fixed. Friendship gives us the courage to abide and listen and be vulnerable,” Brad concludes. “As another pastor I interviewed put it, what we have to learn is to‘really be people’s friends without wanting anything.’”
We can look to Jesus, of course, for this example of sacrificial love. There was (and is) nothing we can do to pay Jesus back for his death and resurrection, saving us from our sin for eternity. While we of course cannot do this on our own, we can ask the Holy Spirit to help us love in the same unconditional way.
“But God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” Romans 5:8 says. He didn’t wait for us to be more likeable or less sinful. He loved us anyway.
When we love others with no agenda, we can walk alongside them without judgment. We can encourage them and have compassion for them. We can lean in closer and discover who they are — and choose to love them anyway. That kind of love fosters hope. It reminds the people around us they’re not alone and reminds them of the magnitude of the love with which God loves them.
Whether it’s by asking someone’s name, getting to know your next-door neighbor, choosing to engage with someone you don’t particularly like — you can be an ambassador of hope in your corner of the world.