While reading Lamentations I was reminded of something that would make a good topic.
“All your enemies rail against you; they hiss, they gnash their teeth, they cry: “We have swallowed her! Ah, this is the day we longed for; now we have it; we see it!” – Lamentations 2:16
As I read this, I immediately wondered who my own enemy is, if there’s anyone who would feel joy and relief if I was just ruined in some way. I didn’t think very long about it since I can’t know the heart of anyone else, and instead wondered who I am the enemy of.
Who do I maybe secretly, want to fail? When some misfortune happens to someone, do I snort and feel no empathy at all? Does it anger me to see someone’s success or happiness? Would I be legitimately happy and sigh “Ah, this is the day I’ve longed for” if they were ruined and brought down?
When we think of concepts in the Bible, such as love or pride or whatever it is, there will likely always be someone we can direct our minds to and say, “They sure do need to hear/understand/apply this.” Always. So, it’s important to realize that evaluating our growth by comparing it to others is counterproductive; everything is relative. Essentially, the important thing is to always study the Bible or listen to sermons and lessons introspectively. We are the only ones we are truly, intimately familiar with, and even if so-and-so very obviously don’t get the concept of humility, and consequently make us look like Mr. or Mrs. Most Humble, that kind of approach to spirituality is ultimately only going to hinder our own service to God. From the moment we are converted until the day we die, we are part of a process; we will constantly be in need of more sanctification. And the moment we begin to think we’ve perfected some area is the moment we start sliding backwards.
That being said, God is love. We are sinful and broken and it is no surprise that the love God has shown us throughout the Bible is not something that comes naturally to us. When we look at Jesus, we shouldn’t throw our hands up in the air with desperation because somehow we aren’t like Him. That’s why He had to come and die. Let’s not be surprised when we get a glimpse of how truly ugly we are.
Instead, when we happen to get an extra bitter taste of reality, we can immediately humble ourselves and pray to God, thanking Him for His sacrifice, and pleading with Him for grace, mercy and the power to overcome our natural tendencies.
The truth is, I think we all can relate to the enemy of the passage above, to some degree. Right? How many of us can read 1 Corinthians 13 and say, “What a perfect description of the way I want to and do treat everyone, whether I like them or not! Whether they’re mean to me or in love with me! Whether they’re annoying or intriguing! Whether they are just like me or completely at odds with everything I believe about life, politics, entertainment or God!”
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” – 1 Corinthians 13:1-3
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” – John 13:34
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.” – 1 John 4:7
“Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” – 1 John 4:11
“If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” – 1 John 4:20
““You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others?” – Matthew 5:43-47
“Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” – Romans 13:10
“The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”” – Mark 12:31
There are many other passages speaking directly about the love disciples of Christ ought to have for one another especially, but the command to love is not confined to those in His church. We don’t only have an obligation to love, with the love of Christ, those who believe. That isn’t the example Christ gave for us.
Who is our neighbor? All people, especially those who we despise and treat unfairly, according to Christ when He gave the parable of the good Samaritan.
Who is the enemy that we should love and pray for? Not only those who we think poorly of, but those who look down on us, maybe hurt and degrade us. Those who persecute us or truly would experience joy if we died.
By those two passages alone, it seems that the love of God we are to emulate extends to all people.
And how discouraging when our hearts are exposed and we find that one person who we not only cannot seem to muster good feelings toward, but really can’t seem to feel anything other than ugliness and anger toward. What are we supposed to do if we find something like that within our hearts? What is love anyway?
You’ve probably heard the slogan, often illustrated with a train, “Fact, faith, feeling.” It was designed to demonstrate the way in which we should align ourselves with truth. So, in this case, the fact is that we should love all people. Faith is putting that into practice and feeling is of course actually feeling that love.
The easiest way, in terms of satisfying ourselves, to get through life is to reorganize the train into feeling, faith, fact. In other words, our default mode of transportation in this life is doing what comes to us naturally, or obeying our feelings. If I feel love toward someone, I eagerly act accordingly. If I don’t feel like being friendly, I’m not. If I’m angry, I demonstrate it.
So, it’s very difficult when we’re presented with a truth: we should love those whom we hate, and our feelings are contradicting what we know we should do. How do we overcome? Are our feelings an excuse? Or are our feelings, as some might argue, of no importance? Is Biblical love completely separate from a love that can be felt? Where does love begin?
Just as there is difficulty at the beginning of any new challenge (think of the shock and torture our bodies and minds go through when we turn from eating whatever, whenever, to eating salads and healthy food and exercising regularly), we can expect a period of immense difficulty when we first endeavor to put on love when we don’t feel like it.
Because of this, though, and because of our culture’s affair with love-feelings, I think Christians can swing too far and rest on this idea that feelings are not only deceiving and harmful, they are unimportant and shouldn’t be considered; thinking the important thing is action and if the feelings never come, that’s okay. Sometimes we even view our relationship with God this way, as though empty obedience is what is necessary and that maybe it’s even natural to not enjoy it or feel joy and love for Him.
I think God has hidden a gift within commanding us to act out love (“Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth”- 1 John 3:18). Consider this observation from C.S. Lewis:
“[T]hough natural likings should normally be encouraged, it would be quite wrong to think that the way to become charitable is to sit trying to manufacture affectionate feelings…The rule for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste time bothering whether you “love” your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more. If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less…[W]henever we do good to another self, just because it is a self, made (like us) by God, and desiring its own happiness as we desire ours, we shall have learned to love it a little more or, at least, to dislike it less…The worldly man treats certain people kindly because he “likes” them: the Christian, trying to treat everyone kindly, finds himself liking more and more people as he goes on – including people he could not even have imagined himself liking at the beginning.”
So, yes, there will be tension whenever we purpose to change something within ourselves, even trying to love one another. It won’t be natural, it won’t be easy or pleasurable at first, but that’s no reason to give up. Just as that awful experience of resisting temptation with food and subjecting yourself to grueling exercise will ultimately become more natural and even better, will reap noticeable benefits with time, so will acting against our desires ultimately produce an exciting change within us. Acting in love without those feelings will eventually shift your feelings, making it easier to love and of course, easier to act, in the long run. Fact, faith, feeling.
But not apart from God. Not without heavy reliance on His word and prayer.
Maybe the people you struggle with aren’t people you’re constantly in contact with. How can you make progress then, when you don’t have opportunities to act?
Prayer. Maybe fasting ;)
I think we all have unique praying habits so I won’t pretend to know what the majority of people do. I will say that if you’re struggling with a difficult issue like this and all you can think about is 1 John, if you say you love God but hate your brother, you’re a liar, or if you’re haunted by Jesus’ admonition to love your enemies because you know you’ve been found guilty, then pray fervently and pray often – multiple times a day. This isn’t some divinely inspired command, it’s just good advice. Half-hearted prayer, in my own life, has reflected a half-hearted effort and if any good comes from it, it’s slow. Purposeful, continual prayer not only is a reflection of my mindset, but it strengthens and furthers that focus on and connection with God (surprise, right?), and consequently helps me think on Christ more in my dealings with others.
And I think that’s a built-in advantage to fasting – it’s like a little biological alarm clock in the form of hunger to remind you to pray.
What should you pray for?
Pray for you, that your heart will be opened and softened. Continually ask that you will be a living sacrifice, allowing Christ to live in you, so that you can act according to His will, not your own. Pray that you will see them as being created in His image. Ask to be humbled (and mean it).
Pray for them, and change it up with each prayer- pray for any struggles you know they’re going through. Pray for their relationship with God. Pray for their family. Pray for their insecurities. Really flesh them out and empathize in your mind – pray for the things you would want to pray about yourself. Pray for blessings.
Thank God. Thank God for the opportunity to grow. Thank Him for working in you. Thank Him for differences, disagreements, difficulties and trials.
And then whenever you do see the opportunity, do good to them. Go out of your way to do good to them, from smiling and complimenting and starting up conversation to seeing a need and showing up at their door to help or sending whatever is necessary to their home, even anonymously. Do for them.
Lewis is right, the feelings will follow. And I think to only focus on the obedience is to sell ourselves short, because God gave us those feelings just as he gave us the ability to act and there is no doubt that He can mold those feelings for good, for the way He designed them if we’ll only aspire to it and if we’ll let Him.
More than that, however, I’ll even say it’s dangerous to not seek feelings. Feelings for others and feelings for God.
Not only can we see those very real feelings written about in the Psalms (see below) and in prayers throughout the Old Testament, we can use a bit of common sense:
What is heaven? Why heaven?
Isn’t our God the point of heaven? Didn’t Paul say in Philippians that he desired to depart and be with Christ, for that was far better than living? Can we say we can be in heaven if we haven’t truly tasted and seen that the Lord is good, if we haven’t truly felt that, if we don’t actually desire Him, love Him with all of our being, including our emotions? And who will be in heaven? His children? Does that only mean people we currently like? Is it even possible to be in heaven with someone you contentedly disdain?
Sure, our sanctification is a process that won’t be completed until the end. We very well may never conquer those feelings completely, but there is a fundamental difference between the person who longs for God and longs to long for others and diligently prays and fights to endure, and the person who coasts along, expecting an inheritance from a Person they hardly know and would care to know if it weren’t for what was in it for them.
Consider these verses:
“O God, you are my God;earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land
where there is no water.” – Psalm 63:1
“Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy.” – Psalm 43:4
“Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, you righteous ones; and shout for joy, all you who are upright in heart” – Psalm 32:11
“Delight yourself in the Lord…” – Psalm 37:4
“In Your presence is fullness of joy; in Your right hand there are pleasures forever” – Psalm 16:11
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” –Matthew 6:21
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” – Philippians 4:4
Truly feeling love for God, delighting in Him, making Him our joy is a command, because it is the foundation of everything:
“For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” – 1 John 5:3
Who of us, without God at the center of our heart and affection can read that confidently?
Yes, we may start our faith in fear, we may not experience those feelings in their fullness at first, but as diligently as we strive for obedience, we should strive for joy, delight, happiness in and love for God and for others.
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.
This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” – Matthew 22:37-40
Related post: Delight Yourself in the Lord