When I first started college at Chico State, I remember seeing a guy standing in the quad preaching. He was shouting and pointing, and asking the students to turn away from their sin, and turn to God. I’m sure his intention was to save the students from their sins, and have them turn to Jesus who loves them, but that was not what they heard. All the students were hearing was condemnation, judgment, shame. They heard you’re not good enough, not loved, not cared for. The condemnation was deafening: so deafening that they couldn’t hear the love of God. All of the things that the guy was saying were true: turning from sin, turning to God, going to hell; all of it was true. What was missing from this truth was love.
“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” 1 Corinthians 13:1
The man in the quad was a clanging symbol, a resounding gong, and the people walking by were only hearing noise. They were hearing biblical truth, but they weren’t hearing about the relationship that I know and love. It broke my heart and confused me. It had me doubting that I was in the right camp; how could I present Jesus to people who had only heard what that guy was saying? I didn’t want to tell my friends that I was walking with the Jesus that that man represented: shouting condemnation to hurting, broken, lost college kids. I wanted to stand beside him, and shout “That’s not Jesus! Jesus loves you!”
We are sinners, we are condemned (without Jesus), but we were not put on this earth to condemn others. We were called to love. When Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment his answer was to love God, and then love your neighbor. He did not say love God, and then point out to your neighbor all the things he is doing wrong. Or love God and make sure everyone follows all the rules that are in the bible. He said love them, just love them.
In our own attempts at being right, or making others follow the right path, we overlook the love necessary to get them there. And we’ve put the condemnation, the being right, the following the right path above the love of God, the grace and sacrifice of Jesus. We’ve presented them with the rules, and the consequences, without presenting to them the immense, incalculable, overwhelming love of Jesus. We’ve given them the rules without the reasons behind them, and Jesus was only about the reasons: the love behind the law.
Taylor Swift said it so well in one of her recent hits “Shade never made anybody less gay!” Our anger, our opinions, our feelings are never gonna change anyone that we’re holding at arms length because of what they represent. The only way that anything we say will ever make a difference is if it is said in relationship, in love. The only way that Jesus ever changed someone’s life was first by loving them. And then it’s not shade; it’s love, it’s comfort, it’s advice, it’s help.
The times when Jesus asked others to turn from sin, and follow him, the people he was talking to were already in. They were already sold on this man, Jesus, who loved them and came to save them. The people he was speaking to were people who were convinced that this man was worth following. They were convinced that the relationship would be worth what he was asking of them. And they were convinced by his love. We can’t assume that people are already there, especially if they’ve never experienced this love. The love of God, the grace of Jesus is what inspires us to change; the condemnation is not the catalyst to that change. The people had seen the miracles, the healing, the common sense speaking, all of it, before he challenged them to see their sinful ways. He showed them love before he ever showed them what it took to follow him.
In college, as I wrestled with who Jesus was to me, and who I wanted Him to be to my friends, I tried my best to respond in love. I went to parties and stood my ground on my convictions not to drink, but I did not condemn others who chose a different way. I didn’t stand on a chair in the middle of these parties, and tell them they were going to hell unless they turned to God. I doubt I would have been invited to any more parties after that. I kept my eyes open, and loved my friends. I walked people home, I consoled them, I engaged in conversations, I danced and laughed, and had fun.
They knew exactly where I stood, and I didn’t have to stand on a chair for them to know it. I stood on an invisible soapbox of love, and shouted what I knew of Jesus in my actions. Maybe they didn’t know it was Jesus, but they respected and knew that I was different. I loved my friends; I wasn’t perfect, and I certainly didn’t always love them perfectly, but I tried. I loved them through breakups, through gossip, broken families, through injuries, and hard things. And I never would have gotten to walk through those things with them if I judged them; instead I chose to love. I let the Lord do the convicting, the changing, and I just showed them his love.
All of the anger toward sin and sinners, the keeping people out, the us versus them, that is not Jesus. And if you see the church, the people of God as those things, I’m here to tell you that is not Jesus. That is not the Jesus who came down from heaven to earth to die so that we could live. Just because I go to church, does not make me perfect. Just because anyone goes to church, it does not make them incapable of inflicting pain on others. It happens. We’re imperfect, we hurt people, we make mistakes, but what I desire is that people would see the love of Jesus in my life despite my sin. And that people would see the repentance and forgiveness, after the sin, and in that, love.
Without the sin in my life, I would have no need for the love and grace of Jesus. And without admitting when I have done wrong, and going to someone I have wronged, and asking forgiveness, there is no grace. And without a need for grace, there is no need for Jesus. So when my neighbors, the ones I am called to love, see the church as a bunch of perfect people, being perfect together, and judging others for not being perfect like them, something is wrong with that picture. I’d rather my neighbor see the imperfection, see the repentance, see the forgiveness, and know that that is all okay. And it’s all covered by a man who died on a cross to save us from all of that.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” John 3:16-17
So when someone is a clanging cymbal, or a resounding gong about everyone’s imperfections, that is not love. Loving our neighbor is walking alongside them in trouble, walking alongside them in the hard stuff, and loving them despite what they’ve done. It’s getting into relationship with them, and waiting for them to ask “what do I do now?” And when they ask that question, simply offering the love of Jesus as the answer. He loves you, he wants relationship with you, and he forgives you. They don’t need the condemnation from us, they only need the love.