Richard Coekin writes: “I now realise that the primary reason we struggle to evangelise our communities is not that they are more hostile than those of another culture or a previous generation, but that we just don’t love them enough.”1
I find that hugely convicting. And I know I’m not alone. But what can we do about it? How can we grow in our love for people around us, particularly those who don’t know Jesus as their king and rescuer and joy?
Well, here are ten things for starters:
1) Meditate on Christ’s love. The way we are conformed to the image of the Christ is largely through gazing at his glory in the pages of Scripture (2 Cor. 3:18). It is as we see more and more of Christ – Christ embracing filthy sinners; Christ setting his face to die for sinners, enduring disgrace and insult and beatings from those he created; Christ being so patient and gentle towards us personally; Christ longing to be with us, his bride, for eternity – that our hearts are warmed and shaped to be more like his.
It is as we see more and more of Christ that our hearts are warmed and shaped to be more like his.
2) Pray for yourself. We can’t love. As Calvin says, for us to love is not just difficult, but “against our nature”.2 And as both Augustine and Luther have observed, we are naturally “curved inward” and cold to others. But as beloved children who have been saved by grace, we are to pray desperate daily prayers asking the God of abundant love to make his love abound more and more in us.
3) See people as made in the image of God. Calvin writes, “Scripture […] tells us that we are not to look to what men in themselves deserve, but to attend to the image of God, which exists in all, and to which we owe all honour and love […] You say someone is mean and of no consideration. The Lord points him out as one whom he has distinguished by the lustre of his own image (Isaiah 58:7) […] We are not to reflect on the wickedness of men, but look to the image of God in them, an image which, covering and obliterating their faults, should by its beauty and dignity allure us to love and embrace them”.3
4) See people as harassed and helpless. Rachel Jones reminds us that “every person we speak to is carrying a (usually unseen) burden of sorrow. When we remember that, we’ll look at people as Jesus did—with compassion—and speak of the Shepherd they need (Matthew 9 v 36).”4 When we see a crowd, let’s take a moment and refocus, as Richard Coekin challenges us: “When Jesus looks at commuters pouring in and out of the city to work, he doesn’t despise them as selfish materialists […] When he sees […] a gay pride march, or retired middle classes […] or young people swarming among the shops in search of bargains, he doesn’t despise them as we commonly do. Jesus feels a gut-wrenching tenderness for people who desperately need him.”5
5) See people as blind. In Paul Tripp’s excellent Parenting: 14 Gospel Principles, he explains that the key to unlocking our mercy and compassion is to realise that our children are blind. Instead of getting angry with them and shouting, “Why can’t you see?” we realise that actually they can’t see, and they can’t even see that they can’t see. They need our mercy and compassion, not our frustration and condemnation. The same is true of all unbelievers. They are stumbling around in the dark – because the “god of this age has blinded [them]” (2 Cor. 4:4). Like the people of Nineveh, they don’t know their left from their right, and God has pity and love towards that blindness.
6) Remember what you were (and still largely are). When Paul talks about relating to authorities and people around us in a way that is good, gentle, gracious and considerate (Titus 3:1-2) he then gives the basis: “for at one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.” (Titus 3:3) He reminds Titus, and us, that this only changed “when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared” (Titus 3:4). If we forget what we naturally are, then we’ll be tempted to despise people. If we remember that – except for the grace of God – we would stumble around blindly, then we will feel a lot more identity and sympathy and love for our fellow sinners. As Paul Tripp says, “no one gives grace better than the person who knows they need it most.”6
If we remember that – except for the grace of God – we would stumble around blindly, then we will feel a lot more identity and sympathy and love for our fellow sinners.
7) Get to know people. The goal is not to love ‘people’ in the abstract but particular people as individuals. Psychological research has found that “escalating, reciprocal, personalistic self-disclosure” produces deeper relationships, even between near-strangers.7 In other words, when two people are talking and one shares something and then the other shares something similar – when they go back and forth, sharing more of themselves, gradually moving from facts to opinions to feelings, then there is very often a deepening of relationship, interest, trust and warmth. That’s just the way God has made people. There are cultural factors of which we need to be aware. Not all cultures move from small talk to big talk in the same way. However, the general way it works is that the more you know someone, the more able and likely you are to love them. So lean in and listen.
8) Invest in people. It’s an expression of love but also a means to greater love. As Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be.” (Matthew 6:21) Heart follows investment. If you give sacrificially in time and resources to someone then a link is forged: you have ‘skin in the game’ and you want the relationship to work.
9) Pray for people. It’s an expression of love but also a means to greater love. We are to pray for those who persecute us, and as we pray to God for (instead of grumbling to ourselves about) the people we find difficult to love, as we pray for specific things for them, our hearts start to change. Prayer is where we remember who we are and who they are and who God is and what the big picture is. As we verbalise that, then, with the help of the Spirit, we start to align our heart with God’s heart.
10) Participate in a loving church. Change is never a solo endeavour. Churches make disciples. The more we’re around loving, humble people who are concerned for their lost friends and neighbours and colleagues, the more we are likely to become like that. The more we are part of loving evangelistic activities together – where a bunch of people from the church seek to pray and work hard and thoughtfully to reach people together – the more likely we are to get caught up in that.
What would you add? How can we be growing in love for those who desperately need Christ? Tweet us @ninethirtyeight or drop us an email to let us know what you think.
1 Richard Coekin, The Reluctant Evangelist, p. 132.
2 John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.7.6.
4 Rachel Jones, ‘6 things writing an evangelistic book taught a guilty non-evangelist’.
5 Coekin, The Reluctant Evangelist, p. 131.
6 Paul David Tripp, The Transforming Power of Prayer, p. 8.
7 Arthur Aron, Edward Melinat, Elaine N. Aron, Robert Darrin Vallone and Renee J. Bator, ‘The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness’, p. 364.