The way I see it, growing up can be broken down into three main stages. Each can be related to a level of maturity in our walks with Christ.
STAGE ONE: Living with the Parents
Life is pretty simple in this stage (although we don’t fully understand just how simple until we reach stage two). Things tend to mostly revolve around our own needs and wants.
When I first began to follow Jesus, the main idea was still very simple. It was my own relationship with God that I cared about, and that’s all. For a good while, I didn’t have the capacity to pay attention to anything other than the transformation of my own heart. I wanted to become more like the man God created me to be, and I wanted to know who He was in a personal way. This is an ongoing process simply because of how stubborn I tend to be and how big and mysterious God really is.
STAGE TWO: Paying Rent
This is when we find a few roommates and realize just how messy other people are. Who hasn’t had at least one terrible roommate experience? Ultimately, it’s a chance to build better relationships and get introduced to the real world of bills, credit, and other responsibilities. And this is the stage where many grow comfortable in staying.
The personal concepts I learned at the very beginning of my relationship with Christ will always be important and applicable. Quiet time and personal study will always be relevant and necessary. But eventually, I came to recognize that there are many relationships around me that also needed to be transformed. They needed me to invite God into them just as I had invited Him into my own heart at the beginning of the journey. Again, this is a constant process (and often painful) because it’s in our broken nature to retreat to the occasional resentment, jealousy, or insecurity. It’s very easy to allow sin, whether ours or another’s, to poison our relationships with each other and with God.
Many Jesus followers stall out here and spend the rest of their lives going in circles around the idea of developing healthy relationships. It’s easy to stay in that mode because there’s always something to work on and, besides, Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love. So we say the quality of our closest relationships is all that really matters.
But here lies an enormous misconception of love (read on).
STAGE THREE: Investing in a Home
There’s a third stage where some of us get tired of paying into the endless cycle of rent and take a leap of faith to begin investing in something larger than ourselves. We’re still managing our responsibilities and relationships from stages one and two, but we’re thinking bigger picture at this stage with school districts, resale value, and a yard to take care of… while having a loathing disgust for mortgage insurance and property taxes.
There comes a time when other people’s relationships with God start to matter a lot more to us. We get that big picture mentality when we poke our heads out of the little personal bubble we began with and realize that there’s much to be done in this world in addition to our quiet time and close relationships. There’s much to be done, and we are the tools God has placed here to do it.
Love is not defined in the Bible as having a fuzzy feeling about something or someone. As important as lacking resentment or jealousy for others is, that’s not what love is about either. (That’s more for our own benefit over theirs.) Love isn’t even about genuinely wanting the best for someone, which is how we tend to define it in our culture. We want the best for someone, and so we check the box that confirms we love them and all is well.
Spiritually, we feel super healthy when we don’t easily harbor resentment for people anymore. We think we’ve arrived to where God wants us to be when we can pray instead of curse, find patience when we used to lose our tempers, and genuinely want everyone to be happy. We’re content with having full hearts fueled by hope and grace, and that becomes the goal for the rest of our lives.
It’s hard to argue with that. But there’s this one story Jesus told about love that makes me wonder. It started with a guy who was left for dead in a roadside ditch after being mugged. Two men who were considered spiritually healthy by the day’s standards saw the man hurting and went so far as to cross to the other side of the road to avoid him. Surely they wished the best for the man. Maybe they even prayed for him. But that was the extent of it.
A third man who passed by on the road was someone considered by Hebrews to be spiritually impure. This Samaritan had compassion on the man who had been beaten, bloodied, stripped of his clothes, and left in the sewer. I can pretty confidently say that there would have been no warm fuzzies or butterflies in the Samaritan’s belly as he was pulling him out of the ditch and getting him cleaned up. There’s nothing sentimental about a dirty, bloody, half-dead naked man. I would even venture to say that the Samaritan would have been completely disgusted by the task. But I would also venture to say that his heart broke for that man. He wouldn’t have responded the way he did unless he wasn’t heartbroken.
Responding this way cost the Samaritan time and resources. He put his own credit on the line for this naked stranger and told a nearby innkeeper to give the guy whatever he needed and to send him the bill afterwards.
The difference maker is this thing Jesus was full of: compassion. He repeatedly gave the true example of love, which is about more than just wanting the best for someone, but rather doing the best for them — sacrificing, giving, and investing. It’s not about a mushy, light-hearted and sentimental feeling for someone. It’s about letting our hearts break and doing what we can to make their life better.
There’s a next level many Christ followers don’t allow themselves to reach. We stay honed in only on the never-ending task of maintaining relationships and we forget that there is so much work waiting for us — hard work that calls for more than a mushy feeling in our hearts. It’s going to require investing our time and our resources into people — sometimes the least likely of people. It’s going to involve risk and maybe even some nasty chores like pulling a beaten, naked man out of the sewer.
But that’s the kind of love Jesus teaches.