I had a startling thought the other day: when God commands us to love each other, he’s not just commanding us to be nice.
This may not be a revelation to anyone else. But as an extroverted Midwestern female who loves to give hugs and ask you questions and bring you food if you’re sick or your spouse is sick or you might possibly get sick at some point in the future, “nice” comes pretty easily to me.
Obviously, loving your enemies or reaching out to unbelievers was a whole different thing. But for people in the church, which in my case included my family members and most of my friends, cheery greetings, fun conversations, and a well-intentioned attempt to follow-through when I promised to pray for someone was enough, right?
Here’s something I’ve learned since then: by letting myself off at the entry-level of niceness, I was only loving certain people when it was convenient for me.
Fun fact: I have a literal stamp of approval—an actual rubber stamp that says “Approved” that I used to carry around in my purse with an inkpad. My college roommate, Ruthie, gave me this gem of a gift because I would so often declare, “I like that person. Stamp of approval.”
At some point I realized that, while the stamp is hilarious, the sentiment I was expressing can be dangerous, because I made it sound like my approval is conditional. Be smart enough, be amusing enough, be awesome enough, and I will bestow upon you my all-important stamp of approval.
Does this sound familiar? Have you ever worried that if you stopped making witty comebacks or praying eloquent prayers or hosting great parties or writing interesting blog posts that the majority of people you know would stop liking you?
Come on. Admit it. You have, even if you didn’t put it into words. I think we base a lot of how we view ourselves and treat each other on this hidden insecurity, and that’s a problem.
Imagine my current roommate, also named Ruthie, says something hilarious, and I laugh and say, “And that is why we’re friends.”
That is not even a little bit true.
I am not friends with Ruthie because she said something funny or even because she is funny (although she often is). There may be days or even a long stretch of time in the future when Ruthie cannot muster up the energy to be funny for one reason or another—because of a tragedy or anxiety attacks or just because life is hard. And I will not stop being Ruthie’s friend, because even though she might not currently be funny, she is still Ruthie, and that is the basis of our friendship.
This should be true of my relationships with people in the church. I should love them because they’re part of my family, not because they happen to be exactly the people I want to be around at the moment. This can be very hard at times…and if it isn’t, we’re probably doing it wrong.
That’s how my dad explained the word “longsuffering.” After I came home from youth group frustrated with so-and-so, he said something like, “There are going to be Christians who are hard to get along with. So you say, ‘They’re part of the family too,’ and love them anyway, sometimes for a very long time, even if they never change.” He might as well have said, “Love is patient…it is not easily angered” and the entire rest of 1 Corinthians 13. (Which you should read if you want to know what love in the church should look like. Spoiler: it’s not just “be nice.”)
As Christians, we have an additional reason to reject the stamp of approval mentality: it’s a more accurate way to reflect God’s love. In fact, God takes it even a step further.
God did not look at me and say, “Amy is so cool. Stamp of approval. She totally earns salvation.” No. This is not a thing that happened. Let’s take a look at what did:
“In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”
“He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy.”
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
These verses are all saying, in loud exegetical unison, “You are not my friend because of what you have done. You are my friend because of who you are in Christ.” (Which is chosen, forgiven, at peace with God, and part of the family.) Or, put a different way, “I do not love you because you’re funny or smart or nice or good at memorizing insane amounts of Scripture. I love you because you are mine.”
I think that’s something Christians should say more to others, by being there for them when they’re not fun to be around, by giving them permission to answer “How are you?” with something other than “fine,” by letting them inconvenience us with a request for help or a late text message, by showing grace when they hurt us without even knowing it, by staying.
These are two very different ways to practice life in the church. Niceness is about me. Love is about you. Niceness focuses on impressing you so I’ll feel good about myself or so that you’ll like me. Love serves and sacrifices. Niceness is temporary, based on my moods and whims and how much I feel like making you a casserole today. Love never fails.
This is how we live out the gospel. This is how we love each other. And I think this is what the world is missing when they look at the church. They see lots of niceness, plenty of stamps of approval, but not a community marked by persistent, selfless love.
We love because he first loved us. Now let’s go out and love in the same way that he loved us.