I love how Jesus related to damaged, condemned people.
A woman sins against God and is caught in the act of adultery. She wrecks a home. She brings shame upon herself and her community. Pious men take her shame public. “Lawbreakers must not be tolerated,” they think. “She must be condemned for her behavior, cast out for her infidelities, shamed for her shameful act. She must be made into an example.”
This is what happens in a group of people who have sound theology but are lacking in love. A Colosseum culture develops. Everyone rallies around a common enemy—the sinner. Robbers, evildoers, tax collectors, adulterers and adulteresses. And then the pouncing and the piling on. The shaming.
What’s wrong with the world? “Other people,” says the mob surrounding the adulteress. “What’s wrong with the world is other people … those who aren’t one of us.”
But not Jesus. Jesus, left alone with the woman, simply says to her two things: “I do not condemn you. Now leave your life of sin.” The order of these two sentences is everything. Reverse the order of these two sentences and you’ll lose Christianity. Reverse the order and you’ll lose Jesus.
As was the case with Jesus, so it will be with his people when we create environments that communicate “no condemnation” first, before we ever start talking about law, obedience and ethics. Because with Jesus, grace and love establish the environment for the morality conversation. It is not our repentance that leads to God’s kindness, but God’s kindness that leads to our repentance.
After 18 years of pastoral ministry, I have never met a person who fell in love with Jesus because a Christian scolded them about their morality or their ethics. Have you?
Expanding our “us”
Once we were having a small prayer gathering with some friends. Just before we began praying together, in came a couple we had never met and who had been invited by someone else in the group. The man, who I will call Matthew, was very drunk, and his wife had this been-through-war, can-somebody-please-help-me, I’m-dying-inside look on her face.
As we prayed together, Matthew decided to chime in. His was a drunk prayer that went on for over 10 minutes. He prayed some of the strangest things. “God, protect us from the Klingons. God, I really want a Jolly Rancher right now, will you bring us some Jolly Ranchers? God, please move my bananas to the dog house.”
After the “Amen,” everyone looked at me. What will the pastor do? Thankfully, I didn’t need to do anything because a woman from the group, full of love and situational intelligence, offered Matthew a cookie. As the woman was giving him a cookie and entertaining conversation about Klingons and such, several others went over to his wife and begged for insight on how they could help the situation.
This little interaction, this way of responding with love and “no condemnation first,” became one of the most transformative experiences I have ever witnessed. To make a long and wonderful story short, the kindhearted offer of a cookie led to a tribe of people coming around the couple and their two young children, which led to a month of rehab in Arizona—including prayers and support as well as flights and personal visits to the rehab center by church members, which led to sobriety, which led to a restored home and marriage, which led to Matthew becoming a follower of Jesus, which led to him also becoming an elder in the church.
To this day, after 18 years of pastoral ministry, Matthew may be the best and most impactful church elder I have ever worked alongside.
Grace must come before ethics. Love must come before the morality discussion. Love—the broad embrace of the narrow path—will trigger some of the most life-giving experiences you’ll ever be part of.
Loving like Jesus—is it possible?
How can we begin to live from agape so that stories like Matthew’s become the norm versus the exception? How can we create environments in which this kind of love flourishes?
Here’s how. We must first realize that love is the environment where we are already living. Love has to be a person to us before it can become a verb. And the One who is Love Incarnate—Jesus—doesn’t just love us when we’re at our best. He also loves us when we are at our worst. When we are caught in the act. When we fall asleep on Him instead of watching and praying with Him. When we deny Him three times. When we become His persecutors. When we come into His prayer meetings drunk—drunk on our ambition, our greed, our resentful grudges, our pornographic imaginations, our self-righteousness.
From these places Jesus asks, “Do you like cookies? May I get you one? Will you sit with me? How about rehab? May I accompany you there? May I pay the fee? May I come alongside you toward sobriety, then a new life, then a seat at my table, then a job in my Kingdom? I went to the battlefield, I loved from the battlefield, to launch this love trajectory for your life. Protection from the Klingons. Sweeter than Jolly Ranchers. All you need is nothing. All you need is need.”
These words from one of my favorite hymns, “Come, ye sinners” says it all:
Come ye sinners, poor and needy
Weak and wounded, sick and sore.
Jesus, ready, stands to save you,
Full of pity, joined with power…
Let not conscience make you linger,
Nor of fitness fondly dream.
All the fitness he requires
Is to feel your need of him.
How do we love like Jesus?
It starts with resting and receiving. It starts by stopping.
Perhaps we should stop trying to love like Jesus and instead, first learn what it means to be with him, yes?
Because the more we are with Jesus, the more we will become like him. Love is caught more than it is achieved. Get close to love, and love tends to rub off.
Let’s pursue this path, the love path, the no-condemnation path; shall we?
This essay is an adapted excerpt from Scott’s latest book, Befriend: Create Belonging in an Age of Judgment, Isolation and Fear. Used by permission of Tyndale House.
Scott Sauls is senior pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee and author of several books. He also blogs weekly at scottsauls.com, and can be found on social media at @scottsauls.