Love. Mercy. Forgiveness.
I believe these are the keys to accurately translating the realities of the vertical gospel (our relationship with Christ) into horizontal realities and implications for our relationships with others. I believe these three things are the building blocks for living out the gospel horizontally.
The three principles show up all over scripture, but here are perhaps their most specific and clear articulations:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
John 13:34-35 (ESV)
Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.
Luke 6:36 (ESV)
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.
Colossians 3:12-13 (ESV)
You’ll notice something really disconcerting about all three of these commands. They each go right to the top when establishing the standard required for their satisfaction. “Love … as I have loved you,” “Be merciful … as your Father is merciful,” “[forgive] … as the Lord has forgiven you”; there isn’t much room left for interpreting these as half-hearted suggestions for how to maybe get along better should the fancy strike us to put forth an effort in that direction. No these are clearly commandments. Jesus explicitly says so in John, which really encapsulates the other two. It is impossible to love as Christ loved us without extending divine mercy and forgiveness.
Now, let’s step back from the headiness of this for a moment and be real. This is the checklist of all checklists, isn’t it? If there’s ever been an unreachable standard of behavior laid down, it’s this one. Love you like Jesus loves me? Let’s just look at that. How does Jesus love me?
He loves me completely unconditionally. There is nothing that I can do or fail to do that will make His love for me increase or decrease one iota. My relationship with Him is not a transaction in any way. He sovereignly chose to love me, pay off my debts, purchase for me the right of sonship, and it had nothing to do with anything I had ever done or would ever be able to do. He loves me because he loves me.
He loves me exhaustively. He knows me way better than any of you know me. I can almost guarantee that a lot of things hiding in my basement would make the vast majority of the people who love me seriously question whether there were better people to spend their love on. He knows me completely, through and through. He knows me better than I know myself. He knows the things I think and say and do when no one is watching. He knows the things I say in traffic. He knows even all the ways I blindly sin against Him every day. He loves me in spite of me. He loves me because of who He says I am.
He loves me eternally. There will never come a day where His love for me will waver. He has loved me with an everlasting love, and He cannot change. His love will not wax or wane. It will not grow cold. It will burn for me with an undying flame, forever, eternally, world without end.
That’s just love. Haven’t even touched mercy and forgiveness yet. Love as Jesus has loved me, huh? There are a lot of you out there that I love a lot. Some of you have wound yourselves into places in my heart that I don’t really understand. I know that my Mom and Dad are reading this. There probably aren’t any people on the planet I love more than I love my parents. I have a lot of folk that I love a whole lot. But allow me to let you down as easily as I know how. I don’t love any of you like what’s laid out in the three previous paragraphs. I don’t love any of you even remotely like Jesus loves me. I don’t even know what that means! Even thinking about setting that as a goal for loving others is exhausting. I wouldn’t know where to start!
One of the things that I’m learning to do with scripture is to look beyond the obvious. On the surface this looks like a checklist. A lot of the things that Jesus said and a lot of the things that Paul said tend to look like checklists. Particularly in the New Testament, though, we have to realize that checklists are presented to us for reasons other than providing for us a way to become pleasing to God. If Jesus’s message was anything, it was that He was here because the Law (The Checklist) could never have saved us. If Paul’s teaching said anything, it said that a reliance on the Law negated and insulted the cross. The Law isn’t God’s final word, Grace is. So, if these passages aren’t giving us three simple steps to loving better, then what are they saying?
I think that what God is saying to us about relationships with the love/mercy/forgiveness thing is that there’s a better way to love, and that it involves surrender. I think He knows that we’re accountants by nature, that our hearts run to bookkeeping. I think that a big part of what scripture is telling us here is that we can put down our ledger books and calculators. It’s saying that in the same way that the cross tells us that we can stop our futile efforts to earn our way into heaven and God’s good graces, we can also lay down our campaign to zero out the balance sheets of our relationships. As one of my favorite theologians (Bono, of U2) is wont to say, grace always wins out over karma. We can put down our rule books, our long lists of expectations, and our defenses. We can drop all that we’ve tried to manage in a tit-for-tat/transaction-based way of looking at others. And we can step blindly into a radical experimentation with what nonsensical levels of love, mercy and forgiveness could look like between two fallen image bearers of the most high God.
So, here’s my challenge to myself. Feel free to listen in.
Try it. With no regard for whether the people God has put in your life have earned your love … love anyway. Don’t worry about whether or not they respond like you’d like them to. Just love. Love recklessly. Love indiscriminately. Love selflessly and trust God to protect your heart.
Render mercy with wild abandon. Don’t think about it, just do it. Don’t make a T-chart and consider the pros and cons. Be merciful. Don’t do it because you’re trying to “karma” out your account with God, you don’t have enough friends for that. Just render mercy.
Forgive mindlessly. Choose to blindly lay your right to hold people to account for their wrongs at the foot of the cross and leave it there. Give up. Stop keeping records. It’s exhausting. Just quit. Lay it down. It was never yours to begin with. The same blood that covers your sin covers theirs. Just forgive.
Know that you’re going to suck at it. Know that the cross covers how much you suck at it.
Get up tomorrow and try it again.