Written By Leslie Koh
After spending a number of years in the media, Leslie finally decided to move from working with bad news to good news. He believes in the power of words (especially when they’re funny). He works as an editor in Our Daily Bread Ministries.
I’ll ’fess up. I plain didn’t like Terence (can’t tell you his real name, of course). I didn’t like the way he walked or talked. I couldn’t stand the way he moved around with a swagger, swinging his arms confidently and looking left and right as if he ran the whole church. I didn’t like the way he spoke like he knew better than any of us. Even his questions seemed to smack of condescension, as if our answers would never satisfy him completely. At best, he’d nod as if to say, “It’s not the best answer, but I’ll have to do with whatever you can give.”
And I was supposed to care for him. As the new leader of the tiny cell group, my job was to help grow in his walk with God. Okay, God, but you know—I just don’t like him.
It was hard to reconcile my task with my feelings. As it was, I was already floundering in the new role, not knowing how to act as a cell group leader and how to teach, motivate, and care for others. Fortunately, most of the members were enthusiastic and supportive. They’d listen and try to fill in the gaps. Except for Terence.
It went on for months. I would try to suppress my own feelings whenever I talked to him, and make a show of being encouraging in discussions. When someone complimented him, I would agree. When Terence disagreed with me on something, I would nod and say, “Fair enough, you have a point.” But after that, I would rant and complain to my wife. “Did you see that look on his face? Who does he think he is? Young punk.”
I also complained to the cluster leader overseeing the group. He didn’t quite seem to hold my view. He thought Terence had potential, although he understood why I said such things about him. “Give him a chance,” he’d tell me. And I’d tell my wife right after, “How could he be so blind? Can’t he see Terence’s true colours?”
When Terence caused some problems among some members of the group, it seemed to justify my opinions. But I knew what I had to do as a cell group leader: Tolerate his nonsense, and continue to care for him and love him as my brother in Christ. You’ve got to be kidding me. Love him? Why, I can’t even stand him!
Love… is a choice
As I continued to struggle with my feelings, the cluster leader then said something that struck me. “You are called to love him, not to like him,” he said. “Your responsibility is to be there for him, if he needs help or a listening ear. You don’t always have to be fond of him.”
Ah! Now that seemed to be something I could work with. I guess I could continue to put up with Terence’s attitude, and just focus on doing what I knew I should do as a leader. I was more ready to control what I did than what I felt.
Still, it didn’t seem quite right—“Hey, brother, I can’t stand your face, but I love you.” I was judging Terence while helping him at the same time. It felt totally hypocritical. What kind of a leader was I? In fact, what kind of a Christian was I?
As I pondered over this, I started to see the comforting truth of the lesson I had just learned: Love isn’t a feeling but a conscious choice, a deliberate act of will. We don’t love someone by simply having or developing a warm, mushy sentimental feeling for him; we are to love the person by making a decision to care for him and to look out for his best interest. We choose to love—it’s a deliberate commitment and resolve that involves action, effort and sometimes, sacrifice.
Maybe, I thought, that’s how God loves too. That’s why He can look past our sinful, nature, our woeful character flaws, and our wilful insistence to keep on sinning, and continue to love us. God didn’t make Adam and Eve, look at them and think, “Hey, these guys are really nice, I love them!” No, He chose to love us when he made us, even though He knew we would turn against Him. That same love saw Him sacrifice His own Son to turn us back to Him.
Love… is action
We’ve all heard dozens of sermons on the famous passage on love in 1 Corinthians 13. It’s often preached at weddings, which ironically, tend to focus on the sentimental, lovey-dovey aspect of the union.
Ever notice that the description of love is all about what it is and what it does? (Quick recap: Love is patient/kind, and is not proud/self-seeking/easily angered. It rejoices with truth/protects/trusts/hopes/perseveres, and does not envy/boast/dishonor/keep record of wrongs/delight in evil.) Not a single word about what love feels.
In Jesus’ explanation of what it means to love one’s neighbor (Luke 10:25-37), the good Samaritan is described as showing his love in a real, practical way. He didn’t just take pity on him and say, “I feel for you, brother”, and walk on; he bandaged his wounds, took him to an inn, and made sure he was well looked after.
And when Jesus asked Peter if he loved Him (John 21:15-17), He told the disciple to feed His lambs and sheep. Peter’s love for the Lord was to be expressed in his care for the people whom Jesus loved. Jesus’ own love for us too was expressed in the ultimate way, when He sacrificed His own life for us.
Ah, right. Love is an action. No doubt I would have to deal with my judgmental attitude towards Terence—surely Jesus would not want me to harbour such emotions. But that didn’t mean I had to finish sorting out those feelings before I started loving him as a brother in Christ. I could still love him by looking out for him and being ready to extend help when he needed it.
Meanwhile, I knew I should pray about the matter, and ask God to change my unforgiving heart to see Terence as God saw him, as well as for the strength to love deliberately and intentionally. I knew that while I had to be willing to make this change, I would not be able to do it on my own strength.
Love… keeps a relationship going no matter what
When we make a deliberate decision to love, our relationships will take on a new meaning and strength. Why? Because these relationships will no longer depend on how we feel about the other person, or what the other person says or does. They will not be destroyed by anger, resentment, or wrongdoing. They will not be conditional.
The most powerful relationships are driven by love coming from a conscious, deliberate choice. Remember the parable of the father whose scoundrel son squandered his share of the inheritance? When the prodigal son returned, the loving father was all ready to receive him, because his lasting love saw past his son’s mistakes (Luke 15:11-32). It didn’t depend on what the son had said or done.
Will our romantic relationships be powered by the same love? Of course, we usually start off with the warm, fuzzy feelings of romance which lead to marriage. Will these emotions be eventually based on a stronger commitment to keep on loving even when cracks and character flaws start to appear? Will this conscious decision to love be able to take a marriage through the worst crises?
As for our friendships, what keeps them going? Are we ready to forgive our friends when they hurt us? Will we be there for them no matter what they do or say? Will we be able to sacrifice our feelings of pride, hurt and anger when they need our help?
Love… will eventually feel
I’d be lying if I said that my attitude towards Terence has taken a 180-degree turn. But I’d like to believe that having made that conscious decision to love him and look out for him, I was better able to put aside my judgmental feelings, and try to see the part of him that needed help. The cell group has since evolved and I am no longer in it, so I was never put to the full test. Terence has also moved on in life.
I have been reminded, however, that eventually, our emotions must and will catch up with our actions. While we can, as an act of will, choose to love somebody despite what we think of him or her, this “imbalance” should not last forever—or else our love will become grudging. At the same time, as we continue to obey God’s commandment to love and practise it through deliberate action, our attitudes will change over time. Just like how individual actions become habits and habits become character, our head-based efforts to love will eventually change and shape our heart-based feelings.
This change will also come about with divine help. We are not expected to love with our own strength—in fact, the love described in 1 Corinthians 13 is impossible to achieve without a new heart that only God can give. As we continue to obey His commandment to love others, He will change our hearts so that they will be full of the same love and compassion that He has for all of us.
This, then, is my challenge: To allow God to work on my heart and replace it with His as I continue to practise loving my neighbour, making a conscious, deliberate choice to express this love through my words and actions. Will you join me?