The Strategy of Love

Like the rest of us, in His humanity Jesus was limited by hours in the day. But this was not purposeless: Jesus was to be our Example in all things. He had to model for us how to engage in balanced, healthy relationships with others. To do so, He invested His time with people strategically.

The relationships of Jesus might be mapped out as three concentric circles. The outermost circle would consist of people with whom He had casual contact—the crowds, the Nicodemus types, and even the Pharisees and scribes. He didn’t spend much quality time—didn’t develop deep community—but in His limited contact with them, He showed love. He didn’t expect much from them, though. Regarding His relationship with the fickle multitude, the Bible says, “But Jesus on His part did not entrust Himself to them, because He knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for He Himself knew what was in man” (John 2:24, 25). He didn’t trust the crowds, but He cared about them. They were people to whom He gave, not really expecting to get anything in return. At best, He hoped to draw some of them into His second circle.

The second circle consisted of people Jesus was actively discipling. The twelve disciples, the seventy He sent out, the women who followed Him, and probably others fit in here. With these He spent more quality time, though primarily He was still giving, not getting. But these were distinguished from the multitude because Jesus was investing in them long-term. He therefore demonstrated a level of trust.

Jesus’ inner circle was relatively small. As far as I can tell, it consisted of seven—His mother, Peter, James, John, Martha, Mary Magdalene, and Lazarus. Not all of them understood His mission or were trustworthy, but Jesus treated them differently than others. These were people He trusted. Not only did He allow them to lean on Him, but at times He leaned on them as well. He appealed to them for support, even when He knew they would let Him down. When He needed encouragement and strength–like every other human being created in God’s relational image–He longed for assurance that He was loved too. After all, wasn’t He human? He faced the agony of every human soul, in order to be our Example.

It’s clear Jesus embraced His longing for community, and therefore the pain of love and loss, even more deeply than we do. He did not shrink from the pain of betrayal. He was tempted in all points like we are, so He experienced the bitterness of trusting untrustworthy people. Maybe what’s most amazing of all is that Jesus, knowing how much it would hurt, trusted anyway. Because He took refuge in safe relationship with His Father, He could brave any amount of unsafe relationship with sinners, for the purpose of allowing the love of His Father to flow to them.

God doesn’t just call us to self-inflicted relational agony for the joy of suffering. Jesus did not masochistically build His inner circle of Pharisees. But He did deliberately engage in vulnerable relationship with those who would hurt Him. He did this strategically, including Judas in His second circle, and Peter in His inner one. He voluntarily drew close to those who would hurt Him, modeling to us how to handle the inevitable disappointments of close, vulnerable relationships with broken people.

If I had been shown the future on the morning of my wedding, and discovered that my husband was going to cheat on me, beat me, and cause me the worst suffering imaginable, would I have had the courage to walk down that aisle joyfully? Could I have given my whole heart in vulnerable relationship, knowing that this love is going to cause me the most intense pain I’ve ever known? I know the answer to that. It’s plain I don’t love like Jesus did.

But maybe I’d like to. Maybe that’s what I was born to do—to love without expecting or demanding love in return, simply because I’m commanded to love. Maybe I am called to take up God’s challenge to “love one another,” and to trust that He will be there to wipe my tears when it hurts. Maybe this is the highest calling of Christianity, to live like sacrificial lambs, learning to walk in the footsteps of Jesus in sacrificial relationship. Maybe the greatest thing that I could ever do with my life is to cover other sinners with my skin, as the lambs outside of Eden.

Not that my sacrifice will cover anyone else’s sin, of course. But like the sacrificial lambs, my sacrifice can point others toward the love of the One whose sacrifice truly can. As I love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength, that love will inevitably pour through me and spill into my relationships with others. And in that process, I begin measuring up to the standard by which God has said we will all be judged—His relational law of love.

The Path of Love

“By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). This declaration by Jesus asserts the Christian’s need for quality personal relationships with other Christians. It is not enough to hand out brochures to strangers, or even to invite others over to eat with you now and then. There must be a deeper commitment to genuine community—to vulnerable relationships with other human beings.

Practically, that means living as oysters without shells in a church of prickles and stings. It means loving deeply, and consequently, hurting deeply. I don’t really like this interpretation of the Gospel, but I can’t seem to avoid it. That’s because in my recent prayerful contemplation of Jesus’ friendships, I have come to the conclusion that this is how He lived. In fact, it seems that the majority of the pain He suffered during His life on earth came from relationships. From His terribly awkward beginning—obvious but mysterious sexual sin in an eagerly whispering small village—to His disciples’ devastating abandonment at the end, Jesus’ closest relationships caused Him continual anguish. Perhaps most astonishing, He never seemed to “learn the lesson” of putting up walls to protect His heart. Gazing at Jerusalem just before His crucifixion, He was overwhelmed, not with anger, but with grief that the people He loved utterly rejected His invitation to community.

Psalm 41:9, a Messianic prophecy, says, “Even my close friend, whom I trusted, he who shared my bread, has lifted up his heel against me.” Jesus referenced this in John 13:18, speaking of Judas. But more than that—could this be a reference to Genesis 3:15, where God prophesied that Lucifer, one of Jesus’ former best friends, would someday “bruise His heel”? It seems that God is no Stranger to pain. The essence of sin is the rejection of community.

God is a Community. He offers community continually. I have scoured the Gospels, but I can’t find a single story evidencing that Jesus allowed fear of pain to limit His vulnerability to others. He was strategic in His interactions with others, inviting some into closer fellowship, while kindly but firmly limiting His availability to others (Mark 6:31, 32; Luke 8:38, 39). But He only completely withdrew from community with others when they testified that they wanted no communion with Him.

Love respects choice. Jesus did not refuse His betrayer’s kiss; He spoke kindly to Judas instead. When Peter had just denied Him, Jesus looked at him with love. Before telling the rich young ruler the cost of discipleship, Jesus already knew He would be deemed unworthy of that price. The longing of His soul to connect with this selfish young man was so intense that the watching disciples, years later, testified to what they saw in His eyes: Jesus “beholding him loved him” (Mark 10:21, 22).

These were situations in which Jesus knew each person still desired His presence in some way. Only Herod, who had apparently defied the Holy Spirit until he had no desire whatsoever for true relationship with God, faced the silence of Jesus. Jesus’ love for Herod was expressed in acceptance of Herod’s hardened choice. But Jesus maintained an open door to community with every receptive human being. Those who proved themselves untrustworthy He did not feel obligated to trust (John 2:23, 24), but He never stopped loving. While He modeled boundaries, Jesus refused to build walls.

“Whoever says he abides in Him ought to walk in the same way in which He walked” (I John 2:6).

The Law of Love

The Gospel is all about relationships. It tells us to follow God, and “God is love” (I John 4:8). Love is a relational word; God is a relational God. His law, the transcript of His character, consists of only two commands: to love Him, and to love others as ourselves. “Love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10).

What does that mean? Could it be that the Gospel first demands, and then enables, us to live in authentic community? Of course, this would be first with God. But Adam in Eden was still unsatisfied, and God summarized the situation as “not good.” In other words, communion with God in a perfect world, without intimate fellowship with other humans, would leave us incomplete.

It seems easy to live in vulnerable community with God, at least in theory. He knows my heart, and I can pour out my soul to Him in prayer. I trust His love (again, at least in theory). He knows me deeply and accepts me the way I am.

But Jesus prayed “that they may be one, even as We are One” (John 17:22). He prayed this over an assortment of self-centered men vying for top position, discouragingly selfish despite just finishing the greatest 3 ½ year mission trip ever. When His prayer was answered less than two months later, the Holy Spirit was poured out on these same men because they were all “with one accord in one place” (Acts 2:1).

How powerful! The process of preparation for the Holy Spirit’s outpouring—moving from seeking the highest place, to humbly making things right with each other— tells me that authentic community is a crucial preparation for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Jesus both commands and enables us to live in vulnerable community with other followers of Him. He wants us to build deep relationships with other believers. Far from crippling us in our fulfillment of the Gospel Commission, investing in such deep relationships with a few will empower us to share the Gospel with the many. “By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).