Why does it take so long to learn how to love the important people in our life? Am I the only slow learner in this crowd? When our kids were young, I couldn't understand why my wife didn't feel more adored by me. I'd come home at night to a house that had clearly been the scene of a minor riot by our boys. My acute powers of discernment told me that Amy was feeling a little bit stressed out—the two children in solitary confinement were my first clue!
Being the heroically loving husband I am, I'd immediately spring into benevolent action. "You're a great mom, honey, and I love you," I'd say, and then I'd walk over to give her a comforting hug. Amy would step back and sigh, "Can you please get the boys to clean up?" or "Will you just take out the garbage?" And I'd be wounded: What's wrong with her? If she told me that she loved me and that I was a wonderful pastor, and if she wanted to give me an affectionate hug, I'd have been thrilled. But no, not her.
As I said, I am a slow learner. Thankfully, my wife is a patient teacher. I did finally make some progress; Gary Chapman's classic work The Five Love Languages helped. In this phenomenally useful book, Chapman offers three ideas everybody should understand if they want to get better at loving others. The first idea is this: There are, basically, five ways that love gets expressed and recognized:
1. Through words of affirmation: "I love you." "You did a great job." "I'm proud of you."
2. Through physical touch: a hug, a held hand, a cuddle on the couch, or more.
3. Through quality time spent: a lazy breakfast, an afternoon outing, an unplugged evening, or vacation.
4. Through personal gifts: a piece of jewelry, sports equipment, an electronic gadget, something of personal value.
5. Through acts of service: a base covered, a chore done, some practical relief given.
The second key idea Chapman contributes is that each of us has one or more preferred love languages. In other words, most of us like all five of those modes of love, but we feel particularly loved when other people are using this or that language. As I shared earlier, when someone I respect speaks words of affirmation to me, or when Amy expresses love through physical touch, I am a happy camper.
But here's Chapman's third lesson, and it's the most important one: When trying to love other people, we have a tendency to speak our language instead of theirs. My wife Amy's preferred love language is acts of service, followed by quality time or personal gifts. So how truly loving is it when I come spewing words and hugs? Who is feeling the love there—her or me?
Live toward a better world
People can go years just missing each other on this score. Some husbands and wives can't understand why the other is not more appreciative of how much they love them. Some parents are doing all these acts of service for their kids—driving them here and there, giving them all the latest toys—when what the child hungers for most is just some quality time. There are some bosses out there who have no idea that it isn't the money their employees primarily crave as much as being affirmed for how wonderfully they do what they do. My own staff would be quick to add, I'm sure, that a personal gift of money is nice icing on that cake, too!
The great call of God is to learn to look and live in an otherward direction—like God does. As Paul wrote in Philippians 2: "[I]n humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus" (v. 4-5). And as Peter wrote, "Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God's grace in its various forms" (1 Pet. 4:10).
Unless you are an unusual saint, it is going to take a lifetime to learn to live this way fully. Like me, you are going to be battling your whole life the fundamental nature of sin—which, as the Bible describes it, is the tendency to see the world primarily in terms of ourselves, to make our love language and our opinion and our comfort and our perceived self-interest the focus. Even the very suggestion that we should live otherwise kicks up all kinds of rebellion inside of me: But if I did this, then they would do that, or they would fail to do that. But what about those people and how they impact me? As St. Augustine observed, sin is the curving of everything back toward ourselves.
But life, as God designed it, is meant to curve outward, the way he does. It is only as we learn to highly value others and live in an otherward direction that the whole interrelated system works as it should and greater flourishing emerges. I know our nation is engaged in great and important discussions about what national policies should be affected to improve conditions in America. But imagine the dramatic change we'd see in this world if millions more of us started to live, as Jesus does, in a way that is outgoing, treasure-seeking, hospitable, empathetic, resourceful, and self-sacrificing. Would it be a better world or a worse one?
Live toward the ultimate world
Now, let me ask you an even larger question: How can you and I get ready for the world to come? One day, you see, there will be no more elections, no more news programs, no more sitcoms and rom-coms and dotcoms to occupy our attention. One day, all of the wars and earthquakes and tribulations we have been living through will be seen for what they were: warnings and invitations to get ready for Christ's return.
Jesus said: "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats" (Matt. 25:31-32). Who will be present for this great sorting process? That's right, all of us. And which do you think it will be better to be on that day—a sheep or a goat? Strive for sheepdom.
"He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left" (Matt 25:33). That's not a statement about politics, mind you. There will be Democrats and Republicans on both sides of this divide—it may be the first time they've actually talked to one another in a while! By the way, do you know the crucial difference between sheep and goats? Goats tend to go their own way in life. Sheep are creatures that learn to follow the shepherd's voice.
"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world'" (Matt 25:34). One day, we're going to discover that this life here was a training camp, building our capacity for the greater game to come. We're going to realize that everything we experienced here—in our childhood, family, career, volunteer occupations, conflicts, money matters, all of it—was an immensely important apprenticeship. From the very beginning, God was giving us the chance to develop ourselves, to learn to hear and follow his voice, to get ready to manage an even greater inheritance: our heavenly Father's ultimate business, the kingdom of God.
But the ultimate question God was seeking to answer is: "Will you, [insert your name here] … learn to love me and the people I love?" Because—as we read when Jesus speaks of the Great Commandment—love is what God's kingdom is all about (Matt 22:35-40).
"But Jesus," I want to say, "that makes me a little bit nervous. You've seen how I work. You know that I don't always get this 'love' thing right. Remember that time I tried to placate Amy with empty words and hugs when that wasn't what she was looking for at all? Remember all those times when I thought I was loving my kids or coworkers, but I was just doing what felt good to me? When you say 'love,' what are you looking for?"
You know, I've studied God's Word for long enough to appreciate the range of things for which God cares. The Bible teaches that God enjoys our words of affirmation. When we acknowledge his attributes or sing his praises or recite the creeds, God delights in that—not because he needs these words from us, but because these words help us focus on him. As a spiritual being, God is not that emphatic about physical touch, except that he has given us this power and is pleased when we use it wisely and well toward one another. God enjoys it when we spend quality time with him in prayer or silence and solitude. He wants us to commune with him, and for this reason, he loves it when we come to worship and keep the Sabbath day holy. Numerous teachings in the Old and New Testaments make it clear that God definitely likes it when we commit our personal gifts to the work of his kingdom—when we make it a priority to use the resources entrusted to us for the purposes he cares about. But in this particular parable recorded in Matthew 25, Jesus tells us that God has a preferred love language. He's like my wife Amy: He smiles widest at acts of service.
In the end, Jesus is not going to evaluate you or me on the basis of whether we went to church or knew the Bible or hung around with the right people, but on whether or not we actually got his heart. Don't get me wrong: God cares deeply about Christian worship, education, and fellowship. These are huge priorities for Christians everywhere. But at the end of the day, what he loves about these behaviors is the way they help shape a heart like his that moves toward others in acts of service. Jesus says that he identifies so closely with people who are hungry, thirsty, outcast, unclothed, sick, and imprisoned—people whose lives are simply not going to get better and are never going to flourish unless someone comes to their aid—that every time we minister to them, we are ministering to him.
That's why the greatest thing about the life of this church here is that it is and always has been pointed in that direction. The average church in America rarely commits more than 10 percent of its annual giving to the needs of others beyond their walls. For most of this congregation's history, however, more than 20 percent of annual giving has gone to support a mission and media outreach that touches countless lives beyond these walls. The vision for our future that we're going to roll out next month will increase that investment to 30 percent of our annual giving. Here's how: Our leadership has a dream that in the next few years, our church is going to help dramatically lift the quality of life and future prospects for thousands of people living in a pocket of suburbanized poverty not far from here. We also have a vision for investing deeply in a community in Africa where many people are sick, hungry, thirsty, and without adequate clothes. Together, we are going to help people whose faces and stories Jesus already knows intimately.
Material need, however, is not the only form of poverty. Do you realize that more than 60 percent of the people of our region are, functionally, "strangers" to God? Recent studies suggest that as many as 83 percent of our neighbors aren't involved regularly in a community of faith where they could come to know and enjoy God more fully. Some of these precious people think God doesn't care about them, or they feel they don't care about him. Some of these folks are imprisoned in a pattern of living that keeps them from flourishing as God wants them to experience. Some of these wonderful people are heading toward an eternity without a relationship with their Creator.
We believe it would be just like God if we were to do something to reach out to them. In the next few years, we are going to start to send branches out from this building and establish new sites of our congregation in communities around us. We're going to find struggling churches that want to be adopted by a stronger church and join our hearts with them in reaching out to their neighborhoods in a fresh way. We plan to keep improving and expanding our media outreach too, because it can reach people we'd never link up with any other way. And through these means, we're going to help hundreds and hundreds of these strangers come home to God and find a place in his forever family.
It seems to me there are two reasons to be someone who moves in an otherward direction and who belongs to an otherward church. First of all, you do it because you genuinely love people. You have a heart like God's. Or, secondly, you do it because you want to speak God's love language. Sometimes it isn't until you are doing the things your loved one enjoys that you learn to enjoy them, too.
Here's my invitation to you as you move through the world this week and as we as a congregation move into our future: Let's not just do what pleases us. Let's live and love in a way that makes God smile.
Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church.us, a nondenominational, multisite church with locations in Oak Brook and Lombard, Illinois.