I had a couple of encounters with people in the past week that leave me really struggling with what it means to love your neighbor, as Jesus teaches. One was late at night as I was driving home from a friend's house. I had stopped at a gas station to fuel up and a tired-looking woman approached me asking for gas money. She also asked if I smoked, and was disappointed when I told her I didn't. One thing I noticed was that right away I started making assumptions about this person. She's poor, I thought, as if that mattered. She's low-class white trash. All that should have mattered was that here was someone with a need. But like any good American, I qualify who deserves help based on stereotypes and assumptions. I gave her a few bucks. But I went away wondering if that was enough. Is that what she really needed? Is that all God wanted me to do?
The next day I was in OfficeMax looking for a Bible to put on my PalmPilot. This attracted the attention of a rather talkative gentleman who had already roped in three employees. He asked me what church I went to, and whether my pastor preaches topically or expositorily. I thought that was an entirely odd question, but I answered that it was probably some mix of both. We discussed kind of a wide range of topics, including repentance, the Gospel, Pentecostalism, speaking in tongues, what love really is, what the Holy Spirit really is. I didn't fundamentally disagree with much of what he had to say, but his whole delivery and attitude made me embarrassed to be a Christian. He has a very fundamentalist, narrow understanding of what the Good News is. He questioned whether I was truly saved, apparently because when I talk about Jesus I'm not an ass. I really struggled with being civil and representing my point of view without wanting to totally punch him in the face, because he talked about Jesus with no love. I don't think we should hide from repentance, and hell, and judgment, but it shouldn't be all we talk about. Somewhere C.S. Lewis says that repentance isn't a pre-requisite to going back to God, it is simply a description of what going back is like.
I believe that repentance is only possible after a true encounter with God. Look at the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus. I am fascinated by this account. Jesus basically invites himself over to Zacchaeus' house. It is only after this that Zacchaeus has a change of heart, and Jesus declares, "Today salvation has come to this house..."
So the question is, how does repentance work? The way my buddy at OfficeMax, with whom I eventually parted amicably, described it, repentance is something you have to do to get God's love, a set of standards you have to meet. When I asked him about grace, he said no, of course it's not works-based salvation, blah blah blah. But the way he talked about not going to hell (another emphasis I think is totally misplaced) it sure sounded like works. And I wonder how to love someone who I think is trying to follow Jesus but is completely missing the point. When he talked to (presumably lost) employees about Jesus, he didn't sound at all happy to be His follower. He sounded like God barely tolerates us, and wants us to hate ourselves, and that once you're saved then you'll start being an douchebag too. How do you love someone who thinks that you're lost because you try to influence people toward Jesus Christ through love, and gentleness, and earning the right to speak to people about spiritual things. How do I love someone who thinks the Christian life is about not going to hell, when I myself have had to outgrow that mindset?
How do I love my neighbor as myself? I pray for God to teach me how.