When I was in college, I was good friends with a young woman I’ll call J.
She was a self-professed pagan who didn’t run with my Christian crowd of friends; we’d met in English class and become casual acquaintances because we sat next to each other. Later that year, when my boyfriend of a year and a half dumped me, she took one look at my crestfallen face and said, “Oh, honey,” then bought me a sympathy coffee at Starbucks with the few dollars left on her school debit card.
She was curious about Christianity; we talked about it a lot. She told me that sometimes she thought she felt the Spirit working on her heart, and wanted to know why I believed what I did. She wanted to talk about her paganism, too. Over time, I shared the story of my faith with her, and I made a point to be a good friend in general: I helped her through her struggles in our literature seminars, tried to cheer her up when she was feeling down, and was always willing to pray for her or talk with her.
Sometimes she accompanied me to campus Christian meetings, and sometimes not. Sometimes she seemed open to the idea of Christianity, and sometimes not. Sometimes she cried over what she sensed of the presence of the Spirit, and sometimes she seemed as though she couldn’t care less. We remained good friends throughout our tenure in college, and I invested a lot of time and energy into that friendship. In the end, though, her spiritual condition remained the same: ambiguous, muddled, uncertain.
I’m okay with that. Those years we both spent shaping our friendship weren’t a waste.
I think that, as believers, we’re often raised up with the concept of results-oriented evangelism and the sense that our love and service is an investment for which we will eventually see a tangible return. In return for the “coins” of love and faith and service to others, we often implicitly expect the following:
- better ethical/moral behavior
- a desire for Christ
- a church visit (or two or ten)
And we become disappointed when these things don’t happen. When we spend three years offering loving kindness to the foul-mouthed, crass coworker in the next cubicle over, we feel somehow let down when he becomes no less crass or foul-mouthed. When we bring all of our significant ministry skill to bear on the apathetic atheist, we grow indignant that he doesn’t even try to care about how kind we are. When we plan a church event meant to bring people to Christ, we feel disappointed that no one even bothered to come back for a church visit or say thank you.
The problem with this way of thinking is that it conceives of love and service as only worth giving if and until they create desired results – and views any love spent on people who do not change or grow as a waste. If you don’t receive a proper return on your spiritual investment, so to speak, the temptation is to stop trying and to “spend” your love where it will be more appreciated or have more of a noticeable result.
But that’s not the way God thinks. And it can’t be the way that we think.
Holy love is not a transaction – or, if it is, it’s the least sensible transaction in the world, with one party investing lavish amounts of affection for a minimal return. Holy love is sacrificial, and graceful, and patient, and startlingly one-sided. Holy love is modeled on God’s love for us: a love so deep that He was willingly to sacrifice something precious for something small, and trivial, and unsalvageable to all but His holy hand.
All with no promise of return.
God sacrificed His son knowing that there would be those who wouldn’t, or couldn’t, accept it. He offered salvation to everyone knowing that some wouldn’t want it. In that case, how can we be stingy with our love and service and offer it only where we feel it will be properly appreciated or where it will have a desirable consequence?
It’s always heartening when we do see the results of our love and kindness made manifest: the church event that brings in new visitors or members, the ten years of praying that results in a conversion, the change that our continued service brings about in an individual or in a community. But it is God who is the agent of those changes, and not us. It is simply our command to love: to love Him, and then to love others, period full stop. That is the only business that we have. The results belong to Him, and are His business entirely.
The love that Christianity promises is a free-to-everyone, endless and relentless sort of love: one that keeps on serving regardless of time and circumstance and result. In the end, that endless patience, and the willingness to love and serve without certainty of some return – that love so reminiscent of, and stemming from, the way that God has loved us – is what changes things: love as it is meant to be will not always change other people, but it will most certainly change us.
As a result, it can never really be wasted.