I first came in contact with David Hansen several years ago when I was at a ministry seminar at Regent College in Vancouver, B. C. Hansen was a guest lecturer along with two others, Gordon Fee and N. T. Wright. I had read a book or two by him, so I was delighted to get to hear him speak.
One morning he spoke and afterward the three hundred participants had lunch. Wright and Fee were scheduled to speak that afternoon. So after lunch, Hansen made his way into the large meeting room to sit with the seminar attendees. He happened to sit down next to me. I enjoyed a pleasant but brief conversation with him before the others began speaking. I found him to be warm and gracious just as he seemed to be when he was speaking to three hundred people that morning.
I am going to quote from his book The Power of Loving Your Church. Yes, some of this is directed toward ministers in particular. But let me encourage you to read this as a normal everyday believer who has been called to love the church. The following are a few lines from a chapter in which he discusses the importance of loving people in the body of Christ:
Ambivalence masks itself as wisdom, whispering, "Don’t get involved, it only hurts to care. Don’t make a decision, someone will be disappointed and you’ll have to backtrack…." (p. 40)
…In ambivalence, I cannot decide to leave the church and cannot decide to love the church. (p. 41)
…We can resign ourselves to the fact that our parishioners struggle with ambivalences too, and therefore we should simply accept it. But this doesn’t work for us. Everyone else we know can conceivably pursue a vocation without love.
Sure, it’s better if teachers, doctors, and artists love the people they work with. But they can perform their work without love and they can even do it well. The bind we face is that we can’t do pastoral ministry without love. It isn’t a series of tasks we do with love — rather, pastoral ministry is love, which we apply with a series of tasks. Preaching, teaching, calling, praying, even church administration are nothing but the consistent application of God’s love to the church. God’s love is the oil that the lampstand burns to produce the light of the world, and we are the bearers of that love. (p. 43)
…When Christ wants us to love a congregation, he establishes his beachhead in the heart of the pastor. However, the heart of the ambivalent pastor is guarded, militarized territory. Land mines everywhere. Barbed, electrified wire abounds. Searchlights blast the beach. Jesus of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Lord, walks into the danger and absorbs the angry, brutal defense of our ambivalent heart. He uses no weapons of warfare, but he has ways of breaking our hearts wide open. (p. 49)
I understand the temptation to be ambivalent. After all, loving people is to set yourself up to be hurt. Yes, loving people can be joyful, satisfying, rewarding, etc. Yes, there are people who will love you in return and whose love will bring great encouragement to your life. There are also people who can and will hurt you. To love is to put yourself "out there" where your heart will be trampled on by some.
I think Hansen is right. The answer to this is not to put the protective fence of ambivalence around our hearts to guard against hurt. The answer is going to be found in learning to abide in Christ. We abide in him by learning to love the believers (John 15:9-14). We first abide in him and out of that abiding we have a new capacity to love. I do not have the capacity within me to do this kind of loving. However, Christ in me gives me a new capacity to love and a new source for loving. That love coming through me to another will often come out of brokenness because I have dared to stop the subtle practices of self-protection.
Is this familiar territory for you? Do you ever find yourself putting more energy into self-protection than loving people? In what ways do we practice self-protection? Why is it that we sometimes seem surprised that love is often painful?