A non-believer recently challenged a believer with this comment: “The Bible doesn’t say anywhere that we should love people just as they are.”  While this is more of a statement than a question, there really is a question behind the assertion.  The question is: “how does the Bible say that we are commanded to love the people around us?” It may be true that we don’t find Jesus commanding us to love people “just as they are” using those exact words.  But what we do find is Jesus modeling this kind of behavior frequently.  In the beginning of Luke chapter 15, for example, where Jesus tells three parables about lost people and lost things, the Bible tells us that “the tax collectors and ‘sinners’ were all gathering around to hear him.”  Jesus clearly didn’t push them away, but he received them.  And his reception of them wasn’t just a politically-correct politeness.  In the verse that follows, we see that “the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”  According to the Jewish customs of the day, it was improper and unclean for Jews to associate with and especially to eat with Gentiles (non-Jews) and sinners – since sharing a meal with someone is the height of fellowship and acceptance.  Jesus both associated with and ate with these religious “outcasts” often. (See Mark 2:15, for example where Jesus went to the home of Levi, the tax collector and ate with him and “many” tax collectors and sinners.”)  At this point, it’s important to note that teaching is not just a verbal event.  Just as any modern teacher will attest, students learn by watching their teacher.  Sometimes it’s just easier to SHOW your students what to do rather than use words.  Imagine a piano teacher trying to describe with words how to perform a triplet or a grace-note!  Sometimes words fall short. 

To explore this matter further, consider some of the writings of the apostle Paul.  In Romans 5:8, he writes, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  Clearly God loved us just as we were, if he allowed his own son, Jesus, to die for us – without condition. Jesus came to die for us before he knew whether we’d love him back or ever change at all.  In Galatians 5:14 Paul also writes, “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Do we love ourselves just as we are?  You might argue that people don’t love themselves just as they are – otherwise there would be no such thing as a “self-help” book.  But truly, even the desire to fix our faults and better ourselves really arises out of a deep love for self, does it not? Why would we strive to improve something we care nothing about?

That is perhaps a good thought on which to conclude this discussion.  What is “love” really all about?  If the question at hand really is about who we love and how we love them, then what does it mean to love?  Sadly, our society all too often defines love as either an emotion or a feeling that we have in response to someone else’s words or behaviors.  But that is not the picture of Biblical love.  The love that we see in the Bible is a love that has at its heart a deep and unconditional concern for the well being of another person.  So as Jesus demonstrated his love for tax collectors and sinners, he would reach out to them and accept them just as they were, but then he would teach them and help them to change in areas that they needed to change for their own well being.  Jesus did this for them, not for his own benefit.  Someone once said, when speaking of God’s love, “he loves you just how you are, but he loves you too much to leave you there.”  Jesus will meet us wherever we are at.  He comes to us and receives us unconditionally.  However, once we encounter Him, he wants to help us develop into the person that we were created to be – fully realizing all our potential and living according to God’s commands.  This is not a condition of our acceptance, but a result of our relationship with Him.

As Christians, it may seem unbelievable to us that someone would call into question the unconditional love that we’ve become accustomed to, and are defined by, in the Christian faith.  But truly, we must recognize that “conditional,” “qualified,” and “earned” love and acceptance is really how the rest of the world operates.  Let’s use this as an opportunity to love even those who question our freely-given love, and to recognize what a gift and a treasure we’ve been given in learning how to love like Jesus loves!