If we focus all our attention on people and who they are and what they do or don’t deserve, we’ll never love our neighbour. True Christian love is only possible as we think about our existence before the face of God and the grace we have received from him through Christ.
It isn’t easy to love a jerk. Someone who’s quiet, meek, and kind – no problem. But the person who annoys us, whether through habit or personality? The person who pushes all our buttons, perhaps even intentionally? The selfish and insensitive clod?
Yet the Lord commands us to love our neighbour as we do ourselves (Mt.22:39). That Christian love is “not irritable or resentful.” Instead, it “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:5-7). This is the love that leads us to “do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10).
But how do we do that with someone we might think to be unworthy of our love and good deeds? How do you love a jerk? You might say take a look in the mirror. Humbly realizing that we’re all unworthy jerks could indeed be a good place to start. However, in his epic Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin explored this practical issue in the Christian life from a different angle. His advice, drawn on sound biblical teaching, is worth a listen. If you want to look it up and read the whole section for yourself, it’s in Institutes 3.7.6. I’ll be quoting from the Lewis-Battles edition.
Calvin begins by acknowledging that most people would be unworthy of our love if they were judged according to merit. But that isn’t how Christians are to think. Says Calvin, “But here Scripture helps in the best way when it teaches that we are not to consider that men merit of themselves but to look upon the image of God in all men, to which we owe all honor and love.” He goes on to affirm that with members of the household of faith this obligation is intensified by virtue of the fact that God’s image has been renewed and restored in them by the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, what remains of the image of God after the fall into sin and before regeneration is itself reason enough to show love to all by doing good. Calvin concludes, “Therefore, whatever man you meet who needs your aid, you have no reason to refuse to help him.”
Calvin then anticipates a series of objections. Someone might say, “But he’s a stranger!” To which Calvin would reply that this is irrelevant.