There is theory, and then there is practice. And more often than not, the distance between them–the concentrated effort it takes to get from theory to practice–is profound. To be human is to know this in your bones.
Take this for example. Theory: we ought to love and selflessly serve our community with a cheerful heart, out of the abundant love and selfless service that we have received from Christ. Practice: sitting in obscene Sunday afternoon traffic on I-495, running a seemingly inconsequential errand for friends who would likely not compensate me for gas or time. It was a significant inconvenience to me, and in my cost-benefit analysis, not worth my time or effort. I had obliged, but begrudgingly, and had spent the last hour simultaneously resenting them for asking this of me and praising myself for being selfless and servant-hearted enough to say yes.
In a moment of clarity, the irony of this occurred to me: is it really so selfless if I am hyper-focused on the virtue that I am gaining from that selflessness? Is it really agape love if I am meticulously keeping score of every inconvenience that love has caused me?
Those were hard questions to ask, even harder to answer. But sitting in questions like these is what sanctification feels like. There may be nothing more sanctifying in this post-modern, post-industrial, post-everything Western world to which we belong than inconvenience.
Ours is a world where efficiency is worshiped, where loving someone is trying your best to not inconvenience them. Choice, autonomy, and self-sufficiency are seen as human rights, and any infringement upon that self-focused triad is a threat to one’s humanity. This worldview originated partly in the Enlightenment, which promoted rugged individualism and created a culture of autonomy, and partly in the Industrial Revolution, which elevated leisure and prioritized a culture of convenience. Both social-cultural revolutions glorified the idea of a self-made man who pulls himself up by the bootstraps and needs no one other than himself, even if–as has been often noted–such an action is actually impossible according to the laws of physics.
So, in this post-enlightenment, post-modern world, it’s no wonder that we see the needs of community as an inconvenience and community itself as an accessory. But there is also the Christian obligation to recognize that all manifestations of self-centeredness, which often disguise themselves as things more innocuous, are rooted in the events of Genesis 3, when sin slithered in and convinced human beings to forsake their dependence on God and enlighten themselves by eating fruit from the Tree of Life.
I don’t deride this self-focused worldview as much as I ought; I must admit that I find this approach to love and relationship to be very practical, strategic, and even functional. It’s simply not the framework for relationships laid out by Jesus the God-man. In fact, it is a far cry from what Jesus defined as flourishing. “Love your enemies” and “pray for those who persecute you” are central tenets to Christ’s message. The creeds maintain that the incarnation was real and paramount: Jesus put on flesh and entered the weary world to walk with us, embody love, and exemplify flourishing. His model of community love and flourishing was not convenient or strategic. It was gritty, embodied, all-consuming, and self-giving, literally costing him his life. It was breaking social codes, feeding thankless crowds, befriending scummy businessmen, washing filthy feet, forgiving betraying friends, and dying alone on a cross.
But the kind of love that Christ preached is also reciprocal: it benefits both the receiver and the giver. Yes, practicing the inconvenient love of God blesses others and the world, but it also humbles us, makes us more empathetic, reminds us of our common humanity with others, enhances our gifts, reminds us of the true and essential things of life, and draws us out of ourselves (what ancient theologians called incurvatus in se, or “a life lived turned inward on oneself”). In a word, practicing the inconvenient love of God is our sanctification. The Greek word for sanctification is ἁγιασμός, which translates as “consecration,” or “the believer being progressively transformed by the Lord into His likeness; the process of making or becoming holy, set apart….” A convenient, easy love may feel sustainable, pleasant, and self-gratifying, but it doesn’t contribute much to the soul’s transformation. A love that inconveniences is a love that sanctifies, making us more and more like our Maker who loves with a borderless, indefatigable, stubborn, and confident affection.
But such love often does not play out in the way one would expect. Sanctification does not look like earning a brighter halo or achieving more inner zen. Sanctification actually begins when we are confronted with our own humanity and our own sin. Inconvenience drives a person to begin thinking and saying and believing very un-Christ-like things, at which point we are forced to face our own selfishness and limited ability to put others first. It draws the impurities out of us.
In the 1990’s, when Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend wrote the book Boundaries, there was a real need for the reminder that people–even and perhaps especially Christians–must have boundaries. Unconscionable damage has been done in the church by clergy and other community leaders who preached a Gospel of exhaustion, no “no’s,” and unbounded service. That vision for community goes against everything that Scripture says about our inherent need for sabbath and everything psychology has corroborated in recent years about the importance of rest, recuperation, and awareness of personal limits.
Even more damage has been done relationally, by those who suck others dry, by those who dump every problem on another, by both family and friends who do not know when to leave another alone. And that damage is often absorbed, another body blow, by those whose empathy and selflessness have run amok, leaving them easy targets for those who would take advantage of them.
But the cultural landscape has shifted, and frankly, I’m afraid followers of Jesus have become too good at saying no, too eager to call selfishness and overindulgence “sabbath rest”, and too keen on drawing boundaries that keep them from ever helping or sacrificing for someone else.
The goal is not to become God, who never sleeps, is limitless and inexhaustible, and is Himself the very essence of Love. But the goal is to become like God, to be an active imitator and practitioner of Love who is also in need of mercy, rest, help, and second chances. The mystery of being made in God’s image is that it takes time to become what we already are. With the Holy Spirit guiding us and God’s grace covering us, we can and will love, even when it is inconvenient. And Love will sanctify us in the throes and discomfort of that inconvenience.
As with so many other things in the Christian life, I think we find wholeness and goodness by walking between the two extremes: not falling prey to the fallacy that love is about running ourselves into the ground and never resting or saying no, but also refusing to stray into the worship of boundaries, ease, and convenience.
There is no getting around the fact that the Gospel is centrally about inconvenience. Jesus gave up the treasures and leisure of Heaven to show us what true Love looks like. He gave up Heaven to enter the world He created, to experience hunger and disappointment and betrayal and ultimately death. And why, having felt all that pain and discomfort, has he asked his followers to imitate that kind of inconvenient love? Because God knows that ultimate selflessness is ultimate holiness. He wants what’s best for us, so he asks us to get well-acquainted with inconvenience.
“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3:16-18).