As hard as I’ve tried to forget, I vividly remember the “Christian” I was during my first year of ministry school. It was during this season of my life that I knew my calling was to be on the Morality Task Force for Jesus. I firmly believed that loving people looked like correcting them, based on my own interpretation and understanding of a very black and white Gospel.
At the age of twenty, I had all the answers. I remember judging a family member’s addiction, a classmate’s smoking problem, and being shocked that an unmarried girl in our program got pregnant. She was quickly expelled. It was the only right thing to do.
In those days, grace was cut and dried.
My own narrow-minded judgment drove a wedge between family members and me. Just as painful, I allowed my religiosity to drive a wedge between myself and friends I’d had since grammar school. My self-righteousness severed a few great relationships.
A few years ago, I was working in the school system and eavesdropping on a high school conversation. One of the students was eleven weeks pregnant. Her friend, an openly gay boy, asked, “How awkward was it [telling your parents]?”
“Daddy threw a couple of things and cussed me out,” She responded. “He told me to get out of the house.”
They made some small talk, and when I tuned back in, she said, “I had to quit softball. My life is over. Now I have a new life to care about.”
My heart broke for her. I was crushed over the idea that a father would disown this beautiful girl because she made a choice he disapproved of. His judgment drove a deeper wedge between them than he may ever realize. I’ve often wondered if they were ever able to make amends and repair their withered relationship.
I wanted to chime in. To let her know, this world is a cruel place, but God is love. I wanted to tell her, “Your dad may have cussed you out and thrown things, but your Father is wild about you and the precious baby in your womb. Jesus knows all about being born out of wedlock. Your baby is a gift.“
Perhaps it’s easy for you to see an unwed pregnant teenager as a person made in the image of God. But maybe other groups of people are harder to see. Maybe it’s your gay co-worker or your agnostic son or your black neighbor. No matter our differences, God has called us to value the person in front of us.
I’ve often thought back on the gay boy who showed such compassion to his pregnant friend that day. I think it may have been easier for him to offer her love and kindness instead of suggestions on how to “fix” her situation, because he knew what it felt like to be an outcast. He had heard all the harsh opinions of people who refused to stop and listen to his story. He knew what it was like to feel unsafe, unaccepted, and even unloved.
Maybe it’s easier for me to extend compassion today than it used to be, because I know what it’s like to think your life has fallen apart. I know what it’s like to desperately need compassion because just a few years after ministry school, I became the youth pastor who attempted suicide.
Maybe I am able to extend kindness and grace to those who are different from me because, I too, know what it’s like to feel like an outcast due to my life circumstances. When I began to publicly affirm LGBTQ Christians, I quickly remembered what it was like to feel like an outcast. One of my closest friends walked away from me because of my “wrong beliefs.” Sitting across from him at Starbucks, he told me I would end up in hell and drag thousands with me, because I am telling gay people Jesus loves them.
It’s time to put an end to judgment. To open conversation. To allow compassion to heal us, and let kindness lead us all to repentance. It’s time to engage those who don’t act like us, look like us, or behave like us, or sin like us. Trust me, they know they’re different. And they are hurting. If we are going to carry the banner of Christianity, it’s time for us to learn to love like Jesus.
I’m so sick of hearing, “love the sinner, hate the sin”. It’s bullshit. Jesus never said that. Instead, as a good friend of mine says, Jesus loved everyone and commanded us to do the same.
It’s time for us to do more than just pray for our neighbors from a safe distance or preach at them via social media. It’s time to embrace those who have been displaced, disenfranchised, or demonized by preachers or politicians. It’s time to clothe ourselves in love, kindness, and humility. Where judgment separates and segregates, love gathers. When criticism splits, grace draws near. Living our love is the only way to make a positive change in the world. It’s not our theology, politics, or ideologies that honor God. Love is the only way to honor the God who is alive inside us all.
Steve Austin is an author, speaker, and life coach who is passionate about helping overwhelmed people learn to catch their breath. He is the author of two Amazon bestsellers, "Catching Your Breath," and "From Pastor to a Psych Ward." Steve lives with his wife and two children in Birmingham, Alabama.
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