I still remember the face of a girl who transferred to my high school about halfway to graduation. I remember noticing her standing awkwardly apart when we were all called out for a fire drill, and I remember her sitting alone at lunch time with her head ducked so that her long hair half-hid her face. I remember seeing her loneliness and knowing that I was supposed to be her friend. But I didn’t.
I wish I could say that these kinds of things only happen in the pressure-cooker of insecurity that is high school. I wish I could say that concerns for my social standing with peers never keeps me from befriending someone on the margins anymore. But that isn’t true.
Last month I wrote that Christianity – following Jesus – isn’t the religious burden it’s often made out to be. Rather, Jesus’ command to love God and each other is what we were made for, and it should feel like the freedom that it is.
But what do we do when it turns out love isn’t always easy?
The wounded stranger
When asked to expand on the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke chapter 10, verse 27) Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan. In the story, a traveler is attacked by thieves along a roadside and left to die. Multiple people see and pass by him on the road, each with a significant role in Jewish society and something to lose by stopping to help.
Finally, a man from a people group called the Samaritans – a group historically at odds with the Jews (Jesus’ audience) – stopped to help. The story tells how he treated the injured man’s wounds, brought him to the city and put him up in a hotel for as long as he needed to recover.
The person who would seem to have had the most difficulty showing love to the injured man was the one who did.
Pepsi in our engines
The love Jesus asks of us is what we were designed for: if our lives were a car, it is gasoline and everything else is Pepsi. But love always asks us to give something up. Sometimes it asks us to face the fear of rejection or a measure of comfort, sometimes it asks for our pride, or our perceived financial security, and sometimes it’s cost is the opinions of others. But it always asks us for something we feel like we need.
This is why, even though he says, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light”, (Matthew chapter 11, verse 30). Jesus also says, “If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.” (Luke chapter 9, verse 23)
At first glance, it seems like a contradiction to say that love is the light burden of our natural design, but also requires sacrifice. But the sacrifice love requires is everything else we are carrying that is weighing us down and keeping us from the freedom of becoming who and what we were meant to be.
From birth, we’ve internalized ideas and values which are the opposite of the love we were created for. As a result, we are poised for survival, trained to look after ourselves and ours first. We’ve learned to keep our heads down and skirt around the stranger by the side of the road, because caring for him might cost us something we don’t think we can afford to lose.
But in our efforts to look after ourselves, we are instead losing ourselves entirely. To get ourselves back, to be free, we have to first let go of all the things we’ve been clinging to that we simply were not made for. We have to clear the Pepsi out of our engines. This clearing out feels like sacrifice because we’ve believed for so long the Pepsi was keeping us going, when in reality, it was only breaking us down.
But how do we get there? How do we convince ourselves in the moments when it seems impossible to love anyway?
Paying the price
In 1996, the Klu Klux Klan held a rally in Michigan. Protesters gathered peacefully outside, until a man at the rally with a white supremacist symbol tattooed on his arm and wearing a confederate flag walked into the crowd. When protesters began to physically attack him, an African-American high school student named Keshia Thomas threw herself bodily between the attackers and the man, protecting him. After the photo taken of the moment became famous, Oprah interviewed Keshia who said, “If you’re covered by God then you do what you’re supposed to do. You don’t worry about anything else”.
Keshia protected her enemy because she knew she was covered by God; perfectly loved, thoroughly cared for and eternally safe. We love when it’s hard by looking to the one who’s love for us cost him absolutely everything.
Knowing that we are loved to such an extent by the most powerful being in existence, in fact the very foundation of reality himself, is how we can love the stranger by the side of the road without (or in spite of) our fear of the cost. This, I think, is what the Bible means when it says, “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear”. (1 John chapter 4, verse 18)
Love is hard, but the alternatives are far more costly. We have to listen past the roar of a broken world, so familiar it feels instinctual, and lean instead into the pattern of our design, the fingerprints of our creator deeper and truer than anything else. Because the love Jesus showed us and asks for is the light burden and the easy yoke that sets us free. Everything else is breaking us down.
Christina Jones is recuperating from graduate school by watching far too much TV and ignoring the many very good books waiting to be read and re-read on her shelf. She recently moved to Spokane, Washington where she works for a nonprofit preparing for and responding to natural disasters. She is usually running late and has a background in international relief work, which has led to an adeptness at sprinting through airports. When not watching TV, reading, working or running through airports, Christina enjoys Latin dancing, solitary evening jogs, old buildings, too much ice cream and long conversations with good friends.
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