Dennis closed the 2007 Xenos Summer Institute with a teaching called “Cultivating a Tender Heart.” It’s worth listening to (http://www.xenos.org/xsi/resources.htm#2007) and/or reading his paper (http://www.xenos.org/essays/tender_heart.htm) by the same title. It’s been over a year since I’ve done either, but the theme strikes me as increasingly relevant: in ministry we face the paradox of loving people with the hope that God will change them, but we also know they may choose to reject God and us. Even with a disciple it’s possible to invest deeply and sacrificially for years, only to lose them to a person, a job, or a drug. It’s a painful reality and especially tempts seasoned workers to hold something back—namely, their hearts. What does that look like? The leader might give of time, knowledge, prayer, and counsel, but ultimately their efforts lack zeal because they are afraid of being hurt. The less compassion and vulnerability are developed in the friendship, the less will be lost if the person forsakes their walk with God. So the thinking goes. Yet the Bible calls for something quite different:
“Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).
I periodically (at least once a week) dive into the depths of my melancholy nature and revel in the misery and fear of historic and potential losses. First it was Missy, then Kay, then Jen. Now I fear the same for Yana. And I start naming a handful of people who might be next. I don’t want to care about them, I conclude. It’ll hurt too much later on.
But then I remember how much God has been hurt by humanity. Think of all the times people turned their back on God. There was the Garden of Eden incident for starters. He must have been profoundly grieved, as well as wondering, “What exactly did you think I meant by ‘If you eat of it, you will surely die?’” And He didn’t flood the earth because people were thriving spiritually. Nor did He confuse the languages at Babel because people were building a tower to honor Him. Abraham’s naughty little scheme for baby-making without his decrepit wife wasn’t exactly godly, either, but God still came through on his promise when Abraham repented. Jacob was a complete con artist but he still secured God’s blessing.
Then there’s Moses, a nasty combination of murderer and whiner, but God miraculously led the Israelites out of Egypt with him as their leader. Speaking of Israel and whiners, God’s chosen people always promptly forgot how God provided for them and bowed down to stupid wooden lawn statues instead. God repeatedly mourns their unfaithfulness, comparing them to a wife who committed adultery again and again. But He kept taking them back, picking them up and dusting them off through forgiveness and healing. David was a total macho-man idiot, what with the womanizing and husband-killing, but God used him because he was “a man after God’s own heart.” The list goes on and on, with Israel the star idiot of the Old Testament drama. But God never gave up, reneged on His promises, or withheld His love.
And then I remember how much God has been hurt by me. I’m a star idiot, too. From the sinful state I was born in to my fear and negativity, to the daily sinful thoughts and motives I’m not even aware of, He has plenty of reason to write me off. Yet He pursues me with lovingkindness just as He did with Israel. I didn’t go looking for God. He was looking out for me. He tracked me down and drew me to Himself. It had nothing to do with me or my goodness. There is nothing good about me (Isaiah 64:6), but He wants me anyway.
How heartbreaking God’s hurts must be; how agonizing to endure. And I complain when I lose a disciple or two, whom I didn’t love nearly as well as God loves me. While it’s worth mourning the loss of those friends I can’t let that change how I love the people God’s put in my life right now. I want to cultivate the tender heart He has displayed through Scripture and in my relationship with Him. It’s a heart that continues to love even in the face of betrayal and unfaithfulness. It’s a heart that loves boldly, relentlessly, tenderly, and patiently. It’s a heart that pursues, initiates, chases down the people who so desperately need Christ’s healing love. That’s what it means to “love one another as I have loved You” (John 13:34).