Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Calvin on loving the unlovely

"We are not to look to what men in themselves deserve, but to attend to the image of God, which exists in all, and to which we owe all honour and love. […] Therefore, whatever man you meet who needs your aid, you have no reason to refuse to help him. […] Say he is contemptible and worthless, but the Lord shows him to be one to whom he had deigned to give the beauty of his image. […] Say that he is unworthy of your least exertion on his account; but the image of God, by which he is recommended to you, is worthy of yourself and all your exertions. But if he not only merits no good, but has provoked you by injury and mischief, still this is no good reason why you should not embrace him in love, and visit him with offices of love. […] We are not to reflect on the wickedness of men, but look to the image of God in them, an image which, covering and obliterating their faults, should by its beauty and dignity allure us to love and embrace them."

– John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion III.vii.6.

This is a very interesting point Calvin makes: that the basis for loving my neighbour is not lost through my neighbour's unworthiness, or even active hostility towards me. I am to see in my neighbour the gift of God - that God has seen fit to make even my broken and destructive neighbour a means by which others might see something of the divine life.

Of course, none of this makes sense until we learn to see Christ as God's image, into whose likeness we are drawn by the Spirit. The ever-open possibility that my neighbour might conform more closely to Christ's grace and truth keeps open the door to treating her graciously and truthfully. None are beyond the transforming power of the Spirit of Christ. All are vulnerable to grace. I love, then, in order that my neighbour might become more fully herself by becoming more like Christ.


Anonymous said...

Byron thanks for the post. As I read both Calvin's words and yours I could not help but think of Job's friends.

As a minister this is very challenging at times. Especially when it comes to dealing with people who are, for whatever reason, hostile. Or, who project their emotions onto us and others. It really pulls at the soul when someone attacks you. It sinks into our innermost being at times. I ask; where is Christ in that? Is he in the person who is niggling at us, who is unfairly attacking us? Maybe he is there in as much as "his grace is sufficient for me"?

Nevertheless the person is created in the image of God, as am I. And, the person is affected by sin, as am I. And, the person is hurt and broken, as am I. And, the Spirit is at work in them, as he is in me. And, Christ is present to me in them even if it is hard to see. As he is in me!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Byron,

Of course there's the flip side to this as well - if all are vulnerable to both grace and sin then not only is there a real possibility that my difficult, frustrating friend will be re-created by grace but that i will be a difficult person that others find frustrating!

Actually, i'm not so sure that the category of 'difficult person' is ever really a helpful one. What do you think? Was that Calvin's point all along? It just misses the point - people aren't 'difficult' or 'easy' - we are created persons, image bearers, sinful, needy of grace to remake us, with all the dignity and lowliness that this brings.

Unknown said...

I'm glad you posted this about Calvin. We had a Greek Orthodox lecturer last year at college who spoke about how we should treat all people with dignity and respect as they are made in the image of God..

I find this truth hard to live out within the confines of family without the struggle of doing so in the greater community.

Also this theology of Grace and Dignity often shows its fruit or lack of in Blogdom by those who claim to represent him. Here we don't have the pleasure of feeling the touch of the hand, seeing the smile and twinkle of the eye, and hearing the tone of the voice and so it is doubly hard to show that grace.

Unknown said...

BTW is the picture, one of a roadside cutting along the freeway between Hornsby and Newcastle?

byron smith said...

Duncan - two excellent points! Yes, I might be the problem (and should assume that I will be much more often than I think). And yes, 'difficult people' can be a comforting euphemism that blinds me to my own faults. I didn't use it in the original title of the post (visible in the address of the page linked to this post), but then thought that it was too boring/wordy and so changed it (to Calvin on how to love difficult people). Not really an improvement - I might have another go...

byron smith said...

Mark - you're right. It's so much easier to play the righteous victim card at those points (especially when that might actually be the case!) than to love even our tormentors.

Craig - Body language can be a great help in the communication (and reception) of grace. Emoticons just don't cut it. :-(

And not a Newcastle freeway cutting, but I can see how you might have thought so. However, since much of Sydney is built on sandstone, it could be almost anywhere. If my memory serves me, it is actually of the side of a sets of external stairs somewhere in Pyrmont.

psychodougie said...

remembering how unlovable we were to God, in a much more abhorrent way than simply "difficult", amplifies this corrective also

thanks for this post tho - if all the people i find it hard to love could wear a name-tag, "made in the image of God", it would be a massive rebuke to me.

byron smith said...

Perhaps we could market them.