It isn’t easy to love a jerk. Someone who’s quiet, meek, and kind – no problem. But the person who annoys us, whether through habit or personality? The person who pushes all our buttons, perhaps even intentionally? The selfish and insensitive clod?
Yet the Lord commands us to love our neighbour as we do ourselves (Mt.22:39). That Christian love is “not irritable or resentful.” Instead, it “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:5-7). This is the love that leads us to “do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10).
But how do we do that with someone we might think to be unworthy of our love and good deeds? How do you love a jerk? You might say take a look in the mirror. Humbly realizing that we’re all unworthy jerks could indeed be a good place to start. However, in his epic Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin explored this practical issue in the Christian life from a different angle. His advice, drawn on sound biblical teaching, is worth a listen. If you want to look it up and read the whole section for yourself, it’s in Institutes 3.7.6. I’ll be quoting from the Lewis-Battles edition.
Calvin begins by acknowledging that most people would be unworthy of our love if they were judged according to merit. But that isn’t how Christians are to think. Says Calvin, “But here Scripture helps in the best way when it teaches that we are not to consider that men merit of themselves but to look upon the image of God in all men, to which we owe all honor and love.” He goes on to affirm that with members of the household of faith this obligation is intensified by virtue of the fact that God’s image has been renewed and restored in them by the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, what remains of the image of God after the fall into sin and before regeneration is itself reason enough to show love to all by doing good. Calvin concludes, “Therefore, whatever man you meet who needs your aid, you have no reason to refuse to help him.”
Calvin then anticipates a series of objections. Someone might say, “But he’s a stranger!” To which Calvin would reply that this is irrelevant. With the image of God, you have something in common which instantly binds you together. Or someone might say, “But he’s loathsome and a good-for-nothing!” Calvin replies, “…but the Lord shows him to be one whom he has deigned to give the beauty of his image.” You might say that this person doesn’t deserve any of your effort. But, says Calvin, “the image of God, which recommends him to you, is worthy of your giving yourself and all your possessions.”
Then last of all, what if the other person is a jerk? You’re thinking that he does deserve something from you, but it’s definitely not a demonstration of love. Calvin says, “Yet what has the Lord deserved? While he bids you forgive this man for all sins he has committed against you, he would truly have them charged against himself.” The connection with Calvin’s answers to what precedes has to do with the fact that he is telling us that when it comes to loving our neighbour, we have to look to God. If we focus all our attention on people and who they are and what they do or don’t deserve, we’ll never love our neighbour. True Christian love is only possible as we think about our existence before the face of God and the grace we have received from him through Christ.
At the end of this section, Calvin circles back to the image of God. This is brilliant:
Assuredly there is but one way in which to achieve what is not merely difficult but utterly against human nature: to love those who hate us, to repay their evil deeds with benefits, to return blessings for reproaches. It is that we remember not to consider men’s evil intention but to look upon the image of God in them, which cancels and effaces their transgressions, and with its beauty and dignity allures us to love and embrace them.
I remind you that Calvin is speaking here not only about the image of God as it exists restored in Christians, but even the image as it exists spoiled by sin in unbelievers.
Essentially what Calvin is saying is that we ought to love all people on the same basis that God does. Earlier in the Institutes (2.16.3) Calvin states that God’s hatred finds a deserving object in each one of us because of our sin. But then he says something surprising: “But because the Lord wills not to lose what is his in us, out of his own kindness he still finds something to love.” No matter what sin we have committed, we remain his creatures. As his creatures, we bear his image. According to Calvin, image-bearing is what leads God to love and it’s also what should lead us to love.
That has implications and not only for dealing with garden-variety jerks. In our current climate where the church is facing so much hostility from the world, we need this teaching more than ever. If we would only look around us and see ALL other people as God’s image-bearers, we would find something to love. Perhaps better said: at least we would know that there is something to love even if we can’t readily see it. As Calvin notes, this is utterly against our human nature. Our hearts resist it. Yet remember how God is sovereign over our hearts. We can and should pray for him to keep changing our hearts so they become more like his, reflecting the image of him and his wondrous love.
Wes Bredenhof is pastor of the Free Reformed Church of Launceton, Tasmania, Australia.