Do you love your skeptical neighbors?
Its a question I don’t hear very often, but one that Christians need to regularly ask one another. According to some studies, up to 20% of Americans are not religious. The level of skepticism varies around the world, but if you live in a cultural context where many people have doubts about God, you need to ask the question: do you love your skeptical neighbors? And a closely related question: does your church love people with doubts, questions, and different beliefs?
What does it mean to love our skeptical neighbors? To figure that out, first we need to think about why and how we love our neighbors in general. And then we can think more clearly about what it means to love our skeptical neighbors.
So first: why do Christians try and love their neighbors? Isn’t it easier to just live for ourselves? Of course it is, but love is at the center of the Christian worldview. Why? Not because of guilt, shame, or fear, though Christians often succumb to those motivations. But rather because we believe God is a God of Love. Think of the eternal love within the Trinity – the love of God in creating all things – the love of God to people through all generations – the love of Christ in his death on the cross for our sins – the love of the Holy Spirit in forming, strengthening, and growing the church – it is because God is love and because God loves us that Christians are called to be a people of love who love their neighbors.
And therefore, as many people know, the Christian life is centered around two ethical obligations:
- Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength.
- Love your neighbor as yourself.
These two central teachings of Jesus are understand to be of the utmost importance for every Christian and every church. That’s why this question is absolutely critical. Love for our neighbors – all of our neighbors – is a fundamental Christian responsibility.
How Do We Love Our Neighbors In General?
The heart and definition of love is to choose to sacrifice our own interests in order to serve another person. We give of our time, our money, our energy, and so on, as we develop the habit of meeting our neighbors’ needs. To sustain a lifestyle of love, we join together in churches, grow in our understanding of God’s grace, learn to depend on the Holy Spirit, read our Bibles, take Sabbath rest, and more.
That’s the heart of love. But then there’s the wisdom of love. For instance:
How do we love a lonely person? Drop off packets off food at their doorstop and drive off as quickly as possible? Well, no. It is certainly a costly investment of money, time and energy to drop off a meal at someone’s home, but it won’t really meet the needs of someone who is lonely. It would make more sense to have them over for dinner (or go to their place for a meal).
In general, Christians love the lonely by offering them friendship, community, church membership, and other relational opportunities. Even though we know that their ultimate need for friendship can only be met by God’s loving presence, that doesn’t keep us from also meeting their needs to the best of our ability.
In a similar way, how do Christians love someone who is unemployed? Say a prayer for them, give them a Bible, and tell them to go to church? To some degree, there’s nothing wrong with that. A prayer might be encouraging, a Bible can offer wisdom, and the church service could strengthen their walk with God in a difficult time. But a fuller love for the person would include offering financial assistance for their rent, connecting them to people who are looking for new employees, and helping them update their resume and practice their job interview skills.
In other words, the heart of love isn’t enough. A more robust love for our neighbors requires a thoughtful, wise love. If our sacrificial love doesn’t meet our neighbors’ actual needs, we have offered only a partial love. When you are passionate about loving your neighbors, you take care to comprehensively identify their needs and provide realistic solutions. We care about their spiritual challenges and their social challenges, their sin and their situation. Isn’t this how you would want and need to be loved if you were lonely and unemployed?
For the sake of humor, consider the absurdity of insisting on a strictly ‘more Biblical’ and ‘holier’ approach:
“Lonely people don’t need friends. They just need time with God. Leave them alone.”
“Hey, don’t give the unemployed person a job. Leave room for the Holy Spirit to work!”
How do you feel about those responses? Don’t they seem wrong? Unrealistic? And not very loving?
Of course God is the ultimate answer to our relational needs and the Holy Spirit cares for the unemployed. These are the right answers. But suggesting that only ‘holy’ ideas are the right ideas is wrong. Loving our neighbor means we both rely on God’s ultimate provision and we act to serve our friends, by meeting the full range of their needs as wisely and as practically as we can, even if it is costly to do so.
So How Do We Love Our Skeptical Neighbors?
So what about your friends who struggle with doubt and questions? What does it mean to love them?
Sometimes I hear ideas that sound more like the ‘holy’ solutions above than responses that involve a fully loving response to their doubts and questions. I’m referring to comments like these:
- “You know what helps with doubts about Christianity? Reading the Bible.”
- “They don’t have questions. They have a heart that is antagonistic to God. We should pray for them.”
- “I don’t try and argue with someone. I just share my testimony and leave the rest to God.”
Let’s think critically about these responses. Should we invite our skeptical neighbors to read the Bible with us? Pray for our doubting friends to meet God and trust in Christ for salvation? Share our testimonies and trust God’s work? All of these are good ideas. I am all for them! They are very important.
But here’s another idea: when someone has an honest question, what if we gave them a reasonable answer? Or when someone has a genuine doubt, we thought through the issue with them until they personally understand the logic and rationale of Christianity? Or when someone thinks there is a contradiction within the Bible, we study the verses carefully and explain how the texts fit together?
Can this process be a friendly conversation? Yes, I encourage you to have a conversation. It is wise to avoid giving a lecture or having an intense debate.
When I’m answering skeptical questions, do I only give answers? No, vary your approach to keep the conversation interesting, personal, and effective.
Will this require hard work? Yes – at least as much hard work as including the lonely in a relationally healthy community, ending systemic poverty in a city, and creating a culture of discipleship and spiritual growth in a church.
Just like loving a hungry person means buying food, preparing it, and serving them a meal, loving a skeptical neighbor means building a friendship, praying for them, studying answers to their questions, learning new ideas, becoming familiar with logic and the reasons for the truth of Christianity, building a personal library, and more.
Loving our skeptical, doubting neighbors is not easy. But neither is loving any of our other neighbors. Nevertheless, love is at the center of the Christian worldview. We believe that God loves us completely – even offering His life on the cross for us – and we are now called to gladly love God and love our neighbors.
Questions for Reflection:
- Do you love your skeptical neighbors?
- How are you preparing yourself to answer their honest questions?
- How does your church show they love and accept people with doubts?
- What events or groups at your church welcome and include those with intellectual barriers to following Christ?