taking the words of Jesus seriously

The first time I met Rebecca, she broke my heart. I had just said the closing prayer for that evening’s Bible study when she pulled me aside. She was wiry, her black hair short and straight, her dark eyes staring intensely at me through oversized gold eyeglass frames. She hadn’t spoken throughout our study of the parable of the Prodigal Son, so I wasn’t sure what to expect.

“My parents, ” she whispered in heavily accented but understandable English, “they never touch me. Never say they love me. My father say I am worthless. I can do nothing.” She gripped my arm tightly, holding on as if for a lifeline.

My chest tightened at her words as I placed one hand over hers. Her sadness and despair were so palpable that my knees almost wobbled from the weight of it. She continued, her voice shaking. “What do you think? Is he right? Am I worthless?”

In that moment, I wanted to weep. I wanted to show her some measure of the affection her parents should have given her. I wanted to revive the little girl’s spirit within her that had been crushed. But in that moment, I knew what she needed most: the Truth.

My voice wasn’t steady either, but I articulated my words as clearly as I could. “Your father was wrong. You are special. You have great worth. God loves you so, so much—unconditionally and exactly as you are.”

It was something I had heard so much as a child growing up in a small evangelical church. “For God so loved the world…” “God is love…” “We love because God first loved us…” It was the Truth, I knew, but there was something so passive, so small about this love. In the teaching I received, God’s love meant little more than a ticket to heaven. After the Jesus rescue plan was completed, God just sat in his throne in heaven, loving on us, while we sat in our earthly church pews and loved him back by singing old hymns and closing our eyes at the appropriate times.

As far as I could understand, God had already given up on this world. He was just waiting for all of this to end, for the new Heaven and the new Earth to begin so he could start over again with the humans He liked the most.

When I went to college, this view of God no longer made sense in the context of what I was learning about the state of the world. I felt confined by church walls and the small picture of God it contained; instead, I began regularly spewing phrases like “social stratification” and “collective action” and “systemic change” in class essays and across lunch tables, in club meetings and Bible studies.

As I changed, so did the God I knew. He was no longer a passive God of love; He had become a hero, a rallying cry to me. God was a warrior for the poor and marginalized, and I would be too, I decided. I entered the nonprofit sector, convinced that only this kind of work was the true and real call for all Christians. What was good about Good News that didn’t change anyone’s life in an immediate and tangible way?

Along the way, I disregarded the gospel I had grown up with: the simple truth that God loves us more deeply than we could ever understand and that He wants to be with us in eternity. That seemed to matter little in the face of real suffering in the here and now. Love only mattered when it was backed up by action. The gospel only mattered when it was a gospel of justice, a revolutionary force for social change in politics, economies, and societies.

Seven years after graduating from college, I took these ideas of revolutionary change to Shenzhen, a manufacturing center on the southeast coast of China. My husband, Ned, and I had moved there to do social good—his company produced solar-powered lights for families without electricity in developing countries—but I wanted more. I dallied with the idea of reporting on labor abuses in factories, of standing up for marginalized ethnic minorities or imprisoned political dissidents.

But in a place like Shenzhen, where the middle professional class is exploding and the standard of living is skyrocketing, these were not the issues that concerned people. These were not the wounds they carried. They needed love. Not romantic love or even friendship, but real, unbreakable, and awesome Love.

I didn’t know this when I first started leading an underground English-language Bible study in Shenzhen. I wasn’t thinking about showing God’s love to the Chinese Nationals in the group; my primary motivation was to stick it to the man, to thumb my nose at the religious intolerance of Chinese authorities. Even then, I hadn’t willingly taken on the role of Bible study leader. The group’s previous leaders had just returned to Australia. The Chinese Nationals, almost all college-educated professionals in their twenties and thirties who had migrated from other parts of the country, were convinced that my arrival was a timely answer to prayer. I tried to explain that this was not an answer to my prayers, but they weren’t having any of it.

“I think I can only stand to do it if we focus on justice issues, ” I confided to Ned after our first meet-and-greet gathering. “But I don’t know if they’ll have any interest in that.”

“Just give it a try, ” Ned replied. “Teach on something you care about and see how they respond.”

I chose the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well for our first study, thinking it would be a good on-ramp to discussing issues of intolerance and discrimination. As I had been shown in my previous Bible studies, I focused on the dynamics between Jews and Samaritans, and men and women during that time. I talked about how vulnerable women who did not have a male protector could be.

The eyes of every one of the fifteen or so members of the group—male and female, dressed in business suits and jeans, brand-new Christians and ten-year-old Christians—began to shine. From inspiration, I thought at the time.

But now I realize it was because of Love. Whereas I was fixated on systems and cultures of oppression, they zeroed in on the all-encompassing love of Jesus.

Week after week, from the parable of the Good Samaritan to the healing of the bleeding woman, I kept pointing to how Jesus was counter-culturally merciful, how he advocated for the outsider and the vulnerable, how he spoke against laws and customs that were excluding or oppressing people. And week after week, my Chinese National friends marveled at how extraordinarily well Jesus was able to love each person he encountered. I certainly couldn’t disagree, but I worried that they weren’t seeing the larger picture.

Perhaps it was all this talk of love that prompted the floodgates to open. Mainland Chinese tend to be recalcitrantly close-lipped about their personal lives. The culture is flush with criticism against anyone who dares to assert his or her individuality; the totalitarian state’s constant monitoring encourages mistrust and silence. But when we huddled together in an air-conditioned apartment near the top of one of Shenzhen’s most famous skyscrapers, exploring the life of Jesus together, stories began to come out. Stories of rejection, of loneliness, of failure, of invisibility. Stories of harsh and critical parents—who had no doubt themselves been raised by harsh and critical parents. Stories of what life without Love is like.

“What if I don’t have any talents?” Eric, a young man with spiky hair and crooked teeth, asked me one night as we discussed the parable of the talents. I had been leading Bible studies in the group for about six months.

I looked at him in surprise, both because he had actually spoken up—most nights he looked terrified whenever he made eye contact with me—and because his question was so unexpected. I couldn’t count how many times I had studied this parable over the years, but I was pretty sure I had never heard that question before. “Everyone has talents, ” I said gently. “God gave talents to everyone.”

“Then why don’t I have any talents?” Eric persisted.

Others chimed in at that point, some agreeing that not everyone had talents, others making the case that Eric—and everyone else—had definitely been given talents. I could see by Eric’s troubled expression that he remained skeptical.

Something knotted up inside of me that night as I listened to the Chinese Nationals debating. Eric was kind, intelligent, and thoughtful. He had a good job and a promising future ahead of him. But he had not been well loved during his twenty-something years, and, as a result, he had trouble realizing his full potential—had trouble realizing he had any potential at all. No one had ever told him how special and gifted he was. Until he met Jesus.

I realized then that the message of God’s immeasurable love didn’t matter to me as much because I was one of the privileged. I had grown up in a loving home, had absorbed the endlessly looping American messages about the importance of being an individual and chasing your dreams. I had always been surrounded by God’s love and had, as a result, taken it for granted as the Good News no one really needed to hear.

During the year and a half that I led the Bible study in Shenzhen, I saw for myself the power of God’s love to heal and to bring hope and joy. It was the only thing that could crack the stranglehold of shame and despair engendered by generations of withheld affection and affirmation, which made it the best news possible for people like Rebecca and Eric. It gave our Chinese National friends the confidence and courage to live fuller, deeper, more abundant lives.

Related: Stop Going to Church! When Good News Actually Looks Like Something

When Harry first came to our group, he was jobless and emaciated after the woman he thought he would marry broke his heart. Within weeks, his despair became contentment, which flourished into joy, because he had found true Love. Christina had been told all her life that, as a woman, she had little value. She found her value in Jesus, bravely and cheerfully withstanding an interrogation by security officials when her house church was raided. And Eric, who once thought he had no talents to speak of, took the risks of learning to play guitar, leading worship in his church, and pursuing one of the more outspoken girls in our Bible study. They married six months later in one of the sweetest wedding ceremonies I have ever attended.

“Jesus loves everybody, ” a young man named Peter shared a few weeks after our study of the parable of the talents. “He sees everyone.” Peter had once told me that his father had left him so wounded that he felt he would never be whole again. He had been consumed by anger in the past, but now channeled that energy into forgiving, evangelizing, mentoring, and pursuing God with a gentleness and delight that was beyond what I could comprehend.

Week after week, our friends kept returning to our Bible study, even though they risked being detained or imprisoned for their participation—because they could not stay away from God’s overflowing love. It had changed their lives in profound ways, had altered the very essence of how they saw themselves and others.

And it renewed in me, a jaded lifelong Christian, a soul-deep appreciation for the unconditional embrace of a heavenly Father—and how that is the foundation for every good thing that is and will be in this world.

The gospel of God’s love, I had learned, is far from passive. It is revolutionary.

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