Is It Possible To Love “The Lost”?

Motivation matters. Let’s take, for example, the issue of global missions. Some Christians are passionately motivated to somehow participate in God’s global project, but others are much less motivated. Can this be explained by turning to the language of individual calling? That is, only some are called to take an interest in missions today?

Since levels of motivation vary, many seek to stir the interest of others in missions. Personally I see a whole host of potential motivations springing from the pages of Scripture, but we can save that for another day. What concerns me is when people present one motivation as if it is the exclusive legitimate motivation, thereby dismissing other biblical options.

Let’s look at a possible example.  Here’s a quote from John Dawson that critiques the possibility of loving “the lost” (in the context he is addressing the challenge of a lack of compassion for others and how to witness anyway based on our love for God.):

“It is impossible to love ‘the lost.’ You can’t feel deeply for an abstraction or a concept. You would find it impossible to love deeply an unfamiliar individual portrayed in a photograph, let alone a nation or a race or something as vague as ‘all lost people.’”

(quoted in Crossman’s Worldwide Perspectives Manual, p77)

Is that true? Is it impossible to love an unfamiliar individual, nation or race? My experience and that of others would beg to differ. But let’s also challenge this idea with more than just personal experience.

In the gospel the other-centred relationality of the Trinity spreads out to encompass us. He loves us, drawing us to become lovers of Him, to participate in an utterly others-centred community. A central feature of the New Covenant is the giving of a new heart, making us passionate to glorify Him because we love Him and to value what He values – including, of course, the nations (for God so loved the world). We passionately give ourselves and our resources for missions motivated by His love as our hearts beat with His and like His. We become like the person we love. To use the name of a blog I often read, God’s spreading goodness spreads to us, and through us.

So we can love the lost, we can love the masses, because the Lord does (when He saw the crowds, He felt compassion for them, Matt.9:36), and we become increasingly like Him. Perhaps a lack of love for the lost is an indication of creeping concupiscence (self-love), for if we love Him, we will also love whom He loves. So often, then, the fuel for missions is found as we fall, broken and needy, before the cross of Christ, again overwhelmed by His love for this world, including me, including them.

I appreciate this quote from Nate Saint, missionary pilot to Ecuador: “When we weigh the future and seek the will of God, may we be as moved with compassion as our Lord.”

Is it possible to love “the lost”? What might it look like if our hearts were so captivated by His that His values became ours? As we open the shutters onto the vast field of global missiology, with all its biblical and theological foundations, where does your thinking go?

12 Responses to Is It Possible To Love “The Lost”?

  1. Glen Scrivener July 19, 2010 at 1:47 pm #

    I haven’t read Dawson but I think I can see where he’s coming from. I can kid myself I “love the world” when all I do is nurse an abstract feeling in my heart. Jesus calls me not to ‘love the world’ but to ‘love my neighbour’. Which means those I actually bump into (sometimes physically). This is real love.

    I was meditating the other day on *how* God “so loved the world.” It was in a very concrete and particular way. His Son became *that* Nazarene peasant who entered *those* circumstances and died on *that* cross having invested very specifically in *those* disciples (and 3 especially) who were to spread the gospel through word and sacrament… All of which is a very particular and particularizing way of loving the world.

    And absolutely we are caught up into God’s spreading goodness – participating in His love to the world. But therefore it ought to be a way of being that takes flesh in very concrete circumstances. I know for me that I can be far too idealized in my affections. If they are true affections then they will be *grounded* and *earthed* in concrete relations. That’s how God’s love is.

    Are these the sorts of objections Dawson makes? As I said, I haven’t read him.

  2. Peter Mead July 19, 2010 at 5:21 pm #

    Thanks Glen. I totally see what you’re saying here about “loving neighbour” and the need for something more tangible than abstract. It’s true that we easily kid ourselves into thinking we “love the world” when the only fruit of that love is an abstract feeling. What I do want to throw into the mix, though, is that limiting our “neighbour love” to bump-into-able people will undermine our concern for the nations (a concern that is the Lord’s and should be ours – I’m thinking in terms of a full biblical theology rather than just the Great Commission passages, although they would be included, of course). All that you say about how God loved the world is absolutely true, but the story doesn’t begin with where Jesus happened to be, but with a mission from heaven to earth. I wonder if some of us today too easily ignore anything beyond our own sphere of contacts, instead of living out the values of a “going God.”

    You are so right that God’s love is, and ours should be, very concrete. That is what I find challenging. I may nurse the abstract “love for the nations” notions, but in concrete terms how is that sharing of God’s values influencing me in concrete terms? My time, my prayer life, my wallet, my witnessing, my ministry, etc.?

    Dawson’s point, in context, is to really affirm that a love for God, or a passion for God’s glory, is the primary motivation for missions involvement. His terms seem to border on suggesting that this motivation is the exclusively legitimate motivation for missions. My challenge is not to deny the importance of what he is saying positively, but to resist the false mutual exclusivity suggested by the negative content quoted.

    Is it possible to love “the lost”? Tangibly. Concretely. Like Christ?

  3. Glen Scrivener July 19, 2010 at 10:56 pm #

    Yes indeed!

    “I speak the truth in Christ–I am not lying, my conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit– 2 I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, 4 the people of Israel… “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved.” (Rom 9:1-4; 10:1)

  4. Bobby Grow July 20, 2010 at 1:03 am #

    A great question.

    For some, I would suggest, what can squelch loving the lost, or the “world,” is one’s theological persuasion. I think in America (can’t speak for the UK), given some popular radio ministries, a particular theological persuasion that Jesus only died for particular people can have the squelching effect I’m referencing above — even if this only remains at a subconscious level.

    I don’t really know the context for Dawson’s quote, or his theological persuasion; but I would have to agree, that the “spreading” love/goodness of the Triune God, shed abroad in our hearts should be taken literally — esp. the “abroad” part. I’m not sure how we can’t love the other, if in fact we are participating in the God who’s life is in fact shaped by this.

  5. Bobby Grow July 20, 2010 at 1:20 am #

    I think, further, “on beyond and ideal,” it is possible to concretely love the other. I think for that to start it probably should follow a pattern; a pattern like that set in Acts — i.e. it starts with those we know (maybe even culturally), like “Judea,” then spreads out further from there to Samaria, then to the Uttermost parts of the earth. Even more particular, esp. for those who are married, it can start in our homes (with our spouses and kids). If not married, it can start with our friends; putting their needs before our own, and in fact learning to serve out of our brokenness (again what I’m saying here is just an ideal, but it has to start with us aiming at something).

  6. Ron Frost July 21, 2010 at 4:28 am #

    I’m puzzling over the difference between an abstract love for the nations and a concrete love for those near me. My own experience in the past three years has been something of an applied exploration of the question.

    After I resigned my cozy post as an academic I was invited to join a global-reach ministry which has since taken me to places like Kitale and Kigali; to Phnom Penh and Tallinn; to London and Ljubljana; to New Delhi and beyond.

    In each case I was part of a web of relations: someone I loved here in Portland led me to someone they loved in another location. So with my new role I’m now able to travel to see either a former student who is now ministering in those places, or to travel with someone I care for as they take me to those places because of their care for the people there. In each case I find my compassion stirred.

    So a big part of the question, as I see it, is whether we’re open to taking up the many leads we have to pour out God’s love to others even as he’s poured out his love to us. I certainly can’t say I loved the street urchins in Calcutta before I got there, but I was deeply moved by them once I arrived.

  7. Jon Horne July 21, 2010 at 6:10 am #

    It seems to me that it is possible to love “the lost”, if someone has actually done so. And I’d like to say that because Jesus loved “the lost” so can we. But when Matthew writes, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them” [9:36], he is (probably) not wanting us to draw conclusions as to whether Jesus loved the crowds (or not) before he met them. But he does draw attention to our senses. Much like Ron, “I certainly can’t say I loved the street urchins in Calcutta before I got there, but I was deeply moved by them once I arrived,” presumably because he saw them. So what is it to love without recourse to our senses? What is it to love a God we cannot see, let alone “the lost” whom we have never met? Perhaps compassion is one thing, and love another. Perhaps we need to expand our vocabulary somewhat.

  8. Peter Mead July 21, 2010 at 6:48 am #

    I have always found the end of Matthew 9 to be intriguing. For over five chapters the ministry has been all Jesus. In 5-7 he was teaching, with a concluding statement of the crowds’ amazement in 7:28. In 8-9 he was healing, with a concluding statement of the crowds’ marvelling in 9:33. Then at the start of chapter 10 Jesus selects and sends out a group of his followers to do the same ministry he has been doing. In between comes this transition section of 9:35-38.

    Verse 35 gives something of a summary statement about the extent of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. In verse 36 Matthew takes us below the surface a little to see that Jesus wasn’t cold as he cared, but was moved deeply by the torn apart and thrown to the ground sheep without a shepherd, the multitudes. Then the implication of verse 37, although unstated, is that he is pleading with the disciples to see what he sees, to feel how he feels, to share his values, his heart for the helpless.

    I am happy to fine tune our vocabulary to “compassion” (seemingly a deep gut-wrenching response to need that stirs action). I am happy to accept that seeing the need is a critical component to stirring our Christ-like compassion. Here’s the thing – we live in an age of unprecedented awareness of the “crowds.” We can see them like never before, globally. But is our response the response Jesus sought in his followers at the end of Matthew 9? I know my tendency is to explain away my lack of compassion, but if I’m vulnerable and honest, I would rather be broken before Christ and ask Him to give me a heart that beats like his, and then plead with the Lord of the harvest to send workers into the multitudes of the seen but personally unknown.

    Obviously it is not possible for Christ to love people he doesn’t know, but our lack of omniscience is on a par with the disciples, and Christ seemed to desire a him-like compassion, leading to a him-like ministry.

  9. Ron Frost July 21, 2010 at 6:30 pm #

    In my earlier comment I was reflecting as much on the organic nature of the “body of Christ” as on the existential compassion I felt for the street kids in Calcutta. It’s true that I’m not consciously compassionate/loving (I’m inclined to keep these words together as two aspect of one reality) towards those I’ve never seen or known. Yet in the worldwide fabric (i.e. the relational extension) of the body of Christ I’m actually very close to others throughout the world. So as I love those I know from my days as a professor, I’ve found myself drawn to love those whom they now love in their new locations.

    Christ, in his divine awareness, has the “whole” in view; we, in turn, have an incremental and growing awareness in view. So the love in Christ is also a quality in all of us who know him. In that sense his love in and through us is not just a concept but a reality; yet for us it only spreads within the context of our personal points of contact.

    Another way to say this is that now that we have God’s heart for others, our love for others will always be present to “the world” wherever we are in the world. I love the whole world in that sense, but my particular awareness and sharing of that love is limited to those I know.

  10. Bobby Grow July 22, 2010 at 7:30 am #

    I agree with Ron.

    Love in abstraction is grounded in an individualistic understanding of that concept; true love lays his life down for the “other,” which I think brings up another related point to what Ron is saying. I think all too often we think of prayer as an abstraction instead of a tangible mode of communication with the Father that provides an avenue of real tangible action and sacrifice for brothers and sisters all over the face of this earth. I know that the season we have been enduring has been tangibly effected by the prayers of many (whether they be around the corner or in the UK). I think prayer is downplayed too much; so in regards to this post, I think as we become aware of particular situations (through relationships we already have, like Ron speaks of) — or aware of “lost people” — we can begin praying for them, and watch God put concrete or “tangible” action to this (I know I’ve seen this happen too).

  11. Esther Dexter July 22, 2010 at 10:52 am #

    As I see it, loving the lost is directly related to our relationship with God and remaining in His love. (John 15:1-17) Often through John’s gospel we read phrases which make us realise how closely connected Jesus was to the Father’s heart. (John 4:34, 5:19-21; 5:30; 6:38, 7:16, 7:27, 28, 8:16,26-29 and so on). His heart beat was the Father’s heart beat, His desire, the Father’s will. His love with the Father was so interwoven, Jesus became God’s love gift to the world, the sacrifice of Himself. He took the limitations of a body, felt what we feel and experienced the filth and pain of this world because of love that was unconditional. As we remain in the Father’s love, we can also experience that compassion that prays across boundaries, that participation of being involved with others more directly and practically and that sacrifice of ourselves that comes from loving God with ALL our heart, soul, strength and mind – a love with no strings attached except God – ward!

  12. DUANE WATTS July 26, 2010 at 3:51 am #

    I speak mostly from recent experience. Over Christmas, I was really struggling, doctrinally against determinism, in my career, and in my personal life against the flesh. Studying at Bobby’s and Ron’s and others, I came to understand once and for all the basis for believing that Jesus loved ME. I began to shed 30 some years of doubt. I began to feel the love of God shead abroad in my heart.
    January 12 Haiti Earthquake 200,000 dead. Disturbing, but the News is typical blame America or wall street, makes me nauseous.
    Then I heard on Moody Radio the president of Compassional Int’l, a child relief organization, speak passionately about the suffering on the ground there. He took a long time desire to help a specific person “over there” , and gave it legs. “Lord if this is of you, I want to help someone over there know your love, because they really need it.” I prayed for the little girl we would end up sponsoring, for 4 weeks before we knew her identity. Compassion could not put children up for sponsorship during that time, because they did not know who was alive and who was dislocated. For at least 4 weeks we prayed for this unknown child like she was our own daughter, because we did not know if she was injured, or if she had a roof over her head or if she had a mother or father living. We prayed that she would be fed and have clean water, and safety from predators.
    If this is not concrete love, given me by my Father…. But do not think highly of me: The flesh and blood and sweat and fornication loving people I work with see the real Duane. I have a harder time loving the unlovelies I rub sweaty shoulders with. Lord please forgive me and change my heart!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!. But selfishness in the one arena does not lessen the reallity of the other.
    Theologically, I think that the “for the glory of God” is over worked. Maybe it’s over defined. I thought this was the God who needed nothing from us? He needs us to give Him glory? Not my God.
    I believe what is truth is that the work that He works in us, ALWAYS results in His glorification. It can not be otherwise. So I would suggest theologians and preachers stop pontificating on glorifying God as if God needed more glory.
    Knowing His love as I begin to know Him now, when I get there and see Him, I will fall on my face and breathe GLORY!!!!!!!!!!
    Oh, and our sponsor daughter in Haiti is Barbara. She is beautiful, she has a mother and a father, and she lives outside of the earthquake zone, in still the poorest country this side of the Atlantic.

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