Am I supposed to love people I don’t even know?

by Kathleen Shumate on November 22, 2017

As we prepared to go overseas as missionaries, people often asked us: “Why Taiwan?” It was a good question. Out of the whole wide world, how did we choose to serve in Taiwan?

These people may not have realized it when they asked, but as Christians—both missionaries and senders—we’ve built up a set of expectations surrounding missions. There are “correct” and “incorrect” missionary answers. I found that people often expected some variation of: “We have a great love for these people.”

After a few instances of feeling this pressure, I asked my husband with some exasperation, “How can I love people I don’t even know?” Before we arrived, the people of Taiwan were certainly real and known to God, but not to me. I found it impossible to fall in love with an abstraction.

It was after we had lived among the people, come to know their stories, and borne each other’s burdens and joys, that I began to love them. Love bloomed when they became tangible to me in the flesh.

God himself doesn’t love us abstractly. The Bible is not a record of God waxing poetic about his love for us, with lots of flowery words and plenty of distance (though his poetry is magnificent). He loves us out of personal knowledge and with sacrificial action.

His love began even before our lives did; he planned each of us and the number of our days before we existed. He knit us together in our mothers’ wombs. He brought us forth into the outside world. He knows every hair on our heads. His creational love is personal and attentive to the smallest detail.

Nor did he love the world abstractly when he sent Jesus to us. The eternal Son of God, second person of the Trinity, was born as a baby boy into a specific culture and town in the ancient near east. He had a mother and a father, brothers, neighbors, a community. He spread his message by teaching and healing unique people. He began his Church with specific men whom he had come to know and love.

Then he died on a cross, a time- and culture-relevant form of execution. He bore the full weight of God’s wrath against sin as the cost of our salvation. God manifested his love by coming in weak and lowly flesh and dying an undignified death to rescue us.

We do not rescue like God does. We are only pointing others to the Rescuer who has saved us. But shouldn’t our love imitate our Lord’s?

I rejoice that God lays it on the hearts of missionaries to go to a certain place among a certain people, preparing us by giving us a passion for it. That’s an act of God. When we feel that pull toward our new people, we should thank God for giving it to us.

But if you’re like me, and you go expecting to love the people to whom you’re going, that’s enough. Love is more than interest or preference, and you don’t need to drum up a feeling of love that as of yet has no object. You prepare yourself to love your people overseas by loving your people around you right now; that is the real litmus test of what sort of love you will have on the mission field.

Love is costly, and we westerners sometimes throw the word around too loosely. In many cultures, love signifies something so deep, so permanent and “all-in,” that you don’t want to toy with it. To profess your love for a person or a people puts a level of commitment into your relationship that you may not understand from their point of view, or be willing or able to live up to. It’s not that we should avoid offering our love; rather, we should be ready to follow through with what we declare.

Some years have passed since we first set foot in Taiwan. What would I say now? Do I love the people of Taiwan? They bless me immensely. I treasure them. I am thrilled at what God is doing among them.

But it’s this student, this woman, this child that I love. It’s the specific people that I have sacrificed for, and who have sacrificed for me, with whom I have the privilege and honor of using that word to its fullest extent.

God has loved us with this personal, concrete love, demonstrated to the utmost in Christ’s incarnation. And I believe it’s this kind of love that has the chance to change the world.

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About Kathleen Shumate

Kathleen is a daughter of God in awe of how He brought her from death to life, happy wife to Jonathan, and grateful mother to six children. Kathleen earned her B.A. in psychology at Rice University and her M.A. in counseling at Covenant Seminary, and she is passionate about fostering healing for women who are wounded and the flourishing of families. You can read more from her at kathleenshumate.weebly.com/writing.

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