I heard a local businessman and well-respected Christian say once that an economic recession would do some good for our country. Specifically, he said, “it would separate the men from the boys.” The men, of course, would be the ones whose wealth insulated them from the worst effects of the recession. The boys are everyone else. That this way of thinking is more Darwinian than it is Christian and, simultaneously, is not uncommon in our churches, is perhaps one of the saddest indictments of our churches that I can think of.
It is not terribly hard to find others who think as this man did. Nature is brutal, violent, and bracing, the thought goes. And some tough doses of reality, such as an economic recession, can be a good reminder of that. If the world is hard, cold, and indifferent, then — while generosity, kindness, and love might ultimately make life more livable — there are times where only the hardened can survive and too much love can make us soft. As I said, one doesn’t have to go far to find people who think this way.
And yet while many American Christians, like that businessman, do think this way, it isn’t the way Christianity itself would have us think. The 16th-century reformer Martin Bucer, a mentor to John Calvin, saw things quite differently. Bucer taught that we are never more natural than when we love, for nature is the creative and intentional work of a God who is, in his essence, love. And contrary to our modern Darwinian neighbors, Bucer thought that looking at the world could show us how natural it is to give of oneself for the good of another, which is what he meant when he spoke of love:
The sky moves and shines not for itself but for all other creatures. The earth produces not for itself but for all other related things. … All the plants and all the animals, by what they are, have, can and actually do, are directed toward usefulness and helpfulness to other creatures.
When we give of ourselves to another, Bucer says, we are merely mimicking the sun, which provides us with warmth and light. We are mimicking the trees that offer shelter and food. We mimic the animals who protect their young, like the mother bird who sits on a nest for weeks on end so that other birds might have life. To love is, in this account, simply to live in the same way that the rest of the creation does.
Certainly, it is true that nature does not always work this way. Creation groans beneath the Fall. The world can be cruel. Ultimately, our hope is not in our own goodness or the world’s goodness, both of which can and do fail, but in Christ’s. But the work Christ is doing is one of restoration, not revolution. He seeks not to burn and destroy what is broken, but to heal it so that it can once again realize its rightful use, its true intention. His grace renews and restores.
Indeed, even now the world itself is still good in the same way that a cracked icon can still be beautiful. And so when we love we are acting in a way that is true to that leftover beauty, that pays honor to the goodness that was, that remains, and that one day will be fully restored. When we love, we are imaging what the world once was and what it will, one day, be again. In the words of Bucer’s (sometimes) friend Martin Luther:
Whoever will not be persuaded that he is able to establish a kingdom of heaven on earth … is heading toward the devil. For where there is service to God, there is heaven. When I serve my neighbor, I am already in heaven, for I am serving God.