“Our generation is prone to radicalism without follow-through,” Kevin DeYoung writes. “We want to change the world and we have never changed a diaper.”
This quote has stuck with me for more than 10 years now. I’ve thought of it multiple times as life has chastened some of my youthful passion for seeing massive transformations in the culture or the church. Similarly, Andy Crouch has warned against focusing our attention on “changing the culture” out there somewhere (whatever that means) when we find it nearly impossible to cultivate and maintain the kind of flourishing culture we’d like to see in our own home. You think changing the world will be easy? Try changing yourself first.
Having read much of G. K. Chesterton, I now look askance at anyone who seems to speak primarily in the abstract: “fixing the economy,” or “changing the culture,” or “loving humankind.” Why? Because it’s easy to succumb to self-righteousness when you pursue utopian visions in regard to great and massive things. It’s when you are faced with the smaller things and the people nearest you where you begin to spot your own flaws and diagnose your lovelessness.
In a Peanuts strip from 1959, Linus Van Pelt says, “I love mankind . . . it’s people I can’t stand!” We’re all about “loving others” and “loving people” and “loving your neighbor” in the abstract. But then we discover the others around us and the actual persons we come to know and our real next-door neighbor might turn out to be harder to love than we expected.
In The Brothers Karamazov, Father Zosima recalls the confession of a doctor he once knew:
“I love mankind,” he said, “but I am amazed at myself: the more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular, that is, individually, as separate persons. In my dreams, I often went so far to think passionately of serving mankind, and, it may be, would really have gone to the cross for people if it were somehow suddenly necessary, and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone even for two days, this I know from experience. As soon as someone is there, close to me, his personality oppresses my self-esteem and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I can begin to hate even the best of men: one because he takes too long eating his dinner, another because he has a cold and keeps blowing his nose. I become the enemy of people the moment they touch me,” he said.
Many of us can relate to the annoyances and obstacles that make it hard to love those closest to us. We’re told that marriage is all about compatibility, but what if the greater secret of marriage is working through incompatibility—standing forever next to the spouse you sometimes can’t stand? We’re told that loving our kids comes naturally, but what if it requires a supernatural endurance? Yes, you commit to loving your kids no matter what, but that kind of love often requires you to leap over whatever you may dislike about them in the moment.
Social media makes it easy for us to see ourselves as more loving than we really are because we redefine love in terms of the “love for the world” we express, or the “social change” we get behind, or the “causes we support.” Still, in the end, it’s not saying “believe all women,” or “black lives matter,” or “make America great again” that ultimately defines the test of our loves. Slogans are easy; suffering is hard. And there is no real love without suffering.
Our ideas of loving whatever is massive and influential—of scaling our love in the abstract—can lead us to overlook what is right in front of us: the people and things that are nearest. Émile Cammaerts writes:
It is infinitely better to love one woman than to love women, to care for five friends than to care for five hundred, to live in a small house than to live in a large one, and to be loyal to one country, one civilization, one religion, than to attempt to be loyal to all countries, all civilizations, and all religions.
In an era of constant online connectivity, we think keeping tabs on our hundreds or thousands of Facebook friends is a reflection of our love, but the real test of friendship is in how we bear with and care for our handful of closest friends. We think the bigger house is better than the smaller. The mass-produced item is better than the homemade craft. The chain restaurant’s menu is better than your family recipes.
But what if it is in loving what is nearest to us—discovering what Cammaerts describes as “the romance of small things”—where we are most likely to find happiness and bring about lasting change in the world? What if it’s in the cultivation of culture at home, with our neighbors, with our church, where the most significant change takes place?
All our efforts at building a better church, or bringing about a “more perfect union” in our society will come to naught unless we first love what is nearest.
We must love God before we run after what we think we can do for God.
We must focus on our family before we can focus on the family.
We must love our next-door neighbor before we look for ways to improve the neighborhood.
We must love the church member with whom we have little in common before we can love “the church.”
The love that goes farthest starts with loving what is nearest.
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