Asking For A Friend: How To Love A Jerk

Who Says That Calvin Was Not Practical?

…But how do we do that with someone we might think to be unworthy of our love and good deeds? How do you love a jerk? You might say take a look in the mirror. Humbly realizing that we’re all unworthy jerks could indeed be a good place to start. However, in his epic Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin explored this practical issue in the Christian life from a different angle. His advice, drawn on sound biblical teaching, is worth a listen. If you want to look it up and read the whole section for yourself, it’s in Institutes 3.7.6. I’ll be quoting from the Lewis-Battles edition.

Calvin begins by acknowledging that most people would be unworthy of our love if they were judged according to merit. But that isn’t how Christians are to think. Says Calvin, “But here Scripture helps in the best way when it teaches that we are not to consider that men merit of themselves but to look upon the image of God in all men, to which we owe all honor and love.” He goes on to affirm that with members of the household of faith this obligation is intensified by virtue of the fact that God’s image has been renewed and restored in them by the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, what remains of the image of God after the fall into sin and before regeneration is itself reason enough to show love to all by doing good. Calvin concludes, “Therefore, whatever man you meet who needs your aid, you have no reason to refuse to help him.”

Calvin then anticipates a series of objections. Someone might say, “But he’s a stranger!” To which Calvin would reply that this is irrelevant. With the image of God, you have something in common which instantly binds you together. Or someone might say, “But he’s loathsome and a good-for-nothing!” Calvin replies, “…but the Lord shows him to be one whom he has deigned to give the beauty of his image.” You might say that this person doesn’t deserve any of your effort. But, says Calvin, “the image of God, which recommends him to you, is worthy of your giving yourself and all your possessions.”

Then last of all, what if the other person is a jerk? You’re thinking that he does deserve something from you, but it’s definitely not a demonstration of love. Calvin says, “Yet what has the Lord deserved? While he bids you forgive this man for all sins he has committed against you, he would truly have them charged against himself.” The connection with Calvin’s answers to what precedes has to do with the fact that he is telling us that when it comes to loving our neighbour, we have to look to God. If we focus all our attention on people and who they are and what they do or don’t deserve, we’ll never love our neighbour. True Christian love is only possible as we think about our existence before the face of God and the grace we have received from him through Christ. Read more»

Wes Bredenhof | “How To Love The Unloveable | Yinkadinay | August 31, 2021


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    • John,

      The use of jerk as an insult dates to 1590, when it was used to refer to an insulting remark. Shakespeare used it that way in 1598. In American usage it has referred to minor railway branch since the 1890s and thence to a small, insignificant (“jerkwater”) town. Thence, in the early 20th century, c. 1935, it came to refer in American slang to someone liable to be manipulated by a con-man or a carnival huckster. It is still used to refer to an unsuspecting victim but more often now it refers, in the words of the Oxford American Dictionary “a contemptibly obnoxious person.”

      Should a Christian use it? Certainly, when it is appropriate. It’s a known category widely understood in American English. There are rude, obnoxious people. Christians ought not to be such and when we are such we ought to repent.

    • Thank you very much for that, Dr Clark – Not knowing my Shakespeare, I suspected a totally different origin.

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