Scripture is clear about our call as believers to love others, but how do we love the people who are difficult and the ones who are dangerous?
In 1995, McArthur Wheeler boldly walked into a bank in Pittsburgh and robbed it in broad daylight. He was wearing no disguise or facemask, although he was squinting and seemed to have some difficulty seeing. A little while later, he robbed a second bank. Naturally, security footage was pulled up of him entering each bank, and it was aired on the evening news.
At 5 feet 6 inches and about 270 pounds, McArthur was easily identified. Within the hour, the police were knocking on his front door. The officers explained that he had been recognized on the bank surveillance cameras, and the incredulous McArthur protested, “But I wore the juice!” Curious officers asked what he meant, and it turned out that he believed rubbing lemon juice on his face would blur his image and make him impossible to catch. Apparently, the burning and watering of his own eyes convinced him that others would have equal difficulty seeing him.
Being a ‘fool’ has relatively innocuous implications in English. It’s mildly insulting but nothing to write home about. However, Jesus lists it alongside sins like adultery and murder. “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness…” (Mark 7:21-22, ESV). We may laugh or roll our eyes at people like McArthur, so it’s a bit shocking to think about foolishness like his and other people’s being a serious sin.
David Mathis put it this way on Desiring God, describing the opposite virtue, wisdom, as being the skill of living well, “Meanwhile, the fool…does not navigate life well in God’s universe, from God’s perspective, in God’s categories. The very essence of foolishness is the suppression of God’s truth (Romans 1:18).”
Despite this, Christ calls us to love people, so how do we love someone who particularly struggles with suppressing God’s truths about the world around them and their own selves? Showing wisdom is knowing how to love a fool in a way that will actually help them and direct them toward God and truth.
Loving a Foolish Person
The hallmark of a fool is being remarkably self absorbed. They rarely think of others unless it benefits them in some way to do so. Self-centeredness is a marvelous way to avoid having to reckon in any meaningful way with the brokenness of your own mind and heart as well as error in the world. One type of fool is consumed with answering the questions, “What will satisfy me? How have others made me unhappy or taken away something I feel I deserve?”
Now this doesn’t mean that a fool might not be self-critical. If they fall on that side of foolishness, they will almost violently criticize themselves. “I’m the absolute worst at parenting! I’m a complete failure as a spouse!” However, their self-critique is intended to deflect others’ criticisms, and it also avoids actually taking action to fix the issues they’ve identified.
In either case, fools are a lightning rod for dangerous situations and damaging relationships. What’s more, they will be completely bewildered by the fallout from the ignorant or reckless decisions they’ve made. Quick on the heels of this bafflement will come indignant anger. Being angry keeps them from having to genuinely wrestle with their own brokenness; it also saves them from having to empathize with others’ suffering (perhaps as a result of their choices).
None of this sounds appealing to deal with in another person. That doesn’t take away from God command to love others, however. We’re called to love fools, so how do we do it? In their book Bold Love, Dr. Dan Allender and Dr. Tremper Longman noted “The greatest gift to a fool is to expose his sinful direction (Ephesians 5:11-14). Loving a fool is like guerilla warfare — hiding, setting traps, exposing, and then waiting for the next best opportunity to come out of the forest to love again.”
Often how this practically plays out is enforcing consequences for bad behavior and yet not abandoning the foolish person. You will not alleviate the pain caused by their poor choices, but you will not leave them.
Loving a foolish person is frequently frustrating and sometimes painful, but we must also become aware of when a foolish person is slipping into evil. As previously mentioned, a fool suppresses God’s truth about the world, hence why they struggle so badly in it. However, this can turn darker, depending on how far they go in ignoring God’s laws and order.
Loving an Evil Person
A fool’s self-absorption can reach the point where they become completely emotionally detached from other people. They’re unable to empathize with others’ pain or joy, and they may even start to show contempt or a willingness to mock other’s hopes or suffering. This is the hallmark of someone who is becoming truly evil.
While talking about how a tree is known by its fruit, Jesus said, “You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil” (Matthew 12:34-35).
What are the evil treasures or bad fruits that come out of this kind of person? The Apostle Paul laid those out clearly. “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. …They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God's righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them” (Romans 1:21,29-32). A foolish heart may eventually darken to the point where it is filled with malice and evil.
The hallmark of an evil person is an absence of moral boundaries. Their desires are always right, regardless of the consequences for other people.
Someone who is evil is not necessarily dumb enough to make their disregard for others blatantly obvious. They may dress up their actions in order to avoid being caught by others, but they do this primarily to avoid the inconvenience of dealing with upset people. If they’re called out, they will simply be irritated by whoever is ‘getting in their way.’ True remorse is a stranger in an evil person’s house.
The best way to love an evil person is to limit their opportunities to do damage to yourself and others. As Allender and Tremper put it, “It is similar to putting an enemy city under siege.”
Loving a Simple Person
Foolishness isn’t doomed to sink into evil, though. We were all fools who ignored the truth of God before coming to Christ. Even now, we may behave foolishly at times, but these are temporary lapses in judgment. Perhaps we’ve indulged self-serving desires and dreams for long enough that our ability to empathize with others or hear from the Spirit has been dulled. These periods in a believer’s life are often characterized by poor judgment where we ignore the discerning cries of the Spirit in our hearts or naively make choices where we disregard past experience and current knowledge.
Herein lies the heart behind Jesus’ command, “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye” (Matthew 7:4-5). Our own past of foolish mistakes or decisions should lend us compassion as well as a safe impulse to check our own hearts first before we help others.
In love, we check our own hearts on the road to help someone we love realign with God’s truth. “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. …For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:15-16,20).
Allender and Tremper describe this process in elegant terms: “Loving a simple person, in comparison, involves the civilized and artful warfare of an athletic competition. …The gifts to offer a normal sinner are covering over sin and instruction through word and life — that is, modeling in speech and deed a path of brokenness and bold witness for the gospel.”
The biblical mandate to love God and love our neighbors is very straightforward. Within it and among a wide variety of people, we may show our wisdom by the ways we love one another, no matter who they are or where they stand on their spiritual journey.