Notes from an address preached by the Rev. Ronald M. Ward, B.D. Originally published in the August 1950 issue of Progress, the monthly magazine for Romford Congregational Church.
"The Son of Man ... a friend of publicans and sinners." (Matthew 11:19)
Getting on with other people is one of life's biggest problems. It is a problem with two sides to it. For on the one hand we may find it hard to like our fellow human beings. Or on the other hand we may find it hard to get them to like us!
Some people are easy to love, and occasionally we fall into a friendship which has real creative power. Now and again we find a friend who throws a new and delightful light across the world, and this is indeed a rewarding experience. But if some people throw a light over life, others throw a blanket over it. Very often we find it hard to like people not because they are wicked but because they are boring. Not because they do us harm but because they exasperate us.
In imagination we all think it a most excellent and beautiful thing to love one's neighbour as oneself. The very young often picture themselves leading lives of sacrificial love on the mission fields or in hospitals, and firmly believe themselves capable of fulfilling the law of Christ. Idealism is no bad thing, and it would be sad if we allowed it to become submerged in cynicism. But at the same time most of us discover that to imagine oneself living a life of love is very different from actually making the attempt. The real world of relationships is hard to live in, and it is dangerous to allow a fantasy about one's ideal self which does not as yet fully exist, to hide this fact.
Of course it is easy to be on good terms with folk we only meet occasionally. The real test is provided by the men and women we have to live and work with every day. Most of us will have to admit that we heartily dislike some of them. Right or wrong, we had better accept this. If we ask Him God will help us to find new ways of understanding and sympathising with the people we don't like. And at least we can exercise restraint and charity in our dealings with them. But it would be foolish to pretend to ourselves that we like them when we don't. Foolish and perhaps sinful too. In the long run insincerities are alway harmful, even, perhaps especially when they are dressed in Christian sentiment.
It is not usual, I believe, to admit these things, particularly in Church, where we too often feel committed to pretend a more Christ-like spirit than we actually possess. But it seems to me just as well to acknowledge that we often expect more of one another than at present we are able to give. To be at the same time closely linked with human lives and to love them as oneself is an enormously difficult thing to do. Years of self discipline may be required of us before we make any real progress in the matter.
But what of the other side of our problem? There are people who are hungry for fellowship and cannot find it. People who blame themselves for being shy, or stupid, or unattractive, and wistfully wonder if that is why they never manage to maintain a friendship with anybody for very long.
Of course it is nonsense to suppose that a shy person is necessarily friendless. Shyness has a sort of charm of its own, and we are far more likely to be lonely if we choose to be aggressive or self-assertive than is we happen to be different. (Self-assertive people frequently get themselves elected on committees. But nobody wants to live with them). And as for stupidity, it would be a great mistake to suppose that the happiest relationships are built on clever conversation. Most human talk is really very ordinary. The person matters more than his speech, and we do not foster human comradeship by marching into somebody's drawing room with a bright remark about the international situations. And alas for the poor soul who thinks that the key to happy friendship is held by those who are blessed with a Hollywood profile. If the delight one human being can find in another depended on good looks some of us would be very lonely indeed.
Now there is one person we too often neglect in our thoughts about the problem of "getting on with people." And this person may very well be the clue to the whole matter, because we have to spend all of time, and eternity too, in his company. It is as well to ask the question, "On what terms do you live with yourself?" Remember that the command of Christ has two edges to it. You are to love your neighbour as yourself. This means, perhaps, that if you happen to despise yourself you will tend to despise your neighbour too. And if you hate or fear or resent yourself all this will find expression in the way you deal with other people, and, consequently, in the way they deal with you.
It may come as rather a shock to learn that the Lord has told us we ought to love ourselves. And yet I think it is so. And in a moment I shall try to tell you why.
Self love which is nothing but self esteem, self righteousness, greed, or pride, is of course a sin. More than that it is the source of all sin. There can be no doubt at all about that. The Gospel condemns it out of hand because it shuts a man away from God. Love for God ought to be so much greater than anything else in us that it throws all our human loves into the shade. This, I suppose, is what our Lord meant when He made use of an extraordinary paradox and told us we ought to hate our nearest relations for His sake (Luke 14:26).
But the self love which the New Testament commands is very different from the self-centred life of sin. Self-centred behaviour, far from expressing love of the self, often conceals a positive dislike for it. Take as a simple example the pathetic little sin of snobbery. A man is a snob, not because he loves himself but because he despises himself in the knowledge that his father was a fishmonger or some other perfectly honourable and worthy thing. A good deal of unpleasant human behaviour takes place because we carry around with us a secret sense of shame, inferiority, and failure. And no one who his ashamed of himself or angry with himself can be said to love himself.
So perhaps we talk too glibly about the sin of self love, when we really mean the sin of being self absorbed. For at the centre of sin there is nothing so noble as love, but only hunger and fear and oppressive anxiety. Fear of being found out, exposed as a little fellow when one wants to be a big one. Anxiety lest one should be deprived of prestige or money or some other thing one desperately wants. Lust, whether of the spirit or body, insatiable appetite, the very opposite of the deep peace of love.
From all this Christ can set us free. In Him we are bidden to repent, to acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickednesses. We stand before Him as men in whom there is nothing worthy of love. But after that, if we trust Him, inner failure is forgiven. We are invited to enter the family of God. He who was the friend of publicans and sinners bids us welcome. This means, if anything at all, the possibility of being on good terms with God himself. And if He wishes to be on good terms with us, surely we can be on good terms with ourselves? If we are to find His image in every human life, we must find it, and respect it, in our own hearts too. Whenever Jesus Christ healed a man He bade Him stand upright. "Take up your bed and walk." It is a call to self reliance and self respect. "Lazarus, come forth." And forth he came, out of the humiliation and shame of human corruption.
I am sure it is a sin, a sign that we do not really believe in redemption or in love, if we despise ourselves. God bids us be humble, but He does not wish to humiliate us. He shows us our need, but then gathers us to Himself, to stand upright as sons and daughters in His house.
To love your neighbour, to be on good, free, happy terms with him, it is necessary to be on good terms with yourself. The Christian can dare to be this, because he knows what grace means. Without arrogance, indeed with awe and wonder, he may claim the power to enjoy and love his own life. And this is the key of friendship placed in his hands.