Note: This post is part of a series about building a personal relationship with God by reading the parables of Jesus. You can browse the entire series here.
True love for God means obeying his commands, and his commands don’t weigh us down as heavy burdens.
1 John 5:3 TPT
During my first year of college, a friend pulled me into a campus ministry and invited me to their events multiple times a week.
The people I met there became my good friends, and I really enjoyed going. I didn’t see these events as burdensome additions to my schedule, even though I went a lot, because I saw them as time to hang out with friends.
I had been pretty apathetic about church before, mostly seeing it as something I had to go to. The love of my friends in that campus ministry helped me understand that the purpose of being a Christian is to love God and love people, and it is love that makes Christianity enjoyable, simple, and attractive.
I have been a Christian for nine years now, and I find that it is very easy to lose my love for God, and Christianity becomes just a set of empty habits. This not only makes me feel unmotivated in my relationship with God, but also prevents me from inspiring anyone else to become a Christian, because all they see in me is a bunch of behaviors that seem too difficult to do. Every day I have to work to get my heart to a spot where I love God and people genuinely, not habitually.
In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus makes it clear that what God is looking for is our heart, not our religious behavior or ability to look perfect. This story is particularly encouraging for those who may feel intimidated or frustrated about trying to be a Christian because they can’t get the behavior right.
Jesus contrasts the religious leaders, who may have looked good on the outside, but had a bad heart, with the Good Samaritan, who didn’t follow any religious rules, but had a heart that really cared about others.
From this story, we’ll learn how to have a heart for God and others instead of creating religious habits; how to become compassionate by putting ourselves in others’s shoes; and how to redefine what it means to be “good” (hint: it has to do with gratitude, not good behavior).
Jesus wants us to not only experience God’s love for ourselves, but also help others experience it. When we love God with all of our hearts, we will have the capacity to love people wholeheartedly and live out the exciting destiny God has for each of us.
Pause and reflect
What do I think God cares about most?
What do I think he wants most from me, and how does that affect the way I feel toward him?
Heart > habits
One day an expert in religious law stood up to test Jesus by asking him this question: “Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus replied, “What does the law of Moses say? How do you read it?” The man answered, “‘You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
“Right!” Jesus told him. “Do this and you will live!” The man wanted to justify his actions, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Luke 10:25-29 NLT
Have you ever tried to find a loophole to get around a rule you didn’t want to follow? This is exactly what the religious expert was trying to do here. “Justifying our actions” is a way of convincing ourselves we don’t have to do something.
The religious expert thought he could get away with not loving certain people by saying they weren’t his “neighbors.” He didn’t really have the heart Jesus was talking about, but he may have had some good religious habits of being nice to some people.
Habits are actions that we do so repetitively that we don’t even think about them, whereas our hearts are focused on passion and desire. God wants us to have a heart that wants to be close to him and to other people; he doesn’t want our relationship with him to be a set of religious habits.
Finding loopholes is often easier than actually doing the right thing, and that’s why we look for them. This religious expert wanted to figure out how little he could get away with, instead of figuring out how to change his heart to match God’s commands.
Making a rule for himself about who he “had” to love probably seemed easier to this religious man than truly loving other people as much as he loved himself. In the long run, though, changing our hearts is better and makes life much easier than creating religious habits or rules.
Growing up I played football, and summer conditioning was the worst. I remember having to do push ups, leg lifts, and so much running in the scorching heat. I hated it, and I would always keep an eye out for when the coaches weren’t looking at me so I could take a break. When they looked back again, I would pretend as if I had been going the whole time. I didn’t want to have to do the work to really get stronger; I just wanted it to look like I was.
My loophole might have made practice easier in the moment, but in the long run it made life harder. Since I didn’t have the strength and endurance my coaches were trying to help me build at practice, I wasn’t able to finish games well. I lost my stamina too soon and got knocked over much more easily than I should have.
This religious expert was probably a lot like me, and Jesus wanted to teach him why our hearts matter more than perfecting our religious habits. Making a religious habit of acting good around people is a shortcut.
This may be easier in the moment to do than truly loving God and other people, but our spiritual stamina will quickly run out. We won’t be able to stick with people very long in relationships, because relationships inevitably involve imperfect people. We have to learn to love unselfishly if we want our relationships to last.
If we’re just trying to act right instead of genuinely loving God and others, we also will get weary before we can live out the destiny God has called us to. We’ll get tired of doing good as soon as the going gets tough or we hit an obstacle, just like I did in football games.
On the other hand, if we learn how to have a genuine heart for God and other people, our love will drive us forward no matter what we are up against. Genuine love doesn’t give up or quit, so if we want to become the people God wants us to be, we need to develop a loving heart instead of a loving image.
Pause and reflect
What is something I have continually tried to change by fixing my habits, but have failed? What would it look like to change my heart in this area?
Why would God care more about my heart than my habits?
People ≠ problems
Jesus replied with a story: “A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem down to Jericho, and he was attacked by bandits. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him up, and left him half dead beside the road. By chance a priest came along. But when he saw the man lying there, he crossed to the other side of the road and passed him by. A Temple assistant walked over and looked at him lying there, but he also passed by on the other side.”
Luke 10:30-32 NLT
It would be natural to expect the priest and the Temple assistant to be the people to help the man who was just beaten and robbed. They were the “good” people; they were the “churchgoers.” However, they walked right by him.
We may not commonly see someone “beaten and robbed” in our daily lives. However, there are many people who are beaten mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. There are people robbed of hope and the possibility to change issues in their life, beaten by life’s difficulties and hardships.
People like this walk by or sit next to us on a daily basis, but we won’t know that someone is going through something unless we do one key thing: ask.
We encounter these people just like the people in Jesus’ parable did – “by chance.” There is a “by chance” in our lives every day, at our schools, jobs, and in our neighborhoods.
The priest and Temple assistant had a religious heart: they looked good on the outside and did the right things. But when it came to what really mattered to God, which was loving people, they weren’t able to do it. They saw the man beside the road as a problem to avoid.
It is very easy to be religious like the priest or Temple assistant. We might go to church, have a title or leadership role, follow all the right rules, and maybe even avoid the right sins – but not have people and their needs on our minds or hearts. In other words, we don’t lift a hand to help.
There have been many times where I have been so focused on what I have to do that I walk right by people, not even taking the time to consider what they are going through. When I was in college, I had a friend who expressed to me his pain over losing his mom and other personal things that were vulnerable for him to share.
It took me months to actually take an interest in him, care about what he felt, and ask if he wanted to learn how to build his own personal relationship with God.
He was looking for hope, for a relationship with God, and for close relationships with friends, but I was so focused on the things I had to get done and my own responsibilities that I didn’t slow down to look at my friend and love him.
When we see people around us and do nothing to help, it has a large impact on our relationship with God. Ignoring the needs of people around us requires hardening our hearts and avoiding our feelings, so our relationship with God will become void of emotion, and stale instead of exciting. All of our problems seem bigger and bigger because our thoughts and hearts are only focused on ourselves.
Since God is loving, we won’t be able to be very close to him if we refuse to love others. Think about it this way: what if you had a friend who devoted a lot of their life to playing baseball, but you refused to get to know anything about baseball or talk about baseball or watch their games or practices?
Your relationship with that person would probably suffer. You would miss a lot of time and connection with that friend, and you probably wouldn’t be very close because baseball is a significant part of their life.
Caring about people matters to God, and being his friend means it should matter to us too. If we spend all our time caring about ourselves, with no room for what matters to God, our relationship with him will suffer.
Pause and reflect
Have I been taking time to get to know the people I meet “by chance”? Why or why not?
What are some ways I justify not taking time to care about others?
How has my heart for other people been affecting my relationship with God?
Prayer + putting yourself in others’ shoes = perspective
“Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him. Going over to him, the Samaritan soothed his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them. Then he put the man on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. The next day he handed the innkeeper two silver coins, telling him, ‘Take care of this man. If his bill runs higher than this, I’ll pay you the next time I’m here.’
Luke 10:33-35 NLT
Like the religious leaders, the Samaritan also saw the man who was beaten and robbed. The difference was he actually felt something for him and was moved with compassion.
The Samaritan had all the reasons to not stop and help. Back in that day, Jews hated Samaritans and looked down on them. If any of the three people to walk past the man had a reason to not stop and help, it would have been the Samaritan. But his heart was different.
Instead of seeing the man as a problem to avoid, he saw the man as a person that needed love. The Samaritan put himself in the man’s shoes, choosing to feel what the man must have felt, even if it was painful. It’s not that he didn’t have anything else to do, or was less busy, or had more of a reason to help. The only difference was his heart. The first step in loving someone is actually allowing yourself to feel what other people are feeling.
In high school, one of my friends whom I had known for most of my life started going through a really hard time. We would hang out a lot, and I knew what was happening to him on the outside, but as he went through this tough time I realized I had no idea what was really going on inside. I had no clue what he felt, what he thought, what he was afraid of or what motivated him, and I didn’t even know how to get to know him better.
I knew he needed a friend, but I didn’t know how to be that friend, so I decided one thing I could do was pray. As I prayed for my friend, I put myself in his shoes, and asked myself, “What I would have felt if I went through what he went through, and how would I have responded?”
In those prayers, God gave me perspective and compassion I couldn’t have gotten on my own. This changed my heart to really care for my friend.
If we want to be loving and compassionate, but don’t know how, one thing everyone can do is pray for our friends and put ourselves in their shoes. God can give us a new heart, if we ask him.
Pause and reflect
Who needs me to dig deeper, pray, and understand them?
“Good” = compassionate + grateful
“Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” Jesus asked. The man replied, “The one who showed him mercy.” Then Jesus said, “Yes, now go and do the same.”
Luke 10:36-37 NLT
The religious expert thought that he could be good in God’s sight if he followed a set of rules. According to him, the Samaritan was the unclean one, the impure one–he was flawed and inferior. Yet Jesus calls the Samaritan “Good,” showing us that being “good” is about being loving, not following the rules.
You might think that because you struggle to act like a “good” Christian, or to do all the things you think Christians are supposed to do, you can’t be one. But actually, our heart matters more than our religious behavior. Jesus asks us to be like the Good Samaritan, having compassion on and loving others, and that our religious behavior, how we look to people, or the title that we have don’t matter.
How gratitude changes our hearts and habits
One way I am learning to shift my focus from trying to be “good” to really loving people is by becoming more grateful. Gratitude is a powerful motivator. When we are truly grateful, things don’t feel so hard; a grateful heart just overflows with appreciation.
Gratitude for Jesus’ love for us is what should motivate us to no longer live for ourselves:
Either way, Christ’s love controls us. Since we believe that Christ died for all, we also believe that we have all died to our old life.  He died for everyone so that those who receive his new life will no longer live for themselves. Instead, they will live for Christ, who died and was raised for them.
2 Corinthians 5:14-15 NLT
Jesus loved each of us enough to give up his life for us so that we could have eternal life, even though we don’t deserve it. When we really appreciate that, we will want others to experience it too.
Pause and reflect
Do I see people who are in pain? Or do I get distracted by going through my habits?
What is something new I learned about God from this story?
Who am I going to decide to love this week?
At the end of the day, God is looking for us to have a heart that wants to love him and others. God doesn’t look for us to never sin or to be perfect. It’s about having the right heart, not having the perfect behavior. In fact, even in those times where we feel down, guilty, or unworthy, God says we can still choose to love!