The God of Love Compels Me

By LeAnn M. Van Cleef-Trimmer

The God of love compels leaders be an example of love to all, to respect free will, and to maintain opportunity for restoration.

My life as a Salvation Army officer provides almost daily interactions with people from broad spectrums of life. It is not unusual to start a day among leading business people from the community we serve and to go immediately into a room where there is a man just off the streets, “clean” enough to pass a urinalysis to enter our rehab program with the clothes on his back and little else. The disparities can be staggering and yet at the core the differences are more cosmetic than substantive. At the core, whether dressed in freshly pressed Armani or a second-hand pair of jeans that have been worn for days, these men are the same. Take away the props of wealth or poverty, the social acclaim or the disdain, the mass acceptance or rejection, and at the very core is an individual created in the image of God. At the very core is an individual who has every opportunity to be transformed by the love of God and to become the person that God envisioned he could be at conception. The hope of that truth is essential in the work to which God has called me.

In the earliest years of ministry, I made many mistakes, not necessarily in the mechanics of ministry. I was good at satisfying denominational expectations. The mistakes were in my thinking and in my understanding of my role as a pastor and minister of the gospel. In my immaturity, I imagined that it was somehow my job, my responsibility even, to size people up and “fix” the people that had been entrusted to my care. At this point in the journey, I can only laugh at myself, such hubris! And, such an unrealistic view of ministry and what God had really called me to; it was a self-imposed weight impossible to bear.

The journey from that place and time until now is too long a story to tell here. But the fundamental lessons I learned have shaped who I am and how I lead God’s people. The lessons can be summed up easily. The first, and most essential: God loves. God’s love is not dependent on human action or inaction. The second: I cannot “fix” people. I can love them, speak truth into their lives, and walk beside them, but never “fix” them. The third: God always honors human free will. That is so when we choose to follow God, and it is true when we choose disobedience. Finally, God never gives up and therefore calls me to walk a long road with people who will often disappoint.

When people come to a Salvation Army rehab, they often refer to it as the “last house on the block.” They have worn through the tolerance and good will of family and friends. They have lost job after job. They are well acquainted with the criminal justice system. Any shred of human dignity has been completely consumed by whatever addiction has taken hold of their lives. If they’ve been on the streets for any amount of time, they’ve become accustomed to being looked through, not hearing their name called, not experiencing human touch or healthy affection. If they’ve been in prison, they’ve learned to keep to themselves, protect their turf and not draw attention to themselves. They can run the litany of their own unworthiness more brutally than anyone else ever could. The notion that they are loved by anyone, much less the God of the universe, is completely out of reach. They can believe that God loves other people, even the guy in the bunk next to his. But that God loves him? That God loves her? The truth of God’s love has to be communicated through human agents. It is demonstrated first in the small things, by learning a person’s name, saying “hello” when walking by, shaking a hand. Simple kindness restores human dignity. The recovery world speaks about “the gift of desperation,” that place where people have nothing left so they are finally ready to accept the help of a power greater than themselves.

The challenge of wealth and success is often that wealthy and successful people are not quite so ready to acknowledge their own deficits, or their need for God. I come back to the thought that at the core we are all the same, and we all need the love and grace of God. It is often more difficult to communicate the need for grace to those who seem to have it all and with whom I interact from a place of asking for help. The approach is different, but the need to understand the love of God for them is the same. The need of the rehab client is obvious, the need of the Board Chairman is hidden under the trappings of success. Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25 NRSV). Christ compels me to share God’s love equally, to those who have and those who have not. The temptation is to overlook the less obvious need. God’s love for me compels me to share that love with others.

I am mother to three sons. If parenthood has taught me anything it is that I cannot control another human being. I can guide, teach, suggest, and provide structure and discipline. I can even coerce, threaten and punish. However, at the end of the day I cannot make another human being do what he or she choose not to. Free will is a reality of our humanity. The unhindered exercise of free will is a reality of God’s love. And this defines the joys and heartaches of leadership.

Christ calls us to minister his love to people who are gifted with free will. When those we serve choose to join their mind with the mind of Christ, pursuing God’s will and purpose for their lives, it is the source of great joy. These people are planted deeply in my heart and mind. These are the people God uses to encourage me to continue to serve.

And when they choose a path that is marked by self-destruction? A path marked by pain? What then? The painful truth is that we must leave people to the consequences of their own choices…while continuing to love. In the parable of the Prodigal Son, we see the example: the father gives the younger son his share of the inheritance and lets him go. We don’t know for certain, but I can guess that the father knew roughly where his son was located. He didn’t rescue him, didn’t interfere, and he waited. He left a door open for him to return and when the son made his way home, the father ran to meet him. We cannot choose for people, we cannot make them choose life, we cannot force them to be Christ followers, but we can leave a door open. And when they make their way back, when they turn around and choose life, we can welcome them with open arms and remind them they are loved and that God has a better way.

My husband, Darren, and I are different. We joked that the recessional at our wedding should be the theme from “The Odd Couple”. We complement one another in all the right ways, and he is my daily example of extending God’s grace to others and walking a long road with people. Darren does not give up on people, he doesn’t rescue them, doesn’t make excuses for them, but he continues to see the faintest remnant of the image of God in people. As we minister together, when I am ready to write someone off, my husband reminds me that we do not give up, because God does not give up.

I am reminded of Robert. Robert completed a Salvation Army program, came to church and maintained his sobriety for a while. He made some dicey choices; Darren kept speaking truth in love. Robert made more bad choices, leading to relapse. He would show up at the church demanding help. Darren would meet with him, speak truth in love, and not give what Robert demanded. When he got to the end of his run, Robert parked next to the church and passed out. The next morning Darren made sure he got to detox. Robert went back through the rehab program and his life was completely transformed. Love doesn’t give up.

I am also reminded of Gerry who served on our community Advisory Board. Gerry came up poor, The Salvation Army had helped his family when he was a kid and he never forgot it. Gerry served on the City Council; he had made good. He died quite unexpectedly. We were never sure where he stood in his relationship with God. It was never a conversation Gerry was interested in having.

Ultimately, my life, my leadership of others must be defined by love. It does not matter; it cannot matter, whether I am relating to a homeless addict or a CEO. The love of God, the God of love compels me.

LeAnn Van Cleef-Trimmer has served as a Salvation Army officer for 29 years, in congregational ministry and leading Adult Rehabilitation Centers with her husband and partner in ministry Darren. She earned her M.Div. from Northwest Nazarene University. The joys of her life are her three sons and one beautiful granddaughter.