To read the Scriptures is to realize something very basic, very fundamental. This is, namely, that love is essential to the Christian faith. There can be no sincere expression of Christianity, no life in the Spirit, no transformation if it is not guided and led by love. It is God’s love, made manifest through His son, Christ Jesus, which saves (Jn. 3:16; Eph. 2:1-10), and it is love that we are called to, first for God and then our fellow man. (Matt. 22:37-38)
Yet, what this means, at least in a practical sense, is something that is widely debated, with a general underlying disagreement about what it means and, how it should ultimately find its expression, what it should look like in the life of the believer. In many senses, there seems to be a vast gulf that exists between these differing understandings as to what the manifestation of Christian love should look like as it is expressed in our culture and in our age.
This is not surprising. The Christian, transformed by the power of the Spirit, has a desire to be more like Christ. This creates in them a sincere desire to express the same love which our Savior first demonstrated. That love was, in many ways, in many senses, manifested itself in a way that was contrary to the dominant assumptions and convictions of His day, particularly as it was expressed by the religious community in Israel. This, in turn, calls the believer to a radical form of love. What it should look like though has caused considerable confusion and even conflict. This confusion has, in turn, opened the door to an incorrect understanding of what the Bible actually teaches regarding love, leading individuals down a path that deviates considerably from the scriptural manifestation of it.
This, then, leads to a number of inevitable questions, such as what do the Scriptures actually teach when it comes to a question of love? What is a biblical understanding of love based on the whole counsel of God? How does that compare then to our temporal understanding of love?
We struggle with these questions because, honestly, it is our nature to struggle with them. This is because of the simple fact that the scriptural understanding of love runs contrary to the world’s and, in turn, to our flesh. One dimension of love is seen or understood and, in that, is conformed to a more secular interpretation, but it ends up overshadowing every other aspect of it. This, in turn, overshadows every other aspect, making it difficult for us to recognize that there is anything beyond it.
Our Misunderstanding of Love
The reality of our misunderstanding of love is that it doesn’t necessarily come from a bad place. In fact, what we have to really recognize is that it comes from the best of intentions. This is, namely, a place of acceptance.
In the current cultural landscape amidst our post-modern world, love has become synonymous with the idea of acceptance. Quite often what we find is that the definition of love is so intertwined with the idea of acceptance that acceptance is viewed as being its ultimate manifestation. To this end, what it expects of us is that even when we don’t agree with someone or something, even when we find our deepest held beliefs or our most basic fundamental values are challenged, we must still be accepting. This way we don’t run the risk of making someone feel bad about any aspect of the choices they make or how it is that they live.
The opposite of this then is judgment. If any form of judgment is coupled with our love, then we must question if our love actually exists because it, ultimately, removes love from the equation. It is often seen as if that judgment is, after all, an expression of hatred. This can be seen, particularly, whenever a moral standard is applied to a situation, set of circumstances, or an individual. Here, judgment, however it comes, is viewed as being either an implicit or explicit attack against someone, which, in turn, demonstrates that the person who is exercising it is devoid of love.
In this sense, as unconditional acceptance is the manifestation of unconditional love, so unconditional tolerance becomes the manifestation of unconditional acceptance. Change becomes what can only be called a bad word, as to seek change in the individual means an unwillingness to accept them as they are and love for them. The unpardonable sin then becomes an unwillingness to recognize this. What happens then is that though the definition of love perhaps stays the same, the expression of it changes from something deeper and more meaningful into something shallow and superficial. Rather than having a focus on the eternal, it becomes obsessed with the momentary, reflective of a subjective understanding instead of objective truth.
This isn’t to say that acceptance is sinful or wrong. In fact, one can find any number of examples in the ministry of Christ where he accepts individuals as they are. He, after all, dined with sinners and tax collectors (Matt 9:10-17; Mk 2:15-22; Lk 5:29-36), he sits and talks with the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn. 4:1-26), and he stops the angry mob from stoning the woman who was caught in adultery. (Jn. 7-53-8-11) These are but a few stories that are found in the Scriptures that show the willingness of our Savior to, in love, accept. Yet, to accept this, and to understand this as the complete picture of what love is, as is demonstrated by Jesus, is to miss the larger understanding of what it is that the Bible teaches on this matter. This is namely that love is something more, something greater than mere acceptance, and deviates greatly from the idea of tolerance.
Love and Righteousness
When Christ heard the Pharisees ask why he dined with the sinners and the tax collectors, he had a simple response for them. This was namely that a doctor does not come to heal the healthy. Instead, he comes for the sick. (Matt. 9:12; Mk. 2:17; Lk 5:31) Likewise, when the crowd dispersed, and he was left alone with the woman caught in adultery, his response was for her to go and to sin no more. (Jn. 8:11) It was not that Christ simply accepted and, in that acceptance, tolerates.
The reality is that Christian love is intrinsically tied to the concept of righteousness. Christ, in describing himself as a physician, reflects on the broken and unhealthy nature of the human condition. The nature of sin, as it is, is a disease. Just as a physician accepts a patient, he does not tolerate the illness that afflicts them, so too it is with Christ, the physician of our souls. In love and mercy, he came to call sinners to repentance. His desire for them is that of conversion and transformation, whereby they leave their old life, one marked by iniquity, and they follow him.
What would set him apart from the Pharisees was not a willingness to tolerate the sinful behavior of the individual, or to ignore the wrong, to simply accept them as they are, with no real expectation of them. Rather, it would be his readiness to demonstrate mercy to them, to meet them where they were at in order to bring them to where it was that they needed to be. To sit with them and dine with them, he showed them understanding, and, in that understanding, he sought to call them to better. It is an idea that Augustine of Hippo expressed when he wrote “Cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum,” “With due love for mankind, and hatred for their vices.”
The principle here is one that is perhaps best explained by the German Martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, when he said, “Nothing can be more cruel than that leniency which abandons others to their sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than that severe reprimand which calls another Christian in one’s community back from the path of sin.” Christian love does not simply tolerate because to tolerate sin is an act of hatred against one’s neighbor. It is, after all, to leave them to their own condemnation, ignoring the sickness that is within them that they might die from it. That is a singular act of neglect and disregard that is, by its very nature, an act of hatred.
Now to live in this form of Christian love can seem hard, and harsh, even painful. That is to be expected because of the simple fact that Christian love, true Christian love is intended to call the individual to radical transformation, leaving behind the things of this world for the greater things of God. That cannot be achieved by staying silent or by compromising on biblical teachings. After all, as Paul reminds us, love doesn’t rejoice in wrongdoing but, rather, finds its joy in truth. (1 Cor. 13:6) Faith, without this love, is, ultimately, Nothing. (1 Cor. 13:1-3)
Setting Aside the Childish
These lessons of Christ call the Christian to an inevitable realization, a particular recognition. This is, namely, that love, as it is expressed in the Scripture requires a particular form of nuance. It is not a hammer we beat the individual over the head with in an attempt to drive our point home. Instead, it involves gentleness, kindness, and patience which is neither rude nor irritable. (1 Cor. 13:4-5) In calling the individual to truth, it does not do so in cruelty. Instead, it recognizes that love, in and of itself, is a process by which we tame ourselves in order to express every aspect of virtue and cast out all forms of vice.
Here, we come to realize then that we are not to be children, and, in this sense, we are to leave behind us childish things. As such, aspects of thinking, reasoning and emotionalism, understanding, and speech must be set aside as we mature in our faith, transcending the limitations imposed by inexperience and naivety. This, in turn, focuses our attention on the two objects of our love, God and our neighbor.
God, for His part, desires mercy. Through Christ, He calls us to serve others with a love that is genuine, rejecting evil while clinging to that which is good (Rom. 12:9), recognizing that love, without these aspects, is devoid of God and, in turn, is a fake, counterfeit by its very nature. This mercy is expressed by a willingness on the part of the Christian to live as Christ himself lived, calling the sinner to repentance through an acceptance which, in turn, requires change, which seeks to spur on genuine and sincere transformation in their life. As he is the surgeon, so then are we to be the nurses, seeking healing for the sin-sick soul.
This is because there are two objects of our love. First, it is God, and second, it is our neighbor. (Matt. 22:37-38) These two loves are intrinsically bound together. To love God is to love His creation, one’s neighbor, and to love one’s neighbor is to desire what is best for them, which is reconciliation to their Creator. This, in turn, means that there is a spiritual obligation, a familial obligation from our Heavenly Father to, when necessary, rebuke, reasoning frankly with them, because anything short of that is to demonstrate a hatred against them. (Lev. 19:17)
Invariably, this means that there will be a tension that exists as we accept the individual and yet desire a sincere change to occur within them, as we refuse to condone unrighteousness while seeking to call them to righteousness. This tension can’t force us to extremes, though, and that is where the problem lies. We allow for it to tear us apart, whereby we are either guided by extreme tolerance in the guise of acceptance, which provides for any unrighteousness to be allowed, or, on the other hand, a severe form of pharisaical self-righteousness that eventually becomes a disdain for others.
This means removing the childish, simplistic expressions of love guided by an emotional response to situations, circumstances, and individuals and, instead, allowing the Spirit to guide you to the proper discernment. This is done by working to align ourselves to God’s will through His Word, recognizing that the desire for righteousness is what guides love, Nothing more, Nothing less.
Undoubtedly when we practice this sort of love, it is going to put us at odds with the world, particularly a world where there no deviation is allowed from the secular view of love based on subjective feelings rather than objective truth. Yet, this is the love that we, as Christians, are called to make manifest in our lives, a love that serves, giving freely that it might seek the radical transformation of the individual. It is a gospel love that seeks to drive out vice and produces virtue, serving God and others as it rejoices in what is good, what is right, and what is just.
Let then your love bear all things. Let it be long-suffering. Let it stand against the tides of the present age, because when it is rooted in God, when the Spirit nurtures it, it will be strong enough to carry you through without being thrown to and fro. For whatever challenges it might bring or struggles that might arise, let the Scriptures guide your understanding, and let your love imitate that love first shown by Christ, reflecting a love for God in the love that you offer for your fellow man.
Lord, grant this unto us all…