As we endeavor to navigate a complicated culture, inevitably, we find ourselves accused.
Accused of things we do not do, accused of being people who we do not claim to be, and accused of positions we do not hold.
In the face of hot-button issues such as homosexual marriage, gender-neutrality, and abortion, Christians are often dismissed as being bigoted, intolerant, and unloving.
But such accusations are quite foreign to us, most often! I certainly would not place any fellow brothers and sisters with whom I have a personal relationship in one of these categories.
There are problematic outliers that we ought all to deal seriously with–fringe groups such as Westboro Baptist Church, Faithful Word Baptist Church, etc. But the vast majority of Christians are folks who have love for one another, and treat one another with respect.
This point should not be lost on anyone. God inspired John to write, “He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.”
And of course, Jesus Himself taught, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matthew 22:37-39).
One cannot help but wonder what the nature of love is. Is love always accepting and affirming? Does love deal primarily with people, or with actions? How can we be loving, yet propagators of difficult realities at the same time?
We’ll get to those questions. But before we do, let’s look at some biblical categories of love.
It is commonly understood that the English word “love”, in the Greek language, splits into four distinct words. Greek is a very precise language, and uses a very specific calculus to get ideas across. Even the “gender” of words matters a great deal in this language!
The four Greek words used to express love are:
- Eros — Meaning romantic or erotic love.
- Storge — Meaning familial or brotherly love.
- Phileo — Meaning friendly love.
- Agape — Meaning the love of God, or sacrificial love.
The vast majority of the biblical usage is found in a contrast between phileo love and agape love.
Did you notice something about the definitions above? Particularly–did you notice what is not being addressed?
We’ll deal with this in-depth in a few moments, but notice that behavior is not in view. We have here one of the most precise languages ever invented, and in each of its four uses for the word love, it is always persons that are in view–not behaviors.
The Bible is quite clear that, to the best of our ability, our love ought to mimic the love of God. That is the supreme love. If God’s love is sacrificial love, how much more should we take seriously the words of Jesus in John 15:13: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
We know that, for one to do that, he must be demonstrating the same category of love that God demonstrates–even though it would be impossible to love in the same degree.
In fact, we can see this clearly by looking at specific examples of interactions between the Godhead and human persons.
God the Father, dealing with the Israelites, demonstrates love over and over. This is simply the theme of the Hebrew Bible: God chooses Israel, they forsake His ways, He forgives and restores.
And yet, over and over, He exacts judgment on them for their actions. This must mean that God the Father is capable of loving persons without loving their performance.
What about Jesus?
Jesus is considered, even among the most die-hard atheists, as being the bastion of love and compassion–and yet, we see indicting responses like this across the New Testament: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves” (Matthew 23:15).
It certainly appears that Jesus was able to love people while condemning their performance.
Finally, we turn to the Holy Spirit. We know that the Spirit “helpeth our infirmities” and “maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Romans 8:26).
And yet, we also know that He will “reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment” (John 16:8).
One writer helpfully summarizes:
No amount of preaching, pleading, or pointing of fingers will bring about the conviction of sin, unless the Holy Spirit is at work in the sinner’s heart. It is the Spirit’s job to convict. And what is the most basic sin of which the world is guilty? Jesus specifies it as unbelief.
So, the Holy Spirit certainly loves persons, but is the very Agent which convicts the human heart of its sinful condition before God!
Therefore, it seems right to say that, biblically speaking, love has nothing to do with taking issue with the behavior of a person. Personhood is the motivator for love. Another point which makes this ultimately clear is the inability for one to work his way to God.
God gives grace and value in virtue of His image being placed on us. We have worth, because He has supreme worth.
Let’s expand on this a bit more.
Actions vs. People
The cultural push today is for acceptance. Everyone feels as though they are justified in taking whatever action, as long as it does not do “harm” to others.
On this point, even unbelievers turn into amateur exegetes, claiming a universal of application of Matthew 7:1: “Judge not!”, they cry.
For now, we’ll table the discussion about what that verse actually means (you probably already know anyway). Where the distinction lies in our culture is between characteristics that are essential to a person, vs. the kinds of things they do–actions, in other words.
But, if you ask students on most college campuses today, what you’ll find is a massive conflation of these two ideas. There is no distinction! It would be one thing if this conflation ended on college campuses, but it doesn’t.
It has even made its way into our American judicial system.
The Declaration of Independence states that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
These rights apply to men, according to the document–not their actions. One may be tempted to misconstrue the term “pursuit of happiness” to fit their subjective version of happiness, but this is not what the founders had in mind.
Professor Brent Strawn elaborates:
…the happiness of which the Declaration speaks is not simple, light and momentary pleasure à la some hedonic understandings of happiness (“do what feels right”; “if it makes you happy…”). In the Declaration, “the pursuit of happiness” is listed with the other “unalienable rights” of “life” and “liberty.” Those are qualities of existence, states of being. You are either alive or dead, free or enslaved.
But many today attempt to legislate the acceptance of the actions of a person.
Allow me to flesh this out with a poignant example.
Homosexual marriage was officially legalized across all 50 states, in the landmark 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision.
Here is a question for reflection: What was at stake in this case–injustice against the personhood of certain individuals, or acceptance of a particular action a certain group of individuals wants to take?
I’ve dealt much more specifically with this here, but a bit of careful thinking should make this obvious. Homosexual persons have always had the same rights as heterosexual persons, generally speaking.
If “marriage” is something in particular, and it is, then it cannot be redefined arbitrarily. It is the union of two biologically compatible persons. Boiled down, Jesus’ definition would be something like this: “One man, with one woman, becoming one flesh, for one lifetime.”1
By the way, since Jesus is God, then His definition is the one which matches reality. Biology simply stands in confirmation of this view, not to mention the harmful side effects (medically, culturally, etc.) that departure from this definition entails.
Nevertheless, it is quite possible to love a homosexual person without loving his or her choices or decisions. We exercise this sort of discernment all day every day, with persons whom we are in close contact with.
Looking back to the general principle, we should strive to make these careful distinctions, and help others to see them too. What may appear on the surface to be a case of “fairness” or “equality” may fall like a house of cards when the principle is applied to a situation in which the consequences are more obviously harmful.2
Helping vs. Hurting
Now that the general principle of what it means to love someone without condoning their actions is clear, let’s turn to some consequences.
Earlier I briefly mentioned that the metric of permissible action in today’s society is harm.
Essentially, if someone believes they can get away with something, and it won’t directly hurt someone else, they believe it is okay.
This “pragmatic” approach to morality and decision-making is extremely misguided, unfortunately. For example, what is meant by “harm”? This is a subjective term.
If a young, unmarried couple decides to take actions that eventually lead to the abortion of a unborn child, is that to be considered “harm”? It is to me. It is to many who have been through that experience and now regret it.
On a different level, but with painful consequences all the same, what about enablement?
What about the mother and father who never raise their children to think for themselves or take care of themselves? One obvious consequence is a society full of people who can’t–or, won’t–take care of themselves, placing the burden on society.
Another consequence is the families torn apart by children who leech off their parents well into adult years, to the disgust of their siblings.
This becomes a burden to everyone.
All that is to say this: There is a fine line between helping and hurting.
At some point, we have to be bold enough to say “I love you, but you’re wrong.”
Let that phrase sink in–“I love you, but you’re wrong.”
Loving a person, as we’ve seen, has absolutely zero to do with acceptance of their behavior.
And failure to make that distinction has been the cause of far more pain than had we been living in the light of this great truth all along.
Motivating Others to True Love
Knowing what we know now, and even having robust Scriptural support, how do we begin to foster this sort of environment?
Especially among believers, how can we get past the unfortunate stigma that in order to love someone, you must be “approving” of them?
Although this will not be exhaustive, here are a few practical suggestions:
#1. Embrace Your Union to Christ
I am in the middle of reading an excellent book by a relatively new author called, “Union with Christ: The Way to Know and enjoy God.”
The author argues that the heart of the gospel has been all but lost in the past two centuries, and is found in two little words used ad nauseum by the Apostle Paul: in Christ.
C.S. Lewis wrote of this, describing the believer to be taking part in the “divine dance” of the Trinity.
The whole dance, or drama, or pattern of this three-Personal life is to be played out in each one of us: or (putting it the other way round) each one of us has got to enter that pattern, take his place in that dance. There is no other way to the happiness for which we were made … Once a man is united to God, how could he not live forever? … But how is he to be united to God? How is it possible for us to be taken into the three-Personal life? … Now the whole offer which Christianity makes is this: that we can, if we let God have His way, come to share in the life of Christ. … The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else.
Why is this important?
Because our taking place in this “dance” allows to access the divine.
By that, I do not mean that we become “divine” in the sense that God is divine, but we are “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). And part of that divine nature is unconditional love–love that is rooted in personhood, as you’ll recall, rather than performance.
#2. Cultivate a Heart for Missions
By missions, I meant to convey the general idea of evangelism. Disciple-making, even more precisely.
As long as we have a burden for others to become like Christ (a bit more precise way of saying, “get saved”), God can use our lives to manifest and demonstrate true love.
Look–as Christians, we’ve got to the get to the place where we’re influencing our culture with true love. Not love that is fixated on the vain, but that is fixated on the virtue of being created in the image of Almighty God.
The culture around us is trapped in their own “vain imagination.” They live a lie because they feel as though all things are permissible. Of course, we are not in the business of behavior modification. That is the Holy Spirit’s job, make no mistake.
We’ve got to show that Christ–alone–is the answer. Calling others to true love, and loving others with true love is necessary to break the cultural stigma of Christian hatred and bigotry.
We stand firm on truth, while realizing the necessity of unconditional love towards image-bearers.
#3. Believe Christ can Change Anyone
Finally, we must believe that Christ can use our love-displaying, truth-claiming efforts to bring people to Himself, and to bring about the change only He can.
Sometimes, amazingly, we lose sight of what God has done in our lives!
If God can transform me, I ought to know He can transform somebody else!
And yet, sometimes, we live as though we forget it is possible.
It would serve us all well to reflect on the words of Paul in his letter to the Galatians:
I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.
What God has done for us, He can do for another. The best part? Each and every new disciple is another who learns the meaning of true love.
We can be kind and gracious towards others, all while not affirming harmful or sinful choices. God the Father is. Jesus Christ is. The Holy Spirit is.
Therefore, we must. Both our witnessing and our walk will be better for it.
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- My thanks to Greg Koukl for this helpful summary.
- Such as the marriage of a person to his dog, or to his daughter, for example.