Over the past week evangelicalism has witnessed an intriguing exchange surrounding the LGBTQ issue. Briefly, it began when RNS posted an interview with Jen Hatmaker in which she affirmed the holiness of LGBT relationships, to which Rosaria Butterfield responded, to which RNS responded.
In reading these articles, and others like it, there seems to be a common confusion lining the discussion: What is love? What is unloving? What criteria determines if something is loving or not? Often the unloving penalty flag is (unlovingly) thrown into the mix of these conversations. It’s not possible to dissect all the issues. But briefly, it’s worth pushing pause and examining what we often label “loving” and “unloving.”
Individuals are correct when they insist on the priority of love. “For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal. 5:14). All that God commands is summed up in love. But this demands a question: why should the God of the Bible serve as the standard for love, or anything for that matter? After all, while my unregenerate friend agrees that love is priority, he would take issue with the proposition that the God of the Bible is the standard and definer of love. On one hand, the answer involves a study of Bibliology; matters pertaining to the revelation, inspiration, inerrancy, and canonicity of the Bible. This article assumes these things. If needed, one might begin familiarizing themselves on those topics here and here.
With that premise, we can move forward. Consider for a moment what happens if I do not have an objective standard on what is and is not love. Love will be interpreted as whatever feels loving to me or a particular subculture. The problem is that without an objective definition external to myself, I really have no absolute framework for love. Love becomes a matter of my perception. Which means love is determined by me, whose feet are planted in mid-air. In using my perceptions as love’s adjudicator, I am, in effect, saying, “I am the standard of love. In my being, I am the standard of love. In my thinking, feeling, and practice, I am absolute, pure love.” Thus, I have placed myself as the determiner and judge of what is and is not loving. In so doing, I assume the place of Absolute, which is to say, I am functionally operating as a self-appointed god. In that moment, I have nominated myself as the universe’s Sovereign and ascended to the throne for absolute adjudication. But, we, who are imperfect in love by nature and deed, dare not place ourselves in such a place.
I need to step off the throne. Practically, that will look like letting go of my perceptions, my feelings, and my opinions as the absolute determiner of what is loving. I need an objective standard. Even more, I need the standard from a source who has shown flawless love in word and deed. The only such source is the God of the Bible. “God is love…In this is love, not that we loved God, but that God loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sin” (1 John 4:8, 10). The One who created knows more about love than the one created. Further, the One abused by his enemies in order to redeem and reconcile his enemies; that One is love. So, when this God speaks, as he has in the 66 books of Scripture, his definition of love is love. It is objective; absolute; pure. Thus, it alone is the standard against which ideas of love must be compared.
With that, it’s worth taking a look at some common myths pertaining to love and the lack thereof in evangelicalism (errors which I have committed).
“Why do you need to say that I am wrong? Why can’t you be more loving and focus on the good?”
We often go wrong here because we have not started with God at the center in matters of belief. Though we may profess faith in God and belief in Scripture, when we cry foul on the grounds of another saying that we are wrong, we have, in that moment, abandoned that profession. If it is unloving to say I am wrong, then I have made myself the standard for belief. You claim that I am in error. I fire back that you are unloving. Why? I and my religious-spiritual-ethical opinions are functionally canonical. Love is determined, then, by whether or not you positively avow me in my belief. In other words, love is, negatively, when you refrain from correcting me, and, positively, when you participate in affirming me. If even for a moment, I have made my belief, and therefore myself, as the Absolute, which is to say, I have assumed the place of God. Nothing could be more unloving than that because I am placing myself in a position that is an infinitely beyond my very nature (thus, an infinite lie).
If it is unloving to say that another is wrong in their beliefs, then Jesus was radically unloving. In fact, in religious, moral, and spiritual matters, he assumed that he was the one who is right and against whom all belief is to be measured (cf. John 14:6, 18:37). Christ’s motto was not, “Whatever is comfortable for you is the way, the truth, and the life,” but, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). This is never a permission slip to pelt people from my hobby horse issue. Correction must be done with humility, gentleness, and care for the individual (cf. 2 Tim. 2:25). But much of Jesus’ ministry involved correcting wrong belief.
Myth #2: Confronting another’s sin is unloving.
“How unloving of you to come to me and play judge over me and my personal life. God is love and you should try to be also.”
Typically these situations are interpreted as unloving because of a misunderstanding or rejection of what constitutes sin. Again, we start with the Absolute; with God. No human being is fit to define sin because he himself is not only finite and limited, but imperfect in nature and conduct. In other words, he is sinful (cf. Rom. 3:23). The definition of sin is not societal construct, but a divine constant. As soon as we allow sub-culture, society, or the individual to determine sin, then we have made sub-culture or society or the individual God.
Further, if I cry foul on the basis of confronting my attitudes or actions alone, I have made an implicitly blasphemous statement about myself. Though unspoken, I have said, “You disagree with my attitude/action. To do so is unloving because nothing about me is wrong. My attitude/action is impeccable. The only impeccable being is God, thus, I am equal to God, which is to say, ‘I am God.’”
Now, confronting sin could be unloving, but not because the act of confronting sin is inherently unloving. Passages such as Proverbs 27:5-6, Matthew 18:15, Galatians 6:1-3, and Hebrews 3:12-14 command doing so. Assuming there is actual sin as Scripture defines, it would not be the confronting but the method of doing so. For example, if I confront sin with hate in my heart towards the individual, the method would be unloving, though the confronting still necessary.
Finally, if it is unloving to confront sin, then Jesus is hateful on at least three accounts. First, we observe him confronting sin during his earthly ministry (e.g. Matt. 9:13, 12:39; John 4:18). Second, all Scripture comes from God and Scripture confronts our sin (cf. Heb. 4:12). Third, Scripture not only confronts our sin, but, again, commands us to do so with one another (e.g. Lev. 19:17, Prov. 27:5-6, Matt. 18:15-17, Gal. 6:1-3, Heb. 3:12-14). But Jesus was impeccable in love, of course. Thus, confronting sin biblically is inherently a loving act.
Myth #3: Making someone uncomfortable is unloving.
“What you are doing is not loving because it is not helping me feel welcomed.”
“You are pushing me to do something that is uncomfortable. Stop being so unloving.”
When we play the unloving card on the grounds of discomfort, we have positioned ourselves into the standard. In effect, we are saying, “Whether physically, emotionally, or socially, you have discomforted me. That is wrong because my comfort is of utmost importance. If you fail to preserve it, you are in violation. Since my comfort is of utmost importance, I am of utmost importance. Since I am of utmost importance, then I am the Absolute. And you are prohibited from violating the Absolute.” In that mindset, I function with a narcissistic re-interpretation of 1 Corinthians 10:31: “Whether, then, you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the preservation of my comfort.”
Times exist when we will be greatly loved by being made uncomfortable. Physically speaking for example, my cardio-thoracic surgeon made me quite uncomfortable consequent of splitting me open like an oyster, stopping my heart, and replacing my ascending aorta. However, it was loving of him to do so because he saved my life. Spiritually speaking, for example, it may be uncomfortable for unregenerate be told that they must turn from their sin and embrace Christ as Lord and Savior for reconciliation to God. However, it is extremely loving to do so because, should they heed the counsel, God’s word assures that they will be forever spared eternity in the unbearable torments of hell (cf. Rom. 5:9). For believers, we are commanded to, at times, lovingly discomfort one another so that we would do things like turn from sin (e.g. Matt. 18:15-17) and progress in performing love and good deeds (e.g. Heb. 10:24).
If it is unloving to make another uncomfortable, then Jesus failed to love. He made, and continues to make, countless individuals uncomfortable in various ways. For example, he commands us to the frequent discomfort of living by things unseen and unfelt instead of the felt and seen (2 Cor. 5:7). He commands the discomfort of denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following him (Luke 9:23). However, for those who love him, every instance of discomfort will work for good (Rom. 8:28). And blessed are all those who walk in his ways, no matter how uncomfortable (cf. Ps. 128:1-2). Additionally, should individuals respond in repentance and obedience to the discomfort of his commands to repent, they will be made eternally and infinitely comfortable (e.g. Rev. 21:1-7). Christianity’s ethic is higher than comfort, though comfort is assured in the end.
Myth #4: Not letting me be me is unloving.
“If you were loving, you would accept me for who I am/God created me to be. Why can’t you just let me be me? What happened to unconditional love?”
Those who insist that love lets me be me maintain a deeper error than misdefining love. The error pertains to the individual’s understanding of themselves. At least in those moments where the unloving penalty flag is thrown, the assumption is that I am not in need of change because I am the standard. Though not spoken, perhaps, the individual operates as the Absolute by which others are to be measured. “You must let me be me because I am the human prototype. If love is you letting me be me, then my definition of love is when you join me in affirming me as that prototype.” Love is you joining me in worshiping me as a god.
However, you must only let me be me if God says that the thing about me is not in need of transformation. Insisting otherwise is to place myself in a seat superior to God. It is, in effect, to disapprove of God being God, and insist that, while he must let me be me, he is not permitted to be him.
When it comes to our need for personal transformation, God is gracious in these matters. However, grace is not permission to persist as the flawed me (cf. Rom. 6:1-2), but to confess and turn to Christ for his gracious power in change.
Finally, if it is unloving to not let me be me, then Jesus was one of the most unloving individuals in history. His message was never, “Because I love you, I have come to let you be you.” If it was, then his entire ministry (especially the cross) was useless. Instead, he assumed the Bible’s understanding of sin and human flaw and the need for judicial forgiveness and transformation therefrom. Christ called humanity to hate anything about themselves contrary to his desires (Luke 14:26) and leave it behind (Matt. 16:24-26). His message was not that we should celebrate, but mourn, everything about oneself differing from the Bible’s commands for human ethics in attitude and action (cf. Matt. 5:3-4, Jas. 4:9). Christ pronounced blessing on those, not who were satisfied with who they were (whether they perceived that they were made that way or not), but who had a famished-like hunger to match the Bible’s standards for personal character and conduct (cf. Matt 5:6). Thus, it is loving to not let me be me. Like the rest of humanity, I am cursed with sin and in desperate need of regeneration and sanctification.
Myth #5: Disrupting another’s feelings is unloving.
“My feelings are hurt because of what you said/did. That was pretty offensive. How could you be so unloving?”
In a day of hyper-individualism, this is common. The claim here is that if I feel hurt by you, then you must have done something that is unloving. But that logic exalts my feelings to an unwarranted place. My feelings become the standard of your conduct. If you disrupt them, you have sinned. Such an approach holds my feelings as Absolute, which is to hold myself as Absolute; as God.
If love is measured by my feelings, then God has miserably failed to love. Doubtful Jesus warmed Peter’s feelings when he called him Satan (Matt. 16:23). Upon seeing God in his holiness in the temple, coming to terms with his sinfulness, and having a sizzling coal put to his mouth, Isaiah probably did not feel warm and fuzzy inside (Isa. 6:5-6). The Apostle Paul did not likely feel happy when Christ knocked him to the ground and blinded him at his conversion (Acts 9:3-4), nor when he would not remove the thorn from his side (2 Cor. 12:7-10). We could also ask individuals like Noah, Jeremiah, Jonah, and Gideon about whether or not God always ensured their happy feelings.
We may never use these instances to cloak our lack of love; to uncompassionately approach people. Doing so is hateful. Instead, these examples are to demonstrate that our feelings are not the criteria of love.
Myth #6: It is unloving to counsel someone to live in a situation that would make their life, and others’ lives, difficult.
“What you are counseling me to do is going to make my life harder and really hurt this other individual. That cannot be loving.”
Underneath this idea is the assumption that love means making things easier for me. The end for which God created the world is avoiding personal difficulty. But sometimes, though difficulty is not the end goal, love will necessitate counseling another into a situation which will involve a substantial increase in struggle.
For example, to love individuals in a sinful relationship would mean counseling them to sever it. Things will likely get harder before easier. Similarly, turning from the sin of a two-year adulterous relationship will certainly make life harder for both individuals. There will be a fallout. Leaving a job which requires the violation of biblical principles in the area of finances will make life harder. Moving my family from a town where there is not a healthy church to a place where there is may require great difficulty. Counseling a spouse to continue living with their unregenerate, spouse who is hostile towards Christ and his church will mean a hard life.
If love is measured by creating an easier life for people, then Jesus is a failure. Of Paul, the Lord said, “I will show him he must suffer for My name’s sake” (Acts 9:16). Of believers in general, Scripture says, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:23). Indeed, to become a Christian is itself entering into a life that is likely more difficult (cf. Phil. 1:29). Thus, love may look like counseling individuals into a more difficult station of life.
Myth #7: Warning of potential consequences resulting from sinful attitudes and actions is unloving.
“I can’t believe you would be so unloving to tell me that this choice will put me in hell. That’s hate speech. I feel good about this and have a peace about it. Love lets live.”
Fueling this myth is the idea that, “If you loved me, you would let me continue in my current life trajectory unbothered.” As with the previous errors, defining love in these terms is to assert oneself to a position of deity. You are not to interrupt my trajectory. If you do, it can never be loving. Thus, my trajectory is the standard, whether or not I say so, which means I am the standard. Since any negative commentary otherwise is wrong, I am functioning as if I am deity.
Once again, if warning individuals that their sinful attitudes and actions could have grave consequences is unloving, Jesus is a love-failure par excellence. We need only mention Scripture’s many warnings about hell as the consequence for those who do not repent of sin and turn to Christ (cf. Matt. 3:12, 18:8, 25:41, 46; Rev. 20:11-15).
More examples of unloving myths could be cited. But if we are going to cry, “Unloving!” then we must do so objectively. Defining love in terms of the above carries deep problems. More than misdefining love, each of these myths errs on the nature of God and humanity. In each case, man places himself in the place of the Absolute; of God. But true love is defined and determined by God in accordance with his word. He who loved the unlovely is the absolute standard of love. On humanity’s part, we love because of his prior love (1 John 4:19). Love involves obedience to God’s word from the heart. Jesus said, “If you love me you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15, cf. 15:10). “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and observe His commandments” (1 John 5:2-3). From there, love goes outward with a heart of care and concern horizontally to others.