June 28, 2009 by

Dangerous Thoughts About Love


Categories: food for thought, link love

If you want to know why sometimes I like to make your brain hurt…blame people like Erin. Her blog is often quite thought-provoking–like this post about love and breaking the law. In it, she postulates that when it comes to a choice between showing love and keeping and honoring the Law (i.e., the Law of Moses), showing love and mercy should take precedence–even if it means breaking the Law on that point. (There’s a whole thought process behind that conclusion in her post, so please read it in context before judging the validity of the statement.)

I figure if people like Erin can make my brain hurt on a Sunday morning, why keep the brain-pain all to myself? 🙂

Now, I’m not really grappling too much with whether the conclusion is true–I was able to form an opinion about it–but I am pondering the whole thing we Christians struggle with so often, balancing Law and Grace in the Scriptures, and where Love fits into all of it. Most of us understand that sin is bad, but we differ on what to do about it–because Law indicates that sin needs to be confronted and dealt with, while grace and mercy seem to let it pass, claiming that the blood of Christ covers it. Law and grace appear to be at opposite ends of a spectrum, which creates a whole spectrum of response among us–the extremes being either total legalism or blatant permissiveness. Does grace supersede the law? What about Jesus saying He came to fulfill the law? Heck, why did we even keep the Old Testament if it’s going to cause this much trouble? 🙂 You get the point.

What I am pondering is that between the apparent contradictions of Law and Grace is a single constant–love. The Bible tells us that God is love, and also lets us know that God never changes, but is the same “yesterday, today, and forever.” So if God is love, He always has been love. God was love when He spoke the world into existence; He is love when He shows grace and mercy for our sin; He was love when He hung on a cross; He was love when He gave the Law of Moses; and like it or not–He was even love when he brought judgment upon nations, when He drove Israel into exile, when He brought a flood that killed all but a few humans. All of it was done by a God of love, and thus, I believe all of it was done with a redemptive purpose in mind for mankind.

What does this have to do with Law and Grace? Why is it important? Because I think the primary disconnect between the extremes is that we try to frame with our own reasoning what love is, and what love will and will not do. We define love on our own terms, and try to define God by those same terms–rather than see God for who He is and let Him paint the picture of love for us.

It comes out like this: “I just can’t believe that a God of love would… [fill in the blank].”

There are those who see love and mercy as nearly synonymous, and reason that love will always be “nice” and show mercy, even when the law says sin should be confronted. These folks often focus on the idea that New Testament grace frees us from the Law, and that it is better to show kindness and tolerance in the face of sin. They (rightly) see how many times we Christians alienate the people around us by focusing on the wrongness of their sins instead of demonstrating the mercy and grace of Christ.

On the other hand, there are those who see only the harsh and severe side of love. They cannot believe a loving God would NOT confront sin, because sin is such a cancer to mankind. They tend to focus on the fact that Jesus came to fulfill the Law, not do away with it, and that forgiveness for sin does not equal permission to sin. They tend to interpret acts of grace and mercy as permissiveness, and even go so far as to suggest that refusing to confront sin enables people on their path toward hell. They see love almost as a search-and-rescue effort.

So who is right? They both are–to a point.

Here’s how Paul put it: “Behold, then, the kindness and severity of God.”

What I’m saying here is that we cannot define love by the actions that most suit us. Just as God cannot be boxed in…in many ways, neither can love. We cannot define God by our own definition of love, because we are bound to be inaccurate. We must accept the paradox that a loving God both judges and shows mercy, and be okay with the bigness and mystery of that.

So where does that leave us? How do we respond in love? With grace? Or with judgment? How can we even know what love looks like if we can’t definitively say what love would or wouldn’t do??

Thankfully, there’s another element of love that can serve as a guide for us…and that’s the realization that love gives, that love looks outward, not inward. That love always does what is best for the other person. Perhaps this is what Paul meant in Ephesians 5:2, when he referred to love not as a feeling to have or an action to take–but something we must walk in. In other words–something we must live with, interact with. No pat answers. Moment to moment, we must be sensitive to God and to one another.

I happen to believe that the opposite of love is not hate. I believe the opposite of love is selfishness. And that, I believe, is the key ingredient to understanding love, and what it looks like in any situation. Love is always looking out for the other person’s good, and what is needed in that moment to help them come closer to God, and closer to healing. Sometimes that might look like a merciful embrace, and sometimes it might look like a kick in the pants. But if it is the response of love that reflects God…it will always, always be redemptive in purpose.

The reason this is so important is that far too often, we think we are responding in the best interests of the other person, when really we are doing it for ourselves. People who are excessively harsh and legalistic about sin are quite often acting out of their own hatred for sin, and quite often because they haven’t got control of sin in their own lives. And people who want to show mercy all the time are quite often uncomfortable with confrontation, or are perhaps very aware of their own need for mercy and acceptance. (These are examples, not generalizations; everyone is a bit different.) And both approaches can very easily say they are responding in the name of love, because they can find examples where God acted accordingly, and it reinforces their argument. But at heart–love might not be the motivation at all; we’re just gravitating to the expression of love that makes us most comfortable. In other words–our actions are based more on us than on the other person. That is essentially selfishness, disguised as love; and because it isn’t really taking the other person into account, it is apt to be the wrong response.

In my own life following Christ, I’ve experienced God in both capacities. I’ve felt Him show me great mercy in the face of my brokenness; and I’ve felt His discipline in moments where my sin needed to be exposed and confronted. But in both responses, I’ve come away from the experience with the strong sense that I am utterly loved. This is how I recognize God in it–not in the action itself, but in the love behind it. I know that God is responding to me, not according to a specific protocol or rule book, but according to the need of the moment. I am thought of, considered, and known. And this, to me, serves as my best example of how I should respond to others in their brokenness–not by a rule book, not as a referee, but seeking to know that person, and to be sensitive to the need of the moment.

And for that matter…to try and be aware of what God is up to in that person’s life–and not get in His way. 🙂

If you think of it, this is a consistent theme through Scripture, that the more we love (God and others), the less we need the Law to guard our boundaries or tell us what to do. If Erin is right that this is a process toward maturity (again, read her post to understand), then it follows that love is the fruit of that maturity. It seems throughout the Bible that God would much rather have us walk along closely with Him than have us skirting the fences to see what lines we can legally cross. When you’re close to His heart, the rules become irrelevant.

So with all this rambling on…what do I think of Erin’s conclusion above? I think, at heart, she is right. If we must choose between acting in love and following the letter of the Law, love becomes the priority, the trump card. But then again, those two will not of necessity be opposite choices. I think it is equally important to understand the nature of love–that, like God, we recognize the need of the moment, and do for that person, not what is easiest, nor what is nicest…but always what is best.

Musician. Composer. Recovering perfectionist. Minister-in-transition. Lover of puns. Hijacker of rock song references. Questioner of the status quo. I'm not really a rebel. Just a sincere Christ-follower with a thirst for significance that gets me into trouble. My quest has taken me over the fence of institutional Christianity. Here are some of my random thoughts along the way. Read along, join in the conversation. Just be nice.

5 Responses to Dangerous Thoughts About Love

  1. Sarah

    Thoughtful post, as usual. I like what you've said about our tendency to understand "love" according to our own boundaries of what we would personally consider loving or not.

    I look at the life of Jesus and how he responded to different people. (Because, after all, I've "seen the Father" having seen Jesus).

    For a lot of people who were living in gross sin, Jesus didn't address their sin or speak to it much. Zacheus, for example. He mentioned it briefly for the woman caught in adultery, but it wasn't the main point of his exchange with her.

    The sins he tended to address directly were largely the sins of the religious. Woe to you… who do this, and this and this.

    I have found this to be true in my own personal experience with Him as well. When I was hiding from Him in rebellion, it was love and mercy that restored me to Him. When I was hiding from Him in religion, it was discipline and Him calling me on the carpet that restored me to Him. Interesting, isn't it?

  2. Jeff McQ

    I really appreciate your insights here. I have noticed much the same things about Jesus–that the only people He really overtly confronted were the religious ones.

    I knew a preacher who based his entire in-your-face approach to the gospel on Peter's sermon in Acts 2, which was quite confrontational. He did not take into account that Peter's audience was primarily religious folk–Jews who had made pilgrimage for Pentecost. But he insisted on this one-size-fits-all approach. But as we know, and as Jesus demonstrated–love responds according to the need of the moment, not according to formula.

    And that means love requires a bit more effort on our part. 🙂 Good thoughts!

  3. Kari

    Sarah, what great insight!
    Jeff, I agree with this post. I am hesitant to guess who is "going to hell" and who is "obviously" saved. The kids ask about it and I just shudder.
    and yet…I get that a lot from the folks at work. How could a loving God allow…(evil) basically.
    I read C.S. Lewis etc. but it is so hard to explain. I wonder if I am doing more harm than good by expressing my doubt to unbelievers? Yet, I cannot in honesty say anymore than, I don't always understand it myself and I do trust that God knows what he is doing. He does not have to do what I aprove of.

  4. Erin

    Hi Jeff, I've been meaning to comment on this, but didn't have time before now. Thanks for the link!

    For one thing, I can't forget how Jesus and his disciples picked grain on the Sabbath and were chastised for it. He says "One greater than the temple is here." and "I desire mercy, not sacrifice". In other words, Jesus takes precedence over the law, and if he thought it was merciful to "work" on the Sabbath by picking grain because the disciples were hungry, it was the right thing even as contrary to the law.

    But I don't know that he was saying it was OK that the law was broken, but rather that maybe they had missed the spirit in trying to keep the letter. In any case, it seems to me he clearly said that what was merciful was more important than what was "lawful".

    I don't think I can comment on the tension between judgement and mercy, that would be an entire post. But I like what you have said.


  5. Jeff McQ

    Thanks for chiming in. I would add that not only does God not have to act by our standards…neither does He need defending. One thing I've learned is that true faith involves a trust when you *don't* understand (or can't explain it to others). So often we treat God and the gospel as if people would accept them if we could just logically explain them. The truth is, the living out of our trust in Jesus goes much farther in promoting the gospel than all the things we cannot explain.

    Thanks for the comment. My take on Jesus' apparent transgressions of the Law is that, like you, I don't know if I'd take it far enough to say that Jesus was promoting the breaking of the Law…but in some ways, I think that might not even be the point. Jesus said He didn't come to abolish the Law, but fulfill it; so whatever He did or didn't do to measure up to the standards of the religious…I think He was interpreting and demonstrating the heart of His own Law. 🙂 So much of the rules and regulations by that time were Jewish interpretations and add-ons to the Law itself, and even the different rabbis would have different views on what was "work" on the Sabbath.

    Even so…if Jesus was the fulfillment of the Law, it was as if by doing these kinds of things, He was trying to say, "Okay, I'm here among you; you can stop looking at the Law now; just follow Me."

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