I came across the following remark in the forum of another Christian blog: “I have lost all respect for churches that have turned away from the most important commandment – love.”
Thirty-some years ago, if such a remark were made, you could assume the lament was directed at church people who were rude and needed to straighten out. They were gossipy and petty. They needed to turn back to a life of love again. The complaint could be understood simply and at face value.
Today though, for someone to say churches have turned away from love, is to make a statement laden with political and social implications.
I’m afraid the word “love” itself has fallen prey to a culture with an appetite for easy labels and low information.
First to address whether love really is the most important commandment: This claim has merit. Jesus said the greatest commandment had to do with love. Paul said without love you’re nothing. Peter placed love at the mature end of spiritual development. John indicated that without love, you’re in darkness. In fact, John also wrote, “God is love.” The primacy of love isn’t a problem.
The real problem is treating the word “love” as though it has no surrounding context. In a contextual vacuum, it ends up a thought-terminating cliché. Untethered from any real meaning, love has drifted down into socially determined ideas of acceptance, affirmation, celebration, and buy-in.
Buy-in for what? Well, just about anything.
Additionally, love has become a term whose antonym, “hate,” has been borrowed by the political left to shame those on the right. Some sensitive souls in the faith have succumbed to these pressures, and surrendered important scriptural ground. They fear that they may indeed be running afoul of the central virtue of Christianity—love—if they continue adhering to biblical standards.
To be clear, as long as love means “It’s all good,” we know we’re not dealing with something in the Bible. It’s not the love commanded by God, nor modeled by Christ on the cross, nor taught by the apostles.
First, our love for people must submit to our love for God. Yes, Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). But the larger context shows how He had just previously taught an even greater, superseding commandment—”You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’ (Mark 12:30).
If love for your neighbor causes you to shelve your obedience and loyalty to God, you’ve run off the rails. You’ve gotten it wrong. You’ve turned your neighbor into God and demoted God to the level of a neighbor. It’s a strange kind of idolatry—loving and honoring humans more than God—and perhaps it is the “noblest” idolatry of all. We could use our application of Christian love to deny the very truth of God’s holy character.
Worse, such sentimentality postpones, if not cancels, the possibility of repentance and redemption in someone’s life. They may feel comfortable and loved by you in the short-term without those “hard conversations,” and you may feel gratified as the enlightened sage, but eternal damage is being done to their soul. In considerations about love, the order is always God first, then your neighbors. Only then will you actually know how to love them.
But knowing the “how” of love in real-time relationships is more sticky than understanding the schematics of what comes first, second, or third. You see, people not only fall into the extremes of wrongly affirming and celebrating everything in the name of love. They can also slip into the trap of hating everybody in the name of God.
For instance, Jesus said for us to love our enemies. That includes us loving His enemies. This is where love requires robust emotional intelligence. Since we put God first, we naturally have a hard time with those who don’t. Christians, even serious ones, often fail here. We stew on other people’s shortcomings. But so do the liberal voices that lecture Christians about it. It seems to escape their notice that just because one can accuse others of being hateful doesn’t mean one is full of love. Folks hollering about love typically send self-contradictory messages.
Everybody has something to learn here. Love is neither religious lip service, nor is it a manipulative slogan for rallies and parades.
Take a look at how Paul unpacked the concept of love in 1 Corinthians 13. He finds it better to describe than to define:
4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant
5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful
From the description, love is eminently positive. For those who mistakenly see spiritual life as an exercise in being unpleasant and stiff, small and legal, we definitely want to take notes here. Paul seems to be saying “If you have love, then you’ll get over yourself.”
Then he moves on to this thought:
6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.
Sometimes love does not celebrate. It can’t rejoice over sin. It can’t be happy with things God has pronounced as being wrong. If it is, then it’s a man-made product, not divine.
Paul’s remarkable description provides us a way to navigate through difficult relationships with people. For, at the very same time as we refuse to rejoice with someone in their sin, we can also feel kindness toward them. At the same moment as we see their resolve to remain in sinful patterns, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (v. 7).
This is not to minimize or condone a person’s wrongdoing; it is to bear their present circumstances while hoping for a repentant future. In doing so, we become their greatest advocates for a transformed, holy life.
Zealots of moral relativism have tried hard to suggest that to disagree with someone means you hate them. This approach plays on the tendency of people to adopt simplistic, emotional positions. It’s dishonest and misrepresents the love of God.
A good many years ago, a few guys followed Jesus in disagreeing with my language, my jokes, and my priorities. Simultaneously, they also followed Him in loving me.
I’m now over thirty years into the Christian life. Love won, but not on this sinner’s terms.