The Bible is full of commands to love. The two greatest commandments, and thus our two greatest obligations, are to love God and to love others. In I Corinthians 13, Paul basically says that no good deed is worth anything if it’s not done in love. It seems the world agrees with us in this at least, to judge by the popular songs calling for love and the crowds chanting, “Love trumps hate.” Are they not just restating Paul’s command to “overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21, KJV)? I think you’ll find that, examining Biblical love, the world’s version is actually a warped imitation of it.
The love that the Bible commands us to show is actually simply defined if complex in practice. Basically it wants the best for the object of its love, even if it involves sacrifice on the part of the lover. C.S. Lewis brilliantly explained how we are to love our enemies even when they’ve grievously offended us by looking at how he loved himself. He said that he angered himself at himself with his sins, but he never stopped wanting what was best for himself.
So what does that look like in practice? Love helps others to do things we can and they can’t (Galatians 6:2). It gives of its time and resources to those who are in need, even if those in need are the kind the world despises (James 1:27; Romans 12:16). It is hospitable (I Peter 4:9), though what constitutes hospitality might vary from occasion to occasion. In its speech, love is tactful, respectful, and edifying (I Corinthians 13:4-5; Colossians 4:6). You tell people in a considerate way what they need to know to build them up, not what you want to tell them to tear them or others down, as my pastor told me. It tries not to offend if at all possible and doesn’t impose conformity with its opinion upon others (Romans 14). It listens and tries to empathize with a person who has really good news or really bad news (Romans 12:15). Love is patient and overlooks little insults and injuries; it doesn’t like to be angry and tries to think the best of people (Proverbs 19:11; I Corinthians 13:5- see my prior post on the Judgment of Charity). It readily forgives and moves forward with the relationship without holding things over people (Ephesians 4:32). It doesn’t calculate what it can get or expect repayment (I Corinthians 13:5; Luke 6:35).
Now, so far, I’ve listed the virtues of love that only the most cantankerous, selfish people would object to. We all know we don’t live up to those standards, but I expect most of you would agree that they are all good. Well, here’s the one that people stumble over: while quick to forgive, love is also willing to rebuke (Matthew 18:15).
Here’s where the world parts company with love. Its version of love is apparently to make the other person happy at any price, and rebukes don’t make people happy, so they simply can’t be done. When a Christian says or does something in rebuke of another, you can see what the world’s love is truly like. The same people who tout, “Love trumps hate,” turn on the Internet or in the mail into the most hateful trolls, spewing death threats and maledictions against the Christian and their loved ones. They live out James’s observation that, “Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be” (3:10, KJV). They seem to want to be like the Byronic heroes who pervade our action movies who feel free to sink to the villain’s level as long as the villain does it first.
But is it really loving to allow someone to stay in gross sin just because it makes them happy? Love wants the other person to be happy, yes, but it wants a deeper, more fulfilling joy for the person. Let’s say you give vodka to an alcoholic. Now, they’re probably going to be happy with you, but you haven’t done what’s best for them. You’ve contributed to them living a life of wasted potential probably ending in an early grave (or someone else’s early grave if they go driving after drinking it). Whom are you really loving? I posit that you’re actually loving yourself when you put your cravings for their approval above their own well-being.
When you add God’s ineluctable judgment on sin into the equation, the stakes get infinitely higher. Rather than trying to keep an alcoholic from a simple hangover, you’re trying to save someone from an eternity of abject misery. How is it loving to let them go merrily off to Hell rather than risk them becoming angry with you? By the Biblical definition of seeking what’s best for them, you’ve failed to love them dismally.
Now, I grant that often the rebuking is not done in a loving way. This gives the world ammunition to use against Christians, even if they’d resent rebukes all the same. At any rate, there’s really no call for hateful rebukes from positions of moral superiority. The process Jesus prescribes in Matthew 18 makes it clear that we’re to keep this as private as possible. Even if it goes so far that the person must be put out of the Church, love is still the guiding principle, as Paul explains in I Corinthians 5. Most of all, the Church is to love God such that it doesn’t let it appear that He condones gross sin, then it is to love its members and remove the temptation from them. But, in the end, it also excommunicates the person so they’ll miss the benefits of Church and come to repentance. At no time is the goal of excommunication to destroy the person, contrary to the papacy’s practice during the Reformation. In II Corinthians 2, after the man who was guilty of incest repented, Paul tells them to receive him back into the fold.
In the New Testament, when Jesus and the Apostles issue rebukes in the form of invectives, it’s almost always against someone actively interfering with another’s salvation- i.e., false teachers and deceivers- and not, say, the sexually immoral. In fact, when Jesus deals with an adulterous woman in John 8, a loose Samaritan woman in John 4, and the sinful woman in Luke 7, He astounds everyone with His courtesy to them. Likewise, when Paul presents the Gospel to the Athenians, even though they’ve greatly distressed him with their idolatry, he observes the rhetorical format and devices they’d expect, compliments them on their zeal, and builds common ground by citing the poets they’ve all read. What Jesus and Paul don’t compromise in their attempts to reach out to people, however, is the command, “Go, and sin no more” (John 8:11, KJV).
Also, we can easily rebuke too much. There are plenty of people who will correct anything, be it a slip of etiquette, a spelling/grammar mistake, or something more serious. This is actually a bad idea for a few reasons. For one thing, you’ll make people uncomfortable and not want to be around you. For another, it’s counterproductive since it exhausts what I call your “critical capital.” If people come to see you as someone who criticizes everything, your opinion’s not going to count for as much when someone does something that actually does need criticizing. We all know the story of the little boy who cried wolf. Besides, it’s not good for you. I think constant criticism is what Jesus has in mind when He says, “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged, and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” (Matthew 7:1-2, KJV). In other words, if we want God to be patient with us, we should be patient with other.
I think we as a society have made compassion into an idol, and an idol made out of compassion is still an idol. In the name of compassion, we turn blind eyes to things God has forbidden to keep ourselves out of hot water and others happy. We thus love ourselves above Him. That kind of compassion is not pleasing in His sight. It’s not true Biblical love, and it’s not good for anyone involved.