CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Love Actually, Biblically Speaking

Dec 21, 2016

There is no question that the word “love” is one of the most misunderstood, mangled and abused words going around today – at least in the West. And worse yet, this would be fully true of countless Western Christians as well. They have gutted the biblical content of this word and filled it with the world’s trendy and faulty understanding of it.

They may not take it to mean mere lust, as so many folks do, but they do basically think of it in terms of emotions and feelings. Thus the “loving” thing to do is whatever makes you feel good. And it would never mean making someone else feel uncomfortable or uneasy or unhappy. Love would never offend anyone they think.

But hopefully you can see here what is so very wrong with this: they have stripped love entirely of its biblical content. Primarily, they have thought they could divorce love from truth. But there is no such thing as biblical love which is separated from the truth. Biblical love will often involve something we easily shrink back from: confrontation and truth-telling.

love-9Sharing truth so often offends others. It so often upsets others. It so often grieves others. That is because most people prefer living a lie, and when they are exposed to the truth, that gets them very upset. That is just what Jesus said in John 3:19-21:

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

Biblical love is about willing the highest good of the other person. And that can often entail confrontation. As C. S. Lewis put it, “Love is not affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained.” And this kind of love will involve truth telling.

Telling the truth may hurt people, but if you really love someone, you will prefer that they are hurt with the truth instead of allowing them to live in falsehood and deception. As Paul Washer said, “Truth is meant to wound.” If you want people simply to like you, do not tell them the truth. But if you love them, you will tell them the truth, even if it is painful and offensive to them.

This is real love, and this is how it operates in everyday life as well. It hurts to be told by your doctor that you have a deadly cancer growing in your body, and that only radical invasive surgery can stop it. But such truth is the most loving thing the doctor can say. Imagine if he said nothing because he did not want to upset you or hurt your feelings?

When a sinner is heading to a lost eternity, or a believer is allowing sin free reign in his life, the most loving thing the Christian can do is speak the truth and warn them about their perilous condition. Saying nothing is not being loving in such cases – it is in fact being hateful.

So real love will often hurt others – but for their good. And often for their eternal good. Of course we are told to speak the truth in love, and godly confrontation should be done prayerfully, carefully, humbly and with tears. It should grieve us to do so just as it grieved Paul.

Plenty of biblical passages could be appealed to here on all this. One obvious text is Galatians 4:16: “Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?” Paul had to confront the Galatians, and it got many folks quite upset. But Paul had a divine obligation to stand up for truth and confront falsehood.

Let me concentrate on just one other text, also from Paul. I refer to 2 Corinthians 7:8-10 which says this:

Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while—yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.

Here Paul rebuked the Corinthians because of some sin issue, and he did so because he cared about them. He loved them enough to tell them the truth. This would have been risky for Paul of course. They could have gotten all bent out of shape and told Paul to get lost.

They could have gotten so offended and upset that fellowship would have been broken. But Paul knew what had to be done – this was just too important to remain silent about. He knew that he had to ruffle some feathers and rock the boat. True love meant that he had to do this.

And sure enough, they did get upset. They were grieved and hurt and distressed. They had a very strong reaction to this (now lost) severe letter that had brought so many tears to Paul (2 Cor. 2:4). But thankfully his hard words of rebuke paid off, and the offenders repented and got back into a right relationship with God.

So Paul rejoices in the grief they had to go through. Getting back to the surgery imagery I used above, John Chrysostom wrote, “Like a father who watches his son being operated on, Paul rejoices not for the pain being inflicted but for the cure which is the ultimate result. He has no desire to cause harm for its own sake.”

Genuine love then sometimes involves being willing to hurt others for their ultimate good. I quite like what Sam Storms has said about this passage in his 2 volume set of meditations on 2 Corinthians: A Sincere and Pure Devotion to Christ (Crossway 2010). So let me quote a large slab of it here:

Often we excuse our failure to speak truth into a person’s life because of the pain and emotional discomfort it may cause them. We live under the assumption that genuine love will do whatever it can either to prevent or alleviate the immediate distress in the object of our affection. To permit their pain to continue, or to act in such a way that it might even increase, is in the minds of many misguided folk a sign of cold indifference at best, and calloused hatred at worst.
For example, we are told repeatedly today, both inside and outside the church, that if we love the homosexual we will accept their orientation and behavior and refrain from words of judgment or any suggestion that their lifestyle might be immoral. If we truly love the sincere Buddhist we will not speak ill of his faith or insist on the exclusivity of Christ, but bless him in his chosen path and embrace him as a child of God. If we truly love our professing Christian brother who has abandoned all local church life because of his disgust with its purported hypocrisy, or for some related reason, we will affirm his decision and wish him well during his time on the golf course or at Starbucks on Sunday morning.
All this reminds me of an interview I recently saw with James I. Packer concerning the reasons for his unwavering stance against the blessing of same-sex unions in the Anglican Church. Packer was asked if this was an expression of love. Yes, he replied, because true love would never tolerate or overlook a fault in the beloved that might well issue in their eternal ruin.
To ignore sin in the name of love is not only unbiblical, it also betrays the very nature of love itself which, by definition, always seeks the ultimate spiritual welfare of its object, even at the expense of immediate personal peace.
It’s also an act of cowardice. Confrontation is hard and we typically prefer finding a way to avoid it. Appealing to our “love” for the person as an excuse for not speaking biblical truth concerning their unrepentant sin is the worst and least loving thing one can do and displays a greater devotion to self than to the sinner. It means, in effect, that we prefer our own emotional peace and sense of well-being above their conformity to Christ and perhaps even their eternal destiny. That hardly qualifies as “love” in any language.

This is a lesson today’s believers surely need to learn. We have abandoned almost altogether the notions of loving rebuke and caring confrontation in particular, and church discipline in general. But if we claim to love as God loves, then we will be involved in all these things as we proclaim truth and seek the good of those we are in relationship with.

Biblical love involves confrontation and truth telling. It may involve more than this, but not less. Once again C. S. Lewis gets it right on such matters, so let me close by offering some great thoughts from his important volume, The Problem of Pain:

Love is something more stern than mere kindness. . . . There is kindness in Love: but Love and kindness are not coterminous, and where kindness (in the sense given above) is separated from the other elements of Love, it involves a certain fundamental indifference to its object, and even something like contempt of it. Kindness consents very readily to the removal of its object – we have all met people whose kindness to animals is constantly leading them to kill animals lest they should suffer. Kindness, merely as such, cares not whether its object becomes good or bad, provided only that it escapes suffering. As Scripture points out, it is bastards who are spoiled; the legitimate sons, who are to carry on the family tradition, are punished. It is for people whom we care nothing about that we demand happiness on any terms; with our friends, our lovers, our children, we are exacting and would rather see them suffer much than be happy in contemptible and estranging modes. If God is Love, He is, by definition, something more than mere kindness. And it appears, from all the records, that though He has often rebuked us and condemned us, He has never regarded us with contempt. He has paid us the intolerable compliment of loving us, in the deepest, most tragic, most inexorable sense.

[1797 words]

9 Responses to Love Actually, Biblically Speaking

  • Hi Bill, a very well balanced article. I particularly liked your references to C.S.Lewis, “The Problem of Pain”. Over the centuries, The Great Commision (Matt 28:18-20) has cost countless numbers Christ’s servants their lives as they have gone about spreading the Gospel to a hostile world, generation after generation. As Jesus’ second coming inexorably draws closer the climate for proclaiming The Gospel will only get tougher. Christ’s love for us sent Him to Calvary. Agape love is self sacrificial in reaching out to others. If Christ did it for us, as His servants, it’s the very least we can do in our service for Him. In season or out of season, we have to take whatever opportunities we can get. Good one Bill, regards, Kel.

  • Thank you Bill. Looking for a church to Pastor? We have one here who needs a gifted preacher like you! It is very nice to walk the streets at this time, engaging with folk and handing out tracts about “The Other Jesus” Even in our increasingly secular society, we still pause occasionally (at Christmas and Easter, for example) to remember Jesus Christ.

    Mind you, the Jesus we remember tends to be the stereotyped, airbrushed Jesus of the popular culture—the baby Jesus lying cute but harmless in a manger; or the gentle Jesus who walked the hills of Palestine and taught noble spiritual truths.

    But there is another side to Jesus that many people don’t know about. When we read the biographies of Jesus’ life (or ‘Gospels’), we discover a Jesus who is much more interesting, and more outrageous. This ‘other Jesus’ physically drives religious hypocrites out of the Jewish temple. He upsets people and divides families. He makes sweeping claims about himself and seems to think he is the answer to the world’s problems…many people I know need to know this Jesus and unless I tell them I don’t know how they will find out, that’s why I am handing out this message on our streets with an invitation to church. Lot’s of people are happy and more than willing to take one and read it, I pray some of these nice folk taking a message will come along to worship at Christmas and in 2017, though I learned at college that it takes around seven times before anybody takes up such an invitation.

    Perhaps the ‘other Jesus’ (you’ve) met in this brief article is a stranger (to you). Perhaps (you’ve) never taken the time to get to know him. If so, then maybe it’s time you did something about it, because your eternal destiny depends entirely upon him. One of the best ways to begin is to read one of the Gospels of Jesus; to find out for yourself if what I’ve been saying about him is true. For some easy (and free) ways to do this, go to: www.twowaystolive.com/otherjesus you can read the rest of the tract that lot’s of folk in town are taking home to read here so that our numbers may swell in order for us to afford a preacher like you Bill, thank you for all your articles that I’ve shared on google a lot. Blessings!

  • Yes Bill I think Real Love is a better descriptor than the popular Tough Love. One can be tough but not necessarily fully true to reality. In this is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the wrath bearer of our sins. Sometimes in order to love we need to reveal the wrath we have been hiding. Everyone of us has to face our required but denied status as the image of Love. Real love comes down from God via the judgment place of us – the Cross. Paul was stretched to be conformed to the death of Christ/the Love of God. Thanks again for talking on these subjects that are constantly contested in our lives as individual believers and corporately as the body of Christ.

  • Thanks Bill for this article, and C.S. Lewis quote re love involving kindness, but being much more than kindness.

    On speaking the truth in love, John Locke (1632-1704) asked that should his theology be wrong, he be put right “with a spirit of charity, and with words of sobriety”. (preface to the Reasonableness of Christianity)

    The war over marriage is about the difference between agape (self-sacrifice), and eros (self-gratification). The one-flesh union of a man a woman, the sine qua non of marriage, is a self-sacrificing love. During the marriage act, the most potent and explicit symbols of manhood and womanhood lose their separate identities, and are ‘locked’ together (hence ‘wedlock’). The spouses sacrifice their own lives to bring up the children who naturally result from their union. All other sexual acts and relationships are just self-gratifying lust.

  • Yes quite so Kelvin, Sandra, Robert and Michael!

  • They are some great words about marriage Michael Weeks! (your last paragraph).
    In a decent world they should be made into full page ads in the major newspapers for months!

  • Very helpful Bill. John Goldingay explains that in the Old Testament love means loyalty and commitment usually expressed in a covenant. Interestingly, given his many wives, it is never said of David that he loved anyone.

  • Picking up on what Clive Skewes had to say; “it is never said of David that he loved anyone”. I would highlight the relationship that David had with Saul’s son Jonathan. The bond that was between David & Jonathan could be called “brotherly love” . C.F. 2nd Sam. 1:26

  • The last paragraph in Michael’s comment, which I have just discovered, is an excellent summary that needs to be taught in our churches and schools.
    A lot of what the world and most of the media are pushing could be defined as child abuse, especially the lies in the safe schools program in many schools.

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