True Love

Flickr photo by Sam Caplat

Flickr photo by Sam Caplat

This is the eighth in a series of essays on the topic of reconciliation. You will find links to the other articles at the bottom of this page.

Here’s a situation we have all found ourselves in at some point: an acquaintance says or does something with which you disagree. I don’t mean they say that Starbucks coffee is great and you think it’s overpriced, over-roasted sludge. I mean something important – something that gets your moral compass spinning. You like this person, or at the very least, you want them to like you. Instinctively, you know that telling them that you disagree will cause tension in the relationship. So do you inform them of your disagreement, do you say nothing and hope the subject will go away, or do you agree with them in order to make them happy?

Variations on this situation are playing out every day. The most popular response is probably to avoid responding to a person who disagrees with you. If they don’t force you to come out and make a decisive statement, why cause an unnecessary fight? If the issue isn’t that big of a deal, why make a mountain out of a mole hill?

Let’s take a rather benign example. Your friend informs you that they plan to cheat on a test. This is something which is clearly morally wrong. You would be hard pressed to find anyone who would say it is ok to cheat on tests, even if they might be willing to bend the rules for themselves (due to some extenuating circumstance, of course…). So are you going to tell your friend that they shouldn’t cheat on the test? They might have some bad things to say about you. Worse yet, they might stop being your friend. Now you have a broken relationship. Is it really worth it for the sake of moralizing?

If reconciliation is all about maintaining relationships and being willing to compromise, then it stands to reason that you might need to show grace to people despite their errors. Confronting them with the truth could do more harm than good. Why sacrifice everything for the sake of making a point?

Christ calls us to love one another. In a fallen world, loving one another means loving sinners, and that could mean tolerating sin. Only a self-righteous person would act as judge and jury over those around them. Judgment isn’t loving. Acceptance is loving. So I’ve been told…

But what of love? Is it loving to dismiss a person’s errors – whether of belief, action, or both – and grant them acceptance, even though you know they are in the wrong? Is it loving to tolerate something that you know goes against the commands of God? Must we pursue reconciliation at all costs, even if it means having fellowship with someone who is in unrepentant sin? Is that the meaning of love?

Ok, enough of this incessant questioning! Let’s hit on a really sensitive issue.

Plato and Aristotle having a disagreement in "The School of Athens" by Raphael, circa 1509-1511 (author photo)

Plato and Aristotle having a disagreement in “The School of Athens” by Raphael, circa 1509-1511 (author photo)

Say you are the parent of a teenage son. You have gone to great lengths to raise your child in a Christian manner. You have taught them biblical truths. Then one day your son comes to you and says, “Mom and dad, I have to tell you something, but before I do, I need to know that you will love me no matter what.”

“Of course we will!” you say. After all, you’ve loved this child since they were an embryo. You could love them even if they murdered someone. You never knew that you could love anyone like this until they arrived.

“I’m in love,” your son tells you.

“That’s great!” you reply.

“Yes, but I’m in love with a guy,” he responds. “I’ve known it for a while, but now I can finally say it: I’m gay.”

How do you respond to this statement? You’ve read the Bible, and it condemns homosexual behavior. Yes, you have to admit that the Old Testament has some weird commands, many of which were not extended to the Church post-Law of Moses. But this command is repeated in several books – several New Testament books. Your conscience is telling you that, while it may not be a sin to have homosexual feelings, actively pursuing a sexual relationship with someone of the same gender is a sin.

Perhaps you say something like this. “Son, we still love you, and we always will. We want to support you in any way we can, but we do have to say that we believe homosexual relationships go against God’s command.”

“If you loved me, you would understand!” he says. “If you loved me, you would accept me the way I was born! God may love me, but now I see that you don’t.”

Those of us who haven’t had this kind of conversation with our own child probably know someone who has. So is the son right? Is calling his behavior (or at least the behavior he desires) a sin really unloving? Is it possible to love someone and disapprove of something so intrinsic to who they are?

There are plenty of people who would say that yes, it is unloving to tell someone that their sexual behavior is a sin. In fact, in the United States today, it’s not just a person’s opinions on the legal system or the things they speak into a megaphone that are deemed to be intolerant. Simply holding the belief that homosexual behavior is wrong is enough to get yourself labelled as “intolerant”, “bigoted”, and “unloving”.

Of course, most of those people do not believe that homosexuality is wrong, so they believe you are mistaken in addition to being judgmental. But let’s say they’re willing to grant you that a person has to obey their conscience and stand by their beliefs. Now we have a battle between truth and love. The right moral action, they say, is to favor love over truth in this case. Even if the truth is that homosexual behavior is a sin (at least in your mind), it is not loving to say so. It is not loving to force that opinion on someone else.

Now we should set aside the homosexual element and look at the larger principle. Truth or love? Which trumps the other? To use something about which society tends to agree, is it loving to tolerate racist statements? Is it loving to accept someone who constantly steals? What is the path toward reconciliation?

Consider that God is both entirely truthful and entirely loving. Not only does His character include both of those elements, but it defines both of those elements. Within the character of God, all the elements of goodness exist in perfect harmony, and there is no conflict between them. In human nature, those elements can be difficult to synchronize, and we are uncertain which of a variety of impulses we should follow. This is symptomatic of the essential imperfection that lies within us, but simply labeling it as such does nothing to point us toward the solution.

In order for any human relationship to work, there must be some degree of compromise. If marriages came to an end every time a couple failed to agree on something, the divorce rate would be even higher than it is now. Sacrifice is the price of intimacy, whether we are talking about two people or two billion people. But when it comes to building bridges, is there ever a bridge too far? Of all the things we sacrifice, must we sacrifice the truth?

Do some of your conversations feel like this? Ancient Roman mosaic at the Capitoline Museum in Rome (author photo)

Do some of your conversations feel like this? Ancient Roman mosaic at the Capitoline Museum in Rome (author photo)

Consider this quote from a sermon given by Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, back in 2005. He was talking about the kinds of compromises we have to make in order to pursue personal relationships with other human beings.

“At a certain point, you realize there are lots of things you can get the other person to negotiate with and back off of, but at a certain point, you’re going to realize there’s some finalities. There are some things that just aren’t going to change. There’s some ways in which that person – that’s just the way they are – that’s it. And at a certain point, you realize, unless you accept those finalities, you cannot have any more personal relationship. The relationship’s over. You want intimacy, but you want intimacy with a person, and a person has a will. And at some point, you’re going to have to accept the finalities, or else that’s the end of the relationship. You’re going to have to adapt. You’re going to have to adjust.”

Very well, then. We have to respect another person’s “finalities”. We must compromise in order to have a relationship. But the thing is, we do not merely need our relationships with other humans. We also need our relationship with God. Thus, I present to you the advertised description for that very sermon I quoted from above, which provides some context for Keller’s quote.

“Jesus is the final Word and ultimate truth of God. But if we don’t listen to and accept God’s final Word, we can’t have a personal relationship with him. We have to adjust to God’s finalities, just as he adjusted to ours by becoming human and dying for us. This understanding should melt our hearts and change our lives as we become more and more focused on God and the gospel.”[1] (italics added)

Therefore, Keller was not using the example of “adjusting to finalities” to speak about our relationships with other humans so much as he was making a point about our relationship with God and the gospel itself. Yet, this example also shows us that not all finalities are equal. If the finality of humanity was that we were sinful and rebellious, then God could have in theory simply accepted the finality of that sinfulness. But He didn’t: why? Because God had His own finality, namely that He is holy and cannot tolerate sin. In order for the relationship to continue, the answer was not for Him to sacrifice that truth, but to sacrifice Himself. That was how He adjusted to our finality, and we must adjust to His finality by surrendering all we are to Him. More on that later…

The real question at play here is simply this: which truths must be vigorously defended, and in which areas should we simply show grace? Ah, if I had the perfect answer to that question, I would be wiser than Solomon and rich enough to buy property in central London! The best I can do is lay out some basic principles, as it would be neither possible nor indeed all that helpful for me to go over every possible scenario.

I submit to you that there are some things that are truths and some things that are Truths. That is, there are some truths that must be vigorously defended and some that are probably not worth causing division. The former I label as “Truths” and the latter as “truths”. Additionally, I have heard this described as things we hold “tightly” or “loosely”.

Mmmm, pumpkin pie! Photo by Wikipedia user Evan Amos

Mmmm, pumpkin pie! Photo by Wikipedia user Evan Amos

If you are a person who feels keenly the need to defend the truth, I may have already lost you, but perhaps I can get you back with a practical example. You’re sitting at the dining room table for Thanksgiving dinner and auntie so-and-so comments in passing that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1972. You know this to be false: he was indeed assassinated, but the year was 1968. Your aunt is well meaning and you love her, so do you really call a halt to the conversation to point out her error? What if things are already tense and you know that doing so will only increase the tension? My guess is that you, like me, would let this one slide.

But what if auntie decides that Thanksgiving dinner would be an appropriate time to accuse your mother of some kind of gross misconduct of which she is obviously not guilty? You, like me, would probably decline to give your aunt a piece of pie and instead give her a piece of your mind…politely, of course. So you see, we all must constantly weigh our thoughts in the balance and choose to lean in the direction of either truth or love in order to preserve both. That is a matter of common sense, but I believe it is also scriptural.

The Bible makes no bones about it: there are some things that are Truth, and those things cannot be compromised. At the heart of this is the basic gospel message, for which we must both live and die. Take, for example, this quotation from the Apostle Paul.

Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believe in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…

1 Corinthians 15:1-3

"The Resurrection of Jesus Christ" by PIero della Francesca, circa 1463

“The Resurrection of Jesus Christ” by Piero della Francesca, circa 1463

The Truth (with the capital T) is worth fighting for. The essence of the gospel, the facts concerning the nature of God and man, cannot be denied without creating a hollow within Christianity. Surrender the gospel, and you are trying to stand without a foundation. It will either collapse or devolve into man-made religion full of falsehoods. Later in the very same chapter, Paul gives an example of what happens when you surrender a central point of the gospel message – the literal, physical resurrection of the dead.

Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. Moreover, we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.

1 Corinthians 15:12-19

Paul also tells us, “…I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek,” (Romans 1:16) and to the Galatians, who had begun to believe that the works of the Law were necessary for salvation, he wrote, “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!” (Galatians 1:8-9) That is very strong language, and it shows clearly that we are not to go along with someone who is denying the Truth of the gospel.

But Paul was not the kind of person to talk big and not follow through with his actions, nor did he merely defend the gospel to unbelievers. When the Apostle Peter (who was also known as “Cephas”) came to visit the city of Antioch, a certain group of Jews influenced him to the point where he would not associate with Christians who were not circumcised, i.e. Gentiles who were not following all the commands of the Mosaic Law. Not only was this a surrender of an important gospel point – we are no longer bound by the Law of Moses, and Gentiles have an equal share in the Kingdom of God – but Paul would not truly have been a peacemaker if he remained silent, for there were already divisions forming. No, in his signature Paul way, he spoke up rather forcefully.

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision….But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, ‘If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?’

Galatians 2:11-14

We must understand that if we surrender the gospel in order to avoid discord, we are really committing a double blunder: First, we have abandoned the Truth, thus causing a breakdown in our relationship with both God and our fellow humans. Second, we will not even succeed in our objective of achieving peace, because the gospel is the only hope of reconciliation, as scripture teaches.

Hear the Word of the Lord regarding peace when He says, “There is no peace for the wicked,” (Isaiah 48:21) that is, those who do not abide by God’s commands and love Him with their whole hearts. The prophet Jeremiah spoke of religious leaders who dealt falsely and proclaimed, “They have healed the brokenness of My people superficially, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ but there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:14) The Apostle Paul describes peace as the product of a Spirit-filled life, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…” (Galatians 5:22-23a) and he said about Christ, “He Himself is our peace…” (Ephesians 2:14a) And James said this about the Truth that is from God: “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” (James 3:17-18)

In this 1852 painting by John Everett Millais, a woman attempts to protect her Huguenot sweetie from violence by placing on him a Roman Catholic badge, but he refuses on principle.

In this 1852 painting by John Everett Millais, a woman attempts to protect her Huguenot sweetie from violence by placing on him a Roman Catholic badge, but he refuses on principle.

Righteousness, Truth, peace, gospel, love…they all go together. As I said earlier, you cannot divide the attributes of God one from another and have him be true at one moment and loving at another. Neither can we hope to be truly loving while sacrificing that Truth which is the basis of love.

Nevertheless, we should not expect that when we speak the Truth, however compassionately we do so, that everyone will see it as love. There are some Truths that are simply hard for human pride to swallow. Our God is a God who commands us to live for His glory, according to His commands. Yet, the human will that is tied to a sinful nature is too often unwilling to surrender itself to those demands. At this point, we get the metaphorical unstoppable force meeting the immovable object, only in actuality there is only one thing that is both “unstoppable” and “immovable”, and that is God Himself. Thus, when one continues to run full speed ahead against the sheer force of His will, things are bound to get ugly…and God is not the one who is going to lose.

So when you speak Truth to someone who is not prepared to accept it, you are going to get some pushback: consider it an occupational hazard. This is why Jesus Christ, the most peaceful man who ever walked the earth, who also declared, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God,” (Matthew 5:9) could say in the same sermon, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household.” (Matthew 10:34-36)

When Jesus was about to be put to death, he gave some final instructions to His disciples, proclaiming, “This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you.” (John 15:12) Yet, almost in the same breath He promised them, “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you.” (John 15:18-19) Therefore, when we extend Truth and love to those around us, we may very well have it returned with hate.

Unfortunately, it gets even worse than that, for scripture also teaches that the very preaching of Truth to those who do not believe can actually produce more sin in them. As Jesus said in the same conversation, “He who hates Me hates My Father also. If I had not done among them the works which no one else did, they would not have sin; but now they have both seen and hated Me and My Father as well.” (John 15:23-24) Yes, the proclamation of gospel Truth can push away those who are unwilling – can cause them to rebel against the message and hate the messenger.

But Paul assures us that the commands of God will still accomplish their purpose. “The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 5:20-21) Later on in the same letter, Paul went further into detail on this topic.

What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead. I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died; and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me; for sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.

Romans 7:7-12

Detail of the pulpit by Nicola Pisano at the cathedral baptistery in Pisa, Italy. (author photo)

Detail of the pulpit by Nicola Pisano at the cathedral baptistery in Pisa, Italy. (author photo)

What is the Law but the proclamation of God’s commands? It was given to Moses that the nation of Israel might abide by it. It was necessary for that Truth to be told. Now we have something even greater than the Law – we have the gospel of Jesus Christ. If the Israelites were commanded regarding the Law, “You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates,” (Deuteronomy 6:8-9) then how much more must we shout this gospel from the hilltops and make it known to all, that the grace of God might reach those who have not heard? For some will rebel and accuse us of being unloving, but in the end, some may well be saved.

That is why we must not shrink from declaring the Truth of the gospel, because if we settle for half-measures or pure silence, we will never get at the real problem. The real problem is sin. That is the fatal illness that must ultimately be addressed. If we fail to address it, are we really being a friend? Are we really loving that person to the best of our ability? Much like a parent who never disciplines their child, we would be hurting them in the long run in order to avoid some temporary unpleasantness. That is not the true love of Christ, but an empty love of our own making.

The great Lutheran theologian, Philip Melanchthon, wrote in his Loci Communes (“Commonplaces”), “For the mortification, judgment, and dismay that come about by the Spirit of God through the Law are the beginning of man’s justification and of his true Baptism. And just as the Christian life must take its start from here, that is, from the knowledge of sin, so also Christian teaching must begin with the work of the Law.” He further adds, “What is certain is that no one can be blessed with a hatred of sin except through the Holy Spirit.”[2] That hatred is the gift of the Spirit and the pathway to repentance.

So it is most necessary to speak the gospel Truth, but we must also consider the manner in which we speak it. It does no good to make a gospel statement in a spirit that is not in line with the gospel. If our communication is full of conceit, self-righteousness, and self-focus, it is not the gospel. If our communication is not loving, compassionate, and respectful, it is not the gospel. If we present ourselves as superior to others, when in fact we are sinners saved by God’s grace, one could hardly blame them for refusing to listen. Therefore, in all our dealings with others, we must be mindful of how we are speaking just as much as what we are speaking.

This is what the Apostle Paul means when he refers to “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15), and then immediately after he repeats the Old Testament command to “speak truth each one of you with his neighbor”, he also references another command by saying, “Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity.” (Ephesians 4:25-26) Certainly, when we speak the Truth from a position of anger, we have given the devil every opportunity. Instead of unleashing the convicting power of the Holy Spirit, we rely merely on our own spirit that seeks to control. We have killed the gospel message.

This is not just scriptural teaching, but common sense. As that most practical of books tells us, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (Proverbs 15:1) Just a few verses later, it proclaims, “A soothing tongue is a tree of life, but perversion in it crushes the spirit.” (Proverbs 15:4) Although this may not have been the original author’s intention, we may equally say that such perversion crushes the Spirit – the Holy Spirit of God who seeks to draw men and women to Himself. Now, even if we mess up, God can still find a way, but if we are to live in obedience and allow ourselves to be used of God, we must speak the Truth in love.

Perhaps at another time, I will go into further detail as to how we discern truths from Truths, but for now let us return to the principle we discussed earlier: adjusting to finalities. We saw how humanity’s finality was that it was sinful, and how God had to adjust to that finality. We also saw that He did not adjust to that finality be simply tolerating sin, but through a sacrificial love that opened the door for reconciliation.

Not every person who hears the gospel message believes in it. Not every person will choose to accept the miraculous gift that Christ provided through His sacrificial death. Some will still choose the path of discord that leads to destruction rather than the path of reconciliation that leads to life. Even if we are empowered by the Spirit to show Christ-like love to those around us while speaking God’s truth, not everyone will respond positively. That does not mean we should accept sin or water down the gospel message, for that would not be doing anyone a favor. It would not be loving, and it would certainly not be true. But we must continually seek out ways to sacrifice our own pride, ambitions, energies, and resources in the cause of reconciliation. We must try not once but again and again to display true love to those around us.

The Apostle Paul has written, “To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it.” (1 Corinthians 9:22-23) Yet, the Apostle Peter, when asked why he continued preaching in the name of Jesus, answered simply, “We must obey God rather than men,” (Acts 5:29b) while the author of Hebrews declares, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.” (Hebrews 11:23) But Paul also says, “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” 1 Corinthians 13:1-2)

These statements do not contradict one another, nor is “true love” a contradiction in terms. They must be united, and we must join them with the wisdom of the Spirit, which will help us discern when is the time to speak and when is the time to remain silent. If we attempt this in our own power, we will fail, but if we attempt it in the Spirit, He may “by all means save some”. Let us then seek in everything the ultimate good of those around us, speaking truth as it benefits them, encouraging them in the things of the Word, and demonstrating a love that could only be of Christ.

All scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.

[1] These quotes and the description are taken from the sermon “Christ: The Final Word”, given by Tim Keller as part of the “Christ: Our Treasury” series on the book of Hebrews. The podcast is available on iTunes and you can also listen to it on YouTube.

[2] Loci Communes by Philip Melanchthon, translated by Christian Preus, 1521 edition, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2014), page 106.

Other articles in this series:

#1 – Wars and Rumors of Wars

#2 – Discord

#3 – A Scriptural Imperative

#4 – The Cross of Hate

#5 – The Age of Sacrifice

#6 – The First Step

#7 – Impossible Questions

#9 – A New (Old) Commandment

#10 – Truth with a Capital ‘T’

#11 – Christ is All in All

#12 – Awaken!

#13 – Another Path to Reconciliation?

#14 – Humble Rebellion

#15 – Those Who Live by Faith are Just