Thursday 9 July 2015

Love: I do not think it means what you think it means

Those of you who were correctly raised will remember watching the Princess Bride (if truly correctly then many times), a movie that despite all of its ridiculousness is one of the most classic fantasy love tales ever told. You may also recall how Vizzini the scheming kidnapper keeps describing situations involving the witty hero Westley that are happening before his eyes as ‘inconceivable’. Eventually the honourable and loveable Inigo Montoya eventually says ‘You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.’ Ah how classic, such a fun movie, but oh what a great little way to summarize how people use the word love. You, yes you, and probably you too, keep using the word 'love'. But I do not think it means what you think it means.
Everybody knows the two greatest commandments succinctly summarized by Jesus in the gospel of Matthew 22:34-40 :

34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together.  35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question:  36 ‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’ 37 Jesus replied: ‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” 38 This is the first and greatest commandment.  39 And the second is like it: “Love your neighbour as yourself.”  40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.’”
These commands are the summary of the law and prophets, the central aims of the great commands of the Old and New Testaments, the first principles that are to guide the Christian life and dictate all that we do. They are the greatest commandments in the Bible, and to love God and our fellow human beings are the greatest things that any person can do. But I do not think it means what you think it means.

Let me describe a situation (this is a hypothetical situation that may or may not be based on real life events): Two or more people are having a discussion about theology, in person, or on Facebook, at church, or some other venue. One person holds to the prosperity gospel and is defending theirs and their church’s teaching of this particular theology. In fact they are part of a massive church, filled with lots of energy and people and other cool stuff. This first guy actually believes the prosperity gospel. The second guy says to him, straight up and honestly, that what he believes is heresy, the prosperity gospel is wrong, it’s been condemned throughout church history consistently. He then proceeds to explain the biblical idea of suffering, and hardship and poverty that is evident in the scriptures and experienced by the greatest of the Apostles, and Jesus. He is not saying Christians can’t prosper, some do, greatly, but simply that prosperity is not everyone’s guaranteed experience as a Christian, in fact the opposite is often true. Therefore the prosperity teaching is sinful. Someone jumps in and says, ‘That’s judgemental, and unloving.’ Someone else pipes up, ‘It may be true, but it’s not loving to call that person’s belief heresy.’ Another person unhelpfully quips, ‘Why can’t we just love each other and get along, no one’s doctrine is perfect. Focus on the log in your own eye. Doctrine divides, love brings us together.’ And finally someone else joins in, ‘I don’t think public forums are the place for such discussions, no matter what is true.’ Ah love…again I say, ‘You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.’

The problem is that so many people distinguish between truth and love, as though they were polar opposites which is bad enough, but even worse is that a lot of Christians don’t even know half of what the Bible says about love. We are told in Scripture to reason with people, bring them back from error, and confront falsehood, and we are told that this is a big part of showing love.

Behold (that's meant to be read as slightly dramatic) some verses:

17 You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:17-18  ESV)
It’s amazing how the Bible makes our more stupid arguments look well…stupid (I know this from experience. I have had it happen to me too. It’s why we submit to God’s word, not the other way around. None of us are perfect and the Bible confronts us all). The VERY FIRST TIME ‘love your neighbour’ is found in the Bible, it is in the context of reasoning with them, to show them their error or sin. In fact Moses begins by stating that we should not hate our brother in our heart. In other words, do not keep your disagreement to yourself and dwell on it as you may sin and hate your brother in your heart. We all know the negative effects of holding stuff in which needs to be said. Instead we should reason, frankly. The NIV and KJV are even stronger, they both say rebuke. In this way, by frank reasoning, we love our neighbour as our self. So confronting someone in error or sin is intrinsic to the very first mention in the Bible of loving your neighbour as yourself. Indeed whenever this verse is mentioned in the New Testament, whether by Jesus, or the Apostles, they are quoting this passage. So again, you use the word ‘love’, but I do not think it means what you think it means.   
Indeed in the context of encouraging people to love others above all else, look how Peter expands on it:
8 Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. 9 Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. 10 As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace: 11 whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God… (1 Peter 4:8-11, ESV).
In other words in the context of loving one another comes the encouragement to speak the very oracles of God. So we who speak should boldly, confidently, respectfully and with conviction speak the truth; this is loving. This means as the Apostles themselves did. They rebuked people, corrected people, encouraged people, and they did these things in public and private, in letters and from public platforms. Paul told the Athenians, in Athens their home ground, in their discussion area, to repent. This is loving and truthful.

Yes indeed we are commanded to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), but to do this we need to speak. Again let’s bring up the context:
14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ… (Ephesians 4:15, ESV).   
Isn’t that fascinating…the idea of speaking the truth in love, is mentioned in the context of avoiding false doctrine or ‘every wind of doctrine’, meaning doctrine that moves like jelly in the hands of a toddler. No we must not be carried along by untruths, human cunning (in other words human inventions that masquerade as biblical teaching, aka a lot of what is heard from a lot pulpits), but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up and be like Jesus. In other words speaking the truth in love is what Jesus did and as we do that we display his image in the world.

Now, remember there were times when what Jesus said was just mean, but he was always loving, sometimes we need a metaphorical slap in the face (I know I do, I’m not perfect, no one is), even a public one, to be protected from the dangers of false teaching, which is a serious problem, and mentioned in nearly every New Testament book as something to be wary of. Let’s take a look at Jesus speaking the truth in love in one particular PUBLIC context, where he is challenging false practices:
27 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness. 28 So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (Matthew 23:27-28, ESV).
Ouch! Now Jesus said this, and it would have been the gravest of insults to the Pharisees and scribes, and where did he say it?Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples…” (Matthew 23:1, ESV). He said it in public? But..but that's...inconceivable. It’s not for no reason the religious leaders hated him, and killed him. This was mean, but it was true, abundantly true, and it was divisive, confrontational…and incredibly loving because he wanted to bring them to repentance. I’m not saying Jesus was always like this, or that we need to always be like this, or even that in our fallen-ness we will do this very well. I’m simply saying Jesus is God, God is love, Jesus said this and it was the truth being spoken in love. Again, ‘You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.’
Look so much more can be said about love. We could talk about how it includes humbleness, self-sacrifice, service, sometimes, even often, being silent and just walking with someone and so much more. It especially includes the great love Jesus displayed on the cross, dying for our sins. Libraries of books could be and have been written on love. But our post-modern, post-Christian, post-truth, politically correct world needs to hear this, especially Christians who are caving in to all these things. There appears to be no place for boldness in the church today, at least boldness in calling a spade a spade. Even if it is done in a restrained and careful way, based on indisputable facts, and exercised respectfully, so many in our modern culture just can’t handle it. I think the key to public debate is respect and integrity. But for a lot of people it is niceness, not being divisive, and not offending. But then 90% of topics become taboo and the public space is filled with cat videos and useless platitudes about inane topics. Effectively it's political correctness stamping down on dissent because it makes people uncomfortable.

Now confronting discussions should not be all we do, there is so much depth and richness to the Christian walk, but it should not be excluded, or jumped on by very nice, polite, never want to offend, people whenever it happens either. To quote Solomon, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: “a time to break down, and a time to build up…a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing… a time to keep silence, and a time to speak…” (Ecclesiastes 3:3,5,7 ESV).

I trust and really do hope that I have expanded your idea of the biblical view of love. Let it not be said of you, or me, that ‘Love, you keep using this word. I do not think it means what you think it means.’