We live in times in which love is presented in a distorted, even manipulative way. Some use a vague and all-encompassing notion of love to justify almost any behavior. They declare that if we do not approve of what they do, not only are we unloving, we are haters. In this way love is equated with kindness, affirmation, and approval.
This, of course, is an inaccurate, diminished understanding of love. Love wills the good, the best, for another. Love speaks the truth even if it is challenging or painful.
If my doctor lied to me about my health, hiding serious problems from me merely so that I would not be upset, he would be guilty of malpractice. Similarly, lying to someone by making light of sin is not love, it is “malpractice” for us who would be the Lord’s prophets and agents of saving love.
For those who have watered down love to mere kindness, “malpractice” is not only preferred it is often required. “Safe zones” and an ever-expanding definition of discrimination can demand a kind of lying. If you don’t go along you may be called a hater or even find yourself on the receiving end of a lawsuit.
But distorted love isn’t love at all. Those who insist on this distorted definition of love show their true colors when someone dares defy the demand for affirmation: suddenly vicious accusations fly and social isolation is imposed.
True love is a many-splendored thing. It is kind and encouraging to be sure, but it is also willing to correct—even rebuke and punish—for the sake of the beloved. There are certain paradoxes of love that must be rediscovered. Let’s examine some of these using Scripture as our guide.
Love perfects the law; it does not oppose it. Many today set love and the law in opposition to each other. They often assert that love, God’s love in particular, means that whatever I want to do is approved of by God. The premise is that love never sets limits; it merely approves of what the beloved wants to do. Scripture says,
If you love me, you will keep my commandments (Jn 14:15). Whoever has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me (Jn 14:21). If you keep My commandments, you will remain in My love (Jn 15:10). For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. (1 Jn 5:3). And this is love, that we walk according to His commandments (2 John 1:6).
Love and God’s law go hand in hand. Love does not give blanket permission to do as one pleases.
Love makes demands. Love does not mean simply accepting the other as he is, not asking him to change or repent if necessary.
Jesus, who loves us, made many demands. Consider His encounter with the rich young man: And Jesus, having looked upon him, loved him and said to him, “One thing to you is lacking: Go, sell as much as you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me” (Mk 10:21).
St. Paul insisted on his apostolic authority and his capacity to preach the hard things of the cross, saying, As the truth of Christ is in me, this bold proclamation of mine will not be silenced …. And why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do! (2 Cor 11:10-11)
Love requires making choices. A common refrain of many is this: “Jesus understands.” Or “God is love.” Weaknesses, sinful acts, and duplicity are brushed aside by a vague notion that God, who is love, doesn’t care about such things.
But the real Jesus of Scripture does care. Jesus says, If you want to be my disciple, you must hate everyone else by comparison—your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even your own life. Otherwise, you cannot be my disciple (Lk 14:26). Jesus says to Peter: Simon son of John, do you love me more than these? (i.e., the fish, and by extension, his career) (see Jn 21:15).
The love of God is exclusive and is superior to every other love. The Book of James makes this clear: You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore, whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God (James 4:4). Jesus says plainly, No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money (Matt 6:24).
Love demands that we make a clear choice; it will not tolerate a half-committed heart or indulgence in sin. There are demands of discipleship. Love does not permit adulterous liaisons with the world, the flesh, or the devil.
Love punishes. The modern notion is that love is permissive, merciful, and kind at all times.
But Scripture says of God’s love, The Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son. Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined … then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all (Heb 12:6-8). And Jesus says, Those I love, I rebuke and discipline. Therefore, be earnest and repent (Rev 3:19).
Love warns. Many set love-based arguments in opposition to fear-based arguments. It is true that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 Jn 4:18), but most of us don’t have perfect love. That is why Jesus often used fear-based arguments, warning us of what awaits us if we do not repent.
No one loves us more than Jesus, yet no one warned us more of Hell and the coming judgment than He did. Most of the teaching on Hell and the Day of Judgment come right from His mouth. Twenty-one of the thirty-eight parables are about judgment and possible exclusion from Heaven. There are the sheep and the goats, those on the right and those on the left; the wise virgins and the foolish ones; those that enter the wedding feast and those who reject the invitation; those who hear, Come, blessed of my Father and those who hear, Depart from me you accursed, I know you not.
Jesus loved the people of Jerusalem, yet He warned of a coming destruction if they did not repent. Indeed, he wept over Jerusalem when he saw it for the last time: As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you” (Lk 19:41-44).
Jesus did not cease warning those whom he loved. Love warns that there are consequences to sin and infidelity.
Love is not always kind; sometimes it challenges and rebukes. Kindness is an aspect of love, but so are rebuke and punishment.
True love cannot bear that another carries sin or error. Love will at times exhibit anger and strong words to dissuade the beloved from sin and harm. Scripture says,
You shall not hate your brother in your heart: you shall instead rebuke your neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him (Lev 19:17). If your brother sins against you, go and confront him privately. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over (Matt 18:15). Watch yourselves. If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him (Lk 17:3). Let a righteous man strike me—that is a kindness; let him rebuke me—that is oil on my head. My head will not refuse it (Ps 141:5).
The list could go on and on. Love is truly a many-splendored thing. It does exhibit kindness, tenderness, affection, and affirmation, but it wants what is truly best for the beloved, not what is apparently best or simply pleasant in the moment. True love wants salvation and perfection for the beloved, not merely their comfort and self-esteem. True love can say no. True love can insist upon even difficult and challenging things. True love has greater blessings in mind than passing pleasures and flattery.
Love is one of the most distorted, overused words in our culture. How about some true love?