Love Without Truth

“By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” According to John, these were some of Jesus’ last words to his followers. John had a thing about love. “God is love,” he counselled believers in a later letter. If the first quote seems straightfoward, the second gives us cause to reconsider. God is love? This is the world we live in, and that’s the God who made it? Clearly we have misunderstood one side of this equation, either ‘God’ or ‘love’.

This mandate to love one another has inspired all kinds of ecumenical philosophies, from total universalism (God loves everybody all the same and we will all be happy together in the end; let’s start now!) to cultic loyalty. People between those extremes look at the denominational mud-slinging that characterizes public Christianty and shake their heads; how could we have gone so far astray? In reaction, believers who are not universalists in their convictions begin to say that we should not let doctrine divide us. There’s no love in firing verses back and forth like depleted uranium slugs, they say.

But something else needs to be said here. If love was a matter of accepting anything there could not be the God of the Bible (or even just the writings of John). We’ve misunderstood love by thinking that love is what makes us feel good.

“Jesus wept. Then the Jews said, ‘See how He loved him!'”

Love hurts.

So when they had eaten breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me more than these?”

He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.”

He said to him, “Feed My lambs.”

He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me?”

He said to him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.”

He said to him, “Tend My sheep.”

He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love me?”

Look at that. Jesus just took Peter by the scruff of the neck and rubbed his face in his own filth. Peter swore he would never deny Christ, that he would stand by him to the death; then he did the opposite. And Jesus died. We skip ahead to the happy ending, knowing Jesus comes back to life; no harm done! But feel where Peter’s at now. He’s barely got to the point where he believes Jesus really is alive. And now Jesus is grabbing the most shameful, guilty thing Peter has ever done, which has been eating at him like worms, and stuffing it right in Peter’s face. Lovely, eh?

There’s more to love than makes us happy, and a deeper love than peace. I’m a happy-go-loving kind of guy. If someone’s feelings are hurt I feel like an old deflated balloon with wrinkly puckers. I don’t like confrontations. I can be provocative, all right, but in my own mind I’m always expecting that my stunning, elucidating way of putting things will cause everyone to fall down before me and say, “You’re right! We agree with you! Thank you so much for helping us understand! We love you!” I don’t want to see anyone weep as I grind their pathetic insignifcance into nothingness. It hits too close to home.

Some people aren’t so much like that. Hurting feelings doesn’t seem to bother them more than kicking a pebble down the sidewalk bothers me. I don’t mean they are always being cruel. That’s inefficient. They know they can usually get more done if the people they are working with are happy. But if they have to step on some toes, they tramp on through without hesitating a bit.

Other people are indifferent. They dislike hurting feelings as much as I do, but they don’t want to be friends. That is, they have no desire to admire me for the wonderful things I do. They are happier if I leave them alone. Because there are such people in the world, I try to restrain myself when I meet new people, to see if they would really appreciate me before I let too much of my personality out.

When someone really does seem interested in getting to know me, look out! I don’t have a perfectly precise process, but what follows is usually something like this:

  1. By the end of the first conversation I consider them my friend.
  2. After the second conversation they are a close friend.
  3. Afer the third, we go way back; I’ll tell them my most embarrassing moment.
  4. After the fourth, we’re blood brothers. I’ll co-sign the mortgage on their second house.

 Usually by the time we get to the fifth conversation we’ve had some kind of minor disagreement–a difference in opinion or in taste, something like that–which has a dampening effect on this combustive process, fortunately. But depending on what the balance is between positive and negative interaction, the course of my attachement will proceed at a corresponding pace relative to the above.

Now you, my dear reader, are a little more stable and emotionally mature than I, and you can tell that this is probably a bad thing. But your common sense might not tell you why it’s a bad thing. I mean, besides the obvious. Technically speaking, what is so bad about it? Love one another, right?

The problem is, despite all the endorphines rushing through my system and my peaceful little smile, all this isn’t love. It isn’t love for my new friend, anyway. It’s love for myself. I just love that there is someone out there who admires me, accepts me, affirms me–just the way I am. Oh, what a wonderful feeling!

I realize this enthusiasm can be unwarranted. After all, just because someone is friendly for a couple of conversations does not mean they are really the kind of person I can be fast friends with for the rest of my life. They don’t really even know me yet, right? So here’s what I do. Pretty early on in getting to know someone I tell them bad things about me. True things, and not all that bad–not at first, at least. But I need them to know what I am really like, so they won’t continue to be friendly if they can’t tolerate my faults. So I will tell them that I am an arrogant, selfish know-it-all, a coward, and a bad listener.

Then a funny thing happens. Most people don’t like to hurt feelings, including my feelings. They like to think of themselves as loving, caring, and accepting people. Accepting my faults doesn’t really cost them anything–they don’t really know me, they’ve never had to put up with me doing the same hurtful thing for the hundredth time. I’ve always been nice and polite to them, and I’ve practically apologized in advance for anything I might do to offend them. And they’d like all their faults to be overlooked, too. So even though I’ve told them things about myself that are indeed bad, they graciously overlook them and forgive me completely, and we get along fine. And best of all, now they know the real me a little better, so I am justified in treating them like a close friend!

I’ve exaggerated to help you get the idea without trying to get through all the complexities that arise in reality. I’ve tried to illustrated what I think is a very sober point: there are more kinds of intimacy than just physical intimacy. Strangers, acquaintances, or just friends who are naked in front of each other should feel embarrassed, even ashamed. It is a deliberate, God-designed living metaphor for how we should feel when we are seen and known in our entirety, in our full true nature. We may find in our lives a spouse who is to be to us like the flesh of our flesh, the bones of our own bones; and with a spouse there need not be any shame in nakedness. This, too, is a living metaphor, to teach us of the love the Christ has for His people, His Bride; He loves us as we are, in all the ugliness of our nature; and He will make us beautiful in His love.

But we live now in a world of sin. Our bodies, our minds, and our hearts are corrupted with sin. The metaphor of love must work within a world of sin; God, who is love, hates sin. That is why true love is not all peace and pleasantness. True love has no tenderness for sin. When I confess my shortcomings, as I am wont to do, I can provoke in others a tender, sympathetic response. I am, without exactly meaning to, twisting their right capacity for forebearance and love into something that has the form and lacks the power. It feels so right but it is all wrong. There is a time and a season for bearing with faults, forgiving trespasses, and loving the unlovely. By forcing it out of due season, I make what is good to be bad for me.

Just as people who are too quick to express their affection through sex bear consequences from their false love, stripping myself metaphorically naked to reveal my deepest shames and highest aspirations sows the seeds for hurt, despair, and broken faith.

As a young man, this excess of friendliness gets particularly out of hand when women are involved. Yes, all us healthy young men have a certain weakness in that regard, but I’m sure not all healthy young men have quite the issue I do. I can get myself emotionally involved just by talking to a degree that other men could not without more tangible feedback. It’s a deep part of my personality that goes way back to when I was too young to think of doing anything more than talking with girls. I can still remember the long dark eyelashes of a girl I met once who had a pretty last name. I’ve known for a long time that I could get myself into trouble with girls, and I told myself so [Edit 4/27] before it ever happened.

What scares me is that now, after I have talked myself into a love more fervent than the truth could bear, and having mostly lived through the consequences, I find I am ready and willing to do it again. I can’t resist. I’m only trying to be nice! If I don’t listen, I’d be rude; if I don’t respond, I’d be rude; if I don’t share something similar from my own life, I’d be rude! Why, if I didn’t do everything in my power to make this nice young woman happy in every way, I could hardly call myself a gentleman!

I’m not that bad, actually, at listening, or talking, or being helpful and considerate and overall charming; at least when I think I will be rewarded by having your approval and affection. If  I know that I’ve got as much of your love as I am ever going to get, and there is little I can do to lose it, then I can be a rough fellow to get along with. Ask one of my sisters; I can’t say I’ve charmed them. I can be rude to them, though, and they won’t love me any less.

I know, then, that kidness and gentleness is not all of love; nor are forebearance and peace. True love will have these qualities in it; but having these qualities is not the same as having love. “Love […] does not behave rudely,” Paul said, and I accept this as true. Therefore it must be something other than rude when Jesus said, “You hypocrites!” (He said it more than once; I don’t think it is the rudest thing he did, either.)

I like calling people hypocrites, if they are not pretty young women. I figure that will help them see that they are wrong, and then they will know the truth and be happy with me for showing them. These unkind things that Jesus says are my favorite proof-texts when I’m arguing with Christians who say we ought to be loving toward one another. I’m afraid half the time I really am looking for a pious excuse to call fellow believers stupid–for their own edification, of course.

But right beside that unworthy, unloving desire to exalt my so-called knowledge at the expense of my brother is the genuine, sincere conviction that love doesn’t always feel good. This is important to me, even vital, although I don’t care to experience the unpleasant kind of love, because over in the other corner is that flatterer who will love you sweetly every bit as much as you love him. Don’t trust that treacherous intimacy; keep the truth in love.

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