Inconsistent: I am kind of embarrassed and a bit ashamed of myself. I feel rather foolish like a math
teacher who has taught basic principles and sophisticated concepts to a
lifetime of students but who realizes, one day, that he has been making simple
math mistakes for years. Mind you, I don’t brag about my perfections as a mathematician, or anything else. I have been humble in my teaching, for the
most part, but aggressive, too. I have
challenged, reminded, confronted, and drilled my students in being careful with
their numbers and computations. What
kind of teacher doesn’t do as he teaches?
Sadly, all of us are guilty, a little or a lot, of inconsistency,
imperfection, error, and gross disregard of even our most cherished
values. It’s called sin, and everybody
does it. That doesn’t make it any less
shameful or embarrassing. So what sin do I mean?
The Standard: I gave my first sermon as a teenager, maybe 15, and I
used I Corinthians 13 as my text and love as my subject.
In the nearly 45 years since then, I have studied, written, and spoken on
“agape” love more than any other subject.
In college, I read C. S. Lewis’ The Four Loves and learned about 4 Greek words for love,
3 of them used in the New Testament. I
also read Francis Schaeffer, The Mark of the Christian. I tried to
understand God’s love as it related to friendship, courtship, and
marriage. I went to seminary, but my
interest in applying Biblical concepts of love to the church began in my
family church and the conflict that I observed there and in every other
congregation I became a part of.
I learned about Christian conciliation 1982, and I
immediately committed myself to a ministry of peacemaking and reconciliation, as a focus for my call to pastoral ministry, as well as an application of my years of
study regarding love, compassion, consideration, and devotion to God and His
people. Conflict and strife often
represent a failure to love, not from having conflict, which is only human,
but from allowing it to destroy relationships of every kind.
Love is the Great Commandment; Jesus said to love God with all of our
being and love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Jesus made it the “mark of a Christian,”
as Schaeffer described it. Our love
is the thing that identifies Christians as truly disciples of Jesus
Christ. Passages throughout the New Testament reinforce the priority of love, unconditional, self-sacrificial
love as Christ demonstrated it on the cross.
No one says it more plainly than Paul in I Corinthians 13, where he says that nothing we think to do for God has value
or purpose without love.
I heard teacher and writer Gene Getz in
seminary, who wrote several books on a series of phrases in the Bible, the
“one anothers”—love one another, encourage one another, serve one another, pray for one another, be
kind toward one another, forgive one another, and so on. They reveal just how connected believer are
supposed to be to each.
This is more than “potluck supper” fellowship. In a time and place where people are more
isolated and insular than ever, we need the kind of connectedness that these phrases describe.
In my study of Biblical peacemaking to learn to
be an effective peacemaker, I read David Augsburger’s Caring Enough to
Confront, Caring Enough to Forgive and Be Forgiven, and When Caring is Not
Enough. He drew on Jesus’ Sermon on the
Mount and his famous “tell it to the church” command in Matthew 18. I came to see that chronic, unresolved conflict, in churches or Christian families, like their 50% divorce rate, is a failure of love.
I came to understand why the unity of the body of Christ, another of Jesus’ goals, has often eluded the people of God; unity is
impossible without love between and among believers. Indeed, much of the Western Church has almost sanctified division
between believers who disagree regarding various doctrines and traditions (often
more divided by the latter!). Many Christians appear to find it easier to hate their brothers and sisters than unbelievers next door. Jesus warns his disciples not even to “weed out” unbelievers, lest we accidently mistakenly uproot our spiritual kin, but we easily ignore him, in our confrontational, often antagonistic culture (This it puzzles people from cultures that greatly value respect).
Given Jesus’ commands to love one’s neighbors,
even “Samaritan” neighbors, to love one’s enemies, and to do good to those
who seek to harm or persecute, it is difficult to see how anyone could
justify despising their brothers and sisters. In trying to understand this odd failure, I
came to realize that the opposite of love isn’t outright hate or casual apathy;
love’s opposite is selfishness. We fail
to care for others when we spend too much time and energy caring for
Jesus didn’t tell us not to love ourselves; His words are “love your neighbor as yourself.” Healthy self-love is implied, normal, you might say in-built,
unless damaged by experience. Sin
leads to guilt, guilt to shame, and shame hinders love.
Self-involved negligent or abusive parents often repeat and emphasize
the sense, by intent or by accident, that their children are defective, deficient, and unlovable. Such children spend a lifetime trying to
believe otherwise, and many who fail then inflict
the same damage on the next generation. In school, cruel children and calloused
teachers may similarly impair a child’s self-worth, security, and ability to love. Some many things can impair a person’s self-love and, as a result, ability to love others.
Is it any wonder, then, that Jesus named love as “the mark” of true Christian discipleship?
Is it not obvious that loving others is the key to evangelism and the
greatest evidence of Christianity’s truth claims. I regard truth as an equally
valuable aspect of a person’s faith, but Ephesians 4 puts them in balance
by saying, “speak the truth in love.”
Too many Christians, whether to fellow believers or to unbelievers, have
argued truth lovelessly. At the other pole, especially in my lifetime, people have tried to love without
truth and, thereby, without honesty, trust, faithfulness, or even meaning. Truth and love are inseparable, but love will
outlast both faith and hope.
The twisting and distortion of love, especially of the
carnal kind, produces complete negation.
People use the word love for things that are its opposite. Lust is called love because it satisfies the
lover’s desires, often at the expense of its object. At it’s worst, this unlove justifies
brutality, rape, sexual assault of children, and incest, but casual sex comes
from the same inversion. Rather than
seeking the best interests of their beloved, today’s lovers seek their own
gratification. In place of
unconditional, sacrificial love of spouse, child, parent, or friend, every
relationship is measured against the selfish wishes of each person. So extreme is this distortion of true love
that one woman I counseled confessed that, after reading some of these ideas in
a piece I had written, she knew nothing about real love.
No word is spoken more often, whether by the most intimate
of companions or by those cynically using words like compassion to gain
something (like a public office or political advantage). One person I know well would tell her child,
“I love you,” and the child immediately ran to get the mother a soft drink. Modern romance sees love as a mystery and an accident, but real love is neither. People “fall” in and out of this world’s kind of love; genuine love is a choice, filled with action, and rewarded in depth of feeling.
What I have learned and taught over decades of ministry has
always challenged me. I despise the
rationale, “Do as I say, not as I do!”
None of us is perfect; the perfect example is Christ. Nevertheless,
I would never excuse myself from “practicing what I preach.” I hope the people who have heard me, known
me, and been my friends see the evidence of consistency. Caring about and for people has taken me down
some strange and unexpected paths, the latest of which has been tutoring
refugees. Over the years, I have
mentored many young people and gave a great deal of thought and effort into
loving them and making sure they knew I genuinely cared about them. The strongest remedy I know for helping
people overcome their self-doubt and fears of being unlovable is to love them
and reassure them of my love. As a
pastor, I sought to love my people, as a teacher, I tried to convey love to my
students, and as a tutor, I work to give these young people, who often have
little or no family, consideration, compassion, and unconditional love. In this day of sexual deviancy and fears of
sexual harassment, to love genuinely carries some risk, but the most valuable
thing we can give is worth such a risk.
* * * * *
Falling Short: My embarrassment, shame, and guilt come from recognizing,
rather painfully, that my own doubts, insecurities, and preoccupation with
personal disappointments can interfere with my commitment to love. At this point, things get a bit confusing. Perhaps, as G. K. Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy,
I have a tendency, at times, to become mad, an old-style British word for
crazy. Instead of my thoughts working
forward and upward, my thoughts often run in circles, very tight, very
reasonable, but very wrong. Certain
things in the past created self-doubt, and even as God
blessed me with people who cared, I doubted them because I doubted myself. It is a hellish circle!
My doubts are not without reason, but reason can breed the
worst sort of madness, maddeningly so.
In all those studies of love, in friendship, fellowship, and teaching, I
always focused on the Great Commandment…and a corollary, “If you love others as
you love yourself, then they will love you back.” Give and you will receive. Be a friend and you’ll have friends; be a great friend, and you’ll have great friends! Assure them that they are loved, and you will
be assured, as well. Of course, this isn’t agape love.
It’s the most insidious, insinuating, disillusioning notion
of all, in its near truth. Indeed, the
principle is valid, but in its use lies madness. How many young people have I mentored over
the years? I have tutored 40 or 50
refugee kids, just in the last several years.
Have there been more than 100, some briefly, others over a number of
years? What do they think, and how do
they feel about me? I think I can fairly
say that most of them admire, appreciate, or even love me, but life goes
on. Children become adults with
lives of their own. For good or ill, they have been a big part of my life.
I have had many good friends, from college on; they, too, have
moved on, geographically as well as personally and socially. Most of them have married, had children, have
daughters and sons-in-law, and grandchildren.
I have not, and it is unlikely I will.
That was never my plan; but, despite a couple of “near misses,” life has also moved on for me.
I’d like to say that I’m a fairly social person, but maybe that’s
not true. I like to talk; I enjoy
teaching, counseling, and tutoring. I
miss being “on the air,” and I’m more of a people person that most radio folks. I also love to read, and I enjoy my privacy. But here I go,
analyzing, and I could easily begin thinking in those crazy circles…
My point, here, is an observation. It is easy not to love, not to care, to
become self-absorbed and thoughtless of others. That doesn’t mean, necessarily, active
disregard or antipathy. It just means it’s
easy to stop showing our love, to allow time to run away so that we realize we
haven’t spoken or written to those we care about, and to fail to express our
affection, compassion, and regard. I
could wish that more of those who care about me would be there and say so, but
that is the trap. It wouldn’t be wrong
from them to do so, but it is wrong for me to dwell on it. It is wrong for me to allow my
disappointment, insecurity, and loneliness to interfere with my expressions of
love, but sometimes I do. That is what makes me feel regret,
sadness, shame, and embarrassment.
As much as I hope people will hear and give priority to
love, I must confess that it isn’t easy for me, and similarly, how hard it may be
for others. That’s the struggle we all
have, and it’s why love is the great commandment. God is serious, and He knows how important it
is for His people, for the creatures He made in His image, to love.
I must also admit that loving Him, in a real sense, is
harder than loving other people. He
is eminently worthy but also profoundly other. The failing is not in Him, but in me, in us, just as
it is in our struggles with interpersonal love. Yet, again, He has commanded it. It is
the preeminent mandate and our most fundamental need. It is the key to our worship and our
effectiveness, the final goal of our life, and the one eternally prevailing virtue.
Love—it is the highest and the hardest thing we are meant to
learn and do. As Paul wrote, as he considered the tension between the wanting and the doing, “What
a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Crazy: Now you decide which is crazier: the love that I prize and preach that sometimes gets lost in the insane cycles of my own obsessive thougths, or the love of Christ that redeems, rescues, and restores a madman such as I? Certainly the standard of his love is greater, higher, and well-nigh unto impossible to reach; only a crazy man would try! Only a madman would suffer the guilty shame of failing to live up to the example of perfectly loving God incarnate. What this world thinks is foolish, God calls wisdom; that too is crazy. Yet, the result, the glorious love in the end, is insanely wonderful. So, call me crazy, crazy in love! (revised–July 28, 2008)
NOTE: I am reading Francis Schaeffer again,
after all these years. A friend recommended this collection of
his letters, and I picked up a copy. Through his correspondence,
his midlife, spiritual “course correction” resulted in the ministry
that influenced countless other lives and ministries, as well as young
people like I once was.