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Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Heartless

More women are abandoning their children (and their families generally) than ever before. CNN reports it. The Huffington Post, in a piece too appalling to link to, actually defends it. Indiana has decided to enable it, becoming the first state to install “baby boxes” at hospitals, police stations and fire stations as an easy and anonymous way for parents to give up their infants.

Some would say men have always been quick to stampede for the exits when things get tough, but an epidemic of wives and mothers doing likewise is a comparatively new phenomenon. It may be the straw that breaks Western society’s back.

What we might call natural affection is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. The world around us is increasingly heartless.

The Greek Language and Love

Where English gives us a single word, “love”, which we use to describe a variety of emotions, dispositions and their consequent actions, common or koiné Greek has four different words that cover the same semantic range.

One of these four (storgē) is almost exclusively used to describe love within a family, particularly the love of parents for children and children for their parents. It also describes the love between husband and wife in a long term, committed relationship; specifically, the aspect of such love that is not merely romantic or sexual in nature.

Conceptually, I suppose, that made the Greeks better equipped than we are to discuss the subject. 

Nothing New Under the Sun

Perhaps they had good reason to do so, because the failure of love within the family is nothing new. It is in the nature of mankind wherever and whenever we reject the knowledge of God.

The word storgē is not used in the New Testament. Its negative, however, is used twice. Paul says that people who suppress the truth revealed to them by God through nature become, among other bad things, “heartless” or “unloving”. The Greek word he uses here is astorgos, meaning lacking family affection (or “natural affection”, as the KJV has it).

So in one sense this is how things have always been. The testimony God has left to his existence in the natural world is evident. Rejection of that testimony and suppression of our natural knowledge is the source of much degradation in family relationships.

Still, for millennia there have been forces in place that have — however temporarily and imperfectly — worked to counter the human tendency toward heartlessness. At various times (and often in some combination or other), romantic or erotic love, affection, societal pressure, hard times, religious affiliation, the negative financial consequences of parting, guilt, duty, shame, fear, lethargy and even lack of opportunity have kept men and women from acting on whatever decreasing enthusiasm they may have felt for their family responsibilities.

None of these external or internal pressures has been completely successful. Feminists rightly point out that there have been many, many unhappy marriages over the centuries. Still, the inevitable heartlessness produced by rejection of God has been restrained to a degree throughout history despite frequent and consequential reminders of its presence: polygamy, abuse, divorce, cheating, abortion, abandonment and even child sacrifice have had their place in human society for thousands of years.

And It’s Getting Worse

But the traditional restraints on heartlessness in our society are all coming loose simultaneously.

Do I need to prove it? Divorce is skyrocketing. Abortion has devastated our Western culture in ways most do not yet understand. The forces that historically served to keep the lid on the simmering cauldron of disaffection for family life have disappeared one after another. With abandonment of exposure to religious teaching, away went duty, guilt, and the commitment (at least in theory) to monogamy. With the advent of no-fault divorce, near-automatic child support, the ever-expanding social safety net and generalized affluence throughout the West, away went fear and much of the financial pressure associated with divorce. Not only are women no longer dissuaded from seeing if the grass might be greener on the other side of the marital fence, they are actively encouraged to do so. Shame and social pressure are directed against stay-at-home moms and homeschooling families, not against those who pursue “happiness” or personal development at the expense of their families.

Again, this was not unexpected. Paul says that especially “in the last days” people will be “heartless”.

Paul was right. Things are definitely getting worse. Heartlessness is actually trendy.

Natural Affection and Jesus Christ

We often talk about the love of Jesus Christ without necessarily associating that love with our own very human emotions related to family. And indeed, his life was exceptional in that his natural affections extended far beyond the limits of his own biological family. “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” he asked rhetorically. “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother”.

There is no suggestion here, by the way, that the Lord was prepared to neglect his responsibilities toward his own biological family. Even in extremity on the cross, he displayed his concern for the spiritual and material welfare of his mother in saying to John, “Behold, your mother” and to Mary, “Behold, your son”. Those of us who might take our spiritual responsibilities so seriously that we are tempted to overlook our family duties are wise to notice these words in the gospel of John. But there is a lovely balance here as well: his statement in Matthew reminds us that the family ties of the kingdom of heaven eclipse those which are merely earthly and biological.

Those who seek to follow Christ in truth have an obligation to model his heart for those of his extended family, not just his very natural and recognizable affection for his mother. This means that the church should be characterized not only by a complete reversal of all that we see happening in the world around us, but a redoubled effort to display natural affection to one another just as the Lord Jesus loves those who do the will of his Father.

Loving the Truth

What is the remedy for heartlessness? I’d suggest it’s a renewed love of the truth.

Makes sense, doesn’t it? If natural affection is stymied and stultified in a human heart that rejects the truth of God, surely it overflows where truth is heard, accepted, practiced and prized. The end of those described as “heartless” in Romans 1 and 2 Timothy 3 is set out for us in 2 Thessalonians, where Paul says they perish “because they refused to love the truth and so be saved”.

Rejection of truth is not simply a problem for the unsaved. Increasingly, Paul tells us, we are to expect to find the suppression of truth a feature of the church.

Now in the church, we generally try to avoid suppressing the truth of God’s existence (though there is a little bit of that too), but there is a lot of truth suppression of a less obvious kind occurring within Christendom these days. Most of the movements within the modern church claiming to have “discovered” interpretations of scripture that neatly dovetail with the trends of modern culture are of this nature. They suppress the truth in unrighteousness. It would be a huge surprise if the affection-killing cancer of truth suppression afflicting our broader Western culture fails to produce equally catastrophic heartlessness if allowed to spread unchecked among the people of God.

That means not just loving the truth when it’s inconvenient but when it hurts. It is not enough to appear to be loving: we need to speak the truth in love.

Or else we risk not really being loving at all.

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