Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Higher Than Law

“One who loves another has fulfilled the law.” So wrote the apostle Paul in Romans. Again, in Galatians he reminds his readers that “the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ”

His point is that Christians behaving lovingly don’t need to worry about whether they are acting in the will of God or conforming in every detail to God’s law, because they are doing what God wants without even thinking about it. Their conformity to godliness has become as automatic and unconscious as breathing.

But love is only higher than law when it’s actually love.

Seven Types of Decision-Making

Last week I did a two-part book review of Timothy Jennings’ The God-Shaped Heart, in which Jennings adopted Lawrence Kohlberg’s six stages of moral development as a way of analyzing Christian decision-making. Jennings added a seventh stage. They are as follows:

  1. Reward and punishment (the most basic level, at which small children and lower animals operate);
  2. Marketplace exchange (contract law or quid pro quo);
  3. Social conformity (peer pressure);
  4. Law and order (codified rules and punishments);
  5. Love for others (fulfilling the law incidentally rather than by checklist);
  6. Principle-based living (living in harmony with God’s design and intention); and
  7. Understanding friend of God (intelligent cooperation with God in pursuing his goals).

God-Shaped or Pear-Shaped?

It can easily be seen that we are moving from the lowest form of motivation to the highest as we go from one to seven. Rules are for people who do not yet have the right instincts and desires. When we come to think as God thinks, we are no longer caught up in the details of rule-keeping.

This is the important point: thinking as God thinks and loving as God loves. Fulfilling the law by behaving lovingly only works when we define love the way God does. If our notions of how to behave lovingly are not biblical, we will not only fail to fulfill the law and please God but will also do all kinds of damage in the process of “loving” others.

I agree with Jennings that every step upward through this hierarchy of motivation is a moral improvement. In the realm of theory, Jennings and I are right on the same page. But as I worked my way through Jennings’ book, as I read his chapter on homosexuality and as I parsed his examples of unloving Christian behavior, I repeatedly found myself thinking that the author and I do not remotely concur about what real love actually looks like in action. What Jennings thinks is a “God-shaped” heart looks more than a little pear-shaped to me.

It struck me that this is often true of Christians attempting to behave lovingly: we have difficulty agreeing about what love should look like.

Good Intentions and Sentiment

Part of the problem is that we often confuse intentions with outcomes. But the fact that we mean well does not necessarily have anything to do with whether our choices are actually loving. If love is manifested in obedience, the son who initially said “I will not” showed more love to his father than the son who answered “I go, sir” and didn’t. The latter may have fully intended to go, and his response was more respectful than his brother’s, but since he didn’t follow through on his good intentions, nothing loving happened. Love is only love when it delivers the goods. Love that only happens between our ears doesn’t meet God’s standard.

Another difficulty in agreeing about what love should look like: even though we have all kinds of books (and old Steve Camp songs) reminding us that agape love is “not a feeling”, many sincere believers have not internalized this truth and mistake sentimentality or tolerance for Christian love. They are comfortable acting only so long as what they are doing feels loving to them. But what feels most loving today may not turn out to be what is most loving in the long-term. In the famous Paul/Barnabas split, Barnabas the encourager looks loving on first read, and Paul the hard case does not. But the truth is that we do not know whether John Mark’s eventual restoration was caused by his relative’s willingness to give him another chance or by the shame the apostle’s hard line in the sand caused him, or perhaps by some combination of the two. Perhaps Paul was acting in love. Perhaps Barnabas was. Perhaps both were, or maybe neither.

Where love in concerned, we must confess that sometimes our ignorance is near-total.

Love That Doesn’t Look Like Love

Real love is quite unsentimental. It is also not arrived at by consensus. Consider Christ for a moment. Real love lectures Pharisees and calls people offensive names. Real love overturns tables and carries a whip. Real love leaves home and family behind even when those actions are grossly misunderstood. Real love is not content to appear godly to the masses, it insists on actually being godly, whether or not that meets with popular approval.

Real love often does very difficult things nobody understands that make people very angry indeed. Real love sometimes leaves you standing alone.

To make it extremely practical, real love requires accurate information. Real love can only operate in the realm of cold, hard facts. Consider the constant reminders we have received lately that “being vaccinated is an act of love”, some of them from prominent and influential religious figures. Well, yes, assuming the vaccines work as we were all told they did when they first appeared, then my being vaccinated potentially helps my neighbor stay safe from a potentially deadly virus. Who wouldn’t want that?

But what if the vaccines not only don’t work as advertised but also come with potentially deadly side effects for a non-trivial percentage of the population? What if being vaccinated actually makes things worse for society? What if my endorsement of a vaccine which may be perfectly safe for me encourages someone for whom it is not perfectly safe to take an insufficiently tested chemical cocktail that ultimately injures or kills him?

Am I behaving lovingly in that case? Maybe not so much. I might have the best of intentions, but the grumpy old conspiracy theorist sitting outside the restaurant across the street trying to warn his relatives of the potential dangers of vaccination is actually being more loving than I am.

Knowing What We Don’t Know

That’s an inflammatory example, but you see the problem: without accurate information, nobody really has a clue what the loving thing to do is in any given situation. The cascade of unintended consequences that follows from any particular choice in this life is one of those “unknown unknowns” Donald Rumsfeld famously talked about. Such knowledge is uniquely the domain of God.

Where does that leave us exactly? Well, hopefully not judging one another. Every day, you and I make choices we believe are made in love. We make them prayerfully, we make them in goodwill, and we make them in ignorance. Some of them go horribly wrong. The welfare state. Clean energy. Gas additives. Disciplining our children. Holding back the truth for fear of hurting someone’s feelings. Telling the truth when it wasn’t our business to do so. A gesture of affection to a homosexual relative that is misinterpreted as approval of his lifestyle. A refusal to condone sin that is misinterpreted as hatred.

We know a lot less about love than we think we do. The first step in being truly loving is confessing how badly we need the Lord’s help in figuring out what love means in any given situation.

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