Tuesday, March 07, 2023

What Does Love Look Like?

When I go shopping with somebody I love, I pay careful attention to all the purchases they don’t make, especially when they look at an item with great interest, then put it back on the shelf with a sigh because they can’t afford it right now or have other financial priorities. Why? So I can come back later, pick it up and stick it in the closet for the next Christmas, Valentine’s Day or birthday celebration.

Mostly this is a favor to myself: I hate the pressure of having to run out at look for a gift at last minute. But it also means I don’t waste much money on presents people don’t really want or won’t use.

Let me suggest we treat the Law of Moses that way.

The Law as Christmas Gift List

Christ fulfilled the law so that you and I, who could never keep it, no longer have to try and fail at law-keeping all the time. Nevertheless, law still serves a useful purpose for the Christian to the extent that it provides us with unambiguous direction as to what sorts of behavior God likes and doesn’t like in his creatures. The more we have that clear in our minds and hearts, the more we are enabled to love God and our fellow man as we should. Scouring the law for clues to the Lord’s preferences for human behavior serves the same purpose as following a loved one around a mall with the hidden agenda of doing something nice for them later on. It’s a way of using the law lovingly rather than legalistically.

That’s not a thought original to me. Immanuel Can’s post on the Ten Commandments as relational principles was written almost a decade ago now, but it came to mind again as I made my way through Stephen G. Fowler’s Probing the Mind to Free the Soul: Toward a Psychoanalytic Protest Theology. Fowler has a real difficulty with legalistic Christians, especially those he calls “fundamentalists”, and it leads him perilously close to a rejection of law in principle. In the interest of transcending law, he wants to set aside or soft-pedal what the law teaches us about God’s desires for human sexuality; if not entirely, then certainly to an extent that would make his version of acceptable Christian conduct unrecognizable to first century believers.

Great Expectations

A couple of quotes may suffice to make this point:

“This is especially the case when Christianity has muddled the separation of law and grace and typically co-mingled the two in ways that lead believers into either minimal release from internal legalistic pressures, or heightened intensity of such pressures. If the pressure is not intensified from within, then it is from without, from the Christian community when it, erroneously, in contravention of the new law of love, conveys explicit, or more likely and maybe even more perniciously, implicit messages of expectation of purity in thought and behavior.”

Contra Fowler, the expectation of purity in thought and behavior is not some kind of violation of the “new law of love”, as I demonstrated in Sunday’s post. Purity in thought and behavior is absolutely a biblical goal; the New Testament teaches it from one end to the other. The pursuit of purity is not an unwelcome tradition grafted into Christian culture by legalists, literalists and Victorian pedants. Cultivating and expecting it in myself and in other believers is the furthest thing from erroneous or pernicious. Frankly, when I stop looking for it, I’m in serious trouble.

Superego vs. Conscience

One more:

“A benevolent superego will set standards for the subject’s performance that are reasonable, humane, and reachable; furthermore, it will be gentle in its identification of faults and shortcomings, forgiving, supportive, and compassionate, even encouraging in its efforts to help the subject achieve better. The unmodified superego, I conclude, is the primary agency in the mind by which Satan, in his role as the lying accuser, has his impact.”

The problem with this should be obvious: when the Holy Spirit can no longer cause me to feel guilt or shame for my breaches of purity, then the problem is not in my superego — the voice in my head created by the unreasonable expectations of myself and others — where Fowler thinks it is. Rather, it is in my seared conscience, which, when operating rightly in the Christian, is one of the primary ways the Holy Spirit leads us. The solution to guilt and shame resulting from impure thoughts and actions lies not in redefining purity, as Fowler does, but rather in responding to my conscience with obedience to the word of God as I understand it. If I do not, I will be miserable, as I should be. When I stop feeling bad about my sin, I’m in the last few verses of Romans 1, where no right-thinking person should want to be.

Yes, Satan is an accuser. That doesn’t mean all accusations are bad. Paul talks in Romans about the conflicting thoughts produced by accusations in the conscience, which show the “work of the law” is written on the hearts of Gentiles as well as Jews. That is part of the natural order in our fallen world, not some internal process we should reject out of hand simply because it can be described with the same word used in the Bible concerning Satan.

Love in Action

All of this brings up an important question: what does this “new law of love” Fowler talks about look like in action? We are reading the same New Testament, I hope, but he and I seem to be coming to very different conclusions.

Love itself is not an action, it’s a motivating force. So is fear or, if you prefer, respect, the motive force for most law-keeping. Both produce actions but are not actions in and of themselves.

Stephen Fowler expects the product of love to look significantly different than the product of law-keeping in the lives of believers. Law makes the porn addict feel guilty about his habit. His conscience troubles him. He fears discovery and judgment by his friends and family. Love, in Fowler’s view, will help the porn addict let himself off the hook a bit so he doesn’t feel so miserable, enslaved and paranoid that his wife or friends may find out he’s a fraud.

But is that the sort of liberation we have in Christ? I sure hope not.

Love That Looks Like Law-Keeping

There are indeed some differences between a Christian motivated by love and a Christian motivated by law. For one, love does its work with joy. Law-keeping may be done joyfully, but often is not. (We may find Old Testament exceptions, of course.) Love is also accompanied by true inner peace: the confidence that the sacrifice of Christ is fully sufficient and nothing I can do adds anything to it, and nothing I can do can take away from it. When God is satisfied, he’s satisfied.

But these differences are internal. They are benefits I receive from acting lovingly, they are not necessarily apprehended by those around me. From a practical standpoint, the things I do lovingly and the things I do from fear of judgment may look identical to those around me. From a distance, chastity, generosity, moderation, hard work and self-discipline look like what they are regardless of the motivation that lies behind them.

What did Paul’s love look like? Well, it looked like an awful lot of painstaking labor. If he had gone through life just keeping the law of Moses, he would have experienced a great deal less grief and strain. Love takes more effort, works longer hours, inconveniences itself much more frequently and distresses itself with needs law-keeping doesn’t even consider.

Love and Labor

If I am motivated by love, am I going to be sloppy and loose about sexuality, less concerned about holding myself to the highest standards of purity? Of course not! How could I defraud my neighbor, cheat on my wife, mislead somebody I should love in Christ about my intentions? Love would never do such things. In fact, love will make me far more self-disciplined than law ever could have in my thought life and in how I conduct myself around others. The fruit of the Spirit is self-control. Love is not the abandonment of law, but the natural instinct to keep it even when the threat of judgment or the fear of negative consequences are entirely absent. Love does all the same things law does, abides by the same standards. It recognizes those standards were given to humanity for its own benefit, and because they reflect the desires of God for human conduct, not just because they showed us our own inability to meet a righteous standard consistently without Christ.

So when the Lord Jesus said to the woman taken in adultery, “Go and sin no more”, he meant just that. He did not mean “Go and commit adultery a little less, or maybe the same amount, but rationalize away your guilt and shame with a story about your childhood sexual trauma so you experience fewer moments of cognitive dissonance.” Returning to her sinful life wasn’t what the Lord intended for her, nor was he unreasonable to expect her to give up adultery for the rest of her life. If the Lord commanded it, it was possible.

Love is higher than law, but it is not necessarily less laborious to live out.

Love Fulfils the Law

Consider this passage in Romans:

“The one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”

Or this one in Galatians:

“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ”

Here we are not talking about Christ’s fulfillment of the law, accomplished in his death and resurrection, but rather the Christian’s ongoing responsibility to fulfil the law through love to his brothers and sisters, including the non-commission of adultery. It is important to understand that love is not the negation of law or the redefinition of law, but rather, it is the fulfillment of law. It is the keeping of Old Testament commandments in a New Testament spirit. Not all of them, of course, but certainly the ones restated by the apostles in their letters to the churches.

New Testament Commandments

How many commands are there in the New Testament? No small number. One writer has listed 1,050 of these, something like twelve pages worth, though of course there is plenty of repetition on that list. (To be fair, he has also listed many of Christ’s commands to Jews in the gospels, not all of which apply to believers in our present era, and he has made a few “commandments” out of statements that were not intended as commands.) Still, even if we cut that list in half, it’s a lot of responsibility and even a significant “imposition on my freedom”, if we choose to look at it that way.

Of course, I am not suggesting we look at it that way. Not at all. I don’t think the apostles did. They saw the commands they were giving believers as opportunities for loving people to express their love to one another, not as legalistic impositions or some sort of reinstitution of the Law of Moses. They saw them as a gift list, not a burden.

So when the apostles and elders at the church in Jerusalem sent word to Antioch that the believers there were to abstain from sexual immorality, they were not laying an unreasonable burden on the Gentiles. They were very conscious of avoiding imposing unreasonable restrictions on believers, knowing that doing so was “a yoke neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear”. What they were offering Antioch was in Antioch’s best interests, and everyone else’s. It was a gesture of love.

What does our service of love look like? It looks like self-imposed limitations on my own freedom for the good of others. “If food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.” What is Christian freedom from law through “the new law of love”? It’s a whole lot of work.

That’s not a bad thing unless you don’t like work.

No comments :

Post a Comment