What's a poor sinner (like me) to do?

What’s a poor sinner (like me) to do?

I had a typical conversation with a good friend not too long ago on a cold Tuesday afternoon in Wisconsin. We were belly-aching about church, crazy things Christians do, the times we live in, and a host of random topics you routinely hear when Christians get together.

At one point, my friend asked me, “Steve, why is it you’re always yapping about love—‘The church needs to love more’ and ‘All we need to do is love better?’ Don’t you know that God is just as concerned that we live a life of holiness, too? Isn’t the church commanded to be salt and light? We need to be promoting righteousness, not just sentimental feelings. Christians can’t just go about ‘loving’ everyone and turn a blind eye to all the wickedness of our times. We need to balance love with holy living.”

Wow. I really didn’t have a good response. My first reaction was to defend my position, but I stopped from doing so. Right away, I began to doubt my assertion.

Maybe I have been off-kilter. Maybe I had overemphasized one Christian virtue to such a degree as to stretch and tear the whole cloth of the Christian faith.

Yes, we are to be salt and light. Yes, we should mourn over sin and injustice. Yes, we must be about promoting righteous living. But when is it most appropriate that we love? We are commanded to do that, right? But when, then, is it best to focus on holiness?

Taking Socrates’ Lead

Not long after, maybe a week or so later, I sat down one pre-dawn Saturday morning, trusted mug of coffee in hand, and tried to sort through my confusion. And, in deference to Socrates, I began my analysis by defining terms.

A passage in First Peter came to mind right away: “Be holy, for I am holy.” (I am ashamed to admit, I’ve always struggled with this verse.) What is this teaching really demanding of me? To be holy as God is? Isn’t that impossible? If we are commanded to be holy, then what is “holiness”? Surely it can’t mean being all-powerful, or all-knowing, or even sinless, because these traits are out of the reach of finite, fallen humans.

What does holiness mean?

The prevailing opinion of most theologians is that holiness means to be dedicated to or to set apart for a special purpose—something or Someone, that is wholly other. If that’s the case, then, what does holiness look like in human experience? Holiness fundamentally means that we are to be dedicated to (set apart to) those virtues that God is dedicated to (set apart to) which, when thoroughly considered, is an overpowering thought.

So, what does love mean?

The Apostle John’s first letter gives us a very short answer to this question, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down His life for us.” When we combine that idea with the rich description of love Paul gave us in his first letter to the church in Corinth, we see a portrait of love as patient, kind, not boastful, not rude, doesn’t keep records of wrongs, rejoices in truth not injustice, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, and never fails. It’s that same kind of love we saw in Jesus—both in his life and in his suffering. Jesus sacrificed himself to make others’ lives better—not just in this temporal world, but in the world to come. That seems to be the essential nature of love as God wants us to understand it.

Holiness: What’s Love Got to Do with It?

Here’s our basic problem: Many of us have been taught that holiness and love are different in kind when, according to the scriptures, they don’t appear to be. Holiness is a difference in degree, not in kind. The same argument can also be made for the Christian virtue of purity. Purity is best understood as how saturated one thing is with a certain quality. The more pure something is, the more saturated it is: like pure water, pure soap, pure joy—or, even for that matter, pure evil. Purity therefore is also a difference of degree, not a difference in kind.

If this is the case, then holiness and purity are not contrasting ideas to love as my friend assumed. Love can be holy or un-holy. Love can be pure or impure. Love can slide in various degrees along either continuum.

When we think of holy living (or even pure living) for the Christian, we rightly think in terms of how well we are at obeying God’s commands. A holier life is that life which is more in keeping with what God has expressly commanded, right? A purer life is that life which is more saturated with the virtues God expressly values, right?

What Does God Command?
What Does He Value?

For most of my Christian life, I’ve viewed the teachings of Jesus Christ as a list of pet peeves (the negative commands) and list of pet interests (the positive commands) of God that we must learn and ultimately discipline ourselves to obey. I always wondered, why these commands? Why not others? What do they have in common? Or do they have anything in common? Or are they just random commands with no underlying connection other than that they come from the same Person? Are they as arbitrary as my pet peeves? (I get annoyed when my kids move the dog’s leash from its normal place. I also get annoyed when people chew their food with their mouths open.)

Are God’s commands part of a bigger idea than just the individual command—like islands in the sea (an archipelago) that appear as independent land masses but are actually just the highlands of the same underwater continental floor? Are God’s commands similar manifestations of a bigger idea underneath?

Jesus tells us this is the case. Jesus told His followers that all the laws and the prophets hang on two commands: love God and love others. Therefore, assuming Jesus wasn’t just being rhetorically specious, Jesus is telling us that all commands are, in essence, acts of love. Paul, in the thirteenth chapter of his letter to the Romans, reemphasizes Jesus’s teaching in absolute terms when he writes, “The commandments, ‘Never commit adultery; never murder; never steal; never have wrong desires,’ and every other commandment are summed up in this statement: ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ Love never does anything that is harmful to a neighbor. Therefore, love fulfills Moses’ Teachings.”

The Apostle John, in his brief, and often overlooked, second letter, shares with us one of the most remarkable teachings in all of the New Testament when he writes in verse six that, if we love God, we will keep His commandments. And what is His command? That we love. It is perfect circular reasoning in order to make a profound point: Love is God’s command. Love is what makes God holy. God’s love is a love that is totally pure as described in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Therefore, we are best described as holy when we love as God loves. We are best described as pure when our love is as pure as God’s love.

Jesus told His disciples before His crucifixion and subsequent resurrection: “By this everyone will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another.”

Love then becomes the most holy, and  therefore most defining, attribute of God, for God is love. Love should also become the most holy, most defining attribute for all of us who are called by His name.

Can There Be Holy, Pure Living Without Love?

Paul tells us that it is worthless to speak in Angelic languages, deliver the most glorious sermons, give all our possessions to the poor, or even sacrifice our bodies to be burned if not motivated and animated by love. In essence, there is no “right living” apart from love-based living. There is no holy living that isn’t at its core, loving. There is no pure living that isn’t totally saturated with love.

If this is the case (which I am assuming to be true because it comes directly out of inspired scripture), then there is no morality, no righteousness, no holy living, no purity, no religious affection, no orthodoxy, or no orthopraxy that is not loving.

Further, our love cannot be a love that can be aimed at friendly targets alone. Our love must not be restricted to those we like, those worthy of our love, those who will love us in return, or those who are downright lovable. Our love must be wide-sweeping. We must love our enemies. We must love those who want to do us harm. We must love the unlovely. We must love those who make our skin crawl. Why? Because we’re commanded to do so by Jesus. Jesus, by His example, loved His enemies. Jesus loved the unlovely, including me and you (which is sufficient evidence enough.)

The people who spit in our faces, we must love. The people who make fun of our religion, we must love. The people who tell us they want to kill us, we must love, too. Love is free of self. Love is kind. Love is patient. Love never loses hope. Love endures all things. In essence, love is tough-going.

Loving God, Loving Others: Do They Ever Conflict?

Jesus told us the two greatest commandments are the basis for all His commandments. But is there ever a time that my love for God causes me to act in unloving ways towards my neighbor? Does my love for God ever supersede my love for my neighbor? Nowhere in Jesus’ teaching, or in the entire New Testament, do we ever see these commands in conflict. Because God champions a unity of truth, His commands never conflict with each other. And, if we ever see a conflict between these two in our thinking (or in practice), we owe it to ourselves to ask the question: what am I misunderstanding here?

John in his first epistle tells us that we cannot love God and hate our brother. Jesus said that what we do for the least of these, we do for Him. Jesus did say to his disciples that we must hate our brothers and sisters in comparison to the love we have for Him, but he never tells us to ever hate another with outright aversion or hostility.

Even for a disobedient brother, or even those who we disagree with theologically, we must always act in love. Love never means naive acceptance of everything about another. Love means we seek all possible good for that person even if our love from time to time must cross over from unassuming affection to direct, restorative confrontation—even separation. But in every act, our desire is single-minded: we want that person to ultimately thrive and experience the highest possible good in their lives. This is God’s demonstrated brand of love.

Our love for God never gives us license to be unloving to our neighbor no matter how unlovable they are. (Truth be known, I know of a few neighbors that create a particular challenge for me on this point, as I’m sure I do equally, if not more so, for them.) If we are ever tempted to act in an unloving way to another because we think we are being more righteous, or holy, or pure by doing so, we are terribly misunderstanding what’s really happening in the situation—or, more likely, what’s happening within our own deceitful, self-absorbed hearts. No unloving act aimed at another person can ever be represented as a holy, or pure or righteous act. Jesus’ definitions of holiness, purity, righteousness, and love preclude us from doing so.

Some Practical Implications If We Choose to Love

Love will put us at odds with this world. Because this world is all about pride and getting one’s way. The world values those who: (1) seek self-aggrandizement by trying to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps; (2) make the practical, utilitarian choices regardless how it affects others; (3) value ideals over individuals; (4) seek comfort and pleasure over self-sacrifice; and (5) marginalize others who disagree with their values.

Love is never the easier, softer, or less confrontational path. Love absorbs the pains and sufferings of others. Love is impractical, even to the point of being labeled as “foolish” because it is so lavish and irresponsible. Love wastes time dealing with the more challenging among us. Love inconveniences itself for the betterment of those who may never love in return—who actually may return hate instead. Sounds like Christ’s biography, doesn’t it? True, Christ-styled lovers will be stigmatized in many ways:

We will be labeled as naive—as dreamers.

We will be told that love is terribly impractical and wasteful.

We will be taken advantage of repeatedly—and then laughed at as being suckers.

We will be accused of having hidden agendas—that our acts of love are mere smoke screens for more self-serving interests.

We will be vilified as dangerous suppressors of progress.

We will be dismissed as enabling the feeble—those who simply need to be thinned out from the flock.

We will be branded as weak-minded optimists—people who refuse to own up to the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

We will be seen as lacking sound judgment, due to our prejudiced thinking that every person, no matter how despicable they may appear, is worthy of love and respect.

Worst of all, we will be labeled as bleeding-heart liberals, because: (1) we care for the unloved, (2) value those who provide little to no value to society, (3) throw good resources after “lost causes,” (4) protect those who are the weakest (both physically and morally—see Jesus’ example on that point), and (5) be pluralistic enough to tolerate others no matter how much their views or values clash with our own.

In fact, being a “love-free moralist” (if that’s even possible) is probably a much saner way to go. But, in doing so, we won’t be pursuing the morals, holiness and purity we have been commanded to pursue—at least not in the way Jesus defines holiness and purity.

In conclusion…

Our holiness has always been primarily about love. Holiness and love have never been two separate, competing ideals. I never have to choose between the false dichotomy of either being holy or being loving. The only thing I must ask myself is this: Is my love as deep, as self-less, as hopeful, as kind, as patient, as committed, as boundless, as holy as God’s love? If it is, then, I am being as holy as God is.

And that’s a pretty tall order.

If any of this feels strange or unnatural to you, it’s because it is. And it sure feels that way to me, too. In our day I don’t see a lot of love, at least not the love that Jesus demonstrated and talked about. We especially don’t see it among the more religious, which should strike us as ironic. I guess Jesus saw that same reality in his day, too.

I’m not sure what it means for us in everyday, practical living. I wish I already had it all figured out, but I don’t. But I do know I want to know more. And I know I want to be holier—therefore more loving—than I currently am. But, I’m struggling to know what to do next. I’d love to know what’s your take on it all—and any wise, and loving, advice you can give.