Love Without Law

Love is Love graffiti

All You Need Is Love. It’s the title of a classic Beatles song, but it’s also more or less what Jesus said when a religious teacher asked him what was the greatest commandment in the Law. Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself, Christ answered. “On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets” (Matt 22:40).

In other words, if we could only understand what love for God and love for our neighbor means, we could safely throw out all the rest of the commands of Scripture and just love. It’s not unreasonable to ask, in light of Jesus’ own words, why God didn’t edit the Bible down to a single page with the admonition “Love Yahweh and everyone else” embossed on the front and maybe a few Psalms on the back.

Perhaps more than any other part of the Bible, the book of Judges helps to answer that question.

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Don’t Let a Fight Against Error Kill Your Love

Caution cone on keyboard

Last week’s article wasn’t supposed to be an article. I started out writing an opening illustration for a different point, but it took on a life of its own and I ended up with a whole post about the dangers of getting so caught up in the fight against racism, sexism, and other ugly -isms that we forget Jesus’ command to be peacemakers, to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies. We must always remember that Satan loves to tempt us to fight the right fight in the wrong way… Which I suppose still works as an opening observation to bring us around to what I meant to talk about last Monday. Because there is more than one “good fight” which can become an idol. For many conservative, Bible-believing Christians, one of the most potentially dangerous good fights is the battle against error in the church.

Are you entirely satisfied with everything taught by every part of the American church? I thought not. Neither am I. From churches which don’t bother to teach the Bible to churches which outright teach against the Bible, there is every reason to be concerned about the spiritual health of many of the professing Christians around us. And such caution is appropriate and biblical. Paul warned Roman believers, “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them” (Rom 16:17). Corruption in the church is the worst kind of corruption, because it dishonors the name of Christ and destroys our witness to the world. Vigilance is essential—but vigilance has a way of killing our love.

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Servants Don’t Take Offense

Potter with clay

A couple years ago, an academic and writer who was researching the role of women in Reformed churches flew in for a day to attend a presbytery meeting in my little part of the Christian world. Her subsequent scathing report generated quite a bit of discussion and controversy, with particular outrage over her revelation that the women’s restroom was temporarily labeled for male use. What kind of church, readers demanded, would care so little about female concerns as to refuse to even give them restroom facilities? The account of the omission was one of the most dramatic parts of her report, with three paragraphs devoted to describing and analyzing the way in which “women’s physical needs were considered unimportant and inconvenient.” It was a damning indictment—and perhaps a tad overstated.

Frankly, the bathroom labeling was thoughtless, creating an uncomfortable situation for any women who had to remove the sign and wait for the bathroom to clear before using it. But in a denomination which does not have female elders, everyone knows there are going to be hardly any women at a presbytery meeting. As someone who has run large events in the past, I have a great deal of sympathy for the harried organizer, worrying the night before about the prospect of long bathroom lines snaking through the foyer of a small church, who hastily tried to solve the problem with the “Men’s Restroom” sign which was shortly to become a thing of infamy. (Had the same organizer been running a women’s conference, I expect we’d have seen a “Women’s Restroom” sign on the men’s room.) Was it a less-than-ideal solution? Yes. Was it a significant sign of underlying sexism on the part of everyone associated with the meeting? Perhaps… not?

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Romantic Pagans, True Religion, and True Love

Whitney Houston album cover

“I have nothing, nothing, nothing
If I don’t have you…”

I was listening to the radio the other evening when Whitney Houston’s 1993 hit “I Have Nothing” came on. I would gladly listen to Whitney Houston sing “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” so I always smile to hear her voice come through the speaker, but I could not help being struck as the singer’s amazing voice soared out the chorus, “I have nothing, nothing, nothing / If I don’t have you…”

It’s a line that could have come from a million different songs, movies, and books in a world where romance is one of our favorite idols. How many movies have you watched where the essential struggle and the key to lasting happiness is whether he ends up with she? How many songs mourn lost love, celebrate new love, or narrate the search for love?

Now, a good romantic story is a wonderful thing, but even a good thing can turn unhealthy. The lines in Whitney Houston’s ballad caught me because they hint at the sad, cold side of Hollywood-style romance: I have nothing if I don’t have you. I don’t want to read too much into a lyric that does capture well the breathless and passionate single-mindedness of being in love, but I wonder if the songwriter didn’t accidentally capture something else too—the grey emptiness of being out of love when romance is your god.

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Working to Make Space for Delight

Hands forming a heart

I’m whisking my wife away to an undisclosed location for a few days before the school year starts, so I was all set to write a brief post explaining that my usual Thursday article would not be forthcoming. Then that brief explanation grew somewhat less brief and it appears we have something of a Thursday article after all. (This is one of the hazards of being a writer.)

With our rare and long-awaited weekend getaway fast approaching, I’ve been thinking about marriage and the kind of work that goes into cultivating delight. It seems like every stage of a marriage throws up some different barrier to staying in love. Leah and I are still in a relatively easy stage, but we have already discovered that the premarital advice was true and we do need to work to tend the spark which flared so naturally when we were dating. So we work at it. Which may not sound especially romantic—and frankly, it’s not. Planning and scheduling and prioritizing aren’t exactly the stuff of poetry, but then they aren’t supposed to be. They are about preparation, not poetry.

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The Place for Patriotism

Mount Rushmore

With 4th of July festivities under way and flags and tri-colored streamers filling the air, it is a good time to consider the much-maligned virtue of patriotism. Along with many other natural affections, patriotism has been staggered by successive blows from modernism, which sees such emotions as irrational and useless, and postmodernism, which sees them as dangerous.

For sterile, scientific modernism, the idea of having particular pride in one’s country is simply absurd. After all, one’s place of birth is mere happenstance. Every nation has its merits and demerits, and comparison between our own country and the rest of the world will never be entirely complementary. As Virginia Woolf wrote grimly of her own land, those tempted to an irrational local enthusiasm should “compare English painting with French painting; English music with German music; English literature with Greek literature… When all these comparisons have been faithfully made by the use of reason, the outsider will find herself in possession of very good reasons for her indifference.”

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Faith, love, and true religion

I was thinking of writing a post about Christian faith today when I stumbled across this quote from the 19th-century Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Ah! what a divine religion might be found out if charity were really made the principle of it instead of faith.

What better spot from which to embark on a discussion of Christian faith? Shelley’s wish is a popular one: for a religion of love and kindness, stripped of heavenly pretensions or supernatural hopes. (At the time, “charity” meant love or goodwill toward others, rather than its narrow contemporary meaning of giving to worthy causes.) It is plain that Shelley sees charity and faith as being at least somewhat opposed; either one or the other will be the guiding principle of one’s religious life. The poet is not the only one with this perspective. Many today see what he calls charity as practical service and care for others, while faith is an airy and impractical mass of heavenly hopes. Charity stretches out a hand to one’s neighbor to help him, while faith casts prayer and belief heavenward in hopes that one’s soul will follow on the final day. If that is an accurate picture of faith, then it is easy to see why religion must pick one or the other as its emphasis and foundation.

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On love of self

I recently had an interesting conversation with a friend on Facebook who posted a quote which said that self-protection ought to be avoided because it was a form of self-love, the assumption being that self-love is itself wrong. Of course, the point of the quote was simply to argue against a selfish fixation on our own wellbeing above that of others, but I disagreed with the premise that self-love is morally wrong. The discussion that followed made me decide to post something on the topic here as well.

We can certainly begin by acknowledging that self-love is at the root of a deadly collection of sins. Ever since the time of the Fall, when Adam sinned by desiring to raise himself to equality with God, no idol has been worshiped with greater fervor than man has lavished upon himself.

This leads rather naturally to the assumption that self-love is itself sinful. However, such an assumption is unjustified. The mere fact that a thing may be corrupted does not prove that it is bad. (Before the Fall, all of creation was corruptible but good.) The question, then, is whether self-love is inherently bad or becomes bad under certain circumstances.

One starting point for considering this question can be found in the fact that God loves himself, thus proving that not all self-love is wrong. Furthermore, God loves human beings, which means that humans ought to be loved. (Note that this is not the same as saying human beings deserve to be loved.) Jesus makes this explicit when he commands, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13).

Now, it would be logically possible for a human to be obliged to love all human beings except himself. However, if self-love is not inherently evil, as is proven by God’s self-love, and if humans qua humans are to be loved as a general principle, such a position would be hard to justify without explicit scriptural backing, which is lacking. In fact, when we turn to Scripture we find Christ suggesting the opposite when he commands, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (emphasis added). At first glance one might conclude this was merely a concession to the unavoidable fact of human self-love, but can anyone seriously argue that the One who commanded “Be ye perfect” would have shied away from declaring “You shall love your neighbor and not yourself,” if that were in fact the right course?

How, then, does self-love become sin? When we begin to love ourselves above our God or our neighbor. Returning to Mark 12, Jesus declares, “The foremost [commandment] is, ‘Hear O Israel! The Lord your God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” God first, God most, always; our fellow man next, for he is created in God’s image. When this order is disrupted, and only then, self-love becomes sin.

Of course, leaving the theoretical for the practical, in our daily walk self-love does require constant control because it is so insistent on pride of place in our lives. Why not treat it as actually bad, since it is so inclined in that direction? Two reasons: First, because if in fact human beings ought to be loved, and if there is no scriptural exception for the particular human whom one happens to be, then failure to love oneself properly would actually be sin! Virtuous self-love dictates that we ought to always seek what is truly best for ourselves, provided always that it does not interfere with our duty to love God first and neighbor next.

Secondly, treating self-love as inherently sinful often leads to a dangerous misdirection of effort as we strive for virtue. When we believe that the existence of self-love stands between ourselves and God, we will naturally attempt to eradicate it. This leads to a difficult and ultimately harmful struggle to uproot a thing which is not actually bad; while at the same time, every ounce of effort devoted to this attack on self-love will not be devoted to our proper goal of seeking God’s grace to learn to love him and his human creation better.

To love the true, the good, and the beautiful

The great classical thinkers assumed that true virtue lay in loving the true, the good, and the beautiful; that the virtuous man would center his affection on this triumvirate of excellence, and that such attention would itself foster growth in virtue. During this morning’s sermon Pastor Phillips explained how love of what is true, good, and beautiful is also central to the Christian walk, and, this being a topic dear to my own heart, I was inspired to write something of my own on the subject.

As Christians, we have many compelling reasons to intentionally cultivate a love for all that is true and good and beautiful. To begin with, all such excellences ultimately originate with God. Some directly, such as a rainbow, the song of a thrush, or the sweep of constellations in a night sky, and some indirectly, like good music, a well-made meal, pleasant comradeship, or a thought-provoking book. Whether God created the good or created the creator of the good, ultimately all goods are His gifts. “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.”

No one who considers the impractically extravagant beauty of a butterfly, or the utterly unnecessary pleasure produced by certain combinations of sound, can doubt that God takes pleasure in His creativity. And what creator does not delight in the delight of others? God did not invent flame so that it could be put under a basket, but so that it might dance upon the lampstand and give light to all who are in the house, that they might see it and glorify their Father who is in heaven.

When we delight in what is true, and good, and beautiful, we worship God. “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.” Furthermore, such appreciation actually shapes us to love Him more and better.

Our every choice, our every affection, shapes us in some way. We become what we do; we become what we love. This is why Paul tells us, “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.” As our love of God shapes us to love what is good, so also our love of what is good shapes us to love God, the author of these goods, more and more fully.

This is a point that is perhaps most easily seen in the negative. Most would agree that a man who shuts himself up in a dank apartment, reading twisted novels and listening to dark music, is cultivating a spirit that is less open to the Father of lights. If our loves can draw us away from God, surely they can also draw us nearer, when we love those created goods through which “His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature” are revealed.

It is important to add a caveat here. Whenever one speaks of loving created things, there is a natural shrinking away on the part of the Christian: “Idolatry!” In fact, Augustine famously defined sin as nothing other than loving what is less above what is greater. Clearly, disordered affection – love of creation over Creator – is a deadly error. Yet, Augustine himself notes that the sin lies “in deserting what [is] better,” rather than in the love of created things themselves.

The error here lies in deficiency rather than excess of love. If a woman buys her husband a new car, then complains a few months later, “You love that car more than you love me!” it is unlikely that promising to love the car less will really address the heart of the problem. We want our gifts to be loved, and to be loved for themselves. In a healthy relationship, there is no fear that even the most wonderful gift will overwhelm the recipient’s love for the giver – on the contrary, such gifts illustrate and reinforce that love.

If we find that our love of created things, whether food, nature, or family, has come to exceed our love of God, trying to tamp down those loves is approaching the problem from the wrong direction. One cannot treat the disease by attacking symptoms. Instead, we must choose to love God first, to restore Him to His proper place in our lives. When we call upon Him, the God who once taught us to love Him is always ready to go over the lesson again. And once He is restored to pride of place, all our other lesser loves fall naturally into their appropriate positions as well. So long as we do not allow love of God’s gifts to distract us from love of the Giver, there is no reason to fear that they will separate us from Him. In fact, a proper love of what is true and good and beautiful may help us avoid those things which threaten our relationship with God.

There is much that is bad and unhealthy without being outright evil. Many books, movies, conversations, images, and thoughts sit just outside the boundaries of objective, clear “wrongness,” just far enough away that we feel justified in partaking. We don’t have to touch what is unclean, but we get used to the smell.

It’s hard to draw clear boundary lines in such cases. When we try, too often we swerve too far in the other direction and become legalists. Like the Pharisees, we “weigh men down with burdens hard to bear,” taking it upon ourselves to remedy the deficiencies in God’s commands. Some movies are bad, so we don’t watch movies. Drinking may lead to drunkenness, so drinking is banned. Dress may be provocative, so women should be unkempt for Christ.

Torn between two negative extremes, how much better to have something excellent for which to aim. I observed earlier that we become what we love; it is worth noting that we also love what we love. And the more we love what is good, the more we hate what is not. When God commands us in Amos, “Hate evil, love good,” He’s actually just repeating Himself. This is why a God of love can also hate, and hate passionately; in fact, a God of love must hate if He truly loves.

Better one love than a hundred laws. A man can try to avoid being drawn into pornography by carefully deciding exactly how many square inches of exposed skin and how provocative a pose it takes to make an image unacceptable – or he can teach himself to love purity and beauty. A woman can draw a flowchart to determine when conversation turns to gossip – or she can cultivate a fierce love for her neighbor. A parent can diagram exactly which words and chords makes music out-of-bounds for his teen – or he can teach him to love music that is good and beautiful. (This is not to suggest that rules are unnecessary. Objective boundaries are often valuable and helpful as we seek to grow in virtue, but without an organic foundation of love we will always end up spilling over into either corruption or legalism.)

It may seem odd to suggest that cultivating a love of botany or astronomy would help a man resist pornography, but that is in fact exactly what I am suggesting. Beauty is beauty and goodness is goodness, whatever form it takes. The more our very soul embraces what is truly beautiful, the more naturally we will respond with revulsion to what is filthy and perverted. Love of one good translates to all others. Show me a man who has cultivated a love of true womanhood, of purity, and of beauty, and I’ll show you a man who will find it far easier to resist the lure of pornography or other sexual impurity.

As Christians, we have every reason to cultivate a love of all that is true, all that is good, and all that is beautiful, for our good God gave us these gifts for our delight and to teach of His nature. This is the world which the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Passion, moderation, and virtue

Rereading G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy recently, I was struck by the essential distinction he draws between the balanced, moderate Aristotelian idea of virtue and that of Christianity. Discussing “the paradoxes of Christianity,” Chesterton writes,

Nevertheless it could not, I felt, be quite true that Christianity was merely sensible and stood in the middle. There was really an element in it of emphasis and even frenzy which had justified the secularists in their superficial criticism. It might be wise, I began more and more to think that it was wise, but it was not merely worldly wise; it was not merely temperate and respectable. Its fierce crusaders and meek saints might balance each other; still, the crusaders were very fierce and the saints were very meek, meek beyond all decency…

All sane men can see that sanity is some kind of equilibrium; that one may be mad and eat too much, or mad and eat too little… But granted that we have all to keep a balance, the real interest comes in with the question of how that balance can be kept. That was the problem with Paganism tried to solve; that was the problem which I think Christianity solved and solved in a very strange way…

Paganism declared that virtue was in balance; Christianity declared it was in conflict: the collision of two passions apparently opposite. Of course they were not really inconsistent; but they were such that it was hard to hold simultaneously.

The tempered, moderate virtue of the Greeks ends up respectable but lifeless.  Seeking, for example, the virtuous balance between pride and abasement, the Greek “would merely say that he was content with himself, but not insolently self-satisfied, that there were many better and many worse, that his deserts were limited, but he would see that he got them. In short, he would walk with his head in the air; but not necessarily with his nose in the air.” “This is a manly and rational position,” Chesterton agrees, but, “Being a mixture of two things, it is a dilution of two things; neither is present in its full strength or contributes its full color.”

This proper pride does not lift the heart like the tongue of trumpets; you cannot go clad in crimson and gold for this. On the other hand, this mild rationalist modesty does not cleanse the soul with fire and make it clear like crystal; it does not (like a strict and searching humility) make a man as a little child, who can sit at the feet of the grass… Thus it loses both the poetry of being proud and the poetry of being humble.

In contrast, Christianity manages to save both. “In so far as I am Man I am the chief of creatures. In so far as I am a man I am the chief of sinners… Christianity thus held a thought of the dignity of man that could only be expressed in crowns rayed like the sun and fans of peacock plumage. Yet at the same time it could hold a thought about the abject smallness of man that could only be expressed in fasting and fantastic submission, in the gray ashes of St. Dominic and the white snows of St. Bernard.”

Chesterton argues that this paradoxical wedding of extremes goes to the heart of Christianity; a religion which promises, after all, that “whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it,” and founded upon the Christ, who “was not a being apart from God and man, like an elf, nor yet a being half human and half not, like a centaur, but both things at once and both things thoroughly, very man and very God.”

In fact, this principle characterizes Christian ethics. Take, for example, man’s relationship with the natural world. On the one hand, a wondering joy, alternately exuberant and hushed, at the beauty of creation; on the other, a gritty hatred for the evil and wrong intermingled with the good. Or Augustine’s Just War theory, which holds that violence can be right and good… so long as it is motivated by love of our neighbor.

And what of romantic love? Commenting on Christ’s command to “hate” one’s own wife (Luke 14:26), C.S. Lewis writes in The Four Loves, “He says something that cracks like a whip about trampling them all under foot the moment they hold us back from following Him… To hate is to reject, to set one’s face against, to make no concession to, the Beloved when the Beloved utters, however sweetly and however pitiably, the suggestions of the Devil.” And yet, this submission to a higher love in no way diminishes the love that Scripture anticipates between man and wife. After all, they are told to love one another “as Christ loved the church;” an overwhelming idea even when considered only in light of his sacrifice on her behalf, which is itself a mere expression of the inexplicable delight which led prophets from Isaiah to John of Patmos to speak of Christ “rejoicing” in his bride. And of course, the vast majority of scriptural discussion of marriage takes the form, not of commands or propositions, but of a book of love poetry considered so inflammatory by colonial Americans that their youth were not allowed to read it until they reached adulthood!

Why does all of this matter? Two reasons. First, there is the obvious fact that a better understanding of our God and our faith is always valuable. Secondly, a renewed attention to that element within Christianity “of emphasis and even frenzy… the collision of passions” which Chesterton notes might serve as a corrective to the tendency within comfortable American Christianity to be exceptional largely for our dullness. This is not to suggest an artificial fanning of passion, but rather a simple recognition that, contra the intuitive, classical view, virtue is not necessarily found in moderation, in a Goldilocksian “not too hot and not too cold;” that the faith which Dorothy Sayers called “the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man” has not lost the spirit of the Creator who decided to stage a play, and spun a universe from nothing to serve as the set.