When I was ‘younger’ in my faith, I never wondered what it meant to ‘love one another as I love myself.’ I knew what it meant. However, as I have grown in my faith, and I started to notice how many people use the notion of ‘love,’ I started to wonder whether or not I truly understood what Scripture meant by ‘love.’ We hear people urging each other to ‘love’ each other all the time, but what do they mean by that? Do they mean it the way Scripture intends us to understand it, or do they mean something entirely different? If they have a different idea in mind, what do they actually mean, and what might be the result or consequences of that different understanding? These are not insignificant questions. Sadly, though, few will ever ask them.
Why do I wonder about this issue? Well, for one, we use ‘love’ as a blanket notion, but Scripture does not — especially the New Testament. In the New Testament, Scripture uses several different words to describe different ideas of ‘love.’ Sometimes ‘love’ is more of an emotional feeling, but, other times, it is more of an intentional act. For example: when we are told to ‘love our enemies,’ we are not told to ‘like’ them. Scripture differentiates between having a righteous concern for others and having warm, friendly, affectionate feelings toward them. This difference is apparent in the original Greek of the New Testament, as well as in the actual context of the teachings it contains, but not in our modern translations. I just wonder whether or not modern believers are aware of this difference, let alone understand what it means for us in our daily walk.
A famous example is when Christ asks Peter if Peter loves Him. The first two times Jesus questions Peter, He asks Peter whether or not Peter agapes Him, but Peter answers that he phileos the Lord. Finally, on the third time, Jesus asks Peter whether or not Peter phileos Him and Peter says yes, yet again. Sadly, I think we miss the full impact of this passage. Jesus asked Peter two times whether or not Peter had a righteous, Godly love for Christ, and twice Peter answered that he had a fond, friendship type of love for the Lord. Seeing that Peter was not spiritually mature enough to understand what He was asking, Jesus finally comes down to Peter’s level and asks whether Peter has a friendship type of love for Him and Peter agrees with this understanding of ‘love.’ By doing this, Jesus demonstrates agape love: He showed concern for Peter’s well being and asked His question in such a way as not to harm Peter without reason. Or, in other words, Jesus ‘came down’ to Peter’s level of understanding. How many of us see and understand what was actually happening in this passage? And how does it change our understanding once we do understand?
Then there is the passage where Jesus says to ‘love your neighbor as yourself.‘ Here we are told to have a righteous concern, or a ‘Godly love for our neighbor — just as we have for ourselves. Again, we are not told that we must have fond feelings for our neighbor; we are told that we must look out for them, and treat them righteously. If we put this in modern terms, we might say that we should have a ‘tough love’ for our neighbors, just as we should have it for ourselves. This is the source of my concern: how many of us who urge each other to ‘love’ each other today actually mean we should show ‘tough love’ to each other? More than that, how many who speak in such terms means we should show ‘tough love’ toward ourselves? ‘Tough love’ is often the type of love that says no. That tells us when we are wrong. That puts the needs of others before ourselves. It’s also the the type of love that lets us fall down and skin our knee, and even ruin our lives when we refuse to listen to sound council. Sadly, I suspect that the majority of those who speak in terms of ‘love’ today are still stuck on the level of Peter: they think the ‘love’ God commands means to like or have affection for others, not to treat others as God treats us.
This brings us to the question of: what does it mean to ‘do good?’ This is another passage where we are told to love others, and to ‘do good’ to them — especially our enemies. In this passage, we are told to be righteous toward those who do not like us — even our enemies. And by ‘righteous,’ Scripture means to act in the morally correct way toward them. But here is where things get difficult. This means we not only have to know what the morally correct thing is, but how to act in the morally correct way in every situation we might encounter. When we start to learn how to do this, we start to realize that having a ‘righteous’ love for others does not mean we agree with them or tolerate their immoral actions.
I make no judgment of others who do not share my concern over what we each mean by ‘love.’ After all, Christ gave us the perfect example of how to handle this issue when He questioned Peter, and what better way for a believer to live than to follow the Lord’s example? But I do urge others to consider my words. What would it mean for us if I am correct to question this matter? How would that change the way we see and understand the things Scripture is trying to teach us? Well, we have an example in Scripture to consider in the story of Jesus and the rich young man.
Many of us know this story, and we might even know that Jesus is said to have ‘loved’ this young man. But look at how our understanding of this passage might change if we do not think that Jesus had a warm, affectionate love for this man, but rather, Jesus treated the young man righteously. In the first case, it is easy to miss the point of the passage. But, if we think of Jesus’ love for this man as an ‘act’ or ‘verb,’ rather than a feeling or emotion, then the message becomes more clear. Jesus did not embrace or tolerate the young man’s on-going sin, but rather, Jesus corrected him. He did so as kindly as possible, but Jesus still stood firmly on moral ground and pointed out the wrong in the young man’s life. But Jesus did not stop there. After the young man left, Jesus took the opportunity to teach those who were around Him and told all who would listen what the young man was doing wrong. How many of us would dare to do such a thing today? And yet, we are told that Jesus ‘loved’ this young man.
So, when we hear others urging ‘love,’ perhaps we would be wise to stop and consider what — exactly — is being said. Are we being urged to act righteously toward others as well as ourselves, or are we being urged to do something entirely different? Is it possible that we are actually being urged to do wrong ‘in the name of love?’ Because, honestly, when I look at the way the word, ‘love,’ is used in our society today, I fear this is exactly what is being done. Whether people realize it or not, they may be using the notion of ‘love’ to paper over a call to act immorally, not righteously, and we have all heard it said:
The road to hell is paved with good intentions…
Further reading on this subject: