Christians, I’m calling our bluff.
All of us. Me included.
Pick your hot topic, your emotional issue, your heart-in-throat or blood-pressure-rising reality. Doesn’t matter what it is. Muslims and immigration. LGBTQ inclusion and same-sex marriage. Racism and policing—both north and south of the border. Anything related to politics, religion, or sex, in other words.
In all these things and everything else, Christians on both sides of the conversation polarizing debate throw the word “love” around pretty easily.
But we’re bluffing.
Some of us say, “Love the sinner but hate the sin.”
Others of us say, “Love, not hate.”
Both are bluffing.
One of us might say, “But I love him/her/them. We should be able to be together.”
Another might say, “But I do love him/her/them. I just don’t like what they do.”
Both are bluffing.
“Love wins.” “Love is love.” “All we need is love.” “I love them—but I don’t need to like them.” “We just need to love each other!”
We say all these things and more about “love,” but we’re bluffing. And I’m calling our bluff.
I say we’re bluffing because we use the word “love” but we’re not actually talking about “love,” at least not Christian love, not the love God shows us in Jesus.
Some of us use the word “love” but we mean “natural attraction.” “I am attracted to him/her/them. We should be able to be together.”
Some of us use the word “love” but we mean a kind of “courteous amiability,” a.k.a. “being nice.” “Be nice to the sinner but hate the sin.”
Some of us use the word “love” but we mean a “permissive tolerance.” “Acceptance, not hate.” “Tolerance wins.”
I get it: these are just the ways we use the word “love” in our world.
And it’s not that these kinds of “love” are bad. They are good, even vital. Who doesn’t smile at the thought of “falling in love”? Who doesn’t think our world needs a greater dose of “niceness,” or a greater willingness to just accept people the way they are?
But none of these, in itself, on its own, is the Christian ideal of “love.” None of these gets at the way “love” is talked about in the New Testament, not fully. None of these is the way God has taught us to love—has in fact loved us—in Jesus.
The problem with all our nice words about “love” is not that they’re necessarily wrong—it’s that they don’t go nearly far enough.
It’s not, “For God so loved the world that God had warm feelings when he thought about us.”
It’s not, “But God demonstrates God’s own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, God gave us a smile as she held the door open for us at the grocery store.”
It’s not, “This is how we know what love is: that Jesus put up with someone with a different skin colour/sexual orientation/[insert social distinction here] living next door.”
For Christians, this is love. It is Jesus-love. It is “Jesus died for us” love. For Christians, “love” is not about natural attraction or permissive tolerance or just “being nice”; it’s about giving oneself for the good of the other, for the good of all.
It’s about suffering and dying for the good of sinners and outcasts, friends and enemies alike. It’s about looking not only to our own interests and needs, but also to the interests and needs of others, even to the needs of all.
It’s about kindness and acceptance and enjoying each other, yes. But it’s also about patience and perseverance when it’s hard, and gentleness and respect when the other person is a jerk, and giving when we’ve got nothing left to give.
That’s why I say we’re bluffing on love. Both conservatives and progressives, both evangelicals and liberals—we talk about love, but we don’t really mean it. Or, more accurately, perhaps, we don’t really know what it means.
If we’re going to say, “Love the sinner but hate the sin,” then here’s our task: leave our comfortable Christian bubble, find the worst sinners we know, get to know them by name, hear their story, share meals with them, share our life with them, give our life for them—all the while being careful not to nurture harmful attitudes and words and actions ourselves.
If we’re going to say, “Love, not hate,” then here’s our task: don’t just “not hate,” don’t just tolerate, but actively give our time and energy and money and skills and more to help those around us flourish, whether it’s trendy or not, whether they’ve earned it or not, whether we agree with them or not, whether they spout hate at us or not, whether we get the credit or not.
If we’re going to say, “But I love him/her/them. We should be able to be together,” then we should be asking ourselves: “Really? I’m ready to commit to them even when the roof is leaking and there’s no money for food until Friday? Even when their body is sagging and our sex life is flagging? Even when they’re old and they smell bad and they can’t move from the chair to the toilet without my help?”
If we’re going to say, “But I do love him/her/them. I just don’t like what they do,” then we should be asking ourselves: “Really? Do we even know what they do? They’re human, so probably they eat and drink and breathe and have sex and laugh and cry and tell stories and make jokes and share meals and do rituals together. Which of these things don’t we like, and why? Do those things even affect us or others? Are they actually even harmful?”
If we’re going to say, “But I do love him/her/them. If they don’t bother me, I don’t bother them,” then we should be asking ourselves: “Really? This is love? ‘Live and let live, just stay out of my way’? What about when they’re hurting, when they’re feeling threatened, when they’re being discriminated against? ‘Let them fight their own battles’—this is love?”
If we’re going to say, “We must love the other—the different, the stranger, even the enemy,” then we should be asking ourselves: “Who is different from us, in any way? Seriously, who do we personally know who is different from us in ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, culture, language, whatever? Who is a stranger in our midst, the real-live person who doesn’t fit in? Who is our ‘enemy,’ the flesh-and-blood person who opposes us or wishes us harm? And how can we actively give ourselves for this person’s good, for our common good together?”
Conservative, progressive, fundamentalist, liberal, Evangelical, Anabaptist—whatever kind of Christian we call ourselves, whatever side we find ourselves on in whatever issue, let’s stop bluffing on love. Let’s stop throwing the L-word around so casually. When we say it, let’s really mean it—and let’s know what it means.
Yes, Jesus calls us to love one another. This is indeed The Answer, but it demands much more of us than mere attraction or common courtesy or basic tolerance.
This love demands our very selves.
Frankly, I’m not sure I’m up for it. But I am sure there is no other way forward. And we can start on that way by refusing to bluff on love, by genuinely seeking to follow in the footsteps of the one who loved us first.