Our Thoughts and Words Matter

us2016Nobody said U.S. politics were dull.

Like most of the world, I watched the recent U.S. presidential race alternating between fascination, amusement, and horror. Sometimes all three at the same time.

It’s the kind of election that will be analyzed from every angle for years to come. I’ve been sorting through my own thinking on “what this all means,” and one of the things that I keep coming back to is this: our thoughts and words matter.

Even more pointedly: As Christians, called to love both neighbour and enemy, it’s not enough that we act in loving ways. We must also think and speak in loving ways.

I’ve often reflected that, if I were set upon by bandits and left for dead by the side of the road, there’s no one I’d rather have find my nearly lifeless body than an Evangelical Christian. Say what you will about Evangelicals, but pretty much every red-blooded Evangelical I know of would stop and help someone in such desperate need, even at great cost to themselves. Evangelicals make great Good Samaritans.

However, I have heard some of those same people speak demeaning, even downright cruel words about others. I have seen some of those good Evangelical Christians manipulate and deceive and aggressively coerce in order to achieve what they believe to be good ends. I have witnessed their haughty looks, their patronizing gazes, their holier-than-thou disdain, their puffed-up egos run amok.

I have been on the receiving end of this. I know whereof I speak.

I know also that this is not merely an “Evangelical Christian” problem. It is a profoundly human problem.

I’ve heard politically correct liberals speak horrendously about conservatives behind closed doors. I’ve seen poverty-advocating progressives walk right by a homeless beggar on the street with not even a flicker of emotion.

The disjunction between outward action and underlying attitude can be found among all of us in one way or another. I’ve seen this problem all too often in myself, across the whole spectrum of ways. We’ve all got a problem, and it’s a deep-seated, far-reaching human problem: a “sin” problem, to use the Christian lingo.

But what has struck me most profoundly over the past few months of observing U.S. politics is this particular disjunction: we don’t seem to get that our outward actions are rooted in our underlying attitudes and fuelled by our shared speech.

We men might never walk up to a woman we don’t know and “grab her by the p*ssy”—but we tell blonde jokes behind closed doors, or we mansplain in our work meetings, or we smirk the words “PMS” to our buddy with a roll of the eyes.

We white people might never lay a finger on a non-white person—but we chuckle at the “drunk Indian” or “lazy Mexican” comment, or we  brush off the brouhaha over “Redskins” for a team name, or we think to ourselves that African Americans or Indigenous people just need to “get over it already.”

We straight folks might never assault the LGBTQ folks among us—but we perpetuate lies about some universal “gay lifestyle,” or we speak about bisexuality as if it’s a fake illness, or we’re not really sure we can trust the lesbian math teacher with our children all day.

We Christians might never bomb the nearest Mosque—but we assume the hijab-wearing woman is living in suppressed silence, or we choose the seat at the airport furthest from the Arabic-speaking men, or we forward the latest “Muslims are Taking Over Canada!!!” email to our family.

I’m not talking about those random thoughts that pop into our head from time to time. I’m talking about those attitudes that we allow to settle into our brains and dwell in our souls. We harbor these fearful, demeaning attitudes toward others, we speak fearful, demeaning words about others, and then we are all shocked when people actually act out of fear in cruelty and violence toward others.

But these things are connected. Our thoughts, our words, our actions—they are all of a piece.

Maybe we’re right about ourselves, that we would never physically harm others. But when we nurture harmful attitudes about others in our hearts and minds, when we encourage hurtful speech about others even in private, these thoughts and words will inevitably bear fruit in action—either ours or someone else’s.

This is what’s behind some of Jesus’ most difficult teachings. “Adultery” is not just about sexual intercourse, Jesus declares, and “murder” is not just about the act of killing someone: these outward acts are rooted in our thoughts and anticipated in our words (Matt 5:21-30). In other words, Jesus asserts, “Evil things come from within, from the human heart,” and this is what truly defiles us before God and others (Mark 7:20-23).

Image result for seed sproutingTo borrow another favourite metaphor of Jesus—and some direct teaching from the Apostle Paul—“we reap what we sow” (Gal 6:7-8). Our thoughts are like seeds that root themselves deep in the soil of our hearts, and they will shoot up in the words that we speak and bear fruit in the actions of our lives.

If we think otherwise, we are deceiving ourselves. We are mocking God; but God will not be mocked.

When we nurture harmful thoughts, even in the deep places of our heart, or speak harmful words, even behind closed doors, we sow seeds of harm that will bear the fruit of harm. This is true for us as individuals, as families and churches, and as a society.

But if we can instead develop settled attitudes toward others that are based on truth and love, and speak words that build up and don’t tear down, then we can sow seeds that will bear the fruit of goodness and truth and beauty in our lives and in the world.

Let’s stop pretending that our inner thoughts and private words don’t matter. They do.

For the love of God—with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbour as ourselves—let’s dig deep within ourselves and scrape out our stony hearts in repentance. After all, God has promised a heart of flesh ready and waiting for us, beating with the love of Christ.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

Dusting Off the “Golden Rule”

“Treat others the way you want to be treated!”

I don’t know about you, but that’s been a mantra in our house ever since our kids were little.

“Would you like them to treat you that way? No! So treat them the way you want to be treated!”

Of course, this parental advice is always delivered in a calm voice, with an encouraging smile. Because that’s the way we would want to be treated. Ahem.

We all know the “Golden Rule,” it seems. It usually comes out something like that: “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” Here’s the way the NRSV renders Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:12: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.”

In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you.

“Treat others the way you want to be treated!”

Here’s the thing. This is not just a good rule of thumb for kids, so they can get along with each other—though it helps with that. Nor is this merely a basic principle for adults, so we can get along with each other—though it helps with that, too.

No, the idea Jesus prompts us toward is much deeper, and much more challenging: Jesus is calling us to nurture empathy and cultivate compassion for others—and then to act on it in love. Jesus, in other words, is calling us to foster an active “moral imagination.”

Through childhood and adolescence and early adulthood most of us develop at least a somewhat healthy self- and other-awareness.

We learn that we are distinct “selves,” unique persons, each with our own interests and desires and hopes and fears. But we also learn that others are also distinct “selves,” unique persons, each with their own interests and desires and hopes and fears. And, along the way, we learn that each one of us, though distinct and even unique, have all kinds of important things in common with everyone else: basic needs for health and warmth, security and freedom, belonging and intimacy and respect and significance.

This process of developing a healthy self- and other-awareness is critical. But the process can be long, and hard, and fraught with all kinds of potential pitfalls.

That’s simply because we have a hard time really seeing the world through anyone else’s eyes other than our own. It’s hard—to use the words of Harper Lee in To Kill a Mockingbird—to “climb inside another person’s skin and walk around in it.” In fact, it’s impossible to fully do that—everything I feel and think and say and do is in this body, perceived through these eyes and ears, processed through this brain, lived out with these hands and feet.

Yet we do have the capacity for compassion. Recent research has confirmed it: empathy can be learned. God has given us this gift.

But how do we develop our in-born capacity for compassion? How do we nurture that God-given gift of empathy?

The answer, I think, is found in another gift from God: our imagination.

If we want to truly love others, if we want to do so with empathy and compassion, we need to exercise our imagination.

What is it like to be that person? What is it like to have had their upbringing, to be in their circumstances, to face their challenges? What is it like to bear their fears and anxieties, to have their passions and interests, to hold their hopes and dreams? What is their story, and what would it be like to live in their story?

If we want to truly love others, we need to imagine ourselves in their shoes. We need to imagine being them in their shoes.

There are all kinds of ways we can develop this kind of “moral imagination.”

One is by simply listening to others. Active listening, that is: giving our entire attention to the other, being fully present with them, drawing on our own experience to feel what they are feeling. And diverse listening: pushing through all our normal discomfort and anxiety, and talking with people who are different from us, letting them tell their story.

Another is through prayer. Praying for others plants their names and faces and stories in our minds and hearts as we bring them before God. Praying not just for those people we like, those who are close to us, but even for those we dislike, those who have harmed us.

A third way to develop our moral imagination is through reading. Not just any reading, mind you, but reading what’s often called “literary fiction”: novels or short stories with complex characters in a vivid setting, facing challenging issues in a realistic way. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is actually a great example, and a great place to start. Several studies have confirmed that reading good fiction pushes us to imagine ourselves in the stories of a wide variety of people who are not at all like us, and this can translate into greater empathy and compassion when we encounter diverse people in real life.

Simple things—and I’m sure there are others. When we do these kinds of things, we develop our God-given moral imaginations, our ability to empathize with others and show them genuine compassion.

And when we do that, we are starting to grasp the deeper idea behind Jesus’ “Golden Rule.”

In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you.

For Jesus, this was not just a “Golden Rule”: a nice phrase to hang above a door or engrave on a bracelet.

For Jesus, this is the key to our humanity. It sums up the Law and the Prophets, the whole Bible. All our obligations to each other under God are encapsulated in this.

Even more, for Jesus, this was a way of life. Being moved by compassion for others, imagining himself in their shoes, imagining being them in their shoes.

And then stepping into their shoes and walking with them through their brokenness and suffering, even bearing their brokenness and suffering when it was most needed—even to the cross.

In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you.

This post is adapted from a sermon I preached at Morden Mennonite Church on September 25, 2016, in the series “Stirring Our Imagination.” Second image from Scarboro Missions via Harry Gensler.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

“What Would Jesus Do?” is the right question to ask, but…

WWJD BraceletWe all know about the WWJD gear. Those bracelets, of course. The t-shirts. The coffee mugs. The hippy Jesus doll. The hot air balloon.

All that peaked maybe 15 years ago, though it still percolates in our collective Christian consciousness. The idea was sparked by Charles Sheldon’s 1896 book, In His Steps, a story about an inactive church being activated by people asking themselves this one question as they went through their days: “What would Jesus do?”

I’ll admit, I’ve always had mixed feelings about the whole WWJD thing. So often “What Jesus would do” turns out to be “What I would want to do in the first place,” or “What my particular Christian subculture has conditioned me to think Jesus would do.” WWJD has been invoked to vote a certain way or support a certain cause—often in direct opposition to the actual teachings and example of Jesus.

All this has made me rather cynical about WWJD. But when I take a step back from my cynicism, I have to admit that “What would Jesus do?” is a good question to ask. It’s a simple way to guide Christians in making practical, ethical, day-to-day decisions.

Even more, the more I read my New Testament, I have to admit that WWJD is exactly the right question for Christians to ask.

The New Testament in various ways calls on Christians to be as Jesus in the world. We are to be Jesus’ “disciples” or apprentices, “following” Jesus in his way. We are to look to Jesus as our example, we are to think and act the way he does. As a church we are the “body of Christ” in the world: Jesus’ eyes and ears, his mouth, his hands and feet, with Jesus guiding and sustaining us as the body’s head. The whole goal of God’s work in us and among us, Paul says, is to shape us into the image of Jesus, moulded to his character, continuing his calling.

First John sums this all up nicely: “This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.”

It’s pretty straightforward. Live like Jesus. Be as Jesus in the world.

And so it’s appropriate, even good and right, for us as Christians to ask ourselves this question in any given situation: “What would Jesus do?”

But if we want to answer that question well, we need to realize that it has several other questions built into it. Before we get to the big question, “What would Jesus do?” we need to first answer at least three other questions.

There’s this one for starters: “What did Jesus do?” Assuming Jesus’ words and actions are consistent (here my ProoftextomaticTM pops up Heb 13:8), it strikes me as pretty important to know what Jesus has said and done if we want to know what Jesus might say and do.

And, of course, Jesus said and did many things.

He told stories of God’s kingdom, God’s vision for a just and peaceful world, an upside down realm where the last are first and the least are feasted and the lost are found. He taught that the most important thing, the all-encompassing command of God, was selfless love: giving oneself in allegiance to God above all other allegiances, giving oneself in compassion for the good of others, both neighbours and enemies.

He freely healed the sick, brought freedom for the oppressed, and life to the dead. He openly ate with sinners and outcasts, rich and poor alike. He boldly rebuked the powers that be, and then walked through suffering and pain to a Roman cross, exposing those oppressive powers for the emptiness and inhumanity of their unjust, even violent, even death-dealing ways.

How well do we know these Gospel stories? How much do we actually read them, study them, reflect on them, imagine ourselves into them?

calm-wwjdHere’s a second question: Why did Jesus do?” If we want to discern what Jesus might do in a twenty-first century situation the first-century Gospels could never have imagined, we have to try to get behind Jesus’ words and deeds to his underlying motivations. What drove Jesus to speak? What compelled him to act? Did he have an overarching sense of purpose? What sorts of specific reasons prompted his particular actions?

This is a trickier question than the first one, since the Gospel authors don’t speak much about Jesus’ inward thoughts and feelings. But one motivation comes up more than any other: love. Jesus did what he did out of love. He did what he did out of a sense of sympathy for the plight of others, a sense of compassion for others, to see them healthy and whole in a just and peaceful world.

Then there’s this third question: How did Jesus do?” This one’s a two-parter, looking at both ways and means.

In what way did Jesus do the things he did? What was his demeanor, his disposition throughout? Again, a tricky question to answer since we don’t get a lot of insight about Jesus’ inner thoughts from the Gospels.

But here’s a suggestion: You know all those virtue lists in the New Testament, like the “fruit of the Spirit” or the “love chapter”? We can think of these as descriptions of Jesus, whose Spirit shapes us into his image, whose example of love lies behind these descriptions of love.

This, then, is the way of Jesus, his demeanor: loving, joyful, peaceable, patient, kind, generous, faithful, gentle, self-controlled. This, then, is the way of Jesus, his fundamental disposition: trusting in God in faith, looking to God in hope, following God in love—and the greatest of these is love.

And with what means did Jesus do the things he did? For Jesus, did the ends justify the means, or were only certain means compatible with the kingdom of God?

Here the Gospels are pretty clear: for Jesus, the ends did not justify the means. He was not willing to do anything to see God’s kingdom come on earth—that’s what the three temptations were all about, what Gethsemane was all about.

Jesus rejected evil as a means to bring about good. He rejected violence as a means to bring about justice. He insisted that only love could conquer hate, that only light could dispel darkness. He was willing to die, but not to kill.

What did Jesus do?”

Why did Jesus do?”

How did Jesus do?”

It’s only after answering these questions that we can finally get to the question, “What would Jesus do?”

We are not called to simply repeat what Jesus said and did. Jesus lived in a very different time and place than we do.

But this is why these other questions are so important. They can help us to “live as Jesus lived” in our own time and place, motivated by the reasons that motivated him, compelled by the purpose that compelled him, showing his character, following his ways, putting into practice his teachings, living as Jesus lived—doing WJWD.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

How Should We Then Love?

Love is All We NeedScripture and Jesus on Love | What is Love?
Love, Above All | How Should We Then Love?

I started the week by getting up on my soapbox and boldly declaring: “Love is all we need, folks! All we need is love!”

In our complex, chaotic, confusing world, we Christians don’t need greater certainty about our particular brand of doctrine. We don’t need to find the latest and greatest or oldest and truest form of worship. We don’t need more political engagement, more activism for the Christian cause.

Theology, liturgy, politics, and more are not inherently wrong, of course, and can even be very good, even vitally important—but none of these is the one thing we most desperately need.

We need to love each other.

All we need is love.

Love is all we need.

I’ve spent the last three parts in this series making my case for this claim, and sketching out what this love looks like.

I say, “Love is all we need,” because I believe Scripture points us to this. I believe Jesus points us to this. That was part two.

I say, “Love is all we need,” because I believe all other divine commands and human virtues—including holiness and truth-speaking—are subsumed under love, governed by love, even defined by love. That was part four.

I say, “Love is all we need,” because I believe the love Scripture and Jesus point to is not mere tolerance, or mere affection, but something far more, far more substantial, far more necessary. That was part three.

But what does this love look like in practice? In the nitty-gritty of the real world, where the rubber meets the road of life, what might it look like for us to love each other in the way of Jesus?

The New Testament itself gives some practical suggestions.

Here’s Jesus: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matt 7:12; Luke 6:31). This has been analyzed and critiqued from every possible angle, but it seems to me this Golden Rule is simply Jesus’ rough-and-ready guide for putting “Love your neighbour as yourself” into action.

Before you speak or act, pause and think:

How would I feel if someone said this to me? If it would be a good or necessary feeling, say it. If not, zip it.

If I were this person, how would I react if someone did this to me? If my reaction would be positive, do it. If not, don’t.

What would I want someone to do for me if I were in this situation? Do it for them, if you’re at all able.

Then there’s the Good Samaritan story, Jesus’ own commentary on “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Luke 10:25-37). In the story, the Samaritan shows compassion for the Jew—typically hostile neighbours, these—caring for one who was violated, left destitute, left for dead. He treats the man’s injuries, brings him to a place of rest and ensures his continued care, all on his own dime, irrespective of who this man was or whether he was “worthy” of such care.

In a similar vein, James connects this neighbour love with how the poor are treated—not just in terms of caring for their material needs, but also in terms of showing them honour and respect (Jas 2:1-9). And John asks this piercing question: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (1 John 3:16-18).

“Go,” Jesus says after telling of the Good Samaritan, “and do likewise.”

That woman violated by her abuser—care for her in this way.

That family left destitute after a sudden job loss—love them like this.

That returning veteran dead inside from the trauma of war—show her compassion like this.

That whole mass of people without adequate health care, education, or even food for the table—treat them in this way.

That Muslim immigrant, that gay couple, that redneck conservative or that flaming liberal, whatever your “despised other” is—shower them with this kind of love.

Another angle on putting this Christ-like love into action can be seen in the many “one another” passages, mostly found in Paul’s letters. If “love one another as Jesus has loved us” sums up all the virtues and ideals for Paul, then all the “x one another” passages are expressions of this love.

“Love one another” means “patiently tolerate one another” (Eph 4:2)—yes, those people you dislike, or disagree with.

“Love one another” means “accept one another” (Rom 15:7)—welcome others with open arms, open homes, open tables, even those you might not normally associate with.

“Love one another” means “encourage one another” (1 Thess 5:11)—don’t tear down others with harsh or cruel words, but build them up with kind words (even on the internet).

“Love one another” means “honour one another” (Rom 12:10)—show respect to everyone, even the “nobodies” and “nothings” among you, those on the fringes around you.

“Love one another” means “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal 6:2)—we’ve all got them, those difficult burdens of life, so let’s lend each other a hand with them.

“Love one another” means “do not judge one another” (Rom 14:13)—unless you wear a robe to work and bang a gavel all day, that’s not your job, ever.

“Love one another” means “forgive one another” (Eph 4:32; Col 3:13)—just let it go, release them from the heavy burden of guilt and yourself from the choking tangle of bitterness.

And many more—all specific attitudes and actions that flesh out what it looks like to love one another in the way of Jesus.

The Golden Rule, the Good Samaritan, these “one another” commands—all of these connect to some ideas I’ve suggested already.

In my third post I described this Jesus-love this way: freely giving ourselves for others so that they might experience flourishing life together with us, even if we feel they don’t deserve it, even when it hurts us to do so. This “flourishing life” that is the goal of love, I suggested, is at minimum having our basic, universal human needs met—and this, too, can give us a window on love in action.

Clean air is a basic human need—so love might mean pushing for tougher regulations on polluting industries.

Clean water is a basic human need—so love might mean giving money for clean water initiatives in developing countries.

Nourishing food is a basic human need—so love might mean volunteering at a breakfast program in your local elementary school.

Adequate warmth in clothing and shelter is a basic human need—so love might mean donating blankets and jackets to an inner city soup kitchen before winter hits.

Simple health and safety is a basic human need—so love might mean supporting restorative justice programs in your community. 

Positive relationships with others is a basic human need—so love might mean learning about the complexity of human sexuality so you can better empathize with LGBT persons.

A sense of belonging in a group is a basic human need—so love might mean inviting your new-to-town neighbour to your weekly bowling night.

A sense of meaning or purpose, of experiencing and contributing to beauty, truth, and goodness in the world, is a basic human need—so love might mean starting a community children’s choir or a neighborhood book club.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question, “How should I love others?” Each person is unique, each interaction between people is unique—and each person needs love, every single time we interact with each other.

We can’t do all these things I’ve suggested in this post. We can’t do everything we could ever imagine. We can’t love everyone. We can’t even love all the time.

But we can love this person. We can love in this moment. We can start with one act of love, however small, and let it grow from there.

That’s how kingdoms are born, after all.

Treat others the way you would like to be treated, in your attitudes, your words, your actions toward them.

Give yourself—your time, your energy, your attention, your compassion, your money, your things, your very self—for others.

Do these things, striving for flourishing life together: our basic needs as human persons met, all shared together.

And do these things for all others you encounter: neighbours and enemies, friends and strangers, family and foreigners, good and bad alike.

Sounds simple, and in a way it is. Love cuts through the chaos and confusion of our complex world, it slices through all our insistence on right doctrine or correct morality or proper ritual, right down to what matters most.

But it’s not easy. It is the most difficult thing we can do in life, loving each other.

It’s also the most important.

This kind of love is the foundation for true justice.

This kind of love is the basis for lasting peace.

This kind of love is the source of flourishing life.

This kind of love is the love that God is, the love that God has shown us in Jesus, the love that God calls us as followers of Jesus to live out, energized by the Spirit.

We need to love each other.

All we need is love.

Love is all we need.

Love is All We NeedScripture and Jesus on Love | What is Love?
Love, Above All | How Should We Then Love?

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

Love, Above All

Love is All We NeedScripture and Jesus on Love | What is Love?
Love, Above All | How Should We Then Love?

In my first post I got on my soapbox and boldly declared: “Love is all we need, folks! All we need is love!”

Image: Stephen Hopkins

In our complex, chaotic, confusing world, we Christians don’t need greater certainty about our particular brand of doctrine. We don’t need to find the latest and greatest or oldest and truest form of worship. We don’t need more political engagement, more activism for the Christian cause.

Theology, liturgy, politics, and more are not inherently wrong, of course, and can even be very good, even vitally important—but none of these is the one thing we need more than anything else.

We need to love each other.

All we need is love.

Love is all we need.

Sounds simplistic and naïve, I know. Sounds idealistic, and darn near impossible. Sounds suspiciously like some liberal agenda, or some trendy “spiritual-but-not-religious” kick.

But I say, “Love is all we need,” because I believe Scripture points us to this. I believe Jesus points us to this. That was part two.

I say, “Love is all we need,” because I believe the love Scripture and Jesus point to is not mere tolerance, or mere affection, but something far more, far more substantial, far more necessary. That was part three.

And now I say, “Love is all we need,” because I believe all other divine commands and human virtues—including holiness and truth-speaking—are subsumed under love, governed by love, even defined by love.

Think back to the way the Bible, and particularly the New Testament, speaks about love. Jesus and Paul agree that the whole point of Scripture is love: every command, every promise, every story, every poem in the Bible hangs on the hook of love, loving God and loving others (Matt 22:35-40; Rom 13:8-10). John concurs, affirming that this love is the defining characteristic of the true life of God, truly knowing God, truly being a disciple of Jesus (1 John 3:11-20; 4:7-21; John 13:35).

Paul talks about love as the virtue that “binds together” all other virtues, including the virtues of moral holiness and truthful speech (Col 3:5-14). Love for others, Paul says, is more important than seeking true knowledge, or striving for sinless purity, or having great faith. There are three things that “abide,” he stresses: “faith, hope, and love—but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 12:31-13:13).

Underlying these and similar biblical texts is the notion that every ideal humans are to strive for, every virtue Christians are to cultivate, is subsumed under love, governed by love, even defined by love.

How does this work? A few musings—and be prepared, this is the most abstract and “theological” of all these posts on love.

Love incorporates all the other Christian virtues. Again, I’m not talking about a sentimental affection or a clinical self-sacrifice, a benign tolerance or an intense intimacy. I’m talking about the love that God shows us in Jesus, the love that freely gives oneself for the good of the other, to share together in the flourishing life of God. Any human ideal or Christian virtue you can conceive of is subsumed under this love.

You can trust someone without loving them, but you can’t love in this way without trust. You can hope without love, but this Jesus-love includes hope. It’s possible to have justice without love, but not love without justice. Peace, patience, courage, faithfulness, self-control, joy, and more—they’re all the same, woven into the fabric of a Christ-like love.

Clothe in LoveLove defines and governs all the other Christian virtues. If one ever seeks a justice that is not loving toward all involved, then one has not found true justice. If one strives for a faithfulness that is not compassionate or charitable toward others, then one has not found true faithfulness. If we ever feel a tension between holiness and love, or between truth and love, or between any other ideal or virtue and love, we must choose love—because it is in love that we will realize the potential of all other virtues and ideals.

Love precedes and supersedes moral holiness, being “separate from sin.” Before sin was in the world, before moral holiness was even a thing, there was love. After sin and death are dealt their final blow, when moral holiness is no longer a thing, there will still be love.

This is why holiness—in the sense of moral holiness, separation from sin—cannot be the central, most essential attribute of God. God is eternally holy, in the sense of being utterly distinct from all else, wholly other. But moral holiness is not an eternal attribute of God, unless we wish to say sin and evil are eternal.

God’s eternal holiness, God’s distinctness, God’s otherness, is shown first and foremost and always in love. It is, in fact, because God is distinct and other that God can love: love requires a distinction in personhood, an I and a thou, a self and an other, before it can give the self for the other, before it can love the other as it loves itself. Classic Christian theology understands God to have been loving in this way for an eternity as three persons in one God, and God’s love for humanity and all creation is simply an extension of this eternal love within the Trinity.

God is love. This is the essential nature of God’s character, God’s person. And so it is the defining feature of God’s ultimate self-revelation, Jesus Christ. And so it is to be the essential nature and defining feature of those created in God’s image, those being re-created in Christ’s image, God’s new humanity. Just as God’s holiness is manifest first and foremost and always in love, so it is with the holiness God calls Christians to. Our holiness, our distinctiveness, is seen in our love.

Love fulfils truth; it completes it. Love puts flesh on truth. It is truth put into proper practice. By itself, truth—in the sense of “correct knowledge about reality”—has no virtue. It is neither inherently good nor bad. Truth only becomes virtuous, it only becomes good, when it is used in good ways for good ends.

This doesn’t mean that truth has no value. It is valuable and necessary, even in relation to love. Love should be guided by a right perception of reality, as best as we can discern that—recognizing that our knowledge of the truth is always incomplete (1 Cor 13:9-12).

But, while love without knowledge can still be virtuous, knowledge without love never is: it is as a resounding gong or clanging cymbal, it is as nothing at all (1 Cor 13:1-3). Such knowledge risks simply puffing us up in pride, while love—even ignorant love—always builds up others (1 Cor 8:1-3).

These ideas are behind the most significant dimension of a Christian understanding of “truth,” the idea that truth is not just about “correct knowledge of reality,” but that truth is ultimately about a Person, a Person who shows us a certain Way, a Way that leads to Life. Jesus is this Truth, and his Way is love, and this Jesus-love leads to Life (John 14:6).

In all this we’re circling around something very profound, and crucially important: love is at the heart of the gospel, and so at the centre of Christian theology and ethics.

The God who is love has, out of love, come in the person of Jesus, who taught an ethic of love and lived out a life of love, and who suffered in love for us in order to bring us with him into flourishing life, a life energized by the Spirit of Jesus and characterized in its very essence by our love for God and others. We might spend millions of pages and thousands of lifetimes exploring this trinitarian gospel of Jesus-love, but if we ever lose this focus in our theology and ethics, then we no longer have a theology or ethic worthy of being called “Christian.”

It’s love all the way through, no matter how you slice it. It’s love all the way down, from top to bottom. It’s love from beginning to end and everywhere in between.

I’ve sometimes heard people say that calling for love is somehow being wishy-washy. That somehow saying, “We need to love each other,” is being soft on holiness or truth. “Just take a stand, won’t you! Get off the fence on this issue, or that issue, or the next issue. Stand up for truth! Demand holiness!”

Well, here I stand. I can do no other. I give you the strongest moral imperative there is, the most profound truth one could ever declare:

We need to love each other.

All we need is love.

Love is all we need.

If we get this one thing right, everything else will fall into place. If we don’t get this right, nothing else will matter.

Up next, some concluding reflections on putting this love into practice.

Love is All We NeedScripture and Jesus on Love | What is Love?
Love, Above All | How Should We Then Love?

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.