Learning to Love
Here are core assumptions I am working under for this post:
The church has generally done a pretty lousy job being a force of love in the world (not that there are not some exceptions, thank God).
Though some individuals are unloving on purpose, most individuals are doing the best they can.
Christian leaders are the cause of much of the problem with not loving. They can also be the solution.
The church’s history as a witness of love in the world is not good. Millions of Christians who have ended up being on the wrong side of history — big time — were sincere in their beliefs, no matter how toxic. I believe that we Christian leaders are the cause of many of the church’s problems with not loving. If church congregations today are full of people who are hateful, or even simply dismissive, toward gays, for example, it is almost certainly either because their leaders are the same way, or at least do not aggressively teach that lack of love is unacceptable, and fundamentally incompatible with the Lord we claim to serve.
My title stems from centuries of inexcusable failure of those who call themselves “the people of God” to love, or even to simply refrain from committing and supporting atrocities — things that directly and dramatically contradict the teachings of our Lord. This failure continues to this day, when we are genuinely, sincerely confused over whether or not we should refrain from openly wounding the gay community further, after they have told us for a least a generation that we are deeply hurting and alienating even those gays who would like to pursue a connection with God through a local Christian church. It continues when Christians defend people like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson who consistently say idiotic and hurtful things. It continues when our Christian leaders teach that yes, God is loving BUT…(and then whatever comes after).
If you are feeling defensive and upset because of what you have heard so far, I invite you to stop reading. Because,
#1. We will not make progress in learning to love if we keep being defensive.
The only way the church will learn to truly prioritize love and do it well is if we stop making excuses for not doing it. Of course my words may be too harsh (I don’t feel angry, just a bit urgent), and that would be an easy reason to dismiss them. But maybe I’m right, and if I am, we have a big problem.
#2. We will not make progress in learning to love if we don’t change our thinking.
As long as we say, “How could I still participate in this demonstration that hurt the gay community without making them think I don’t love them,” we’re never going to make progress. Some things are incompatible with love. Sometimes love requires that we let go of being right, or getting our own way. In fact, it OFTEN does. Anyone in a decent marriage knows that. As long as we say, “We love gays at our church, but we make sure they know they are doing wrong,” we’re never going to get it. No matter our opinion on the issue, we must earn the right to be heard. This means creating a loving, open atmosphere, fully loving each person exactly where they are in any given moment, and walking the long journey with them a day at a time. We’re not trying to angle people, or force them to move against their will (or are we?). We are trying to create loving space in their lives where they can learn to hear God for themselves. Do we fear this? Why? Because people might not hear what we think they should hear?
#3. Christian leaders, learning to love starts with you.
It takes far more courage in today’s church climate to preach love than it does to throw in heavy doses of judgment and wrath. We can’t do two conflicting things at once. It’s not possible to “hate the sin but love the sinner.” This will just produce people who hate the sinner in the name of the sin they commit. I believe this is self-evident — it can be seen all around us. Leaders, figure out what pure love might look like, what it might sound like from the pulpit. Be prepared for cries that you are watering down the gospel. The truth is, nothing “waters down” the gospel more than excusing people not to practice the powerful love Jesus modeled and taught. Our message is confusing because our people are confused. Our people are confused because their leaders are confused. Many of our pastors and our people think that radical, no-holds-barred love is incompatible with Biblical truth. Imagine that!
#4. I alluded to this in #1, but there can be no excuses accepted for failure to love, on any level.
This begins with the gossip in the church who is slandering others and causing painful rifts among the people. That is unloving and it must be confronted — lovingly of course, but firmly. Instead of confronting gossipy members, too many Christian leaders confront easy targets like homosexuality from the pulpit and laugh about toxic and gossipy church environments like there’s not a thing we can or should be doing about it.
#5. A lifestyle of learning to love must be modeled.
It’s important to preach about it and talk about it all the time, but it must be modeled. Sometimes Christian leaders have to do hard things. The question is can we do them in kind, patient, loving ways? Some of the most wounded, toxic, and unloving people I have ever been around were pastors. We too sat under confused teaching and were told to love the sin but hate the sin but love the sinner, instead of loving fully and leaving the rest to God. Pastors, we have to come clean. We have to get help for our emotional and spiritual wounds, accept responsibility for not being as loving as we need to be, and learn how to do this in deep and rich new ways.
I deeply believe that if Christian leaders followed these five principles, the church would be transformed in less than one generation.
Question: What is keeping you from learning to love more deeply?