You have heard it said

Just a small bit more here on that passage in Romans I’ve been referring to as Paul’s mini-Sermon on the Mount.

I call it that because it closely follows many of the things that Jesus taught in that sermon in the Gospels. Paul wasn’t quoting the Gospels — he was writing years, maybe even decades earlier — but what he says very closely parallels those teachings of Jesus.

At a couple of points, though, Paul is a bit more accommodating, in a way. First there’s that bit we discussed in the previous post, where he acknowledges the desire to heap burning coals on the heads of our enemies. The Gospels don’t record Jesus saying that, but I appreciate it, because it acknowledges that loving our enemies is hard — that it isn’t something we’re going to want to do.

The second difference is that, unlike Jesus, Paul doesn’t say, “love your enemies” — at least not in so many words. He tells us not to repay evil for evil. He tells us to bless those who curse us. And he says, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.”

What all of that means in practice, of course, is “love your enemies.” But it helps to remind us that “love your enemies” doesn’t mean anything apart from what it means in practice.

It’s easy to think of love as primarily an emotion — a tender affection, a fondness, a feeling of warm regard. Paul isn’t concerned with your feelings. He pretty much assumes that what you’ll feel like doing is heaping burning coals on your enemies’ heads. He doesn’t tell us not to feel that — only to act as though we felt differently. It’s the actions that matter.

I’m reminded again of some lines from Leonard Cohen:

I hated everyone
but I acted generously
and no one found me out

I think Paul could relate to that.

Or maybe that’s just projection on my part, because I certainly can relate to that.


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  • Anonymous

    One of the biggest problems with evangelicalism is the hard-line commitment to sola fide, even though both Jesus and James make it very clear that actions mean far more than words.

  • Mrs Grimble

    That’s what happens in quite a lot of families – siblings, especially, may dislike and despise each other, not speak to each other for years, never communicate beyond Christmas cards.  But when one of them genuinely needs help, the others give what they can.* 
    We’re all family.

    *Usually – YMMV

  • ako

    I think Paul could relate to that.Or maybe that’s just projection on my part, because I certainly can relate to that.

    I know I can.  Actions, for me, are a lot easier to manage than feelings.  And if I concentrate on acting in the way I know is right, then whatever feelings of anger or resentment I have tend to stay small enough to be manageable.  If I sit around chasing down every trace of unwarranted anger, spite, or the desire to be nasty and telling myself not to have them, that can actually magnify the feelings and make them more powerful (because the feelings are getting sustained attention and focus).   So love as a thing you do is something I can do much more consistently than love as a thing you feel.

  • Anonymous

    Funny, for a long time I’ve thought quite a bit about love and how it’s an action rather than an emotion, but I didn’t realise until I read this post that I’ve always taken “love your enemies” to mean both.  Or rather, as an instruction both to “act lovingly towards them”, and to “discover in them things to anchor affection to so you can begin to naturally want to act lovingly towards them”.

    It helps that I tend to get angry quickly and cool down quickly, and that long term resentment tends to simmer around circumstances rather than the individuals involved.  I’ve made a long practice of trying to find ways to understand whether other people are coming from however much I dislike them, but I don’t think that’s it either.  I just don’t really do hate.  I’m missing a hate gland.  Either I’ve been tremendously lucky in the people I’ve met, or I’ve directed most of it inwards (I certainly have a fully functioning self-hate gland) or I’m burying it deep, deep, deep.

    It has been quite funny from time to time.*

    Thinking about this makes me uncomfortable, but if it is getting buried that’s probably not healthy, so I’m going to take it away and think some more.

    *Sensei: “Come on, Alfgifu, imagine I’m someone you really want to hit! Find some aggression!”
    Alfgifu: “Umm…”
    Sensei: “Imagine I’m capitalism, come on!”
    Alfgifu (rather out of breath): “Economic systems … are … more complicated … than that.”

  • I’d argue that’s a misunderstanding of Sola Fide. Faith alone is never unaccompanied, but I think your point is valid. People claim to be saved by faith alone, but actually their faith is in their own works (their professions, their saying the magic words, their feelings on contriteness). Trusting and resting in Jesus, which is true faith, that leads to works.

  • Anonymous

    “You’re MISREADING IT!!!111!  You want to turn the true meaning of the Gospel into a FALSE GOSPEL OF WORKS!!!1!!!!!!one!!!!  HOW DARE YOU???!!!!”

    Yeah, some people don’t want Christianity to involve actual effort, they just want it to be a list of Ideas To Get Behind and Things To Avoid.

  • “What a strange idea. Love isn’t FEELING. If it were, I wouldn’t be able to love. Cherubim don’t have feelings. Idiot. Love isn’t how you feel. It’s what you do.”
    -A Wind in the Door

  • Magic_Cracker

    “It’s easy to think of love as primarily an emotion — a tender affection, a fondness, a feeling of warm regard.”
    On an interpersonal level, I’ve lost count of the number of romantic relationships, experienced and observed, that ended because one party was content to “feel” but never (or seldom) show their love for the other. I’m loathe to divided everyone into two facile categories, Feelers and Doers (tho’ if I did, I’d probably make bank on the resulting self-help/relationship book, Doers Who Do Feelers and the Feelers Who Feel Them), but [/disingenuous qualifier] the Feelers I’ve known just don’t or won’t understand that if you actions or lack of action hurts someone, it doesn’t matter what you feel or felt — that person is still hurt.

  • I would say that love is neither a feeling, nor a set of actions.

    I would say, rather, that love is a thing that exists. It is a property of a relationship. There are certain actions and feelings that love encourages, and the presence of those actions and feelings is evidence that love exists, and the absence of those actions and feelings is evidence that love doesn’t exist. Similarly, there are actions and feelings that love inhibits, and there are actions and feelings that encourage love, and actions and feelings that inhibit it.

  • Magic_Cracker

    Well put. Thelonious Monk (I think)(maybe it was Bill Evans)(wait, the Internet says it was Claude Debussy) said that music is the space between the notes. Perhaps love is the space between feeling and action. To put it another way, love is a continuum that includes and connects feelings and actions.

  • Martin Luther and the other reformers were reacting against medieval Catholism. I much prefer Martin Luther King’s reading of “faith.”

  • Yeah, some people don’t want Christianity to involve actual effort, they just want it to be a list of Ideas To Get Behind and Things To Avoid.

    And things (read: people) to resent.

  • Joshua

    Doers Who Do Feelers and the Feelers Who Feel Them

    I just want to say this sounds like an awesomely seedy title for a book. <bows>

  • Joshua

    I do like this reading of Paul.

  • Anonymous

    Luther overreacted a tad.  And by “overreacting a tad,” I mean “went absolutely batshit bonkers.”

  • I’m sure contemporary Jews and Anabaptists in his region would concur with that assessment.

  • Anonymous

    CS Lewis said something similar in Mere Christianity. I think he took it a step further than the blog post and said that actions can change feelings in the long term. And the less you act on your “good” feelings the harder it is to continue having good feelings. Now I want to re-read that book again.

    But I have the same problem – why do I feel like such a misanthrope and yet still want to help people?

  • ChrisH

    An excellent post and harkens me to My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, which I wager Fred would enjoy in terms of message if you get past the ponies.

  • Rikalous

    But I have the same problem – why do I feel like such a misanthrope and yet still want to help people?

    My guess would be basic empathy. Presumably you are a person, and appreciate it when people help you.

  • Anonymous

    Immanuel Kant:

    “When it is said “love your neighbour as yourself”, it does not mean
    that you ought immediately (first) to love him and (afterwards) by means
    of this love do good to him. It means, rather, do
    to your fellow human beings and your beneficence will
    produce love of them in you (as an aptitude) of the inclination to
    beneficence in general.”

    (from the introduction to the second part of The Metaphysics of Morals.)

  • Anonymous

    I should point out that, as usual, ‘love’ is a term of art for Kant, and by his definition it is a feeling.

    also, I can’t resist sharing this, from earlier in the section, a nice example of Gloomy Kant:

    “To do good to other human beings insofar as we can is a duty, whether one loves them or not; and even if one had to remark sadly that our species, on closer acquaintance, is not particularly loveable, that would not detract from the force of this duty.”

    (A teacher of mine liked to refer to Happy Kant (the one who thinks people do good things all the time, that all people recognise and respect virtuous action, etc) and Gloomy Kant (‘out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever wrought”). )