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The Idol of Love

The Idol of Love July 2, 2013

Mom and Dad are great parents. It is not Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, but events of the past week have set me to thinking about parents, love, and friendship.

One virtue they had: my brother and I knew they would always love us.

So long as they had anything, we would have something.

They were open to talk, even to disagree. They dialogued about everything and let us read almost anything.

As I got older, I made choices that were very wrong and they believed to be very wrong. My parents never stopped loving me, but they did withhold their approval. In one sense, they withdrew their friendship, because my sins were big enough that they feared more for my soul than my body.

 Of course, even when I was walking down a dark road, their door was open. They refused to sit in the pig sty with me sipping coffee and pretending I was “alright,” but if I came to my senses I knew they would see me (as the Father saw the prodigal in the parable) a long way off and welcome me home joyfully.

 In fact, they did welcome me home joyfully.

 Saint Paul makes it clear that we can have business relationships with non-Christians. We are called to love everyone, even our enemies. At the same time, the Lord Jesus talks of damnation for those who do not enter the narrow way.

Today, because Jesus is still the second most popular historic figure in America (next to Abraham Lincoln), it has become fashionable to talk of his eating and talking with sinners. This is true and never to be forgotten, but he also never stopped calling them sinners and urging them to repent of their sin.

Like Jesus, I remember my Mom and Dad taking some pretty tough people into our house and their trying to help them. Sometimes this worked out, sometimes it did not. There was no limit to their love, but there was a limit to their toleration. If someone was not walking toward the light, they knew they could have no further fellowship with darkness. 

It is Sacred Scripture after all that tells us we cannot befriend the world system. That means that however kind we are called to be, there is a limit to the approval and support we can give.

My parents, I am confident, would never have stopped loving me, but if I had gone off the rails, they would never have given me approval. Of course, if my behavior was not sinful, if they were wrong about their judgment, then they would hurt themselves and me needlessly.

They had enough humility to agonize over whether they were wrong, but enough courage in their convictions to act on them. When they decided on righteousness, they used the standards of Scripture, the witness of the saints gone before them, and reason.

They were never so arrogant as to assume their own age had a corner on righteousness. They taught me to oppose racism and the racist laws of the 1960’s, because they were aberrant stains on Church history, contrary to Scripture (where is race there?), and contrary to their reason.

If I had become a racist and encouraged others to do the same, they would have distanced themselves from me. If I had embraced any sin and built my life around it, they would have loved me, but disapproved until death.

On politics or social choices, what is prudent in this time, they would have agreed to disagree. They would have tolerated much that less holy parents would have despised, but if I chose moral evil, they would have separated from me.

They loved me, but loved God and His righteousness more.

My mother wept over me in prayer, but she was not so weak as to pretend agreement or give me approval by her presence in my sinful choices. They thought, and I think they were right, that the real arrogance was in me for thinking my generation had insight that had escaped the Church Universal.

At first this annoyed me, but during my time of walking away from their values, I came to realize that if I was right and they were wrong, that their disapproval was a cost of my decisions. Parental approval would be valueless, if it came regardless of what I did.

Dialog is good, there is nothing I will not discuss or consider, but dialog must never be an excuse to pretend that one does not have a (fairly) settled view. There comes a time when dialog with sinners (or if I am the sinner, with me), becomes unproductive.

The Bible calls this state “hardness of heart” in one case and “folly” in another. 

The slogan “let’s keep talking,” can be an excuse (at least in me) to avoid recognizing that embracing sin creates irreconcilable differences without repentance (on somebody’s part).

I knew they would always love me, but not that they would always support me. If the wages of sinful choices was death, they would mourn my passing.

My parents would say, if they were allowed to look over my shoulder just now, that they know everyone, including themselves is a sinner. The problem with the Pharisees of Jesus time was not their doctrine, Jesus was a Pharisee himself by belief. The problem is that they pretended they were not sinners or escaped the harder demands of Justice by sophistry.

These Pharisees did not feed their parents, they oppressed the poor, they had impure hearts.

They were worse sinners than the people everyone knew were sinners, because they would not call their sin “sinful.”

But notice what Jesus did and did not do: our Savior had harsh language for anyone who used sophistry to escape the demands of holiness. Thieving for God was still stealing and so he cleared the Temple. What Jesus never did was tell the woman caught in adultery, the tax collector, or the prodigal that they had made lifestyle choices or that their problem was society’s perception.

Jesus was willing to go anywhere and risk anything to call men and women to repentance.

A Christian must follow His model. No sinner can be intimate with God. The only way any of us can stand before God is by putting on Christ.

Can a man or woman in Christ be “best friends” with an unbeliever? I cannot see how. If the most important thing in my life is Jesus, then our level of intimacy will be curtailed. I think this is why Scripture urges believers to marry only other believers.

We cannot join “Christ in us” to someone who does not know Christ.

And yet over shared interests, I see no reason good fellowship and collegial relationships cannot be had with those not in Christ. Love demands we be as intimate as we can be without giving the appearance of condoning injustice or vice.

But at times a person will so associate themselves with their vice that I do not see in good conscience how loving my neighbor, all my neighbors, could include tacit approval of their life by hearty fellowship. One way business leaders keep running sweatshops in other lands is they pay no social cost in this land.

They get the benefit of our friendship here and the profit from exploiting labor there.

My parents taught me to love all my children. I can think of no deeper love. I would, I hope, die for my children, but because I love them I will never live for them.

Recently an episode of Psych featured a “moving in together” party for the main characters. Everyone was there celebrating this increase in “love.” I realized with sorrow that if my own children had such a party, I would not be able to go. It would not be that they were my enemies or that I would have ceased to love them. If such a child made any move to repent, then I would rush to help them.

That was a sorrowful thought.

It is not, of course, the severity of the sin that merits such a painful response: a crucifying of parental love in the name of holiness. I am confident that every heart, my heart, contains worse sins than living together before marriage, fornication.

The difference is embracing sin, promoting it, calling it no sin.

Love cannot see the beloved embrace destruction and death of the soul and join the party.

I suppose, like Jesus, I could go to the sick and call them to be well or to the sinners and winsomely call them to repentance. But if I were not invited as a physician of souls, as Jesus was, or as a rabbi, then going seems merely rude.

Jesus never went to a celebration of sin and called it “not sin.” He never took a sinner and told them that their sin was not sin, but a result of oppression or “othering.”

Jesus called every sinner to repentance: especially religious types such as I am.

And some sinners, Romans, Zealots, Pharisees, and Sadducees, hated him for it. Other sinners left their sinful activity and he accepted them just as they were to make them something different.

So when I read friends say that nothing I could do or believe would separate us, I think this is no longer friendship, but idolatry.

I must hate every relationship, parent, child, country, in light of the love of God and God demands perfect holiness. My way forward is not to feel better about myself, but worse. I am a sinner needing salvation. My path to joy is not to embrace my desires, but to crucify them.

In practical life, this means having as deep a relationship as I can with anyone, but not with any action. And of course (Psalm 139:21), if a man or woman rejects God, then (as Jesus said) I must hate that rejection. There is an unpardonable sin: the sin of becoming unable to ask for pardon.

Oddly, no matter how this is said, whatever is tried, “speaking the truth in love” seems no longer possible to many. “I love you, but I think you are in error, damnable error.” may be true, but I am not sure we have any ability to hear it. We think “judge not” means never judging, so we judge God’s judgments on us as evil.

When our friend says, “Hurrah for my sin!” then silence smacks of cowardice or idolatry. Love and truth can’t be separated, so out of our grievous pain for their error, don’t we have to say something?

For a long time, I was tempted by this dodge: “I will give my view once and let people know when I change my mind.” This may be socially more polite, and certainly would be better for my career, but too often is cowardice.

When the topic is sin, then I must speak, as kindly as possible, with offers for acceptance for any sinner who repents, but I dare not be silent or risk empowering injustice and evil with silence.

Silence about sin equals death for the beloved.

I have known people, God knows I have surely been such a person, who use speaking the truth as an excuse not to love. They are the parent who punishes saying: “this punishment hurts you more than me” in a mockable way. They do not mind the punishment at all.

That is a grievous sin.

But isn’t there as great a sin in refusing to acknowledge (at least for a moment) that best judgment says a fellow believer has embraced wickedness? Paul, John, Jesus, and all the prophets do not say to keep every relationship going. The Biblical doctrine of separation from the world has been abused enough, that many of us refuse all but a hypothetical case.

Can’t a person even excommunicate himself? Or is our love so cloying that we will not respect a person has chosen a different god, even if he or she uses the same name?

If it is possible,when?

Christians must allow humans the liberty to choose a new God and a new Christ. My God and my Christ command holiness, justice, and righteousness. As Paul points out, the deeds of righteousness are pretty plain as are (from his perspective) evil deeds. If someone decides that parts of Christianity are good enough that they keep them, but deny ethical ideas universally held by the Church, then they are in a new “Christian” faith.

This new faith may be better, but it is not the old. If history is any guide, it is likely worse and will fade in time.

On sexual ethics the Church has spoken with a unified voice. Jesus does not give us a detailed sexual ethic, but in every case the Savior “ups the demands” of the Pharisees, He does not lower them.

The Pharisees placated their own desire to sin by allowing divorce. Jesus said: “in the beginning it was not so.”

The Pharisees ignored their lusts as long as they “did not do it” or at least get caught. Jesus said lust in our hearts was (for us) sex sin.

The great saints of the Church, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant, often get individual ethical decisions wrong, but they are unified on this: sex is not sinful in itself, but most of our sexual desires need radical purification.

On sex, just like any other desire, we cannot trust ourselves.

Perhaps the great hypocrisy of the American Church in the last twenty years has been ignoring some vices and “not asking” while focusing on vices done by smaller groups of people. We knew that a couple was “living in sin,” but we rushed to celebrate their Christian marriage without first calling them to repentance. There should have been no party without repentance, but because their vice was close enough to our own and all “ended well” we ignored it.

We ignore divorce: God hates divorce.

Perhaps I have been too eager to justify the sin of my friend when he divorces, because he is my friend. Until he repents of his wrong, shouldn’t we be at least a bit estranged? Will not repentance come with fruit (like paying child support)?

We are so eager to say that God does not hate the divorcee that we forget that God does hate the divorcee if the divorcee loves his sin. (I certainly know divorce happens to some people without their consent.)

I know that I have sometimes said: “But I am the last traditional Christian, my friend trusts or can befriend! It gives me a chance to soften his or her heart.”

This is true and someone might be called to do it, but only if they never allow themselves to appear to condone or celebrate sin. This is so hard that I am not sure any but a great saint could manage it while being perfectly loving.

In my own experience, either my values ended up being compromised or I gave others the appearance of evil. This most often comes when I agree as much as possible with a person, but am silent about the disagreement.

“Loving the sinner and hating the sin” is no longer good enough for the American majority. Christians must love the sinner who loves their sin and join in any celebration of their sin. This may be something, but is not the love described in Scriptures.

Of course, the “loving the sinner and hating the sin” formulation was always too vague. Jesus hated sinners as sinners, but he saw sinfulness was not all there was to any of us. We were created in the image of God and though sinners, could become something else if we allowed God to change us.

Mom and Dad loved me, but hated the sin and the sinner. They believed there was more to me than my status as sinner.  Jesus came for sinners, but so they could stop being sinners. He loves us as we are only so we can become something new.

God’s acceptance of us, any of us, into Paradise is contingent on our changing.

I come to God just as I am, He accepts me not as I am, but as Christ will make me. The sinner in me will be purged as if by fire . . . I am must kill my old self or I cannot be raised with Christ.

Priests or pastors may have different jobs to do, but for the rest of us, we must respect other people’s decisions enough to recognize that if we worship the true Christ, they have come to worship a false one.

Humility in part means refusing to set up our own standards for fellowship and becoming nicer than God. There will be no sinners, after all, in heaven. If we don’t hate our sin, we go to Hell.

Everyone in God’s Heaven, if you follow the Christian God, will be a sinner who has rejected, whoever imperfectly their sin, and found a new life in Christ. Few will die sinless, but nobody who loves sin and continues in it knows God (I John).

My parents demonstrate this much better than I, but I am learning. They too were not always holy in their loving, they would compromise in the name of love, or be tempted by hate, but they did better every year. If there is always the temptation to temper relationships over too little, perhaps the greater temptation is to never disagree at all.

Disagree agreeably if you can, but not at all costs.

Mom and Dad knew this: love for any human, object, or group is limited by the greater love for a Holy God.

Pick the wrong God and great horror will result, but that is true of any of us, even if we believe in no god but humankind or community.

“Love God and do whatever you wish,” but make sure that you love the God who is Love and Holy.

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty: not so holy am I. Even when I have tried to live by this standard, I have failed. I have been unkind over too little and kind when separation was needed. My “boundaries” have been my own and not a Holy God’s.

Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

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