I Think, but I'm Just Guessing, that Love Means You Have to Treat People Better

Something to think about heading into the weekend...

Early this week I mentioned Stanley Hauerwas' assessment that American Christianity has become "too spiritual," that the concerns and life of the church have become other-worldly and detached from life right here and right now. The church rarely prays, "Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven." Rather, the prayer is "May we get to heaven when we die."

This week I also wrote about 1 Corinthians 13, Paul's soaring call to love. And I wondered last night if this call to love has also become other-worldly and "spiritualized" within the church.

I think it has.

Christians often say that they "love everyone." Their faith compels them to extend love to every person on the planet, friend and enemy alike. But how do Christians understand this call to love? What does it mean to love people?

As best I can tell, it means the following:

To love someone is to wish that they go to heaven.
This is what I think passes for love in many Christian communities. To love people is, essentially, to express a wish, a hope about their future. Think about it. Imagine you are talking to a Christian co-worker who is going off about another person in the office. Alarmed by his tone you gently remind your co-worker that, as Christians, we should try to love this difficult person. Your Christian friend is likely to respond with the following, "I do love him." But by this they don't mean a willingness to change their behavior, to turn the other cheek, or to serve and wash the feet of the person. No, what he means is that he doesn't want, in the end, bad things to happen to the difficult co-worker. To "love" is to express that your ultimate wish for a difficult co-worker is fundamentally benevolent.

But is that love? I fear that this is exactly what most Christians mean when they say they "love" you: "Ultimately, I don't wish anything bad for you."

To be clear, this sort of eschatological hope for others, a benevolent wish for their future, is wonderful. It would be hard to love people if this wish wasn't in place, if we wished for people to end up badly. But this is a pretty thin form of love. Mainly because it doesn't affect my behavior. It's a mental state. As long as I wish for good things in your future I can treat you poorly today. Why? Because I "love" you.

I think what has happened is that we've traded 1 Corinthians 13 for John 3.16. Too many Christians use John 3.16 as the model for how they should love the world:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.
The idea is that we see our love reflected in John 3.16. God loved the world and, because of this love, sought to save it. Christians love the world in the same way. Our "love" for you is our desire (a mental state) that you become saved. So we love you like God loves you: We express a desire to save you.

The trouble here is that God's love was behavioral. It wasn't just a wish. God's love was costly. He effectively gave his life away. Do Christians do the same? Not often. Rather, they just slide up to John 3.16, express a wish, and then call that "loving the world."

In short, where God's love in John 3.16 is costly, the John 3.16 love of Christians is cheap.

Compare this John 3.16 wish with 1 Corinthians 13. The love of 1 Corinthians is costly, it is behavioral. It isn't a bland, benevolent wish for the salvation of others. Specifically, love involves the following:
Love is patient with others.
Love is kind to others.
Love isn't envious about others.
Love doesn't brag around others.
Love is not arrogant around others.
Love is not rude to people.
Love isn't selfish.
Love doesn't get angry with others.
Love doesn't hold grudges about others.
Love enjoys what is true and not what is evil.
Love protects people.
Love trusts people.
Love is hopeful about people.
Love keeps at loving.
If you look at this list it becomes clear that we can't easily say "As a Christian, I love everyone." Because, really? You do? You love everyone? Are we talking about a John 3.16 love--the benevolent wish--or a 1 Corinthians 13 love? Is this a cheap or costly love we are talking about?

See, the fact that Christians are so quick to say "I love everyone" means that something is very, very wrong with how Christians are thinking about love. Because love isn't a wish. Love is how you treat people.

Love is costly. In John 3.16 love cost God his life on earth. And if you want to identify with that love, great.

Just know that the price tag hasn't changed.

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5 thoughts on “I Think, but I'm Just Guessing, that Love Means You Have to Treat People Better”

  1. This is probably my favorite of your posts ever. And that's saying something. :-) (But God forbid I say I "love" your blog!)

  2. This morning I recognized "love".
    I had been the past few days with my grandfather, who raised me. He has moved into a retirement community, because the family felt it was best. He didn't want to go. And I would've chosen to live with him, if my husband and I had lived in the area.
    Over the past 6 months, I have spent evey month on the road to attend to him. This was not done "out of duty" (dread of the "costs"), but was done out of my heart of love for him (joy and hope).
    This morning, I realized that I really enjoyed meeting his needs and I missed him. In fact, his continenance was "lifted up" after I'd been there for a day. He was more relaxed.
    The only comfort I have is that the family has planned on someone coming in to visit daily.

  3. scripture was written to re-inforce a "protected identity" in forming a "social group identification"...There was no "enlightened self-conscousness" in ancient or pre-modern times. But, we still do this, as it is necessary to distinguish, so that we can "think" and act appropriately. We cannot pretend that practical problems will be met with "ideals", although "ideals" are necessary ingredients to create vision and implement focus for leaders.

  4. Thank you for this post! I see a similar dynamic in my faith, Unitarian Universalism. While the 'other-worldly' love that our folks tend to profess is often named as a desire for what Dr. King called Beloved Community, I see in us the same unwillingness to do the hard work of creating that community in the present moment. Looking to Beloved Community as an ideal often lets UUs off the hook in the practical world.

    On a tangent (while we're reflecting on difficult love and the prayed-for hereafter) is this article from my colleague, Rev. Tess Baumberger:


    Thanks for the blog--I am enjoying your writings greatly, and look forward to being able to dive into the Theology of Calvin and Hobbes!

  5. A question;
    Since there is a difference between personalities, can we correlate these differences as how we play out in identifying as a "collective" or not?

    What does this do with Gilligan's conclusion that "care" is "self and other"? Kohlburg understood that maturity "ended" in Constituional government.

    It seems our culture wars are divided along these lines; the rational/reasonable (law) and the "care" model (compassion, human rights)...One has been suggested to represent a masculine response and the other a female response.

    Both are needed if one believes in an objective and subjective reality. I rather like what I have read on Ayn Rand's philosophy, "Objectivism".

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