The Impurity of Love

My book Unclean is a meditation on the tensions between purity and love, mercy and sacrifice, holiness and hospitality, exclusion and embrace.

The paradox that we all wrestle with is how love has to get "dirty" to be love, how Jesus's vision of holiness involves embracing tax-collectors, sinners and prostitutes.

And yet, there's this impulse in some sectors of Christianity to keep our love "pure." We see this impulse at work in the mantra "hate the sin but love the sinner." The idea here is that we can, with surgical precision, make a cut between our affections toward human persons and how we feel about their behaviors. But as I argue in Unclean, such surgical precision is psychologically untenable. And we know this. It is incredibility hard to not let a person's behaviors affect how we feel about him or her.

So when we come to embrace human beings our strong feelings about their behavior do get marginalized. And to those looking on that embrace looks like we are getting "soft on sin." And here's the provocative claim of Unclean: That's true. When you embrace sinners there is a sense in which you are pushing their sin to the background. That is, when you love sinners there is a sense where you are looking at the person first. Sin has been removed as the perceptual filter, as the central focal point. And that perceptual shift, moving the human being into the foreground and the sin to the background, has a psychological feel, an emotional tone that could be labeled "going soft on sin." Sin has been perceptually de-centered--so that the human person can stand in front of you--and has become less emotionally charged. A perceptual and emotional rearrangement has occurred.

My point in all this is that it's really hard to keep love pure. When you love sinners--and I mean really love them, as in affectionately and not just verbally and theologically--a sort of contamination is involved. Things get a bit blurry and messy in your heart. That's why we say things like "love has to get dirty."

I was recently reminded of all this reading a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer from his Ethics:

Just as God's love entered the world, thereby submitting to the misunderstanding and ambiguity that characterize everything worldly, so also Christian love does not exist anywhere but in the worldly, in an infinite variety of concrete worldly action, and subject to misunderstanding and condemnation. Every attempt to portray a Christianity of "pure" love purged of worldly "impurities" is a false purism and perfectionism that scorns God's becoming human and falls prey to the fate of all ideologies. God was not too pure to enter the world.

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15 thoughts on “The Impurity of Love”

  1. Dr. Beck: I enjoyed Unclean immensely. But, it's been a few years since I've read it. I'm wondering if, in your thinking, the church can be at once a place of hospitable love and also a place of ongoing sanctification. Practically and pastorally speaking, what might it mean for sin to be de-centered? Does it mean that sin is not confronted within the church? And wrt scripture, how do you understand 1 Corinthians 5 (the language about cleaning out the old leaven . . . and about not associating with the sexually immoral brother)?

  2. I'm seeing a theme lately Prof. Beck.
    Wonder how Jesus and the washing of his disciples feet fits into this as well. God sure did "dirty himself" by entering our world.

  3. Great question. While I didn't talk a whole lot about this in Unclean I have written on the topic here on the blog. (And, in fact, I think I have a post coming out next week on the issue.)

    Two quick thoughts before I run off to class.

    First, what is sin? I think that's a really important question. Because if sin is failing to love others--failures of cruciformiy--then I think things are framed in a certain way. "Confronting sin" is about calling each other to love. "Confronting sin," then, looks like Jesus welcoming tax collectors and sinners or protecting the woman caught in the act of adultery. "Confronting sin," paradoxically, looks like confronting all the people who are confronting everyone's sin.

    But, secondly, even if one doesn't buy what I just said the heart of my analysis isn't about church practice. It's a psychological observation. And that observation is simply this: If you truly--and I mean truly--love someone then "confronting their sin" is going to have a distinctive affectional tone, a softness of heart that will shape the conversation in ways that will appear to others to be "non-judgmental."

  4. Or, as Randy Woodley put it, "Jesus was born in a stable in the midst of mouse poop and camel spit".

  5. Thanks. That's helpful. When you have a moment, how might I search for the past posts that you referred to. Look forward to the posts to come!

  6. Do you consider Love as hierarchal or categorical? Are the greek "loves" (agape, eros, philia, and storge) necessarily mutually exclusive?
    Or is it like the varying cultures that describe water falling from the sky as rain vs rain/drizzle/spitting/mist/downpour...

  7. I'd love to hear more about this -- especially your thoughts on some of the more common definitions of sin such as "Sin is breaking God's moral law" or "Sin is missing the mark" or your responses to people that would say "Sin is so destructive it's unloving to not criticize someone for it." Over the past couple of years I've build many meaningful friendships with "sinners" -- drug users, sex workers, etc -- and it feels as though God wants me to love them without trying to tell them that what they do is wrong. But I'm not sure that many other Christians would approve of my approach, so I'm interested in hearing thoughts. I did a quick check of your sidebar and didn't see any posts that seemed to relate directly to this idea, so while I wait for the post next week, do you have any recommendations for posts to read, or other thoughts to share in the comments?

  8. I'm not sure I look at it in any of those ways. When I think of love, from a biblical perspective, I think of all sorts of things, all converging upon a large, multifaceted concept. Loving people "as you love yourself." Looking "not to your own interests but to the interests of others." Being "the servant of all." Giving "greater honor to those who lack it." Sharing "with those who have need." And on and on.

  9. For some time now I've been getting in the habit of talking about how love is the only context where judgment is appropriate, the only room where the harshness of truth can be heard and we still don't want to run out screaming. Love is the room in which confrontation is best heard. But of course all of that is a false dichotomy. As Beck is suggesting, the paradox is that love itself is that right confrontation.

  10. Jesus told the woman caught in adultery, "Go and sin no more."

    Jesus also said to the man he healed in John 5, “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.”

    In Matthew 9:11-13, Jesus' disciples were asked, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and 'sinners'?" On hearing this, Jesus said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” He didn't tell the tax collectors and sinners that they were fine the way they were. He didn't join them in their sin in an attempt to relate. He wasn't down with how they were living. He boldly declared that they needed His healing and His salvation.

    He certainly gets down on the Pharisees when he calls them, "hypocrites, whitewashed tombs, brood of vipers, blind guides, blind fools, blind men." Seems quite judgmental to me. Jesus certainly does NOT instruct us NOT to judge, but to judge righteously. To not judge would be dangerous, irresponsible, unloving, stupid and ... frankly impossible.

  11. This post is really meaningful to me. When I was a youth minister, I got super discouraged because I felt like I was inevitably getting dragged into a bunch of dirt. Church power politics, mostly. I got more and more cynical, thinking, "Surely it's not supposed to be like this." I'm starting to my time in paid ministry differently now. Getting down in the muck is a part of the job - it's part of what it means to love the people you're brought in to serve. That doesn't mean we have an excuse for hurting people or becoming church politicians, but we can't expect to just float above the nasty stuff. Of course that applies to all of us, not just paid ministers.

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