Truth and love in complex timesWritten by Subby Szterszky
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“Love without truth is sentimentality; it supports and affirms us but keeps us in denial about our flaws. Truth without love is harshness; it gives us information but in such a way that we cannot really hear it.”
Timothy Keller wrote those words in his book, The Meaning of Marriage, but the principle they express is universal: the absolute need for both love and truth in every relationship, in every area of life.
While most Christians would give that principle their hearty assent, putting it into practice proves more difficult – in fact impossible – apart from the grace of God. By nature, everyone leans toward one pole or the other of the truth-love axis – or by turns both, depending on the situation. To hold them in consistent balance requires power from on high.
This is especially so during a cultural moment when the Christian faith is met with growing opposition, particularly as it confronts prevailing beliefs surrounding sexuality. In this atmosphere, people of faith too often default to one of the polar extremes: downplaying unpopular teachings of Scripture to avoid offence (love without truth) or else doubling down on their convictions with little regard for the feelings of others (truth without love).
But as at all times, followers of Jesus are called to be faithful, compassionate ambassadors of their Lord – who is full of grace and truth – to a broken humanity. In order to do that, it’s essential to keep a number of factors in view.
The fallout from cultural Christianity
Christianity used to enjoy a unique position of respect and influence in Western society. This was evident in every avenue of culture, from education to public ethics, from legislation to the arts. Alas, that is no longer the case. Nowadays, influential cultural voices routinely portray Christianity as an outmoded and oppressive belief system. They call for limits on its freedom of expression wherever it conflicts with popular attitudes toward sexuality, among other issues. They insist people of faith fall in line with those attitudes or be labelled as intolerant bigots.
This shift in status has led to two opposite and equally wrong reactions. On the one side are those who’ve sought to regain the respect of the culture by agreeing with its judgments and distancing themselves from classic, orthodox Christian belief. On the other are those who’ve become bitter, adopting a siege mentality and yearning for the “good old days” of cultural pre-eminence.
Both positions, however, neglect one vital truth: While God at times grants favour to His church in the eyes of the surrounding culture, this is not His usual practice, either now or in the past. Indeed, as has often been noted, prosperity can be more hazardous than persecution to the spiritual health of the church. It can produce a complacent, cultural Christianity in which everyone assumes they’re Christian by default, despite the lack of a genuine living faith in Jesus.
The loss of cultural status is never easy to accept, but it is salutary in that it creates humility while undercutting pride and self-righteousness. Christians are right to thank God for the freedoms we’ve enjoyed (and continue to enjoy), as well as to work to maintain them for the sake of the Gospel. At the same time, the changing cultural landscape is an opportunity to remain faithful in presenting Christ to the world in a gracious and winsome fashion.
Building a hierarchy of sins
All sins are not equal. A small child who fibs about stealing a cookie is clearly not the same as a mass murderer who engages in genocide. And yet in one crucial sense, all sins are the same: they’re all expressions of rebellion against God, a rejection of His person and standards by His fallen creatures. All sins, from smallest to greatest, are an offence against the infinite holiness of God and thus worthy of eternal punishment – which Jesus bore on the cross on behalf of His people.
Be that as it may, His people have often entertained the urge to clump sins into categories that they personally find less or more offensive. The specifics may vary with time and tradition, and the borders may be porous, but there’s usually a hierarchy.
There are the socially acceptable sins (greed, gossip, gluttony) that barely register as sins. Then there are the nostalgic sins of youth (misdeeds during high school or college, perhaps) that show up in many personal testimonies. And there are the unspeakable sins that get treated as if they’re beyond the pale of mercy or compassion. For progressives, social injustice is the typical deal-breaker. For conservatives, it’s various (and selective) forms of sexual immorality.
But however they’re defined, such hierarchies of sin don’t bear up under the weight of Scripture. Every form of sin deserves God’s judgment, yet every type of sinner can be reconciled to God via the sacrifice of His Son Jesus. And so, we need to ask ourselves: Do we focus on certain sins and ignore others in our preaching, teaching and lifestyle? Would some kinds of sinners feel less welcome in our churches than other kinds of sinners?
The perils of dehumanizing others
There was a man (we’ll call him John) who attended a Bible-believing church for many years. John was committed to a high view of Scripture as the infallible, authoritative Word of God. He was outspoken against any form of sexuality that ran contrary to the teachings of that Word. Then one day, a close friend or family member of John’s (perhaps his son or daughter) came out to him as gay or lesbian. From that moment, John began to question the Bible’s teaching on sexuality and its reliability in general. At length he moved his family to a church more in line with his revised beliefs, and eventually they stopped attending church altogether.
John’s story may also have gone in a different direction, but one that’s no less heartbreaking. In this alternate scenario, after John’s friend or relative came out to him, he rejected them in a fit of righteous anger and cut off all contact with them.
Both scenarios share a pair of common traits. First, they suggest that John’s initial convictions about sexuality were rooted in his learned prejudices, rather than in Scriptural truth and grace. When the issues became personal, those convictions peeled away into one or the other of Keller’s polarities: either love without truth or truth without love.
Second, each scenario betrays a dehumanizing trend at odds with the value Scripture places on every human being as a divine image-bearer. It could be that John had grown accustomed to thinking of LGBTQ individuals as a faceless mass of “those people.” But once “those people” acquired a face, that of a loved one who was a kind, intelligent, actual person, it created an apparent dilemma in John’s mind. Either he had to reject everything he’d ever believed about sexuality, or he had to reject the person.
It’s a false dilemma, of course, as well as being tragic and unscriptural. There are no easy answers for how to navigate such challenging relationships with a Biblical blend of truth and love. But at the very least, we need to begin by showing people that we’re for them rather than against them. If they know us at all, there’s a good chance they already know what we believe about sexuality. In the long run, accepting them (without condoning their choices) will prove far more beneficial than sitting on either horn of that dilemma.
Images of Jesus, distorted and true
What we believe about Jesus will shape what we believe about everything else. In progressive circles, Jesus comes across as something of a laid-back life coach, whose message could be summed up as “be kind and don’t judge.” All that talk about sin and judgment and atoning sacrifice must’ve been added later, they assume, by patriarchal religious types trying to twist Jesus’ words. This has led to a belief system in which the only thing that matters is love, defined as uncritical acceptance of every belief and lifestyle choice. Love without truth.
By contrast, some conservative traditions leave an impression of Jesus as a stern taskmaster more than a gracious saviour, a second Moses rather than a second Adam, threatening judgment against those who don’t follow the rules. They’re quick to point out that Jesus spoke more about hell than anyone else in the Bible. This too has led to a belief system, in which the chief activity in the Christian life is to root out sin in others, take offence at it and pass judgment on it. Truth without love.
Both of these are distortions, however, exaggerating one aspect of Jesus’ character at the expense of another. Contrary to both, the Scriptures offer a well-rounded portrait of Jesus as the divine Son of God, able to control the weather, raise the dead and read the thoughts of those around Him. He has all power in heaven and on earth, and will return at the end of time to judge the world and everyone in it. And yet He is also supremely loving, gentle and kind, eagerly receiving everyone who comes to Him, in fact searching them out and drawing them to Himself. Even so, He doesn’t leave them in their sin, but calls them to a new life of holiness and obedience in following Him.
If Jesus was only this and nothing more – a perfect example of truth and love working together – He would only serve to remind us how far short we fall of the divine ideal. But He is, of course, far more than that. He has borne the guilt of our innumerable failures to be truthful and loving, and has credited His own perfections to our account. It’s only because of this Gospel exchange that we can be inspired and energized to reflect Jesus’ own truth and love to others.
As Tim Keller observed, “Unless we preach Jesus rather than a set of ‘morals of the story’ or timeless principles or good advice, people will never truly understand, love, or obey the Word of God.”
God has got this (and everything else)
All Christians claim to believe that God is sovereign, but what they mean by that varies considerably. As with our view of Christ, our view of divine sovereignty shapes how we see everything else.
Nevertheless, the complexities of our cultural moment often serve to highlight the gap between what we profess to believe and what we believe in reality. We become anxious and defensive as if God were in heaven, face to palm, wondering how we managed to mess up and how He’s going to fix it. Deep down, we may even fear that He’s not going to fix it, or at least not the way we’d prefer.
But nothing that happens anywhere at any time occurs outside of God’s purposes. He has permitted and ordained every historical or cultural development, whether good or ill. He never needs a backup plan. He’s got this, as well as everything else.
There’s an oft-quoted ancient Chinese curse (which turns out to be neither Chinese nor ancient): “May you live in interesting times.” The idea is that peace and stability are uneventful, whereas interesting times involve upheaval and uncertainty.
From a human standpoint, it may indeed appear that we’re living in such interesting times. But in reality, that’s true of every time and every culture, even though the specific problems and challenges may vary. And from the perspective of divine sovereignty, all times can be viewed as interesting, in a positive sense. Each of them offers a variety of opportunities for God’s people to share His truth and love with a broken world. And all of them fit together in a mosaic of history that will ultimately display God’s goodness, wisdom and glory.
Sources and further reading
Mark Galli and others, “Beautiful Orthodoxy,” Christianity Today, September 23, 2016.
Glynn Harrison, A Better Story: God, Sex and Human Flourishing, Inter-Varsity Press, 2017.
Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God, Penguin Books, 2013.
Timothy Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism, Random House, 2015.
Tony Reinke, “Speaking Truth in Love,” Desiring God, January 25, 2014.
© 2019 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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