Updated 7-11-13, 12:09PM
Church, if you get nothing else right, then you must get this right. In fact, this is so important that, without it, you could do everything, but accomplish nothing!
I know churches around the country that are getting this wrong. They don’t know it, but they are. Many of them have good offerings, attendance, music, and facilities. Their people show up on weekends and drink coffee, go to Sunday School, serve in the nursery, and tithe their income. Their congregations are full of loyal, bought in, sold out, kill or be killed, Bible-beating, flag waving, bumper-sticker, honk-if-you-love-Jesus, I-play-my-Christian-radio-loud believers.
But they aren’t making a mark, because they’re missing this.
At dinner, Jesus said to his disciples, “So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”
“But Jesus, won’t they know we’re with you by how nice we are?” “Ehhh… Nice is nice but it isn’t love.”
“Won’t our beliefs prove to the world we’re your disciples?” “Ehhh… Belief is talk but love is evidence.”
“What about how many verses I can quote? Or my political party? Or how many times I pray this prayer? Or attend church? Or if I take communion on Easter? Or if I wear a cross around my neck? What about…?”
And Jesus responds, “Ehhhhh… most of that is good. But it is your LOVE for one another that will make the case. Without it, it’ll be hard to prove to the world anything.” In fact, Jesus says elsewhere it’s these two commandments, “(1) Love God and (2) Love others” that are most important.
WHAT IS LOVE?
And so it is with these passages that the question begs to be asked, what is love? (Baby don’t hurt me… sorry.) The question is more important than you think because in today’s court of public opinion love has several meanings.
Many have come to define love as tolerance, Christians and non-Christians. To love someone is to be blindly tolerant of who they choose to be and the way they choose to live because, “Who am I or you to claim we’ve got it all figured out? What they believe is their business? God is love. And love is God. So be nice and get that log out of your eye before you go plucking the speck out of theirs! …Pharisee!”
Really, tolerance has become a cultural virtue of our day, and love has absorbed its meaning. Tolerance has been unapologetically launched at the Christian community (by insiders and outsiders) like a flaming arrow, lighting us up to burn us alive.
Just as tolerance is revered as virtue, intolerance is jeered as vice. And so any Christian who even whispers the word “sin” or suggests some truths mustn’t be trodden on is immediately labeled intolerant. And with that mean. And with that judgmental. And with that hypocritical. And with that unloving. And with that anti-puppies, babies, and Krispy-Kreme (what a crime!).
THE PROBLEM OF TOLERANCE
Really, it’s all pretty intimidating. But we can’t let tolerance hijack the very foundation of our faith. There is a time and a place for tolerance. It’s not bad. What this word represents fits within the broad spectrum of responses that love requires of us. I find myself lovingly tolerating all sorts of stuff all the time (most recently, the Twilight series with my wife). In fact, tolerance tastes a whole lot like one of our favorite Christian words, grace. And we like grace. But this doesn’t mean tolerance is love. They overlap, not equal.
So we can’t shrivel into the shadows and sit on our hands. We can’t just ride the wave of cultural consensus with everyone else because it’s the easy or popular thing to do.
When we do, we thwart any opportunity for genuine debate about the issues. The combination of vicious name-calling and fearful pacifism in response, kills the possibility of life change. It kills the possibility of harmony, or even compromise. We say, “Never mind true love. Never mind if the activity or ideal in question is actually harmful to you, others, or society. I just don’t want to be a ‘bigot.’ I don’t want to be a ‘hate-monger.’ I’m not a ‘hypocrite!’ So I’ll just avoid having this talk all together.”
I’ve seen this happen time after time, Christian after Christian. The virtue of tolerance bullies its way into the one idea that’s most important, the one idea that makes us most distinctive, the one idea that, done right, will prove to the world who we belong to. And it disappears.
And what’s most ironic about it is that those carrying the banner of tolerance are sometimes the most intolerant. They shove their agenda down the throat of the opposition. It’s as if their motto is “Be tolerant! Or we’ll kill you!” And that accomplishes nothing. If your goal is to change the world, why bludgeon your critics with harsh nametags or exile them as fanatics (no matter how much you know they deserve it)? Change them! But in a way that will stick! Through passionate, respectful, loving, day-to-day debate.
I’m most certainly NOT saying that it’s time for war! I’m not summoning Christians to shrivel out of the shadows, stand up off their hands, and man their battle stations! This is not a crusading call to “Take back Murica!” or “Defend love… to the death!!!” In fact, if you’re that Christian, if you’re that guy, you’re more a part of the problem than anyone.
I’m simply calling us all to stop being so polarized. Stop being so scared. Stop being so intimidated. Stop being so intimidating. Stop being so hateful. Everybody! And step into the mess that is cross-shaped love.
CROSS-SHAPED LOVE IS MESSY
Cross-shaped love is messy. It’s not black and white, it’s gray. Sometimes it’s gracefully tolerant. Sometimes it’s pointed with stinging truth. Sometimes it’s a hug. Sometimes it’s a prophetic voice. Sometimes it’s silent. Sometimes it’s forgiveness. Sometimes it’s accountability. Sometimes it’s patient. Sometimes it has no time to spare. Sometimes it’s coffee. Sometimes it’s dinner. Sometimes it just takes time. And it’s always messy.
The gravitational pull of life is toward polarization. People don’t like gray. Black and white matters are simple. They’re clean. They don’t involve much effort or thought. It’s easy to tolerate everything and call it love. Or it’s easy to viciously sling “truth” without consideration of context and the people involved. But it’s messy to balance the tension between the two.
Love is always grace. Love is always truth. And true love rolls out of bed every morning and discerns what love might look like today. That doesn’t mean we neglect grace. That doesn’t mean we water-down truth. It means we love. And no, everyone isn’t always treated the same. Every situation is managed different. Every relationship is its own animal. It’s not always fair. It’s not always consistent. It’s not always right or left, this side or that, black or white. Instead, it’s wisdom. It’s self-sacrifice. It’s Jesus.
I find that communicating truth has everything to do with the right delivery. So embrace this mess. Step into it. Even if it’s hard. Even if it hurts. Because that’s what cross-shaped love does.
If you enjoy eating doughnuts, share this with your people or click the “Follow” button at the bottom of your screen and receive all Cross-Shaped blogs via e-mail. If you follow, I will eat a doughnut.