I have a dear friend who tends to react rather intensely.1 So when people cut her off in traffic or beat her in a volleyball game or just have ugly pants on, she tries really hard not to hate them. She grits her teeth, clenches her fist, and mutters, “I Christian love that woman.” Meaning, of course, “I desire what is best for her and want her to be happy for eternity with Christ but I seriously hope she’s on the other side of heaven from me or I might hit her over the head with my harp!”
Obviously, it’s a joke. But I think the world’s understanding of Christian love is just as messed up. People who watch Fred Phelps protests on TV see Christian “love” as a mask for hatred and judgment, as in “I am filled with Christ’s love!”
See, we claim to worship a God of love, but really we’re just sugarcoating our condemnation club. “God loves me!” we croon, accompanied by mediocre rhythm guitar. “But he hates gays and feminists and liberals and evolution scientists and My Little Ponies and chewing gum!”
Or they assume instead that God being love means that we can do whatever we want. “God loves everybody. He accepts everybody. Just because you do bad things doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. There aren’t really bad things anyway. It’s all relative.”
Tell that to the Pharisees that Jesus called “whitewashed tombs” and a “brood of vipers.” I don’t think his love was just happy feel-good love. I think it challenged people’s actions while loving them, broken as they are.
So it’s complicated, this “Christian love.” It’s not condemnation but it’s not complacency, either. It’s unconditional but it won’t leave you in your sin. Let me tell you what I mean when I say I Christian love you.
I love you. Completely and entirely. I don’t care who you are or where you’re from. I don’t care about your race or class or level of education. I love you if you’re inconvenient or homeless or disabled or needy or loud or ugly or stupid or way too smart for your own good. I love you so much I don’t even put those labels on you. I just love you.
I know you sin, but I probably don’t spend much time thinking about it. Even if I do, I don’t love you any the less for it. It doesn’t change how much I love you if you’re gay or contracepting or a drunk or fallen away from the faith or a gossip or wanted for tax evasion. I don’t think of you as “my atheist friend” or “my cafeteria Catholic friend” or “the object of my evangelization.” That’s not who you are. You’re Katie or Mike or Ben or Julie and I love you despite or through or because of your issues. Because that’s what it means to be a Christian: to love. “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 Jn 4:20). If I don’t love you, I don’t love God. Period.
Because I Christian love you, I won’t allow your sin to define you in my mind. Everybody sins. Everybody I love is caught up in some struggle with evil. Some fight harder than others, but we’re all attached to some sin. I won’t say I don’t care how you sin. Because I love you, I care. Because I want what’s best for you, your personal life is my business. It hurts me to watch you hurt yourself and God. But I will try my best only to love you more the more you sin.
When I say I Christian love you, I mean I don’t judge you. I don’t know the state of your soul or your relationship with God. But I’m not just going to pretend we’re all okay here. I will judge actions. My loving you doesn’t make your behavior okay. And because I love you, I may say something. When I say certain behavior is wrong, that doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. It doesn’t even necessarily mean you’re sinning.2 I can’t know the state of your soul. So please know that if I’m opposed to something you do, it doesn’t change my love for you.
It didn’t change his love for me.
But you know, I may not say something. I may live to show you what I believe is right and keep my lips sealed so you don’t feel judged.3 Because when I say I Christian love you, it means that I know that I’m a sinner. I’ve been given so much. I want to love you the way I’ve been loved. I’m not going to pretend that I’m okay with what you do, but I will not let it change the way I love you. I will hope and pray that you learn to let God love you and that you’re brought to his truth. But I know that that’s not my job. My job is to see in you the beautiful child of God that captivates his heart. My job is to love.
I will not be your savior. I will not be your judge. I will not be your everything. I will be your friend and walk with you.
I’m going to mess up. I’m going to judge you and I’m going to try to convert you and I’m going to ignore you or get annoyed by you. That’s because my love is a pale imitation of real Christian love:
But I’m going to try with everything I am to love you the way you deserve to be loved.
When I say I Christian love you, I mean that I’m going to need forgiveness. I’m going to need you to accept my brokenness the way I try to accept yours. You might not be a Christian, but I’m going to ask you to Christian love me back, to love without condemnation or complacency. I need you to love me as I am but challenge me to be better. Otherwise, what’s the point?
So I make you this promise, as a Christian. I will do everything I can to serve you and embrace you as you are. I will fight not to judge you or look down on you. I will recognize the ways you are so, so much better than me. I will try every day to lay down my life for you, to forgive you and accept you and challenge you. I will pray for you. That’s a promise, not a threat.
I’m so sorry that my love doesn’t look more like his. I’m trying.
- Intense reactions? What’s that like? [↩]
- For something to be a mortal sin, it has to be seriously wrong, you have to know it’s wrong, and you have to choose to do it anyway (grave matter, knowledge, full consent of the will). Observers can judge the first element, but we can’t know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you really knew something was wrong and that you freely chose it. [↩]
- **This post gives some helpful rules to gauge whether to speak up or not. [↩]