Monday, May 3, 2010

What to do when loving your neighbor looks suspiciously like hating them.

When I lived in Charleston I had a desk job. It was boring. To pass the time, I would email with other friends who also had desk jobs, and were also spending all day in front of a computer screen. Among other topics, we had a semi-theologically oriented list serve where about 15 of us could discuss semi-theologically oriented questions during the day. We called it the Question of the Day.

Most of our semi-theological topics on the email list were centered around how Christians could most profitably interact with the culture around us. I think that is the Apostle Paul had been a part of our list serve discussions (he wasn't, except indirectly), I think he would had advocated an approach based on speaking the truth in love.

Unfortunately, that was not always my approach. And while I have only myself to blame for that, I've come to see that my entire tradition has not always excelled at speaking the truth in love either. You see there are two parts to speaking the truth in love. There is the truth, and then there is the love.

We in the Presbyterian and reformed traditions would do well to recognize that we have not always included both parts. We love the truth, we delight in truth, we pursue truth at all costs, and we love when convenient.

I think that sometimes we conservative folks have gotten the idea that if we are speaking the truth, that it is by definition loving, regardless of how it is presented. We reason that if it is true that the truth will set you free, then speaking truth is a loving thing. However, I think the reason Paul admonishes us to speak the truth in love, is because there is such a thing as speaking the truth without love. We can use the truth as a bludgeoning device, to build ourselves up, by breaking others down. We can use the truth as a club to guilt or shame people into conforming to our standards. We can use the truth harshly when we are not really interested in investing our lives to redeem the brokenness around us.

When we do this, I think Paul would say that the truth we are speaking is not really the truth at all anymore, because it is no longer an accurate reflection of him who IS the truth. And he would say that it just goes to show how badly we really need Jesus. And it shows how far we have to go in learning how to speak the truth to a broken world while combining it with a self sacrificial love that truly desires the good of our neighbor.

Sometimes we (I) are guilty of using the truth as a guilt-inducing goad to drive people to repentance based on fear. But Paul says in Romans that it is God's kindness that leads us to repentance. If our goal in speaking the truth to those around us is to display the lavish kindness of God, and his indescribable love for sinful people, then I think we will be speaking in love. Love for our neighbor, and love for our neighbor's creator. And I think we will be speaking the truth, because we will be reflecting the love of Christ, who is the truth.

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