We have all heard the saying “tough love,” usually used in the context of people dealing with addictive or destructive behaviors. In those relationships, there are times when boundaries must be set and kept for the sake of the other people and how tough it is on them. However, I want to discuss a different aspect of the equation: when loving somebody means having to do things that are tough. Probably all of us can attest to having people in our lives who are hard to love. My goal is to discuss those times when the most loving thing is to do what seems to be the most unloving thing. Almost all of us know the preeminent and perfect description of love: it is patient, kind, not envious, not boastful, etc. This description is in the thirteenth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. However, I would argue that this is an abridged definition because taking that chapter in isolation will give an incomplete understanding of the concept. The person who wrote those words was also the one who commanded an entire congregation to not associate with a Christian brother until he repented of his sin; both passages were written under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit at the same point in time. There are times when our human understanding of patience and kindness may be far more unloving than we realize.
I want to quote here from C. S. Lewis on love: “The mere kindness which tolerates anything except pain and suffering in its object is, in that respect, at the opposite pole from Love. In other words, there is kindness in Love, but Love and kindness are not coterminous. When kindness is separated from the other elements of Love, it involves a certain fundamental indifference to its object. Kindness, merely as such, cares not whether its object becomes good or bad, only that it escapes suffering. Personally, I do not think that I should value much the “love” of a friend who cared only for comfort and happiness and did not object to my becoming dishonest…. Love is something more stern and splendid than mere kindness.” His explanation is profound. Lewis is writing to a Church that wants to love others but is instead in danger of simply being kind to others. This is not the same thing. In our society, there are large portions of the body of Christ that are accepting and affirming theologies, psychologies, and ideologies that are destructive to the people who hold them—all in the name of love. However, nothing can be more cruel than preventing a person from experiencing the pain of their destructive behavior; it is comparable to giving a person enough morphine to never discover the cancer until it is too late to be treated. As Christians, we must accept that some truths really are very simple: godly love must promote godliness.
In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he summarizes the chapter on love by identifying it as the most important of three virtues: faith, hope, and love. These virtues are means to an end, not the ends in themselves. What I mean is that our goal is not to have faith—our goal is to have faith in God, as expressed in His Word. Faith must have an object. Seeking faith by itself is like trying to find “east” on a globe: is an endless and empty pursuit. Our goal is not to have hope—our goal is to hope in Christ. If we obtain the object of our hope, then it is no longer an object of hope. Hope points to something beyond itself. Hope is neither the goal nor the point. We can only have hope if it is in something. Likewise, love itself cannot be our goal, for it must have a goal, and that goal must be God. Basic theology teaches that “God is love” is not the same as “love is God”; the former defines love as an attribute of the goal while the latter makes love the goal itself. If we make “love” our goal, we have made it into an idol.
The Bible says that God created man and woman in his own image. Throughout history, true Saints have struggled against the impulse to make God in man’s image. Likewise, if we make love an end in itself, then love becomes defined in our own terms. In other words, we are choosing to remake God in our own image. If we desire to understand what love truly is, we must recognize that its goal is God. If our motivation is solely to make someone happy, that is not necessarily bad, but it is not love; if our goal is simply to take away someone’s pain, that may be good, but it may not be love; and if our goal is to make somebody “feel” loved, that may be with the best of intentions, but it could be with the worst of results. Human beings in a fallen world are inherently broken. We love things we should not love, we desire things we should not desire, and we do things we should not do. Both Jesus and Paul made it exceptionally clear that we can only find wholeness and holiness by aiming for perfection. Making anything else the goal, no matter how excellent it may be, will eventually lead to the worship of crawling creatures and the de-evolution of humanity into something animalistic and barbaric. As C S. Lewis expressed it, there is always the danger that we can lose the ability to be talking beasts if we so choose.
When we understand “love” as doing and being the most loving thing, recognizing that the most loving thing is agreeing with the unalterable character of God, then this thing called “love” becomes bigger and stronger than personal opinions. Love now becomes an attitude and action that always compares itself to the character of God, as He is and as He commanded us to be. This means that there will be times when the most loving thing feels like the most unloving thing because we sometimes love what we should not love: we want the pain to stop when the pain is the only thing telling us we are destroying ourselves; we want people to accept our actions when our actions hurt those around us; we want comfort when we need correction; and there are even times when we misidentify the most godly thing as the most evil. In these instances, true love may not at all seem patient, kind, or loving.
Jesus summarized all of the law and the prophets in two commandments: love God and love others. It is vital that we remember that loving God must be first. If we do not love God, we cannot know how to love anyone else. As part of this, our relationship with God must be the most important thing in our life, or we will not be able to truly love anyone else. This also means that there will be times when we must choose to love ourselves enough to allow others to feel unloved so that we can more truly love. I once heard a famous healing minister express this concept. During his healing conferences, he would often schedule time to go out and do something fun and fellowship with others. He recognized that if he continually ministered to people without any breaks, he would burn himself out so quickly that he could not continue to minister. Pragmatically, he sometimes had to sacrifice ministering to two or three so he could minister to two or three hundred. He described an incident in which he had ministered all day and was taking a break to do something with a friend before the large evening meeting. As he was leaving his hotel room, a woman met him and asked for prayer. When he informed her that he had plans but there would be prayer during the evening session, she asked why his fun was more important than her life. Such logic argues only for the immediate need and does not look to the future or the bigger picture. If our relationship with God is primary in our life, then we must recognize that we can only help others become whole to the extent that we ourselves are whole. There are times when we need to do the loving thing for ourselves even when it seems unloving to another. This is often understood as setting appropriate boundaries. If we desire to love another person, we must be honest with our own limitations. Also, it is important to remember that the two things are connected: allowing someone else to hurt, manipulate, or overly rely upon us—whether intentionally or unintentionally—is not only unloving toward us but is accepting or affirming unloving and destructive actions within that person.
Returning to the main title of this discussion, this type of love can be horribly difficult. We may find ourselves in a situation in which the most loving thing feels cruel, heartless, or unforgiving. It can be almost impossible to stay strong against accusations of pride, self-righteousness, callousness, selfishness, and other motivations—accusations that may come from the person, from others, from our own hearts, or from the accuser of the Church. At those times, it is absolutely necessary that the person who desires to be loving is regularly and seriously looking in the mirror of Scripture . . . not only to evaluate personal motives but also to prioritize true love over temporary perceptions. Additionally, love requires that we do the truly loving thing even when we recognize that we ourselves are fallen and imperfect creatures. Sometimes, real love can seem very unloving. Love can be very tough.