Updated: Mar 30, 2022
“…although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.” Romans 1.32
In our Sunday afternoon Bible study, we have been going through the Letter to the Romans. For some, this is their first time reading this part of the Bible, and it has been a rich, challenging, contentious, and life-giving exercise. The Bible says some surprising things, and many things that cut across our grain.
We crave these things. We do not want to go through each day with the sense that we have failed, that we aren’t “good enough,” that the patterns and behaviors that define our lives are somehow “wrong.” “Don’t judge me,” is the powerful rebuke to disappointment, disapproval, and disdain. There are good reasons for this. We have all known people – maybe we have been the person – who is a constant critic. It wears you down.
To safeguard ourselves from such criticism we might adopt a posture towards “love” that is increasingly popular and increasingly insulating. By one understanding of love, love is approval. Love of this kind begins in the object of love. For love to be stirred there must be something lovely in its object: it might be a beautiful sunset, an adorable baby, a handsome man, a potential client, an appealing personality.
This kind of love requires an object that is lovely, or, at least, lovable. Having found such an object, the subject of such love cannot help himself. He is stirred, inspired, moved, or cajoled into love. Someone who is not “loving” when presented with such an object can only be hard-hearted and cruel, or, at minimum, apathic. This love, this empathy, is the mark of a loving person. Love like this boils down into its synonym: approval. It is not just a warm feeling towards; it is affirming.
Such a love can get us a long way down the road towards what appears to be a world we want to live in.
What romance is not born out of such love?
How many kind words?
It is not a bad thing, necessarily, to love in this way. …and yet it can only take us so far. How is such a love able to proceed if, when, it cannot find a lovely object to stir itself? What if such a “loving” subject encounters true filth, misery, or evil? Robbed of a source, such a love will falter. This kind of love, almost by definition, can never love an enemy. So there will always be some people that are beyond such love, sights that cannot stir it up, events that can only repulse and revolt it. To turn Paul’s description of love in 1 Corinthians 13 on its head, this kind of love with always fail. Or – and this could be far worse that failure – in order for such a love to triumph it must persist in approving and affirming even what is evil. This is the depth of sin Romans warns us about in 1.32: not only practicing evil, but approving of those who do the same.
On the other hand, we have a different kind of love (not totally different, but significantly), a kind of love that is modeled for us by God Himself. Because it is God’s love it is eminently better, but that also means it might sting a bit. God’s love for us, as 1 John tells us, does not start with us. It starts with God. God is love, and his Love extends to us not as affirmation but as salvation! As John writes,
“In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:10–11).
We learn how to love with a love that does not fail by understanding God’s love for us.
Or, going back to Romans,
“God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us….For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” (Romans 5:8, 10)
In our afternoon Bible study these verses were contentious. For some, the idea that a person (... even me?!) could be God's enemy was deeply troubling. The retort, “Only God can judge me!” is only comforting if one believes the lie that He has not. Or we might comfort ourselves with the false reasoning that if God loves us then it must be because we are so, so beautiful. But Scripture tells us this is not so: God loves us with a deeper, more powerful purity and clarity that we can possibly imagine because His love begins within Himself and extends to our muck, mire, and misery to draw us up into the beauty that is His salvation.
It is so crucial that we understand this. I was talking with a friend recently about their relationships to the “connects,” the drug dealers that ply and profit off of the addictions of others. This friend was describing to me the respect and love they experience in these relationships. When they cannot afford their fix, they get what they need for free… especially when they have been on a good, clean run towards sobriety. It might strike some as odd that such a relationship would be described, indeed felt, as loving. But it makes perfect sense, given an understanding of love as I described above. How could it not be? The connect doesn’t judge, doesn’t disapprove, doesn’t condemn. The connect is open and affirming.
In this conversation I pushed back: is it loving to profit from the addiction of others? Is it a mark of respect that someone will help you poison yourself? Unfortunately, this was not well received; the alternative to such unconditional affirmation is divine love. …and however, it is packaged such love most certainly challenge, offend, upend, and disrupt.
Thanks be to God that His Love has so disrupted and invaded our fallen reality!
Walking in the footsteps of that love is the challenge in front of us, but we do not so with the burden that we are walking towards God’s approval, but rather that we are moving within His perfect Love.
Just how this understanding of God’s love shapes our ministry must be puzzled out in thousands of ways, but it does clearly rule out at least one perilous pitfall: the disastrous idea that in order for us to love we must approve. Such an idea is so disastrous because often what God is calling us to love is un-approvable, and to continue to approval of such things leads to death not only to others but even to ourselves.
God’s mercy is based on something, and that something is not us: God’s mercy is based on promises that He has made of his own volition; it is based on a deliberate choice to extend his love, and God deliberately loves us for his own reasons. The terror of this is that He does not love us because we have given Him good reasons to; the beauty of this is that God loves us on purpose.