Suzanne Nicholson July 13, 2021
“Love is love.”
“Why can’t people just love one another?”
“How can a committed, loving relationship be wrong?”
Who wants to argue with love? The problem with quick clichés and 280-character Tweets, however, lies in the lack of a nuanced definition of love. Every Christian is called to love God and love neighbor—but what does that mean?
For the believer, God is the ultimate standard of love, the ultimate definition we must follow. This definition is revealed in the Word of God—both the Word, Jesus Christ, and Scripture itself. We know what love is because God has demonstrated it through his mighty acts, culminating in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of his Son Jesus, who died for our salvation while we were yet enemies of God (Rom. 5:8-10). We know who Jesus is because Spirit-inspired Scripture tells us who Jesus is and how he ministered, and the Spirit continues to reveal God’s truth to us (1 Cor. 2:12-16). Since the Triune God is at work in all these ways—and God is the same yesterday, today, and forever—we should expect a consistency of message even as we apply this message within our own time and cultures.
God’s Design for Human Flourishing The God of love is first revealed in the creation narrative. Whereas other cultures in the Ancient Near East promulgated myths about creation resulting from chaotic wars among the gods—where humans were but an afterthought, designed to serve the whims of the deities—the God of the Hebrews rendered a systematic creation, designed to order and fill the earth. At each step along the way, God declared that creation was “good”—until the process culminated in the creation of man and woman, made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27) and given the charge to fill the earth and subdue it (Gen. 1:28). Now God declared this creation was “very good” (Gen. 1:31). Male and female, made in the image of God. This is God’s design for human flourishing.
In the description of creation as God intended it, creation before sin marred God’s good design, Genesis 2:18 portrays man and woman as being made for one another, made to be in relationship (“it is not good that man should be alone”) and made to help one another (the woman is the ezer kenegdo, or helper corresponding to him). Together the two become one flesh in the marriage union (Gen. 2:24). The passage makes it clear that no one else would do. God had paraded the animals before Adam to name, and yet no one was suitable to be his partner (Gen. 2:20). Only the woman appears in this story as the fulfillment of God’s grand design for marriage. Thus, the story depicts the male-female pairing as God’s plan for a fruitful and unifying marriage relationship. Other patterns of marital relationship derive from human, not divine, sources. This includes the pattern of polygamy we see in the Old Testament; the stories themselves depict dysfunctional families and thus provide a subtle critique of the cultural practice. Moreover, nowhere does Scripture affirm same-sex sexual practices. (Space does not permit a complete examination of the Scriptural prohibitions against homosexual practice, but for a fuller discussion see this video.)
Flourishing Deterred So how, then, do we explain a world in which some people do not feel as though they fit into this grand design? For those who experience same-sex attraction and declare, “I was born this way,” how can they make sense of desires that lie outside of heterosexual marriage but nonetheless feel natural to them? To answer this question, we must look at the continuing saga of Scripture. Genesis 3 describes the way that God’s good design was marred by human sin. Adam and Eve doubted God’s good provision and relied instead on their own imperfect wisdom, resulting in a broken relationship with God, with one another, and even creation itself. Scripture depicts all of creation as “subjected to futility” and in “bondage to decay” (Rom. 8:20-21). This brokenness affects our whole being: our thoughts, our desires, our emotions, our physical bodies, and our spiritual understanding. So even though our inclinations and desires may feel natural to us, we must recognize that “the heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick” (Jer. 17:9). This self-deception affects all humans, regardless of sexual inclination or practice. In other words, there are epistemic consequences to sin.
In his sermon, “Original Sin,” John Wesley declares that “the whole tenor” of Scripture describes “man in his natural state, unassisted by the grace of God, that ‘every imagination of the thoughts of his heart is’ still ‘evil, only evil,’ and that ‘continually.’” This may seem extreme to unbelievers who think, “I’m generally a good person.” Even if some of a person’s actions are altruistic, however, any sin separates a person from a perfect and holy God. Further, even “good” actions are often done for self-serving reasons—whether to receive praise, to avoid conflict, to position oneself in comparison to others, to avoid guilt, or for a whole host of other reasons. Wesley’s sermon continues by describing the idolatry of following one’s own will, rather than God’s:
“What is more natural to us than to seek happiness in the creature, instead of the Creator—to seek that satisfaction in the works of his hands, which can be found in God only? What more natural than ‘the desire of the flesh,’ that is, of the pleasure of sense in every kind?”
Self-satisfying sin turns away from the Giver of Life and thus results in death.
This understanding of “the entire depravation of the whole human nature” is critical for making sense of the rest of Scripture. The reason Christ’s love is so powerful, so profound, is that our natural bent toward sinning made us utterly incapable of turning toward God on our own; more than that, we had no desire to turn toward God. Any theology that claims we are “worthy” of salvation or that “I’m fine just the way I am” or “I’m good enough” is no Christian theology. If we were good enough to come to God on our own, then there was no reason for Jesus to suffer and die on the cross. His passion becomes needless and cruel rather than an act of love to help those who have no other way of drawing near to God. Thus, the precursor to understanding the love of God is understanding our own depravity apart from God.
Love that Transforms Yet God did not abandon us to our own devices. God loved us enough that while we were enemies—running away from the one who created us and desired to be in loving relationship with us—God sent his Son to pay the penalty for our sins. Not only that, but God’s prevenient grace empowered us to respond to God. Our eyes were opened and we became able to turn toward God for the first time. Apart from this grace—this great love—we could do nothing.
God’s love is described in a variety of ways in Scripture. The Old Testament frequently uses the Hebrew terms ahab and hesed; these concepts are then translated as agape in Greek in the New Testament. Ahab is a general term with many meanings (such as the affectionate love between family members), but when used of God and Israel, the term often denotes covenant loyalty. Likewise, hesed has a variety of meanings: God’s lovingkindness, mercy, covenant faithfulness, and trustworthiness. A person who offers hesed to another is in a position of strength and is able to render aid to the weaker party, but is under no legal obligation to do so (although a moral obligation occurs after the two parties choose to enter into a covenant, such as with God and Israel). This is what makes this love so valuable—it is offered, not compelled; it is abundant, not stingy; it provides what is lacking and thus brings about transformation.
Jesus himself is God’s hesed provision. God is under no obligation to provide for all of humanity; God doesn’t owe us anything. Rather, God sees our desperate entanglement in sin and knows that we cannot help ourselves out of this self-centered morass of sin. Out of sheer love for the creature whom he made in his image and into whom he breathed life, God sent his only son to take on human flesh, to become one of us so that he could restore the image which had become so badly damaged. Jesus died, paying the penalty for sins, and his resurrection proves his triumph over sin and death.
God’s love does not redeem us and then leave us alone. Through the Holy Spirit, God continues to transform us. This process of changing from self-centered creatures to God-centered creatures can be difficult and painful. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in The Cost of Discipleship, describes it thus:
The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.
As we die to our old selves and surrender to the Spirit’s transformation of our lives, we look forward to the day of Christ’s return, a time in which God will put all things right. The picture in Revelation of this final reckoning depicts creation as transformed back into a pre-fall Edenic state. What has been marred by sin is restored by Christ. God’s love brings about transformation.
Any theology of Christian love must be consistent with this transformative design of God. In many ways, the meaning of this transforming love is obvious. We provide food and justice for the poor and oppressed because our loving God desires shalom for his people; transforming love involves physical provision for those who lack basic necessities and fair opportunity. We build up one another and live in patient, kind, and generous relationships together because a world apart from God is selfish and cruel; transforming love requires restored relationships that lay down one’s life for one’s friends (John 15:13) and put the needs of others above one’s own needs (Phil. 2:3-4). Yet transformative love goes beyond mere provision and kindness. Thomas Aquinas, for example, defined love in terms of willing the good of the other (Summa Theologiae, I-II.26.4). Similarly, C.S. Lewis defined love not as an affectionate feeling, “but a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained” (God in the Dock). Since God has provided a means of repairing the brokenness we experience when we choose our own path rather than God’s grand design, then willing the good for our neighbors must involve drawing them toward God’s good plan. What could be a higher good than pointing our neighbor to the pristine pre-Fall design of God, which God declared to be very good? Thus, loving our neighbor does not mean we affirm every lifestyle choice a person makes. It does not mean avoiding the pain of a difficult conversation when our neighbor strays from God’s path. We share the Gospel because we love our neighbors and want them to know God’s plan for their flourishing.
Modern Love? Today’s culture, however, often defines love as an experience of deep affectionate feelings for another that necessarily includes affirmation of another’s lifestyle choices. In this view, feelings and experiences become the arbiters of goodness. Thus, whatever makes you feel good is good. Anything that causes pain is harmful or wrong. As one author put it, “ [T]rue love really does love without trying to change the other person.” If this were an accurate picture of love, then God never would have pursued Adam and Eve after they sinned; God would have prioritized their feelings and their choice to live in a manner that separated them from God. End of story. The Bible would have been a very short book!
The cultural feel-good definition of love fails to recognize that sin is tempting precisely because it feels good. When Eve bit into the apple, it was because “the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise …” (Gen. 3:6). Our feelings and our rationalizations simply are not reliable; this is the point of Jeremiah’s warning regarding the self-deceptive heart. We must rely on God’s revelation in Scripture to guide us and correct us (2 Tim. 3:16) so that our misguided passions do not lead us astray.
When we look to Scripture, we see a God who continually pursues his wayward people, sometimes restoring them and sometimes disciplining them, but always for one good purpose: calling them home. The same God who delivered the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt in response to their pleas also sent the Israelites into exile in response to their sin. The same God who gave the Philistines into David’s hand and saved Daniel from the lions’ den also removed Saul as king and sent a storm after Jonah. Clearly, this process of transforming the people of God was, at times, painful. This did not cease with the resurrection of Jesus. The apostle Paul, for example, had a difficult relationship with the Corinthian church that he had founded. But the rebukes he offered were for a good purpose:
For even if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it (though I did regret it, for I see that I grieved you with that letter, though only briefly). Now I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance; for you felt a godly grief, so that you were not harmed in any way by us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death (2 Cor. 7:8-10).
Transformative love, then, sometimes requires an accountability that may feel painful at the time, but ultimately brings the lost back to God through repentance and a realignment with God’s will.
Love Your Neighbor In the current debate over human sexuality, those who hold to a traditional view of marriage are often condemned as hateful bigots. To be sure, some extreme churches have demonstrated malicious and violent behavior toward sexual minorities—and the actions of these churchgoers are clearly sinful. But many churches that oppose same-sex unions do so out of love properly understood, not hate. If one truly believes that same-sex intimacy is inconsistent with God’s design for humanity, then to condone such behavior is the truly unloving act. Willing the good of others means helping people draw closer to God, not farther away. To condone any practice of sin—whether gossip or misuse of money or adultery or same-sex sexual activity—results not only in leaving people in their sin, but also in deceiving them into thinking they are right with God when they are not. This kind of doctrinal indifference “is the spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven” (John Wesley, “The Catholic Spirit”). How can we love our neighbor when our affirmations of “you do you” and “live your truth” lead a person away from God rather than toward God? Indeed, we have a moral obligation to call out sin in others, as John Wesley affirms in his sermon, “The Duty of Reproving Our Neighbour”:
Love indeed requires us to warn him, not only of sin, (although of this chiefly,) but likewise of any error which, if it were persisted in, would naturally lead to sin. If we do not "hate him in our heart," if we love our neighbour as ourselves, this will be our constant endeavour; to warn him of every evil way, and of every mistake which tends to evil.
In our current culture of self-determination of “truth,” Christian accountability has fallen out of favor. Certainly, admonishing one another in Christian love is a delicate task; Wesley himself admitted “there is a considerable difficulty in performing this in a right manner.” He urges believers to have a spirit of goodwill and humility, and to speak with prayerful meekness, when reproaching their neighbor. Indeed, Gal. 6:1 urges believers to restore one who has fallen into sin with “a spirit of gentleness.” But the importance of encouraging one another to grow closer to Christ in holiness cannot be overstated, as Wesley suggests: “I never heard or read of any considerable revival of religion which was not attended with a spirit of reproving.”
To love one’s neighbor fully, then, involves doing everything possible to help that neighbor draw near to God. The full story of Scripture is necessary for both understanding God’s plan for human sexuality and acknowledging how humanity’s deep fallenness pulls us in other directions. The platitude “love is love” provides false comfort because it affirms a self-focused definition of love that fails to recognize our tendency to self-deception. The story of Scripture, however, reminds us of God’s plan for human flourishing and calls us to experience God’s transforming love.
For additional resources, see: Beth Felker Jones, Faithful: A Theology of Sex (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015). Timothy C. Tennent, For the Body: Recovering a Theology of Gender, Sexuality, and the Human Body (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020). Todd Wilson, Mere Sexuality: Rediscovering the Christian Vision of Sexuality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017). Dr. Suzanne Nicholson is Professor of New Testament at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky. She is a Deacon in the United Methodist Church and serves as Assistant Lead Editor of Firebrand.
Please know that any text in blue are links to the information source or greater detail. Also, we ask that you share, comment and like any and all posts to continue to help spread the word. We find that most UMC members know little to nothing about the current and future of the UMC. Please decide now to be heard before it is too late! Join the Wesleyan Covenant Association NOW! EOWCA values your comments and support. Thank you!