Last time I was looking at two contrasting views of human nature. In this post I’d like to look at how love tackles human flawedness. Sorry, it’s another long one.
I’ve met several people who believed that the core message of all the major world faiths was to be nice to each other – a kind of weak Golden Rule. (Reminds me of Bill and Ted’s “Be excellent to each other”, though ‘excellent’ is a huge improvement on ‘nice’.)
Of course, it would be no bad thing if we were all to be nicer to each other; it sure beats being nasty. And there’s certainly a lot to be said for being kind to one another. Genuine kindness is an understated and underrated virtue, and a close kin to love.
But ‘nice’, like ‘moderate’, is such a bland and inoffensive word; it’s hardly life-changing, something you can get excited about. You probably couldn’t get executed for it either. The heart of Christianity is something more dynamic and dangerous than niceness – it’s love.
Love isn’t always nice
Jesus embodied radical love and truth (or reality). He also required radical love and reality of others. Not everyone liked this – particularly those with a vested interest in a comfortable status quo based on hypocrisy and exclusion. Niceness would have presented no challenge to this; love and reality did.
‘Be nice to each other’ is a pale shadow of Jesus’ ‘love one another’, which was the core message both of all his teachings and of his whole life – and his death. The thing is, love is always good, even always kind – but sadly it isn’t always nice. It isn’t always just pleasant or appealing or enjoyable or comfortable.
Love challenges and confronts as well as comforts; sets inconvenient limits as well as offering real freedoms; makes difficult demands as well as bestowing great blessings. Niceness does none of these things. Niceness lets us off the hook; love genuinely accepts us, but also requires us to work, to grow, to face change.
It’s been said that God loves us as we are, but that he also loves us too much to leave us as we are. We are fundamentally accepted by grace, but nonetheless we’re all more or less immature and selfish; petty, proud, paranoid and prickly. If we’re to enter into the fullness of life and reality, we need to be transformed. And the long, slow, painstaking – often painful – process of drawing us out of our comfortable shelters of selfishness into Christ’s life and freedom is not a uniformly pleasant or easy one. At times it can feel more like punishment than kindness.
Comfort vs challenge
So often we just want someone to be nice to us – to agree with us, comfort us, sympathise with us – when what we really need is someone to love us enough to disagree with us, confront us, challenge us. Again, it’s a balance: God is the ‘God of all comfort’; and confronting without love and empathy is not at all what it’s about. But sometimes love has to take the hard way that niceness won’t, challenging us to face painful reality.
Here’s the difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is nice; it soothes and comforts; says ‘there, there, you poor thing’ and offers a cup of tea, but doesn’t help us change. Empathy is incarnational and can be transformational. In true empathy, we identify with the other person; we enter into their situation, walk with them in their shoes. It’s a costly commitment, and it’s what God does for us in Christ. It’s not about neurotically taking responsibility for another’s problems or bailing them out; it’s about supporting them as they take the difficult steps of healing and change.
Sweets vs greens
I hate the horribly-abused phrases ‘cruel to be kind’ and ‘tough love’. But it’s true that sometimes the deepest kindness can feel a little like cruelty (though it never really is cruel). Sometimes, like the surgeon’s knife, love does have to hurt – or at least to allow hurt – in order to bring about healing (never in order to harm). Sometimes we have to embrace present pain and difficulty for the sake of long-term health, happiness and wholeness.
Essentially we either have to pay now or later. We can do the hard work of growth and change, of effort and delayed gratification now, or we can put it off and have to do the even harder work of undoing and redoing later. Failing that, we’ll ultimately face the self-destructive consequences of never having done it, and the chances are that will be the hardest of all.
It’s the classic ‘sweets vs greens’ dilemma – nice-but-unhealthy vs nasty-but-good. We all know that sweets are nice but that they rot your teeth and make you fat, whereas greens are good for you but not very nice. Sadly this holds true for so many things – the dull or difficult choice is often the healthier one long-term, whereas the easier or more enjoyable option is often unhealthier physically, emotionally or relationally. Short-cuts to pleasure or profit that cut out cost and commitment don’t generally end up in good or joyful places.
Of course there’s a place for nice things; God created pleasures and I’m convinced he wants us to enjoy his world and each other. Nice things are nice; they can make life more pleasant and more bearable. But genuinely good things do far more than that; they make life truly life, really worth living rather than mere existing.
I said that love sometimes has to hurt, but maybe that’s not quite right. Perhaps rather it’s the brokenness and wrong deep within us that hurts when we face up to it and work to be healed or rid of it. Love is simply the power that keeps us on this painful path of liberation and healing.
Forgiving those who’ve wronged or betrayed us hurts. Discovering and admitting that we’re in the wrong, that we’re not so great and good as we’d imagined, also hurts. Facing our fears and our darkness hurts. Growth and change hurts; letting go of old things, dreams, ways and habits we’ve held dear but that are no longer helpful to us hurts.
And along the way there are obstacles and frustrations and setbacks and dark times when the whole endeavour of becoming more fully human feels endless, pointless, futile and impossible. Through all this, ‘nice’ isn’t strong enough to sustain us; only love is – terrible, unanswerable, unreasoning love.
Is God nasty?
There have been times when I’ve felt that God was being deliberately cruel to me; denying me what I longed for which would have been so easy for him to grant, or (apparently) even dishing out pain or punishment which seemed unloving and unkind. At times I’ve shouted and sworn at him, accusing him of being, well, not very nice (I may have used other words).
I’ve often wished that God’s grace and love were all just about being nice and sympathetic. I’m not saying God isn’t those things, but he’s a lot more besides. He lets us go through considerable pain and trouble at times; I’m not even sure that on rare occasions and for special purposes he doesn’t even ordain it for a season. But I’m increasingly convinced (even if I don’t always feel it) that he has our best interests at heart – ultimately, our redemption; our becoming the full and free people we were always meant to be. He is growing his love and reality in us, and like an operation it sometimes hurts a lot.
I don’t believe God ever delights in inflicting pain, nor do I believe that he metes out merely retributive punishment. I think that what we see as punishment is often just the pain of healing, of liberation from what traps us. I also think that many of our troubles are at least partly self-inflicted; that we bring many of our problems on ourselves, albeit unwittingly.
And perhaps, just perhaps, it occasionally just does take awful circumstances to bring about deep and lasting redemption and wholeness. That’s certainly what old Irenaeus thought, though I only agree up to a point. Some suffering may be redemptive but not all is; and though God may perhaps act redemptively through suffering that doesn’t mean he inflicts it.
God may not be merely nice, but he is definitely not nasty – such a god would be no real God. Christ is love and goodness and reality incarnate, and he’s calling us to be the same.
- Love yourself or die to self?
- Towards a relational understanding of sin
- Humility, repentance and self-esteem