How to Love Others without being Gullible or Naive2
In a previous post we saw that one of the two primary characteristics of Christian love is that it is governed by knowledge. We now see as well that true love, the sort of love that will accomplish good in the life of the beloved, must be characterized by discernment. What Paul has in mind with this word is the spiritual ability to make difficult moral decisions in the midst of a vast array of competing and confusing choices. Gullible and naïve love is worse than bad. It is destructive. So what kind of discernment does Paul have in mind?
Love must be the sort that is able to discern when it is appropriate and when it is not appropriate to be generous and supportive. Consider the challenge we all face when confronted with the panhandlers that fill our cities. When is compassion justified? When does giving money to those who beg for it actually hurt them and reinforce their lack of responsibility? When does an act of what feels like kindness actually compound a person’s problem rather than alleviate it?
A love that accomplishes much should be keenly aware of the circumstances and people and timing and consists largely in discretion in speech. We need to be wise and discerning regarding the objects of our love. Although we are to love our enemies, we don’t love them in the same way we love our friends and brothers/sisters in Christ.
We must remember that no matter how passionate we feel, no matter how extensive our sacrifice may be, we have not loved someone well if we fail to awaken them to the perilous condition in which their sin has placed them. If you think loving someone well means you keep silent about both the temporal and the eternal consequences of their beliefs and their behavior, you are sadly mistaken. You are loving in the absence of discernment. If you love someone without speaking the truth to them for fear that it might hurt their feelings or damage your relationship with them or get them in trouble with someone else, you have failed to love them well.
Loving with discernment means that you never communicate your affection or support for them in such a way that they feel free to continue in a lifestyle of unrepentant sin. If you in any way endorse their behavior or minimize its immorality or simply write it off as if everyone is entitled to live as they please, or if you love in such a way that you are fearful of passing judgment on them, you have failed them, you have not loved them well. You have thrown discernment out the window.
To shower someone with love and affirmation and affection without fulfilling the painful and costly task of pointing out to them the eternal consequences of their sin is not only not loving them, it is loving yourself more than you love them. Your refusal to identify their sin and call them to repentance is probably done to protect yourself, to guard your own heart from the distress that will likely come from creating discord in the relationship. You’re afraid of their anger, their rejection of you, you’re afraid they will label you as prejudiced and arrogant and judgmental. Your so-called love of the other is in actual fact selfish love of self. You are more concerned with how the truth will boomerang and affect you than you are with the impact their sin will have on them.
Consider one example that is most often in the news these days. How often do we see a famous pastor or spiritual leader interviewed on TV who cowardly refuses to articulate the biblical stance on homosexual behavior? The person is so afraid of being labeled a bigot or a fundamentalist that they weasel out of saying what God said: “Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality . . . will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10).
To say anything remotely similar to that will invariably bring down the angry denunciation of the TV host or countless others who will label you as unloving and arrogant and may end up costing you friendships and money and advancement in your career. But if it is in fact true that certain unrepentant lifestyle choices threaten your eternal destiny (and I assure you that homosexuality is by no means the only one, so don’t think I’m singling it out as unique or as more sinful than other acts of moral rebellion), if it is in fact true that heaven and hell hang suspended on the choices people make in this regard, it is the worst imaginable expression of calloused indifference, indeed hatred, of the other for you not to say so!
If your oncologist lives in fear that telling you the truth about a malignant tumor will ruin your day, or make you unhappy, or cause you to fall into depression, or appear to rob you of hope for the future, and refuses to disclose your condition and schedule immediate surgery, he is not loving you! If he says: “Hey, all is well! Take a few aspirin and watch how you eat and you should be fine,” thinking that to say otherwise will disrupt your vacation schedule and will bring distress on your family, he is not loving you! How much more so when the consequences are not merely temporal physical death but eternal spiritual death!
Let’s look at a perfect illustration of what it means to exercise “discernment” in our loving of others. It is found in something Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. He tells us in Matthew 7:6 - “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.”
I can hear someone object: “But wait a minute, Jesus. If we really love these people we won’t call them ‘dogs’ or ‘pigs’ and we certainly won’t refuse to share the gospel with them no matter what they do to us in return.” Well, Jesus disagrees with you!
Jesus has in mind the danger of being overindulgent and undiscerning. In loving our enemies, going the extra mile, and not judging unjustly, there is the peril of becoming wishy-washy and of failing to make essential distinctions between right and wrong and truth and falsehood. Whereas the saints are not to be judges, neither are they to be simpletons!
The terms “dogs” and “pigs” (perhaps a wild boar) in this text are not what we normally think of when we hear the words. The “dogs” to which Jesus refers are not the cuddly household pets of the 21st century, but rather wild and savage street hounds that carried disease and filth. In 2 Peter 2:22 Peter refers to false teachers and portrays them as dogs which return to their vomit. He also describes them as pigs that are washed only to return to wallowing in the mud. D. A. Carson explains:
“Jesus sketches a picture of a man holding a bag of precious pearls, confronting a pack of hulking hounds and some wild pigs. As the animals glare hungrily, he takes out his pearls and sprinkles them on the street. Thinking they are about to gulp some bits of food, the animals pounce on the pearls. Swift disillusionment sets in – the pearls are too hard to chew, quite tasteless, and utterly unappetizing. Enraged, the wild animals spit out the pearls, turn on the man and tear him to pieces” (105).
Jesus is not saying that we should withhold the gospel from certain people we regard as unworthy of it, but he does strongly suggest that if all we receive in return is persistent rejection and mockery, the time has come to move on to others. There are those who are unrepentantly vicious and calloused, who delight not in the truth of Scripture but only in scoffing at it.
Therefore, the “dogs” and “pigs” are not simply unbelievers, but defiant, persistently hateful, and vindictive unbelievers. “It ought to be understood,” wrote Calvin, “that dogs and swine are names given not to every kind of debauched men, or to those who are destitute of the fear of God and of true godliness, but to those who, by clear evidences, have manifested a hardened contempt of God, so that their disease appears to be incurable” (349). We read in Proverbs 9:7-8, “He who corrects a scoffer gets himself abuse, and he who reproves a wicked man incurs injury. Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you.”
Remember that this instruction from Jesus is set in the context of loving our enemies. So, whereas we are not to cast our pearls before swine, neither are we to be nasty and vicious and uncaring.
I’ve often pointed out that all too often in the name of love people will give a false assurance of salvation to someone who is living in unrepentant unbelief and immorality. Thinking that it would be “unloving” of them to challenge the legitimacy of someone’s profession of faith, they pat them on the back and assure them that although we may not agree with each other right now at least we can all be assured we’ll spend eternity in heaven together. That is not loving! That is the utter absence of discernment and can actually contribute to that person’s damnation!