If the recent intense conflict played out over the Internet regarding World Vision’s policy change and reversal in their approach toward hiring married gay people tells us anything, it’s that North American Christians don’t have much capacity or wisdom when it comes to loving each other amidst ethical disagreements. Conservatives accused moderate evangelicals of abandoning the truth of the Bible when they supported the policy change; moderates accused conservative evangelicals of heartlessness toward children when they threatened to revoke their support due to the policy change. There were a few examples of folks who sought to move the discussion beyond the ideological impasse, but they weren’t very successful. And in the aftermath of the conflict, both sides are nursing their wounds, and wondering about the future of a church where such conflicts become so hurtful, so quickly.
I believe that the church would do well to return to the words of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, as it considers how to move forward. By saying this, I’m not trying to put general principles like justice and love on a higher plane than specific ethical injunctions of Scripture. I’m not in any way advocating an “either-or” sort of attitude toward the relationship between love on the one hand and faithfulness to Scripture on the other. Rather, I’m concerned about our rather obvious inability to take the “both-and” sort of approach, embracing both the full message of Scripture in all its detail, and also the great and high calling to live lives marked, above all else, by love—the greatest Christian virtue and practice according to 1 Cor 13:13. Paul insists in 1 Corinthians 13 that any form of Christian practice not characterized by love, however doctrinally correct or powerful or impressive it may be, nevertheless falls short of what God intends.
But this is extremely hard for us to live out in our present context. Conservatives insist, “I’m not loving a gay or lesbian person if I fail to urge them to abandon behaviors which, I am convinced, will damage them spiritually and will alienate them from God.” And so for them, love manifests itself as speaking the truth in a conflicted situation. The difficulty, of course, is that such speech, even if it’s graciously intended, is often not experienced as loving by the person being admonished. Many LGBT “Side-A” Christians (who allow for the possibility of long-term committed same-sex relationships among Christians) respond to this admonition by saying something like, “I tried to live that way, but it made my life miserable and was damaging to my spiritual life.” So what may have been intended as loving is not received as loving, but as misunderstanding or condemnation.
We can note the mirror image of the problem on the other side of the debate. Conservatives who removed their support from World Vision were characterized as heartless ideologues by many progressives. Yet these same progressives seemed to show little sympathy for the tensions and inner conflicts that the policy change at World Vision created in the minds and hearts of these more conservative sponsors. As a result, what may have been intended as loving admonishment by progressives was experienced as heartless rebuke and a failure to understand, by the conservatives being addressed.
I realize that all this could be nuanced in countless ways, but the general principle remains fairly evident. In situations of ethical conflict, responses which we may intend as loving are often not experienced by those with whom we disagree as loving. Now here’s my point: love worries about that! I’d like to invite both sides of this debate to worry about that a bit more. By “worrying” about this problem, I’m not suggesting that we simply avoid the conflict and “just try to get along.” Rather, I’m suggesting that we need to devote our energy and attention at least to minimizing the way in which words that may be intended as loving are not experienced as loving.
Part of this problem is a result of the polarizing impact of the Internet itself. Plenty of rhetoric on the Internet is never intended as loving to begin with. Blogs and comments are far better suited to highlighting differences than they are at moving toward reconciliation. Printed text lacks the rich emotional overtones, the facial expressions, and the pregnant pauses of voiced conversation. When we type in our words on a keyboard, we lack the physical presence of the real human beings we are addressing, and so it becomes much easier to treat them like a caricature. We suffer from the impact of this digital revolution in all sorts of ways in our society. The most strident voices are the ones that get the most attention, and listeners split up into groups and only hear the voices they already agree with, the voices they hear on the TV channels they already like to watch, or the voices from those they already follow on Twitter or on Facebook. So there are larger forces which push us away from loving those with whom we disagree. The result in social psychological terms is group polarization. Our views strengthen and stiffen when we are not exposed to differing viewpoints.
Here’s where I think 1 Corinthians 13 can help us. Paul provides a list of descriptors, beginning in verse 4, that help us to make our Christian love more concrete and filled-out. Let me walk you through the text in more detail. Here are the verses I want to focus on:
4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never ends.
First, Paul says that love is “patient.” The Greek word here is μακροθυμεῖ. The standard Greek lexicon (BDAG) gives the following definition: “to bear up under provocation without complaint, be patient, forbearing.” The word suggests taking a long time before hitting the “anger” button. What are the practices and disciplines that help us to do that, in a politicized culture that thrives on getting people riled up? At the very least, we are invited to slow down, to resist that initial impulse to hit the “send” button, and let our emotions settle down a bit.
Then, Paul says that love is “kind” (Greek χρηστεύεται). The word also carries connotations of goodness and generosity. Kindness gives the benefit of the doubt to the other person. We all can recall a favorite teacher who would correct our errors, to be sure, but always with kindness. How did that feel? How can we reflect that to others?
Paul goes on: Love is not “envious” (Greek οὐ ζηλοῖ). The BDAG lexicon offers the following extended definition of this particular usage: “to have intense negative feelings over another’s achievements or success, be filled with jealousy, envy toward someone.” It’s striking how often the fact that someone has thousands of online followers intensifies our anger when we don’t like what they say. Paul invites us to an honest sort of introspection as to our own motives and dispositions, before reacting to someone else.
Next, Paul says that love is not “boastful or arrogant” (Greek οὐ περπερεύεται, οὐ φυσιοῦται). The first word focuses on calling attention to oneself; the second literally means “puffed up” or “over-inflated.” One of the best ways to insure that words that you think are “loving” will be received as hostility is when they are accompanied by grandiosity and hyperbole.
Love is not “rude” (Greek οὐκ ἀσχημονεῖ). The BDAG lexicon offers this extended definition: “behave disgracefully, dishonorably, indecently.” How many times are we tempted to engage in behavior that others may perceive as outrageous, simply because we are convinced we are right? Far too often in our Internet culture, being convinced that one is correct gives all sorts of license to be less than decent to others. Love resists that temptation to snipe on a comment list, or to embarrass the person with whom you disagree.
Love “does not insist on its own way” (Greek οὐ ζητεῖ τὰ ἑαυτῆς) The phrase literally means “does not seek its own things.” This is a more difficult exhortation to interpret, particularly in the context of ethical disputes. Does this mean that if I am to be loving, I can’t pursue the truth that I believe is out there? I don’t think so. I think that the issue here has to do more with self-interest. Not insisting on our own way may take a variety of forms. Perhaps there is more than one answer to a particular question, and love recognizes that one’s own answer may not be the only one. Or perhaps this calls us to recognize the subtle ways in which we stand to benefit by winning an argument, and we are invited to let go of those ulterior self-interested motives. Love doesn’t have to be right all the time. This is particularly hard to learn for those of us who are academics.
Love is “not irritable or resentful” (Greek οὐ παροξύνεται, οὐ λογίζεται τὸ κακόν). The first word “irritable” focuses on language or behavior that others find provocative—that is inclined to get others riled up. This invites us to think about that moment when conflict escalates—are there ways to find a different path? Is there a less inflammatory way to say what I want to put out there? The second word which the NRSV renders as “resentful” is actually a phrase in the Greek text, and literally means that love doesn’t “add up evil in an account.” The sense is that love doesn’t keep a list of all the wrongs that you perceive to have been done against you by particular people. Love doesn’t hold a grudge.
Love “does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth” (Greek οὐχαίρει ἐπὶ τῇ ἀδικίᾳ, συγχαίρει δὲ τῇ ἀληθείᾳ). Love doesn’t celebrate any sort of injustice (the core meaning of the word rendered “wrongdoing” here), even an injustice done to the one I disagree with. But there’s also a subtle shift in the Greek of the second clause that doesn’t come through in most translations. Both clauses use the same verb for “rejoice,” but the second form (συγχαίρει) adds a prefix—literally “rejoices together.” In other words, the rejoicing in the truth spoken of here is not my own happiness in my own understanding of the truth. Instead, it is the joy that comes from a shared apprehension of the truth, that brings joy to all involved—even to the one with whom I disagree. What’s critical here is the way that love seeks common interests and common places to rejoice in the truth.
Finally, we come to the elegant closing of this section. Love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” There are no limits on what love is willing to put up with, no limits on the extent to which love is willing to trust, no limits on the willingness to look for a positive outcome, no limits on the willingness to endure trouble along the way. Paul’s language, particularly the language of “bears all things” and “endures all things” makes it clear that Paul isn’t operating with a kind of idealized vision here. Love means dealing with nastiness and hanging in there, looking for a better tomorrow. As a result, love never fails, or more literally, love never falls down or collapses (Greek οὐδέποτε πίπτει). There is an internal strength to love that far exceeds initial appearances or expectations.
This last line is what takes us out of merely human capacities, and invites a deeper reliance upon our union with Christ. Let’s be honest, every human form of love will eventually collapse, if it is subjected to enough pressure. Ultimately, to live out these verses, we must live in Christ, and draw upon his love and his grace. Nothing less will enable us to embrace this big vision. But when this happens, people sit up and take notice. When Martin Luther King Jr. invited his followers to love their assailants, people stopped and took notice. When you see a non-reactive response to a nasty post on a message board, it stands out. This sort of love has extraordinary power.
Paul wrote all this to a Corinthian church that had more than its fair share of conflict and division. They were divided over loyalties to different leaders, over ethical matters, over worship practices, over spiritual gifts. Paul was inviting a community that knew all about conflict and divisions to “find a more excellent way.” Love changes the way we engage with each other. Of course truth matters. Of course faithfulness to Scripture matters. Of course we need to be open to being corrected, to learn, to recognize the possibility that we are wrong, etc. etc. But I wonder, if we all took a time-out to meditate for a bit on 1 Corinthians 13, what difference it might make in the way we engage each other on the Internet, and elsewhere too!
So let me invite all of us today to take a deeper step in following Jesus, to take on the arduous task commanded by Jesus, of loving our enemies (Matt 5:44, Luke 6:27, 35). Find someone who pushes your buttons, and think about how to show love. Make it specific and concrete. If you are in the same town, take that person out for a meal, and ask them some questions about their life. If it’s an online conflict, slow down, breathe, read 1 Corinthians 13, and let your creative side find a fresh way to disrupt the cycles of meanness. In fact, I suspect that this is the greatest asset that we have online: the chance to pause and breathe. Make full use of that asset, and you may find a different way of being present to others.
Doing this, of course, will complicate your life. It will make it harder to divide up your world into neat, hermetically-sealed categories. The sinners and the saints will not be so easily distinguishable. You might even find your own opinions on some issues morphing in surprising ways. And you might even make more progress in helping the person you disagree with to change! You will definitely feel less in control, but you may find life more interesting. Welcome to Jesus’ world!