(The first of two posts on Rom 12:9-13.) A few years back, Dave Kinnaman, currently president of the Barna Group, published a best-selling book entitled unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…and Why It Matters. In it, he asked why so many younger Americans have an aversion for the church and Christianity. It’s not because they don’t know the rudiments of the gospel. It’s not because they’ve never been in church. And it’s not because they don’t have Christians as friends. Quite the contrary. It’s because their experience of Christians has been largely negative. To them, we are an unloving, naive, and politically polarizing people: in a word, hypocrites.
This is more than just an image problem to be cleaned up with a bit of good PR. The indictment cuts to the heart of who we are as a church, of how we represent Christ in the world. Paul’s words to the Roman Christians are timely:
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. (Rom 12:9-13, NIV)
One would guess that Kinnaman’s informants haven’t spent much time in a church like this. In their experience, Christians are more interested in arguing people into the kingdom than loving them. For that matter, Christians don’t seem to be all that interested in loving each other either. And this despite the clear teaching of Jesus–indeed, one of the final things he would say to them before his arrest and crucifixion:
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34-35, NIV)
“Love, unhypocritical”: that’s a more literal translation of the NIV’s “love must be sincere.” The word “hypocrisy” suggests the image of stage actors, delivering their lines from behind a mask.
We know about masks, don’t we? There is a common counterfeit of love that I would call “Christian niceness.” We’ve all done it; I know I have. We smile when we’re at church. We make nice. But inside, we may have all kinds of not-so-nice thoughts tumbling around in our brains. Good grief, look how she’s dressed. What was she thinking? Or: You did what? That’s seriously messed up. Or even: Hey, I only asked how you were doing to be polite; I don’t need your whole life story.
Part of the problem, I think, is a half-truth that regularly makes the rounds among us: “Christian love isn’t a feeling, it’s an action.” True, we don’t need to feel loving to behave lovingly, and given the importance of love, it would often be wiser to do the loving thing and wait for the feelings to catch up.
But that maxim can also be a pragmatic excuse for focusing on behavior to the exclusion of feeling. We know we don’t feel loving toward one another; isn’t doing the loving thing enough? Well, maybe, at least temporarily–as we seek to be obedient in a particular instance. But that can’t be the end of the matter. Think about it: when we say Jesus loves us, does that mean he only did what his Father told him to do, and begrudged us the cross?
A sincere and unhypocritical love should be both a feeling and an action, each in concert with the other. If there’s a disjunction, then obedient loving behavior in the moment must be backed by a commitment to having our minds renewed. If it’s so hard for me to even feel loving toward this person, then what does the Holy Spirit need to change in me?
The process will be a gradual one. We’ve probably experienced moments of true and transcendent love, of God loving someone through us despite our reservations, or loving us through someone else. These are the moments that give us hope: God hasn’t given up on us, not yet.
In the meantime, perhaps a little honesty would be in order. It doesn’t take long for someone to see through mere Christian niceness to the uglier reality beneath; they may even be nice to us in return, just long enough to make a quick and graceful exit. But what if someone calls us on our hypocrisy? I don’t mean the knee-jerk use of the H-word that you sometimes hear from people who are trying to justify their apathy toward all things religious. I mean the people who see the truth about us and are brave enough to say it.
One possible response? “You’re right. We believe in the importance of love–but the truth is we’re terrible at it. Would you be willing to help us get better?”
Imagine what that attitude might do in our churches, or for that matter, in our homes. And we could do it–we could afford to be honest–once we’ve grasped the fullness of God’s love for us, and his gracious patience.
Loving Father: renew my mind. Hold the truth of your love ever before me, a love that allows me to be honest without fear. And love others through me, in a way that my own heart would be caught up in your embrace, with the desire to be more and more like your loving and obedient Son. Amen.