Three hundred dollars was all I needed to keep from becoming homeless. I was about to be evicted from the apartment I rented after my wife filed for divorce over my ongoing sexual sin. I was sure that my parents, who had the money, would float me a loan till I got back on my feet, if for no other reason than to ensure their grand-kids would have a place to sleep on their weekend visits.
But they said NO.
I was stunned and angry. I couldn’t believe they would deny their son something so easy for them to give and so necessary for me to have. Within a week I was evicted. I ceased all communication with my parents. If they had loved me, they would have helped me when I was most in need.
What I could and would not see at the time was that this “tough love” was exactly what I needed. It helped to bring me to my knees in desperation making me willing to admit myself into a 7 month long sexual addiction live-in program. While there, I made amends with my parents after realizing how prideful I had been and during my first talk with my mom in months I learned the truth behind what I once thought to be their most unloving act. Through many tears mom explained the spiritual battle she and dad went through as they considered loaning me money. They prayed earnestly about what they should do and knew God was telling them to “not lift a finger.” “Let me have him,” is what they sensed God saying.
It was the hardest thing they had ever done, having to watch their own son fall so low, but without question it was the most loving thing they had ever done.
I share this story because what is so often called “love” in the church rarely looks like this. More often than not the sort of love we most often give and most often want is really about not having our feelings hurt, nor hurting the feelings of others.
That is sentimentality – a reliance on feelings as a guide to truth – not love. Had my parents been guided by sentiment rather than love I would still be in bondage to my sin today (to see how that story ended I invite you to read my testimony HERE).
The above story taught me a lot about gospel love. What follows are four observations that I feel can help us, the family of God, be sure we are loving rightly, the way God prescribes, rather than wrongly, offering mere sentimentality.
1. A robust view of sin
Wesley said that sin has caused humanity to fall to such lengths that the image of God which we once held was now lost in us all until we are reborn in Christ (Sermons 124, 44, & 3). We are so lost, says Wesley, that we don’t even know we are lost. We live our lives dead to any thing which might please God or make us desire Him.
Whenever I sought my parents sympathy or pity for my addiction they were always quick to remind me that my main problem was sin. Yes, I was addicted, but my addiction had less to do with sex and everything to do with sin. Paul says of those who continue in sin,
They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity (Eph. 4:17-19)
That was me. Greedy – addicted – to practice anything that pleased myself. Jesus said that we love darkness more than light (John 3:19). The church must return to a robust view of sin, understanding that in all of us is the propensity to love the wrong things, and be willing to call to the carpet those who wander off the narrow path. Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8). When we recognize our primary disease is sin we can be sure to know, administer, and adore the only Cure.
2. A willingness to discipline
It is a tribute to the effectiveness of sin at work that we are so squeamish over church discipline. Parents know that loving their children involves setting and enforcing boundaries. Why would we think this is any less true when making disciples? The author of Hebrews reminds us that discipline is to be expected among God’s children (Heb. 12:5).
Paul doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to instructing the church how to address a person who insists on claiming the name “Christian” while indulging in unrepentant sin:
Then you must throw this man out and hand him over to Satan so that his sinful nature will be destroyed and he himself will be saved on the day the Lord returns. I meant that you are not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer yet indulges in sexual sin, or is greedy, or worships idols, or is abusive, or is a drunkard, or cheats people. Don’t even eat with such people. (1 Cor. 5:5, 11).
Real love will not stand idly by while another brother or sister continues in sin. The vocal opposition to recent church trials within our own denomination signals a gross misunderstanding of church discipline and the need for it. When sentimentality is our guiding rule we will go out of our way to not rock the boat, to preach “tolerance,” to tell others they have no right to judge. Gospel love, however, does not grow weary in doing good.
3. A prayer-soaked life
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:13-15).
James warns against making decisions based on what feels right. Here he uses an example of the mundane things of life – travel and trade – and claims that even in these “every day” decisions we ought to humbly consult our Lord. How often we take for granted our lives and think they are our own to live and do with as we please!
My parents labored in prayer for many days before deciding to deny me what would normally have been an obvious “yes” for them. They had long developed a habit of praying that they would make decisions based on what God wants even when conventional wisdom said otherwise.
The Church of Jesus Christ must spend more time on it’s knees consulting the wisdom of God in all that we say and do. When our actions are bathed and backed by prayer we can have some assurance that we are operating in the will of God and therefore in love, even when the world may think our words and deeds lack sentimentality.
4. A desire to honor God above people.
As for human praise, we have never sought it from you or anyone else (1 Thess. 2:6).
No wonder you can’t believe! For you gladly honor each other, but you don’t care about the honor that comes from the one who alone is God (John 5:44).
My parents knew that their decision might cause their son to despise them (and they were right!) but they were more concerned about obeying God than they were with pleasing me.
Jesus never pandered to the whims of the crowd but lived a life of extraordinary faith, desiring only to please his Father in heaven. A great example of this is the story of Jesus and the rich young ruler who refused to sell all he had in order to follow Jesus. Had Jesus been ruled by sentimentality he no doubt would have chased him down and offered to negotiate. After all, he wouldn’t want this rich young ruler spreading rumors that if anyone wants to follow him they have to sell all they have, would he? It is noteworthy that Mark tells us that before Jesus made such a big demand on this young man’s life he “looked at him, and loved him” (Mark 10:21). Love will honor God, not man, thus making demands upon us and others which seem extraordinary, even supernatural. But nothing is impossible with God (Luke 2:37).
May it be said of our churches and her leaders that we have re-captured a robust view of sin, that we faithfully and judiciously discipline our own, that prayer is the power behind every move, and that we are a God-fearing, God-honoring people. If we do this, we will be amazed at the resurrecting power of God who waits to bless the obedience of His children.