It may seem strange that I dare to suggest that love can become an idol. Certainly, love is championed in every culture and religion to some capacity, and it is something especially sacred to the Christian faith. For all believers glory in the fact that God is both the Author and Giver of love. In fact, the greatest commandments given to us by Jesus Christ are to love God with all of our hearts, souls, strength, and minds, and to further love our neighbors as ourselves (Luke 10:27).
But often times it can become easy to confuse a misconception with the truth when we neglect to analyze our theology. Our human nature motivates us to adopt ideas and views that align with our wishes. In other words, our preferences inspire us to forge a theology to justify our positions instead of allowing our positions to be derivative of our theology. We have it backwards, and too often it goes unnoticed.
This is dangerous grounds for the Christian. Here we can unknowingly allow ourselves to fall prey to the wiles of the wicked one, and thereby do his bidding in lieu of the Lord’s. A careful reading of the Scriptures makes us aware that Lucifer uses means of counterfeiting the goodness of God to create snares for humanity. Truly, there is no greater lie than misconstruing a truth and using it against itself. By placing a component of the truth at the surface, people become deceived of the lie that lurks beneath.
There is a reason that Paul warns us that Lucifer masquerades as an angel of light, and that his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness (2 Cor. 11:14-15). Though even the servants of the Most High can become deceived when the flesh overcomes the spirit.
It is for this reason that we must always be alert and sober-minded to God’s holy love. If love in and of itself goes unchecked, we may unknowingly embrace a darker love masquerading as righteous love.
Being in Love with Love
It is time that we realize that love is only an attribute of God. I have heard many people express that God is love when in fact He is much more than love. We cannot reduce God down to a single emotion and deprive Him of His full character. By doing so we champion love instead of God Himself, and this simply will not do.
Glorifying love may sound half reasonable at first, but there is a danger here in assuming that love is synonymous with God. A.W. Tozer explains it well:
Equating love with God is a major mistake which has produced much unsound religious philosophy and has brought forth a spate of vaporous poetry completely out of accord with the Holy Scriptures and altogether of another climate from that of historic Christianity.
Had the apostle declared that love is what God is, we would be forced to infer that God is what love is. If literally God is love, then literally love is God, and we are in all duty bound to worship love as the only God there is. If love is equal to God then God is only equal to love, and God and love are identical. Thus we destroy the concept of personality in God and deny outright all His attributes save one, and that one we substitute for God (Tozer, 103).
Misunderstanding love as being God Himself instead of an attribute of God creates several problems. The fundamental problem is that God is supplanted with love. If love is thought to be God and God love, then we have created for ourselves an idol to worship because love has been put on the throne of God and made equal with Him.
This of course creates numerous conflicts and inaccuracies in how we understand and love God. And how we understand and love God impacts every facet of our faith. It is detrimental that we have a proper understanding of the fullness of God less we propagate these errors and allow them to breed in the Christian community.
The first problem that occurs once we put love on the throne of God is that we begin to view the world through the eyes of love instead of the eyes of the Lord. To be sure, there is no doubt that love is good, and that God loves all of His creatures and children. However, our Lord views the world through a lens of holiness, justice, righteousness, and mercy just as much as love. To ignore this fact is to become blind to the Lord’s expectations for us. We begin to assume that love is all that matters, and therefore we ignore our responsibility to seek holy justice instead of worldly justice, holy righteousness instead of self-righteousness, and a mercy which prepares people for the next life instead of a mercy that coddles sinful nature.
Reducing God to love is a prevalent reason that the doctrine of antinomianism first emerged. In this view, there is no longer any regard for the righteousness of God since grace is thought to cleanse all sin by default, and forevermore, regardless of the actions of Man. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called this cheap grace since it assumes holiness without human participation and takes advantage of God’s goodness.
Paul warns us not to adhere to this theology when he explained, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Rom. 6:1-2).
God commands us time and again to be holy people. He would not go through such pains to admonish us in this way if He did not expect us to participate in the process of sanctification. This does not mean that we earn our salvation through legalistic means. It merely calls us to action by surrendering ourselves to God. By surrendering, Christians invite the Spirit of God to empower us so that we might overcome temptation and sin which thereby leads to sanctification through grace.
Jesus also tells us that we must obey the commandments of God:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:16-19).
The two great commandments given to us by Jesus to love God and neighbor are laws themselves that must be followed. Notice that Jesus used the word “greatest” for said commandments which implies that other commandments must still be obeyed. This is also inferred when Jesus says that all the other laws are hinged upon these two. He also says, “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach” (Matt. 23:2-3).
This all amounts to the fact that God’s love does not make us exempt from righteous living. Nor does it give us license to condone the sins of others in the name of love. Righteous love holds us to a higher standard. Indeed, it is not love at all to ignore our role in holding someone’s hand through the process of grace, or failing to encourage their own responsibility to live holy lives.
The second problem with idolizing love can be seen in postmodern theology. Today, there is a growing interest in propounding a theology of total and inclusive love which does not admonish. Of course, proponents of this would not use the word admonish, and would rather supplant any form of reproof or warning with a wholesale acceptance of a person regardless of their spiritual condition.
The Church is in danger of confusing worldly love with God’s righteous love. It is quickly becoming the norm to use words such as tolerance and inclusiveness to describe the appropriate way in which Christians ought to love people. The problem is that such terms reflect a theology which promotes love that accepts sin. And the moment other Christians begin to admonish the sinful condition of people they are deemed unloving.
There are two problems with this line of thinking. First, most of us intuitively know that it is quite possible to love people regardless of the sin in their lives. The Scriptures tell us that we have all been born in sin and are by nature children of wrath (Ps. 51:5, 58:3; Eph. 2:3). And we read in 1 John that Christians continue to struggle with sin even after being made into new creations (1:8-9). Even so, Christians share a supernatural love for one another and God’s creatures. Although sin runs deep in our own lives, and in the lives of our biological and spiritual families, we share an unmistakable love for one another.
Further, the Christian does not witness to the world with hopes that they may love unbelievers once their sins have been forgiven. But it is the very nature of righteous love that leads Christians to take such action in the first place.
It should now be clear that it is not only possible to love people regardless of their sinful nature, but something commonly practiced by Christians today. This makes sense once we recall that God first loved us despite our sin, and that we are made in His image. So loving others despite their sins is simply a reflection of our Father. Therefore, the old platitude that we can love the sinner without loving the sin remains true despite any sensationalism that argues the contrary.
But how do we love the sinner without loving the sin? This brings me to my second rebuttal. I would argue that it is actually unloving to embrace a person along with their sin. In order to truly ensure the well-being of a person battling sin, it is our responsibility to help them overcome any sin in their lives in order that they may take hold of the peace and joy God offers them in this life and the next. That is what righteous love is all about.
Righteous love does more than just include people in the Church, but rather helps people become the church. It helps cultivate a genuine relationship with Jesus Christ so that by His Spirit, people are able to grow in grace and overcome the bondage of sin. Inclusive love, in the sense of many in the Church today, merely allows people to be a part of the church. This does more harm than good because it deprives people of a rich relationship with Christ.
This form of worldly love can also be motivated by selfishness which is the third problem with idolizing love. The reason for complete inclusiveness in the Church can be a defense mechanism that protects Christians from bearing the hostile backlash of secular society. The world is at its heart very selfish. And because of that selfishness, the world demands that everyone be allowed to live life however they see fit without any universal moral standards imposed upon them.
At first it may seem that the world values the differences in others. But the truth of the matter is that people want to suppress any brand of morality or truth that condemns certain thoughts or behaviors. It is not difficult to understand why: People want everyone to accept all things so that they themselves will be accepted in all things. This mentality is completely devoid of altruism.
It is important to understand that the world separate from God can possess and express love in many forms. At times it resembles the love of God since the Holy Spirit is present in the world and working on the hearts of both believers and unbelievers. At other times, this love takes on a darker counterfeit form which can be selfish and wicked.
We would do well to remember that Lucifer and a third of Heaven’s legion were banished due to this darkened and selfish love for oneself. History is replete with examples of those who showed love for oneself or something unholy. Adolf Hitler passionately loved Nazi Germany, but harbored hatred for the Jewish people. And beyond individuals, history has witnessed societies and cultures rise and fall which loved the elite and the state, but oppressed the underprivileged and marginalized.
This rings true even today as we watch terrorists wreak havoc on the world due to their delusions of love and fallacious understanding of God. Here we have a vivid example of how love goes awry when it is not grounded in God’s holiness. Many of us make the mistake of solely attributing such acts to hatred. However, even more than hatred, is an unholy love at play here. For hatred can fester up inside people, but love inspires and calls them to take action. To be sure, the love of hatred is far worse than any hatred for love.
A forth problem that arises from idolizing love is the sin of misplaced love. What I mean to say here is that we as Christians can easily focus our love on our blessings instead of God. Instead of selfish love which is self-serving, love is misplaced by putting God in the backseat for other people or blessings. For example, many people do not realize that it is quite possible – and dare I say common – to love their own family in ways that become a form of worship.
This is the warning Paul gives us when he says, “Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Cor. 7:8). Many apostles thought that they would witness the seconding coming of Christ. But that is beside the point. Paul still means to warn us of the temptation of becoming immersed in our families to the point that we neglect our relationship with God and the responsibilities that ensue. It is not that God does not want us to marry or have families. It is more a warning of priorities: God must always come first.
Anytime we put something between ourselves and God we are in fact committing the sin of idolatry. Many people that fall victim to this idolatry are unaware that they are in the wrong because they mean well. Those in the Church can easily be caught in this snare of idolatry when they love their pastor, responsibilities, building, local church traditions, and so forth more than God.
The Lord must always come first in all that we do and believe. He has not left us any room for compromise – not because He is selfish, but because He knows that there is no greater blessing than to be in love with the very Author of love. In brief, mankind would not have the capacity to love if it were not first expressed to humanity and a fundamental attribute of God’s divine image in which we have been created.
We too easily forge our own idols. And every person who has made an idol or false god does so out of good intentions – albeit motivated by selfishness – no matter how preposterous and misguided these idols are. It should come as no surprise, then, that one of the most beautiful aspects of life can be twisted and abused to the point that it no longer represents the purity of its true nature. God is good. Love is good. And God has given us love to share and use in whatever way our free-will dictates.
The problem is that mankind is corrupt and broken. No matter how much we desire to be wholly spirit, we are still in part made of flesh. For this reason, humanity can corrupt love. And since it is possible for love to be corrupted, we as Christians must scrutinize our theology and spiritual conditions daily. It is only then that we will know whether or not we are living righteously. And to live righteously we must love righteously.
Righteous love is grounded in God’s holiness. It is a love that seeks to glorify God by growing in grace. It is a love that surrenders to the Most High so that His love shines through us in lieu of any other form of love. It is a love that looks beyond the now and towards the future for both our spiritual kin and those who have yet to embrace the forgiveness and sanctification of God. It suffers the world but rejoices in Christ. It bears shame while receiving honor from God. It puts others first and expects nothing in return.
We are all aware of our paradigm for love which is so eloquently written by Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails (13:4-8).
It is important to notice that Paul makes a powerful statement in this wonderful passage. He says that “love rejoices with the truth.” Here we can understand that righteous love is in accord with biblical truth. It cannot be separate and retain its holiness. For if truth is also an attribute of God then it must align with His love.
And now that we understand that truth and love are married together, it is our responsibility to ensure that our love is an expression of God’s truth for the world and not merely a simple emotion of acceptance. Our responsibility is to love righteously for the glory of God and edification of His creatures and children. If we fail to do this, then we fail to truly love as God would love.
Tozer, A. W. The Knowledge of the Holy. New York: HarperCollinsPublishers, 1961. Print.