It’s always struck me as odd that many Christians will stake their eternal souls on Jesus’ promise of forgiveness while simultaneously doubting his promise that the world would hate us on his account. In many and various ways, we expect that if we’re just loving enough or “winsome” enough, then we can avoid that particular inconvenience. “Didn’t Jesus also say that they would know us by our love? Who could possibly hate us for that?”
Well, the Devil, the world, and our sinful flesh for starters. After all, we’re not going to be any more loving than Jesus is, and they hate him too.
Yes, they will know us by our love, but we cannot help but misunderstand that saying when our theology seldom rises above bumper stickers and praise song choruses. For the most part, mere sound bites (even Scriptural ones) shouldn’t be absolutized, especially when divorced from their proper context. If we are to avoid such errors, we will need to take greater care with God’s Word. So let’s consider the two places Scripture delivers that specific promise.
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35)
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. (1 John 4:7-12)
Even this small expansion of these verses gives us two very important details that are missing from the sound bite.
The first is that the love which we are to show comes from God rather than from the world. We are to love as Christ loved us. Now the world certainly noticed the love of Christ, but it also executed him for it. The love of Jesus is not found in this world’s mealy-mouthed platitudes about niceness and sentimentalism. Rather, it is a perfect and uncompromising love which relentlessly pursues the true, objective good of the beloved no matter how much it must defy this world and its prince–all at the cost of his own life. Jesus’ love is one that overturned tables, defied merely cultural expectations, offended the state, and provoked the ire of false religion. It demands attention because it is different than the world’s faulty ideas of love.
The second missing detail is who Christians are to love: one another. In other words, what will mark us a different in the eyes of the world is the way Christians love other Christians. The more we abide in the love of Christ, the more apparent it will be that Christians do not love other Christians the way pagans love other pagans. After all, love is the fulfilling of the Law, not ignorance of the Law, abandonment of the Law, or corruption of the Law. Accordingly, the love that we give will not be the love a pagan expects to receive. As a result, it will inevitably offend them.
It’s easy to see this dynamic at work. The world already recognizes Christian love. It does so when we love each other enough to have half a dozen Christian children instead of rejecting family like the world taught us. It does so when we love each other enough to rebuke the gender confused instead of disfiguring them like the world taught us. It does so when we love each other enough to teach God’s Word instead of leaving it to personal preference like the world taught us. It does so when we love each other enough to abide by God’s rules about fornication and adultery instead of using each other for hookups like the world taught us. If our love is in accordance with God’s, it will always put the world in the uncomfortable state of shame.
Far too many Christians forget these essential details. As a result, they strive to play the world’s game of love and foolishly expect Christians to excel at it. They want to be seen by LGBTP activists as the most affirming of sodomites. They want to be seen by feminists as the least sexist of anyone. They want to be seen by multiculturalists as more welcoming to invaders than anyone else. And they perpetually fail because inasmuch as they actually care about God’s Word, it will hold them back from this kind of foolishness.
When we experience this, a Christian has only two choices: Either we repent and renew our commitment to abiding in God’s love rather than the world’s, or we begin to resent Christians more faithful than ourselves for “holding us back.” Those who choose the latter will quickly find their love for one another growing cold. They will begin viscously condemning those brothers and sisters whose love violates worldly taboos. They will begin demanding that churches provide what God has forbidden because they know the world will like it. And ironically, they will lovelessly accuse their fellow Christians of being loveless whenever God’s promise of worldly hatred is fulfilled. “If only you were more loving, the world wouldn’t hate you!” “You’re making Christians look bad!” “Don’t you realize that they’re supposed to know us by our love?” And so instead of loving one-another and bearing with one another under persecution, they actually join the world in its hatred of Christians.
For all of its great blessings, it may be that the success of Christendom lulled us to sleep in the face of this temptation to worldly love. After all, our cultures and governments have been informed by God’s Word for thousands of years. We have often held Christian faithfulness in high esteem. As a result, we have experienced great overlap between “worldly” ideas of love and Christian ideas of love. But this was never uniform, for government in a fallen world was always prone to sin. And as the West continues to apostatize, this overlap will continue to shrink.
And so, Christians need to adjust our expectations. Though it can be recognized by natural law, the love God commands is and always will be alien to those enslaved by sin. That didn’t suddenly change due to modernism. We shouldn’t expect the world to be impressed with how much we love by modern standards, but uncomfortable with how much we love by God’s. We must therefore become all the more careful about judging our love according to God’s Word rather than worldly philosophies. The more Christians do this, the more we will fulfill our Lord’s command to love one-another.