“We know how much God loves us, and we have put our trust in his love. God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect” (1 John 4:16 NLT).
It’s almost a cliché at this point to point out that we are living in contentious times—but it’s also a truth that bears reckoning with. After all, if love is the standard by which the world will identify true followers of Christ (John 13:35), then it’s during times like these—when empathy, compassion, and love seem to be in short supply—that it matters most whether or believers choose the “most excellent way” of unflinching, steadfast love (1 Corinthians 12:31).
That can be difficult when we run into our own false assumptions about love—such as the assumption that it should always make us feel good, or that it’s somehow the opposite of tension and conflict. It’s easy to say we are people of love—people who know that we’re loved by God and so free to love others in return. But that claim rings hollow when “love” for others seems to run for cover at the first sign of trouble. “Justice is what love looks like in public,” Cornel West has famously said. But many of us, myself included, are far more comfortable with talking about showing love to others than being willing to face head-on the complex and hard questions about what it means to live for others’ good, both those who agree with and those we don’t, “in public.”
I recently saw an exchange on social media that has lingered with me, still troubling me enough that it’s at the forefront of my thoughts and prayers. In this exchange, a well-known evangelical writer expressed the pain and grief she and her family have felt due to certain evangelical political stances over the past several years. She spoke with genuine pain and vulnerability, not—as I heard it at least—animus, but the backlash to her words was quick and vicious. Thousands accused her of betraying her faith with divisive words and announced their immediate decision to “unfollow” her on social media as a result.
What lingered with me about that exchange was not so much her particular words but the reaction, the assumption by so many that disagreeing strongly with someone’s words—even someone whose work and insight had previously been admired and followed—must result in immediate separation and rejection. The logic seemed to be that because her words of pain and grief were seen as contentious, they were punishable by distance and condemnation.
When did it become acceptable to believe that is the appropriate response to conflict—in this case, with a fellow believer in Jesus?
Maybe for each of us, the challenges of the current cultural climate might be a time to go back to and soak in the foundations of our faith—that is, Love, true love. Love that is in both simple and profound yet inexhaustibly challenging in what it asks of us. Love that isn’t a feel-good, momentary emotion, but rooted in firm conviction that the person before us is as loved by God as we are—and that his love compels us to draw near, too.
In time, that might mean learning an entirely new way of handling tension and disagreement with others. In Caring Enough to Confront, David Augsburger suggests that maybe the word “confront” has become so problematic that for many of us, we need an entirely new word to reframe how we approach disagreement. He suggests “care-front”—a way of seeing and approaching others in both agreement and disagreement with a posture of “offering genuine caring that lifts, supports, and encourages the other. (To care is to bid another to grow, to welcome, invite, and support growth in another.). . . Care-fronting is loving and level conversation.”
I find another helpful guide in the work of Christena Clevand’s compelling book Disunity in Christ—Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart, Cleveland begins with a transparent confession about her realization that, even when it came to fellow believers—her capacity to live in love was severely stifled by firm categories in her mind—that of “Right Christian” and “Wrong Christian.” She writes, “There I was, convinced that I was defending Jesus by condemning Wrong Christian, when I saw that Jesus was beckoning both Right Christian and Wrong Christian and inviting all of us to know more of his heart. As I read through the Gospels, I noticed that he had a habit of connecting with everybody: conservative theologians, liberal theologians, prostitutes, divorcees, children, politicians, people who party hard, military servicemen, women, lepers, ethnic minorities, celebrities, you name it. . . .Rather than using his power to distance himself from us, Jesus uses it to pursue us. . . . with great tenacity in spite of our differences.”
Pursuing with great tenacity. That could almost be a definition of how the Bible paints God’s love for humanity and his world—in the Old Testament often summarized by the precious Hebrew word hesed—usually translated “steadfast love.” Hesed is the kind of divine love that pursued his people both when they were obedient and faithful, both when they rejected and defied God. It was hesed that led Jesus to the cross, offering forgiveness to those who nailed him there. And it’s hesed that pursues and holds us each day of our lives—both when we’re in tune with the leading of God’s Spirit, and when we’re ignoring the Spirit’s tender voice in our own stubbornness and blindness. Both when we are walking in true peace with God and each other and when we are not, hesed sees who we really are—human beings, made in God’s image and unfathomably precious to him. And hesed refuses to ever, ever, give up on us.
So maybe our first step is just to work on believing that we really are loved like that. Soaking it in. Resting in it. Believing in it. And in time, “as we live in God, our love grows” (1 John 4:16)—until we have the courage to love others like that, too.