Several years ago, a former student of mine posted the following question: “Which is more important, truth or love?” His question cuts to the heart of the question at hand, “Shouldn’t Christians love all people?” Most who responded to his post understandably said that love is most important (based on 1 Cor. 13:13 or 1 John 4:8). Others responded that truth is most important because God is truth. (See especially John’s emphasis upon truth in his Gospel and Epistles.)
Ultimately, neither is “more important.” To set love over and against truth, or vice versa, is to draw a false dichotomy. Truth and love should not be divorced from each other with an “either-or” question, but they exist eternally and harmoniously as a “both-and” of God’s nature. God is both love and truth. God cannot be divided so neither can love and truth. Love without truth is not truly loving, and truth without love is “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”
At this point, a difficult question arises, “How do I know when to be lovingly compassionate or gentle with a person vs. when to ‘press the painful truth’?” The question is by no means an easy one! But the problem does not arise from which is greater – truth or love. The problem results from the lingering blindness of sin. The battle between two natures, the old man of sin vs. the new man in Christ, places love and truth in tension with one another, and this tension will never be fully resolved in this present age. However, our inability to love others perfectly with the truth does not give a pretext to love others wrongly without the truth. As God’s people, you and I must strive to love even as God himself loved us in Christ Jesus. We must be gracious, compassionate, and merciful to others, yet simultaneously present the truth of God’s word with boldness and without compromising.
Consider what Jesus himself endured in this world. Was Jesus perfectly loving (and truthful!) in everything he said and did? Absolutely! Or, to put it another way, what was the greatest act of love in all of history? Was it not God himself taking on flesh and tabernacling among us (John 1:14; 1 John 4:7-9)? What, then, was the response of this world?
…he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not… He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him… ~Is. 53:2-3, 7-10a
Jesus never shied away away from speaking the truth, yet he never lashed out in unrighteous anger against those persecuting him for loving them with the truth. In other words, Jesus loved all people perfectly with God’s truth, and consider the response he received!
Here is the point I have been making in the last two posts: Yes, Christians must love all people, but the love Christians must show is not a love (most of) the world will celebrate and embrace. The love of God, by its very nature, sheds life-giving light upon the sin of this dying world. To share the glorious truth of the gospel – the most loving act anyone can do for someone else – necessarily involves an acknowledgment of the painful truth of sin and death! If I am being truthful with you, you need to expect an unloving response from many whom you seek to love with the gospel. If the Word made flesh – Love and Truth Incarnate – received bitter, hateful, unloving insults when he sought to love all people in accordance with God’s will, why should you or I expect anything different?
But that is not the only response you can expect. From those who know they have been loved well according to the gospel, and from those who are in this world but not of this world, you will receive a very different response. You will enjoy a mutual affection that is not the result of how well you and the other person have loved each other but is the result of you and the other person already abiding in Christ Jesus…
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. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him… And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. ~ 1 John 4:10-16, 21
Those words do not make sense to most around you, but they are the words of life to those who believe. No one can understand love without first believing and understanding this passage.
In closing, please know the God we love and serve does not judge as this world does. God does not judge our efforts to love others with the gospel according to the responses we receive. He judges our attempts to love others with the gospel according to our faithfulness to him and his word. If we truly love him, will we not in turn love others rightly? If we seek to obey the great commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all you heart, and with all your soul, and with your mind,” will we not inevitably love our neighbor as ourselves?
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, go forward today and love those around you, but do not love as this world loves, neither live as this world lives. Entrust yourself to the One who loved you and gave himself for you. Only then will you be able to love all people as Jesus himself loved all people.