Faith

The opposite of love

When I was young, I thought the opposite of love must be hate.

This seemed obvious to my forming mind. Love is a strong emotion at one pole, and hate is an equally strong emotion at the other. But as I grew up, I started to see that the fires of love and hate need the oxygen of focus and effort, or the fire dies. While the ends are different, love and hate share a key similarity. Maybe the two aren’t so opposite after all.

OppositeOfLoveThen I read Elie Weisel’s famous quote that the opposite of love is indifference

Ah! Of course! If I am indifferent to someone, I feel nothing toward that person and I will do nothing for him or her. I won’t encourage, I won’t build up, I won’t help. I just don’t care. The focus and effort love requires is absent.

Later I heard that Pope John Paul II said that the opposite of love is use.

This caused me to pause and reflect. Using or taking advantage of someone treats them like a thing and not a person, which denies their infinite worth. Things are meant to be used; people are not. Using someone takes focus and effort. It may be accompanied by feelings of indifference or hatred.

But then I read 1 John 4:18 and wondered if the opposite of love is fear.

That passage says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” Every time I’m afraid, I am indifferent to the needs of others around me. I may even use someone in trying to secure my safety. In extreme cases, I may choose to hate, thinking I’m protecting myself.

Now I’m not so sure there is an opposite of love. But thinking about this surely has highlighted for me some key ways it can be distorted and blocked.


First published in July, 2011.

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Faith

Getting the love we always wanted from the perfect parent we never had

When we were small, our parents were godlike to us. They had all power over us. We probably thought they had all power in the world.

This experience imprinted on us, and subconsciously we assume that God is like our parents. Better said, we project our parents onto God, and so expect God to treat us and the world like they did.

LoveBut nobody’s parents are perfect. Most lose their tempers or criticize their children unfairly from time to time. Many sometimes place unreasonable demands on their children, or punish them harshly, or control them with shame. Some parents abuse or neglect their children.

And so we may believe God watches over us with a critical eye and is never satisfied with anything we do. Or we may assume God is just waiting to turn his back on us when we screw up. Or we may think we need to work hard to earn God’s favor and love. Or we may figure that no matter what we do God’s not going to care about us anyway, and so we give up trying.

But God’s more like the perfect parent none of us ever had. He wants to see us grow up well. He never loses his temper or patience with us. He knows there is sometimes pain and difficulty in our lives, and he wants us to turn to him for comfort and encouragement through it so he can help us become stronger and more loving. He knows we make mistakes and sometimes even deliberately do the wrong thing, but he won’t turn his back on us, or shame us, or punish us no matter how bad it was.

At our cores, we all want to be loved. God wants to love us. Our fears that God will let us down in the way our parents did gets in the way of us simply accepting that love. We have to keep working on our relationship with God and over time come to see him as he truly is before we can simply accept the love he has for us.

If you are a parent, consider what a service to your children it would be if you modeled your parenting after the way God loves. Not only would your children feel your love for them more strongly, but it would make their image of God be so much closer to who he really is. It might help them more readily accept God into their lives.


First published in February, 2011.

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Faith

Things I wish Christians would stop saying: Anything whatsoever about homosexuality

If you are a Christian and you publicly condemn homosexuality or homosexual behavior, stop it. You’re harming the faith. You’re making Christians look like pinheads.

That’s because it’s not the Christian’s job to tell the world how to live. The Christian has three major jobs:

  1. Be the conduit for God’s love into the world
  2. Introduce people to God through Jesus Christ
  3. Encourage other Christians to become better disciples

There’s so much work to do in just these three jobs that we should be too busy to pronounce condemnation on anyone. There will never be a shortage of people in need: sick, poor, addicted, grieving, lonely, incarcerated. Go and do for them.

Sometimes, people you serve will become ready and receptive to hear more about God. Tell them your faith story and show them what the Bible says about redemption. Let your testimony and especially the word of God penetrate their hearts. After they’ve accepted Christ, help them build their relationship with God. Encourage them, study with them, pray with them, be their friend, and give them opportunities to serve people in need. And so the cycle continues.

Here’s where this gets a little thorny. Part of helping other Christians grow and become better disciples sometimes involves pointing out their sins. On the one hand, Jesus warned us in the Sermon at the Mount to take the log out of our own eye before we point out the splinter in someone else’s – that is, we should we should overwhelmingly focus on cleaning up our own act over correcting others. But Paul in his writings tells Christians that they should directly address the gross, unrepentant sin of other Christians.

It can be tricky to figure out through the Bible what God considers to be wrong behavior. It’s tempting, but risky, to read any English translation of Scripture as direct instruction to us. That’s because the Bible’s books were originally written for an audience that has been dead for thousands of years. Who was the original audience in terms of their history, culture, and level of understanding of the world? What is known about why that book was written? Additionally, do other passages about the same subject harmonize with this one and with the Bible’s overarching message? Finally, because the original language is not always easily directly translated into English, it is often very illuminating to look at the original words to learn shades of meaning obscured in English. In other words, a full understanding of any Bible passage requires study.

Upon that level of study, it’s clear that the Bible unambiguously calls out many sins: God hates divorce. Don’t sleep around on your spouse. Don’t murder anybody. However, I find after some study that the few verses that call out homosexual behavior are ambiguous.

But regardless of what your study leads you to think about homosexuality, those few verses are positively overwhelmed by verse after verse after verse that tell the Christian what behaviors and attitudes to put on. The Bible relentlessly tells you to live a life of compassion and service. Give yourself over to it, and let God sort out the rest.

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Here is another thing I wish Christians would stop saying.

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Faith

Things I wish Christians would stop saying: “God won’t give you more than you can handle”

It’s meant to encourage someone going through a hard time — and I certainly support building up someone who has troubles. But saying, “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” can actually hurt and alienate people. Also, it’s utterly not true.

AtlasFirst, God doesn’t give us hard times. Hard times come because we live in a broken, messed-up world. The actions of others, our own actions, and even random chance can plunge us into deep trouble, pain, or grief.

Second, there are absolutely hard times we can’t handle. Ask someone whose child was murdered, or someone mired in deep depression, or someone living with crippling pain, or someone stuck in addiction. These are deep holes out of which people often can’t climb alone.

Imagine being utterly crushed by troubles like these, where you’re barely hanging on, and then hearing someone say this to you. Can you see how this could hurt? “Really? God gave me this awful thing because he knew I could handle it? Gee, thanks God. Thanks a lot!”

I think people who say this mean well. And they certainly find some basis for this saying in the Bible. Check out 1 Corinthians 10:13:

No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.

The word translated as “temptation” is the Greek peirasmos, which is also translated as “trial” elsewhere in the New Testament, notably in James 1:2-4 where we are told to count it as all joy when we face trials of various kinds. The context in which 1 Cor 10:13 lives speaks of both temptations and trials.

But notice how this passage tells us that God will provide the way out. In other words, God will help us handle it. We just have to follow his lead.

Now, we can often endure hard times – that is, get up every morning and live with them one more day. As Winston Churchill famously said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

But enduring isn’t handling. To handle something means to have power or control over the thing, or an ability to manage the thing successfully.

Ask any recovered addict who used to get up every day and use a substance long past the point where it stopped being enjoyable, because they had to. The very basis of 12-step programs is that the addiction is bigger than the addict can handle, and that turning it over to God is the path to sobriety and sanity. The 12 steps are a fine prototype for giving big problems to God. He will carry some of the problem himself, and he will bring change and growth in you so you can handle the rest of it.

That’s not to say God will fix everything. Murdered children stay murdered. Terminal disease still kills. But in such cases God can help you accept your reality and find meaning in it.

Hard times inevitably fall on all of us. God hopes we will turn to him when they happen, because it is in a crucible of suffering that God can show you personally how much he loves you and help you grow to become the person he made you to be.

And so I wish that Christians would instead say: Turn to God, because he wants to help you handle this. That’s the encouragement we all need.

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Faith, Personal

The real value of Christmas

I first posted this in 2010 and again last year. May this Christmas Day truly bless you and those you love.

Even though I’m a Christian, I don’t celebrate the birth of Christ at this time of year.

The home in which I was raised followed no particular faith. My parents acknowledged the God the Bible described, but their devotion went no further. For us, Christmas was a big family holiday where we got to see all of the grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, and I have loads of warm memories from those gatherings. Many of my friends talked of the baby Jesus (after, of course, talking excitedly of the presents they anticipated). Many of my classmates were Jews and several were Serbs; they had their own celebrations at different times. And so I have always has this sense that the holidays are what you make of them.

Lit Up at Night

My mother said more than once that Christ couldn’t possibly have been born in December – his birth was more likely sometime in autumn. She also said that the whole reason the Christian church celebrated Christ’s birth on December 25th was because in the church’s early days, non-believers already celebrated a winter festival at about that time, and it was easier to convert them if the church had a celebration then, too. Christianity should be a faith of truth, she reasoned, and she couldn’t reconcile how Christmas was predicated on a falsehood. It sounded good to me, and when I grew up I looked into it and found that there was plenty of evidence to support Mom’s claims. That didn’t stop her from playing her records of traditional Christmas hymns every December, though!

None of this was enough to deter me from seeking God as an adult. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when I got serious about God I did it in the Church of Christ, a branch of Christianity that celebrates Christmas only as a secular holiday. Most Church of Christ congregations hold a restrictive view of Biblical authority that leads them to observe only what they believe God commands in the Bible. The Bible tells us to celebrate Christ’s death, but never once to celebrate his birth. So they take communion (the Lord’s Supper, they call it) every week, but during December their mostly a cappella congregations sing no Christmas songs and their preachers avoid talking about Christ’s birth.

Eventually I left the Church of Christ’s narrow interpretations in search of greater love from God. Of course, I landed in a church that celebrates Christ’s birth all December; it was nearly impossible to avoid it. Until we fell on hard times, we always held a big Christmas production with a chorus singing traditional Christmas songs and a telling of the nativity story.

What's the Reason for the Season?

I never said this to anyone at church, but this was very hard for me to accept for a long time.

I’m unlikely ever to fully personally embrace Christmas as a celebration of Christ’s birth. Not only were the wrong seeds planted in me as a boy, they were well cultivated when I became an adult.

Don’t feel sorry for me. I love the Lord deeply and don’t feel like I’m missing out on one iota of his love for me. But let me tell you why I have come to think that celebrating Christ’s birth at Christmas is not just all right, but just wonderful:

Because his birth is so openly and joyfully celebrated each December 25, who in the western world has not heard of Jesus Christ?

I know, I know, the holiday has been tainted with commercialism, and because of political correctness we now say “Happy Holidays” to each other rather than “Merry Christmas.” Still, I don’t think the holiday’s connections to Christ and his promise for us have been lost. And when I consider all that celebrating Christmas has done to introduce people to Jesus, my mind boggles. Who cares about the celebration’s origins? God has certainly used it for good.

May God use this Christmas season for good in your life.

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Faith, Personal

Three good things

Continuing a theme of thanksgiving, here’s a post I wrote in 2008.

A couple years ago a friend sent me a link to an article (which I can’t find now) about the virtues of thinking each day of three good things that had happened. She and I decided to try it together, e-mailing each other our list of three every evening. I was surprised to find that on all but the most challenging days I could find at least three pleasures, even as small as “I enjoyed my cheeseburger at lunch,” and recalling them actually relieved some of the day’s pressures. But optimism never swelled in me, as the article promised, and I started to lose interest. I think my friend did, too, because our e-mails became intermittent and then stopped.

One of the themes of Ecclesiastes is that life is difficult, so enjoy the good things God gives you while you have them. The book calls out several good things – spouses, children, youth, food, drink. The more I encountered that theme as I studied Ecclesiastes late last year, the more I thought about the aborted three-good-things exercise. I decided to give it another try – but this time, I would tell my three daily things to God, since he gave them to me.

In these prayers I soon found myself grateful to God for each day’s good things. Moreover, I started to see that God was there with gifts on every single day, and the more difficult the day, the more subtle – but sublime – the gifts. I started to feel like a child on Easter morning looking for hidden eggs.

My Red Matrix

My car, all shined up

Last Thursday I was driving home from a trip to Brown County with my sons when my car’s transmission started to whine, pop, and grind. I wasn’t sure the car would get us home, and we had 50 miles to go. I was worried about being stranded and about the repair bill. But I also felt the breeze softly touching my skin through my open window and enjoyed the long shadows the trees and cornfields cast onto the highway in the afternoon sun. As the car rolled with the highway through the old farm towns, my sons and I sang along with the CD playing. I really enjoyed the drive even though the car occasionally popped out of gear. Not long ago, I would have experienced and remembered only the worry. Looking for God’s daily gifts has made me more receptive to them when they come. And knowing that there are daily gifts takes some sting out of the difficulties. My mechanic just called to say the transmission is fried, and that it will cost upwards of $3,000 to replace it. I’m sure God has hidden a gift even in this.

Footnote: I replaced that transmission, and then promptly ran a red light and totaled the car. (Read about it here.) The gift hidden in all of this? I had only lately become financially fortunate enough that none of this created a money crisis for me, and these expensive events helped me to see it – and relax about money.

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