"Love does not rejoice at injustice, but rejoices with the truth." (1 Corinthians 13.6)
Watering Down the Truth
Last week I stood here and declared to you that God’s love for each one of us is far greater than we could ever know. And that is the truth. Most people never grasp how much they are beloved by God. Instead, we Eeyore through life, mired in our dim understanding of a love so wonderful, so reckless, and so extreme that it gladly carried the cross for even the gloomiest of us.
This kind of love is beautiful, rare, and precious. It is exactly the kind of love that the world – and you and I – need. A love supreme; a love extreme.
But if you heard the message, you might have begun to feel uneasy about the extravagance of such a love.
“What about the evil in the world? How does God’s love tolerate injustice and wrongdoing and unrighteousness? Surely the Scriptures teach us that God is a loving God, but isn’t he also a just, righteous and holy God, too? Isn’t it a dangerous thing to proclaim a love that is perhaps too kind to sinners? Aren’t we watering down the truth when we make God a pushover who welcomes anyone?”
We do water down the truth, but not the way you think. On the one hand, we water down mercy by shunning sinners. On the other hand, we water down truth by glossing over sin. Holy love takes mercy farther than we hope and truth farther than we dare.
Our mistake is that our picture of holy love is never extreme enough. Here is where human love and divine love are worlds apart. Human love wimps down both mercy for sinners and the truth about our sin, while Holy love takes mercy and truth to mind-bending and uncomfortable extremes.
Human love is only modestly compassionate; only conveniently honest. But the holy love of God, to adapt the old adage, thoroughly hates sin at the same time that it thoroughly loves the sinner.
Holy love is completely compassionate, and at the same time, completely honest. This tension is not a paradox, but speaks to the very nature of divine love. The love of God is both extremely merciful and extremely honest. If we are ever going to love God and neighbor the way we were meant to, we must first start to stretch into this tension, embrace it, and live it.
Mercy we cannot manage.
“And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3.17a-19)
The mercy of Christ is unfathomably wide and long and high and deep. In stark contrast, the mercy of man is microscopic.
Human love may welcome sinners – as long as they stop sinning first. The alcoholic is welcome – as long as she gets sober first. Kids are welcome – as long as they behave themselves first. The homeless man is welcome – as long as he takes a shower and puts on clean clothes first. Our embrace is hedged and conditional. But not so with the love of God. Holy love embraces the powerless addict before she gets clean, and gives her the power she does not have in and of herself to get sober. Holy love is kind and compassionate toward unruly children, seeking to understand why the kids aren’t alright before it judges them. Holy love hugs the diseased and dirty homeless soul before he can get cleaned up.
If we want to love with a holy love, we must get past the limitations and disclaimers of human mercy and embrace the broken, the beautyless, and the wicked children of God as the Father Himself has embraced them.
The scriptures teach us, “He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself.” (Hebrews 7.27b)
Once for who? For all; the scandalous offer is extended to every man, woman, boy and girl, no matter how drunk, unruly, and filthy we may be. This is the extreme mercy of the love supreme, Holy love.
Truth we cannot tolerate.
A the same time holy love’s extreme mercy makes us uncomfortable, it’s blunt honesty about our sin makes us squirm even more. According to 1 Corinthians 13.6, God’s holy love does not “rejoice at injustice, but rejoices at the truth.” Holy love does not lie – it hates the lie of injustice, but rejoices in the truth. And the truth is that everyone is a sinner. We all break the same.
As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” (Romans 3.10-12, Psalm 14.1-3, Psalm 53.1-3)
“No one righteous? That cannot be! What about my sainted mother?”
You may have hidden this from yourself, but even she was steeped in sin. Memory is always kindest to those who loved us, but memory is not usually very precise. Your mother was a human being, and no human being is perfect.
“What about the innocent child?”
There is no innocent child. Only people without children say things like that. Don’t mistake understandable weakness for strength. Is a child forgivable? Of course. But innocent? Not a chance.
At least that’s what the scriptures say – “all have sinned and fall short.”
“That hardly seems polite.”
Politeness has its place, but not when it sweeps sin under the rug. Politeness, also known as excusing others, is how we should handle simple, unintended character flaws. For dealing with sin, we need something much stronger: we need the truth.
This is the extreme honesty of Holy love. Does it make you uncomfortable? Of course it does. It is much stronger than human love. Human love overlooks sin and excuses transgressions because it is simply easier than speaking the truth.
Holy love, in contrast, does not delight in candy-coating the truth, but goes right to the joint and marrow, diagnosing our broken hearts with unrestrained honesty. We may think such honesty is cold, but it is actually the greatest kind of love.
Think about it – would a good doctor lie to you about a tumor they’ve found? Or would a good friend let you continue to make a fool of yourself when you are behaving stupidly? The best doctor, the best friend, and the best love are extremely honest. Uncomfortably honest. Holy love is more truthful than human love can tolerate.
I have pondered this dual nature of holy love for many years – mercy that is wider than I can manage, and honesty that is deeper than I can tolerate. While I have struggled to grasp it, I know that it is real.
Allow me to share one simple exercise I have created for myself that helps me draw closer to understanding this dual nature of Holy love. Like any good stretch, I can never quite get as far as I want. But I think it gets me a little closer to understanding the holy love of God and its extreme mercy and truth. My prayer is that through this imaginary exercise, you might come “to know this love that surpasses knowledge.”
Imagine all the people in the world, every soul, lined up shoulder to shoulder in order from worst to best. On one end are the pedophiles and the serial killers, the scum of the earth. On the other end are the nice kids and the dreamers, the sweethearts.
Now imagine Christ. He starts on the far end, with the worst of the worst. The master looks this wicked man square in the eye and says, “You are a sinner, broken and wretched. Change your ways, for the kingdom of heaven is just a breath away.” Everyone agrees with this honest assessment from the Son of God and applauds.
After they are finished, Jesus then moves on to the next one in line, saying the same, honest thing “You are a sinner, broken and wretched. Change your ways, for the kingdom of heaven is just a breath away.” And then to the next person, and so on down the line.
This is the extreme honesty of holy love.
At first, the rest of the people in line cannot agree more. They applaud the master with each word fitly spoken. They cheer when He tells the truth to the crooked politician, the slave trader, and the thief. Applause after applause as He speaks love’s hard truth they need to hear. But as he gets closer and closer to their position in the line, the people applaud less and less. They realize that his message is not letting up in its intensity. Now he says to the guy who watches too much TV, to the kid who lies about doing their homework, to the employee who takes naps at his desk those same, honest words: “You are a sinner, broken and wretched. Change your ways, for the kingdom of heaven is just a breath away.”
Somewhere just left or right of center, it is your turn. He looks you in the eye and says, “You are a sinner, broken and wretched. Change your ways, for the kingdom of heaven is just a breath away.” There is little applause now. Just disapproving looks and eye-rolling groans.
On and on down the line He goes, speaking God’s honest truth to each member of Adam’s race. Now to the playground bully… now to the kid who pilfers cookies from the cookie jar. And we get more and more uncomfortable as this love that cares enough to be honest continues toward the good end of the line. Surely someone must be good! It can’t be there is no one righteous, can it? Not even one? Jesus comes to His own human mother; He is just as honest with her as with everyone else – “Mary, you are a sinner, broken and wretched. Change your ways for the kingdom of heaven is just a breath away.”
Now waves of anger are building. Jesus has gone too far. Surely this truth is too truthful. And yet, he continues on down to the very end of the line, to a small child everyone thinks would never harm a fly. People begin to boo Jesus. Everyone angrily protests, “Come on Jesus, not her! How could you be so cruel?!”
But the master knows more than the crowd does, and so does the little child. He speaks those blunt words even to her: “Little one, you are a sinner, broken and wretched. Change your ways for the kingdom of heaven is just a breath away.”
Too much? Too honest? Yet this is precisely what the scriptures teach about each one of us. Even the best of us is born in sin. Where holy love dares to speak the truth to even the most seemingly innocent among us, surely we would have stopped long ago. This is too honest, too hard, too … truthful?
But to stop here would only be half the story. The exercise is not over yet.
The master then takes the girl in his arms and smiles at her, saying, “I have always loved you and always will. Mercy is yours for the asking. Won’t you receive my love and be made whole again?” And thus begins the second part of this exercise.
We all breathe a sigh of relief as the master begins to make his way back down the line saying the same thing to each one – now to the kid whole stole cookies, next to the playground bully, and then to each of us. “I have always loved you and always will. Mercy is yours for the asking. Won’t you receive my love and be made whole again?”
Then things begin to get dicey. One by one, He extends his embrace to more and more sinful people. Now to the abusive father, now to the pornographer, now to the Auschwitz mastermind, embracing each one and saying those same, shocking words: “I have always loved you and always will. Mercy is yours for the asking. Won’t you receive my love and be made whole again?”
He continues down the line, and none of us can stomach it anymore. We are disgusted as He looks each school shooter, each racist, each cold-blooded killer in the eye and says those words that make the good people of the world cringe: “I have always loved you and always will. Mercy is yours for the asking. Won’t you receive my love and be made whole again?”
Now nearly everyone agrees. Surely Jesus is taking mercy too far. Surely the cross’ power does not extend to this depth of wickedness and cruelty.
Still, the master continues down the line as we shake our heads in disapproval, right to the bitter end. The second-to-last-last man in line is an amalgamation of every cruel tyrant in history – a despot a hundred times worse than Hitler, Herod, Pol Pot and Pharaoh combined. We all seethe with anger as the Son of God extends his tender embrace to even this pitiful excuse for a human being: “I have always loved you and always will. Mercy is yours for the asking. Won’t you receive my love and be made whole again?”
Now the good people of the world have had enough. From their end of the line they are all, every one of them, screaming and yelling for Jesus to stop this undignified thing. A chant arises in defiance of Christ, demanding first, “Stop! Stop!” And then the chant changes to, “Kill! Kill!” Even the good boys and girls join the shouting, demanding an end to such a shameless display of unmerited favor. And then their shouts turn once again from “Kill! Kill!” to “Crucify! Crucify!”
The crowd is in a rage, this mercy has gone too far. They want Nazarene killed before He can reach the last person in line, the worst of the worst, and finish His task, once and for all. But the master continues, His face set like flint, unwavering in His resolve. He looks at the pathetic man standing in last place, the chief of all sinners. A religious hypocrite, sick with arrogance and smug in his grotesque image of himself.
The master embraces him with arms like iron bands and says to him, “Steve, I have always loved you and always will. Mercy is yours for the asking. Won’t you receive me and be made whole again?”
“Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God!” (1 John 3.1a, NKJV)
We think we understand the holy love of God, but, in our humanness, we really don’t have the stomach for it. Holy Love takes both mercy and truth farther than human love ever would. Yet this is the love we must show one another if we are to be true sons and daughters of God.
May the Holy Spirit grant us the maturity to speak the truth in love, and to be merciful as our Father is merciful.