Tough Love (A Sermon on 1 John 4:7-12)

In our country recently, a lot's transpired, giving way to an assortment of emotions: jubilation and revelry for some, anger and anxiety for others; frustration, fear, exhaustion.[1] Questions have been answered. Answers have been questioned. And depending on how we see things, many of us have scratched our heads, dazed and confused, and clueless about how to best forge ahead. Particularly, these happenings have underscored longstanding points of contention among Christ' followers, so I hope to provide a bit of direction in the midst of our commotion, from the backdrop of 1 John 4.

John "the Evangelist" is counted as the author of the book of John, which is split into three iterations: 1 John, 2 John, and 3 John. He mainly writes to challenge those who at the time were teaching that Jesus had come to earth as all spirit, but not "in the flesh," in a human form that could be touched, wounded, and even killed. Specifically, 1 John 4 is a manifesto on God being the initiator and maintainer, the flawless, everlasting depiction of love. John's instructions are to not accept only someone's words about if they know and love God. For him, what they believe and how they treat people also matters a great deal. "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God," he writes in verse 1. He goes on to state that we should take note of who people listen to. Those who belong to God and enemies of God receive their marching orders from different sources, so their beliefs and actions should be quite distinguishable, one from the other. He writes in verse 6 of 1 John 4, "We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and whoever is not from God does not listen to us. From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error."

In 1 John 4:7-12 we learn that, first and foremost, love isn't chiefly represented by our love for God so much as God's love for us. God's love is the source from which all real love flows. God loved us enough to sacrifice his Son even though humanity didn't deserve it. In this section, you again see this litmus test, in verse 8, that, "Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love." An inability to love others says a lot about us. It's right to sing songs of praise, to pray and to serve, and to be in a small group or attend a Bible study, but if in the midst of this reverence we aren't loving people, something is majorly wrong with our belief and practice.

If Christ be our choice, "we must love each other" -- that much is clear, and this should be a clarion call for Christians everywhere. Loving each other gives the world tangible evidence that God lives in us, and that God loves them and desires to live in them as well. Love is completely non-negotiable. I wonder, however, about our modern interpretation of love. In my eyes, the love that some contend for these days is far from the picture of God that the full counsel of Scripture paints. That is to say, what God's love looks like, and therefore what our response to God's love should look like, seems rather often distorted by us. Well beyond whatever decisions the government makes on our behalf as citizens, my principal concern is how Christians, not our nation, understands love.

Does loving someone necessitate that you or I affirm same-sex marriage, homosexuality, or LGBTQIA ideology in general? LGBTQIA is an accepted, emerging acronym in this community, where L stands for Lesbian, G for Gay, B for Bisexual, T for Transgender, Q for Questioning or Queer, I for Intersex, and A stands for Asexual or Ally.[2]

Is love exclusive to an intrinsic, veiled racial loyalty, where we're all supposed to tow the color line? With both the oppressed and the oppressor in mind, what does the history of racial superiority do to one's ability to love, and are we all required to respond to the effects in the same way? Does love mean that hating evil is someway ungodly and uncivilized? Black people can be treated as second-class citizens and some black people can treat themselves as second-class citizens, and it looks like the Christian thing to do is to play ignorant. Is that love?

Does loving someone mean that I am duty-bound to embrace whatever's trending about how they see the God of Scripture? Is loving someone akin to full agreement with their values or interpretations of what is most important in life?

Increasingly these days, I see Christians embracing a paper-thin form of love. This love promotes comfort, and warm, fuzzy feelings of peace on earth, but has little-to-no understanding that God both loves us and has otherworldly expectations for how we conduct ourselves, sexually, racially, and otherwise.

According to the Bible, love doesn't insist on its own way, but the same Bible also stresses that love is supposed to insist on God's way. I fear though, that we've blurred the lines between God's way and our way in order to make us feel good, and oftentimes -- as quiet as it is kept -- for us to feel good about sin, especially our own. God is our the ultimate parent of human beings and like unruly teenagers, we want what we want no matter the damage that our rebellion will bring.

There are aspects of parenting nowadays that have changed for the better through the years. And there are some changes that haven't been helpful at all. The days of parents being the unquestionable rulers of the roost is ancient news in certain circles. A prevailing culture now exists of parents negotiating with their children that's unthinkable to those of older generations. We're all probably familiar with the growing problem of "helicopter parenting," where even as their children grow into working adults, parents find ways to interfere with coaches, professors, and even supervisors at their daughter or son's job to shield them from experiencing difficulty or hardship at all costs.

I have no first-hand familiarity with being spoiled or being able to get away with telling my parents what I would or would not do, at least not to their face -- in my house you even had to be careful about what you tried to mumble underneath your breath. But I am familiar with what tough love feels like.

My parents were the unequivocal authority of my childhood. They set what was acceptable and what was not, and independently rendered the consequences for disobedience. And while they did so in a way that were rooted in love, largely, it was evident that they weren't obsessed with what I felt was good or right at the time. I was a child, they were the parents, and my role to humble myself to their leadership. They determined my needs and sought to teach me lessons towards that end. Partly, because the consequences for lying were severe, as a child I learned that no matter what it's always best to tell the truth. Making mistakes is one thing, but no one likes a liar. I learned that respect for my parents, myself, and anyone else -- friend or stranger -- was not a suggestion. Respect was a paramount requirement. And since it was normative for me to have to write essays explaining what I'd learned from some punishment (I tended to get into trouble at a good pace), unbeknownst to me, it helps me to develop an excellent ability to critically analyze my decisions and the associated pros and cons.

No human parent is anywhere near perfection, but God is the perfect parent to us all. My sense is that God desires us to submit to his word as the authoritative source that represents his standards. Much to our chagrin as people, dare I say, of entitlement, however, this often comes in the form of what may feel to us like "tough love."

Tough love speaks to a parent being, well, parental, taking a likely unpopular stance to help keep a headstrong child out of harm's way. At times this means letting the child fail in error if they so choose, particularly as they become more fully responsible for themselves as a young adult. We are all headstrong children and because of that God isn't primarily concerned with our feelings about his parenting. I agree that Scripture can be murky about exactly what God's standards are and how we can best apply godly principles to our lives on certain subjects, but even with that tangible challenge, playing revisionist or redactor to God's transcript is ill-advised.

When David had consensual sex with the married Bathsheba (or raped her depending on how you read the text) and when he then put out a Mafia style hit on her husband, Uriah, God's love didn't vanish, but through Nathan, God didn't excuse David's adultery and murder either. With the woman caught in adultery who Jesus saved from being stoned, Jesus didn't launch into a politically correct speech about how 'her truth was her truth' and since all sin is equal before God, there was no harm, no foul. Rather, Jesus said, "Go your way, and from now on do not sin again."

When Cain killed his brother Abel, and Sodom and Gomorrah, and the surrounding cities were destroyed for indulging "in sexual immorality" and "unnatural lust," God didn't reduce his holiness to appease our fallenness. When Christians in Galatia were caught in racial, socioeconomic, and gender partiality, Paul wrote them, representing God's ethics: "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise." The harsh truth is that love without limits or expectations isn't love at all. In an opinion piece in The Washington Post, one scholar wrote that, "A church that has given up on the truth of the Scriptures...has nothing to say to a fallen world. And a church that screams with outrage at those who disagree will have nothing to say to those who are looking for a new birth."[3]

But please know that I am sensitive to why submitting to God's tough love is so hard for us. Unfortunately, hypocrisy and hate are as rooted in Christian tradition as communion. Some pastors have made crude jokes from the pulpit about how God didn't create Adam and Steve, while they, themselves, are the very poster children for unfaithfulness, sleeping with everyone other than their wife. While we've made our faith into a board game that's easy to cheat at, gossip, jealousy, envy, drunkenness, and domestic violence have largely gone unaddressed, as if God is okay with them.

When good 'ol boy Pharisees argue that the Confederate flag is honorable and act like racism is make-believe, sin gets a pass. We are a church divided. Blacks worship here. Whites worship there. The Asian and Latino communities do their thing. But yet somehow when the Lord is successful in bringing us together, oftentimes it's our white brothers and sisters who somehow still end up being in-charge. And yet we wonder why still 11 o'clock Sunday morning remains the most segregated hour of the week.

Every single one of us fall short of the glory of God, and the church universal has a horrible record of excusing what's profitable or convenient, placating to those in power at the expense of the powerless. But absolutely none of this nullifies God's expectations. We're supposed to name sin when we encounter it and surrender to God in order to overcome it. We are never permitted to hate an individual, but the Bible does expect us to hate sin wherever it is found-and we should find it first within ourselves.

I don't hate Dylann Roof, but I detest what he did because I think that God detests it. I don't hate Rachel Dolezal, but I won't excuse the hurtful absurdity of her claim to self-identify as black when she has no claim to blackness. I don't hate those who've burned black churches to the ground and I surely don't hate those who subscribe to LGBTQIA theology. No matter the difference of opinion, there is a way to respect another's interpretation of life even while you disagree with it. God sets the agenda. God tells us what we can and cannot do. That, my friend, is tough love.

I love everyone. The way I see it, life is too short and the consequences are too severe not to. But I have little desire to argue with others over my beliefs making them uncomfortable. I am happy to have a discussion, but a discussion is not the same as an argument. And a discussion isn't as marketable for primetime media.

I won't be officiating any same-gender weddings, but I have a number of colleagues who have and will all-the-more now because of the Supreme Court's latest ruling. I can appreciate them standing firm for what they believe, in trying to represent God well. And I strive to do the same with my beliefs, with compassion, led by what I understand to be God's word, in love. In his address to the Pan-African Conference in London, England in 1903, W.E.B. DuBois lamented that, "The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line."[4] Our actions are proving him right even in the church, which is all the more reason that we need God's tough love. Racial superiority or inferiority have no place in the hearts of Christians, so whenever and however we encounter it, we must be so bold as to throw caution to the wind and call it what it is: sin.

There's a big difference between loving people as they are and accepting their lifestyle as approved by the God of Scripture. To love someone is to want God's best for them, even at the risk of your relationship suffering damage. This doesn't make it okay to go around hitting people over the head with the Bible, but it does mean not denouncing God's word simply because it is unpopular. For the record, to love someone is to affirm their humanity, having been created in the image of God. It is to accept them as an equal in life's messy sojourn and to indiscriminately serve them with grace and genuine concern. But if anything, to show that God lives in us as John writes about, that his love is truly in our hearts, we must be advocates for and examples of God's tough love.

[1] This sermon was preached by yours truly, the Rev. James Ellis III, on July 5, 2015 at Peace Fellowship Church in Washington, DC where I serve as senior pastor. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible is referenced throughout.

[2] Michael Schulman, "Generation LGBTQIA," The New York Times, January 9, 2013.

[3] Russell Moore, "Why the Church Should Neither Cave Nor Panic about the Decision on Gay Marriage," The Washington Post, June 26.

[4] W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2005), 3, 197.