A Sketch of a Christian Ethic of Love – Pt. 2 – Critiques Answered

(1)’When I think about the life that Jesus had, I think that the actions and miracles he performed were more than just half-hearted acts of charity. I think that He loved everyone in a way that none of us have been able to ascend to. When I drive down the road, my heart isn’t bursting in love for everyone I see. In fact, if I’m on the road, most of feeling towards other drivers are anything but loving. I cannot fathom the depth because I am unable, but to have such a heart for everyone must have been overwhelming. The “acts of charity” that he committed I think were just a side-effect of the love that he carried(s) for everybody. So they were not just charitable moments, they were genuine. 

Let’s go with your example, say God is telling you someway that a certain homeless man/woman needs ten bucks. But you aren’t willing to do it, not for any particular reason, you just don’t feel like giving this person ten dollars. Well, since you know what happens when people disobey God and it’s not good, you pull over, grumble as you dig the ten bucks out of your pocket, and then wave the guy off as he accepts it. Ok, yea, you did what God said, you paid your dues, and because you did it, His plan for that person may be able to be carried out because of your obedience. But as for you, I can imagine that whatever blessing God may have had for you if you had done it with a more willing heart may become void. ‘

(2)’Charity with a bad attitude is not accepted by Christ, He wants only those with pure intentions.’

Both of these criticisms I grant as being accurate – however, my point in my initial sketch was to show that there love can indeed be love, even if it is commanded and hence not freely chosen. Here I will attempt to incorporate both of these legitimate thoughts into my ethical project.

It is plain from reading the Scriptures that attitude does count for something when deeds of charity are performed – theological reasons aside, it’s simply common sense that one would rather have someone perform a commanded task with a good attitude rather than a combative one.  Here we will attempt to see just what place our feelings and attitude have in ethic I’m formulating. A few texts dealing with attitude:

1 Peter 3:8

‘Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.’

Romans 12:10

‘Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.’

Ephesians 4:31

‘Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking,
be put away from you, with all malice.’

1 Corinthians 13:2

‘ If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.’

The theme in these verses is a simple one, and one that is reiterated throughout the entire Bible – without love as a motivator, even the best behavior counts for nothing.

A few other thoughts come to mind. Love does obviously have more than one definition – it means more than agape. It does mean affection – fond feelings for one another. But feelings alone don’t mean much – one can say they love you, but if they simply assert that with no action, it is quickly dismissed as mere talk.

A rough outline of an ethic of love could be as follows:

1. Love implies action – simply stating that one has nice feelings for someone doesn’t cut it.

2. Charity can be commanded – but if it is done out of an attitude of pure obligation, then it is simply robotic commands being obeyed. There has to be more to it than simply obeying orders – there must be a genuine desire to do good.

It is (2) that presents a difficulty. Most people do nice things out of a genuine desire to do good – but few people would say that that desire is present at all times. And yet, a Christian is called to never stop serving others – a Christian is a slave to Christ, and slaves don’t stop serving. Obviously, this can be difficult -I certainly don’t feel like being charitable every single moment of the day. I know I should be – and often times I have performed acts of charity out of pure obligation. Well and good – except it should not be out of pure obligation. I should genuinely want to serve others, without the thought of ‘Well, I’m a Christian, so I guess I HAVE to do this,’ as my primary motive. Otherwise, my act of charity, while better than none, doesn’t count for a whole lot.

Well, that’s all very good – but the real question now is how can I want to serve at all times? If I make myself want to do something, that’s not really being loving – it’s just obligation. On my own, I won’t be able to live a life of loving, joyful servant-hood. I can’t do it alone.

However – to paraphrase John Wesley: ‘Man is depraved, but man is not alone!’

 

 

 

Cheap Grace

‎’If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Sin boldly, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2. Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign. It suffices that through God’s glory we have recognized the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery thousands of times each day. Do you think such an exalted Lamb paid merely a small price with a meager sacrifice for our sins? Pray hard for you are a mighty sinner.’
-Martin Luther

This is an often misunderstood quotation – on the surface it appears that Luther is advocating a ‘we’re going to sin, but we have grace, so if we sin, sin big, because we have grace,’ kind of thinking, and while it is a seemingly comforting way of thinking, it is directly opposed to what Scripture actually teaches about the nature of sin and grace. St. Paul’s very familiar rebuke, ‘Do we sin more, that grace may abound? By no means!,’ (paraphrase) deals well with that mentality – grace covers our sins, but by no means does it give is license to sin. One can imagine someone in the early church thinking just that: ‘Well, if grace abounds in sin, then let’s sin away!’ To which St. Paul offers his excellent rebuke.

Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer had this to say about Luther’s stirring oration quoted above:

“For Luther, ‘sin boldly’ could only be his very last refuge, the consolation for one whose attempts to follow Christ had taught him that he never could become sinless, who in his fear of sin despairs of the grace of God. As Luther saw it, ‘sin boldly’ did not happen to be a fundamental acknowledgment of his disobedient life; it was the gospel of the grace of God before which we are always and in every circumstance sinners. Yet that grace seeks us and justifies us, sinners though we are. Take courage and confess your sin, says Luther, do not try to run away from it, but believe more boldly still. You are a sinner, so be a sinner, and don’t try to become what you are not. Yes, and become a sinner again and again every day, and be bold about it. But to whom can such words be addressed, except those who from the bottom of their hearts make a daily renunciation of sin and of every barrier which hinders them from following Christ, but who nevertheless are troubled about their daily faithlessness and sin? Who can hear these words without endangering his faith but he who hears their consolation as a renewed summons to follow Christ? Interpreted in this way, these words of Luther become a testimony to the costliness of grace, the only genuine kind of grace there is… We Lutherans have gathered like eagles round the carcass of cheap grace, and there we have drunk of the poison which has killed the life of following Christ… What happened to all those warnings of Luther against preaching the gospel in such a manner as to make men rest secure in their ungodly living? …The word of cheap grace has been the ruin of more Christians than any commandment of works. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, pp. 56-59).

While I am not a Lutheran, these statements ring true for anyone. The only kind of grace is costly grace – any attempt to cheapen it by using it as an excuse to continue in a lifestyle of sin changes it from grace to damnation.

Christus Victor

 

‎’Death has become like a tyrant who has been completely conquered by the legitimate monarch; bound hand and foot the passers-by sneer at him, hitting him and abusing him, no longer afraid of his cruelty and rage, because of the king who has conquered him. So has death been conquered and branded for what it is by the Savior and the cross. It is bound hand and foot, all who are in Christ trample it as they pass and as they witness Him deride it, scoffing, and saying, ‘O Death, where is thy victory? O Grave, where is thy sting?’
– St. Athanasius

Preliminary Sketch of a Christian Ethic of Love

“Love is indeed a free choice, but love is not love if it is a commandment.”

If one defines love as ‘a nice feeling towards someone,’ you would be right. However, that is not the only thing that love is – love is action. Feelings may or may not follow, but that doesn’t really matter in the context of Christianity. Love in Christianity is action – ‘agape.’ So, yes, love absolutely can be commanded, and still remain love – it’s status of being free or commanded does not dictate that it is in fact love.

1. Love as defined by Christ is action – ‘agape,’ or, more loosely defined, charity – it is conscious acts of goodwill or charity done to another human being for their own good regardless of my own personal desire to do such acts.

2. Charity’s charity-ness is not dependent on feelings of charity/love/happiness, as demonstrated below:

(2a) – I can give a homeless man 10 dollars with a smile on my face or while in a bad mood, while storming mad or amazingly in love and it doesn’t change the fact that I was, in fact, charitable. Charity’s charity-ness obviously does not depend on how I feel. I am not restricted from being charitable in any meaningful way by simple virtue of not feeling charitable – I may not want to, but that is simply a feeling, and does not actually restrict my ability to to give the homeless man 10 dollars.

3. It follows from (2a) that if charity is not dependent on whether or not I feel like it, that I can be commanded to be charitable, and it will indeed be charity, since my own say in the matter does not rob it of its virtue.

4. Christ commands charity, regardless of whether or not one feels like it, and a Christian, if he truly means to follow Christ, will keep his commands, as evidenced by Scripture.

(4a) If I carry out this duty of charity commanded by Christ, it is indeed still charity, since it is demonstrated above that whether or not I personally want to be charitable, or whether or not it is an act of my own will or a command does not negate or validate any charitable act or rob it of its own virtue.

(4b) Charity-ness is thus seen not to depend on my own desire to be charitable.

5. Thus, love, as defined by Christ, can indeed be a commandment, and does not require me to want or to even have any say in the matter, since charity in Christianity is a duty, and this duty commanded by Christ.

Christian Desire

‘We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire. If there lurks in modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition  when infinte joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.’

– C.S. Lewis, ‘The Wight of Glory,’ pp. 25-26

The Scriptures are no strangers to desire; indeed, the Song of Solomon is an ode to an erotic ecstasy between two people who desire each other for no reason other than they simply love each other. As Lewis so keenly noticed, it is not the strength of our desire – that is an integral part of our humanity. Rather, it is the object of our desire that is wrong. We are created with a desire for God and His utterly infinite splendour, glory and joy, but we go astray by trading that joy for simple toys that ultimately won’t and can’t satisfy what we really want – and, as Lewis again noticed, the whole unhappy story of humanity is humanity doing precisely that.

God the Companion

‎’As the Christian sees things, God does not stand idly by, cooly observing the suffering of His creatures. He enters into and shares our suffering. He endures the anguish of seeing his son, the second person of the Trinity, consigned to the bitterly cruel and shameful death of the cross. Some theologians claim that God cannot suffer. I believe they are wrong. God’s capacity for suffering, I believe, is proportional to his greatness; it exceeds our capacity for suffering in the same measure as his capacity for knowledge exceeds ours. Christ was prepared to endure the agonies of hell itself; and God, the Lord of the universe, was prepared to endure the suffering consequent upon his son’s humiliation and death. He was prepared to accept this suffering in order to overcome sin, and death, and the evils that afflict our world, and to confer on us a life more glorious than we can imagine. So we don’t know why God permits evil; we do know, however, that He was prepared to suffer on our behalf, to accept suffering of which we can form no conception.’
– Alvin Plantinga (“Self-Profile,” Alvin Plantinga, ed. Jas. Tomberlin (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1985), p. 36.)

Jehovah is a god who is willing to share in the suffering of His people. This is certainly one of the foundational thoughts of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Our suffering is God’s suffering – what a magnificent thought. But not only does God suffer with us as an onlooker from afar sad that His creation is going awry –  He existentially shares our suffering with us.

The Witness of the Spirit

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘The experience of all real Christians shows what many other texts of scripture also reveal. There is, in every believer, both the testimony of God’s Spirit, and the testimony of his own spirit, that he or she is a child of God. The testimony of our own spirit is a rational one, but the witness of God’s Spirit is a divine testimony, an intimate conviction manifested in our hearts.’

– John Wesley

That we are sure of our salvation is not a matter of syllogisms or simply an answer to a spiritual equation – one does not simply believe certain things to be true and on that basis know that one is saved, though that is without a doubt a part of it. But it is the  Holy Spirit, in an experience beyond any words, that bears witness with our spirit. There is both the rational – we believe Christ is risen, we believe the Gospel to be true, we affirm these as actual facts which happened in history. But there is the spiritual – God’s Holy Spirit, the Spirit that ushered in Pentecost, that hovered over the primeval waters of creation, the earth-shaking, comforting, fiery, wild Spirit, which bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.