Where Is the Love?

Michael Ramsden looks at the meaning of "true love" and how that fits into our understanding of God's love.


What is “true love”? Many people today would say that it is an emotion that is both unconditional and non-judgmental. It is a deep love that endures despite a person’s flaws. But if that is the case, what do we make of God’s love? On the one hand, we are told that our Creator has unfailing love for us, but, on the other, we are told that He will ultimately judge all of us. How can we accept a message of love that is exclusive?

I recall speaking at an event where members of the audience were encouraged to write down all the difficult questions about Christianity that they could think of. At the end of the event, a Buddhist woman approached me to say that something in the talk had bothered her. She explained that although I hadn’t said it expressly, my message seemed to imply that there was only one way to God, through Jesus Christ. She went on to say that she could never accept such an intolerant message that claimed other people were wrong. In response to this, I asked her about whether Buddha had said Hinduism was wrong, when he rejected the caste system and claimed the Vedas (scriptures) were wrong. When she acknowledged that this was the case, I asked her why she was willing to accept Buddha’s teaching, when he said millions of people were wrong, but not Jesus’s, when he also claimed others were not following the true path. She immediately saw the inconsistency and admitted that she didn’t like where the conversation was going!

The next morning she attended a church in which I was preaching on the subject of forgiveness. At the end, she sat in silence for a few minutes and then burst into tears. For the first time in her life, she realized that she had never actually known Christ or the depth of his love. Despite attending church almost every day of her school life, she had ended up rejecting something that was not true Christianity at all.

Truth and Grace

Yet if we accept the overarching truth of the gospel message, isn’t there a danger that this undermines the whole concept of loving one another? In the last essay before his death, the influential scholar Professor Isaiah Berlin argued that monism—the belief that there is just one single truth into which all other truths must be made to fit—was the enemy of freedom, because it undermined pluralism. He argued that,

The consequence of this belief (which is something different from, but akin to, what Karl Popper called essentialism—to him the root of all evil) is that those who know should command those who do not…. To cause pain, to kill, to torture are in general rightly condemned; but if these things are done not for my personal benefit but for an ism—socialism, nationalism, fascism, communism, fanatically held religious belief, or progress, or the fulfillment of the laws of history—then they are in order.[1]

Monism, he argued, was one step away from despotism. When a person thinks he knows he has the truth, then he is only one step away from being a dictator. I can remember reading that essay for the first time, coming to the end of it, and writing just one sentence at the bottom of the page: What about a truth filled with grace?

When you say that someone is graceful, you are saying that there is something beautiful about their physical movement. Similarly, when you describe someone as being gracious, you are conveying that there is something beautiful about their inner movement. John, the disciple, not only described Jesus as someone who was “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14), but he also spoke about the gospel in similar terms: “For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:16-17).

Unfortunately, many people wrongly assume that moral judgments must mean the absence of grace and love. Indeed, one of the most common complaints about God, and of the Christian faith in particular, is that it is judgmental. “How can a loving God judge us?” is the continual refrain.

Have you ever read the novel Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen? It tells a love story between a young woman, Elizabeth, and a certain Mr. Darcy. At one point Mr. Darcy comes to inform this beauty who has captured his heart of his feelings for her. He starts out well when he says, “My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”[2] However, he finishes spectacularly badly when he informs her that he loves her—even though it goes against his will, against his reason, against his character, and against his upbringing!

Feeling surprised when his declaration of love is rejected, Mr. Darcy asks Elizabeth how she can so freely and easily reject him. She responds by saying, “You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner.”[3]

She also gives the reason that she finds his declaration offensive: “I might as well enquire . . .why, with so evident a design of offending and insulting me, you chose to tell me that you liked me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character.”[4] In other words, Elizabeth is complaining that Mr. Darcy told her that he loved her against all better judgment. It is ironic, isn’t it?

Most of us are looking for intimacy and we spend our lives trying to project an image of someone we are not in order to get people to like us and to love us. However, it is impossible to find love and intimacy that way. When someone loves you, truly loves you, it is not because they don’t know who you are. No, it is because the person does know exactly who you are and what you are like, and still loves you. Truth and grace are vital if love is to be meaningful.

True Love

We see a similar concept in the song “Where Is the Love?” by the Black Eyed Peas, which was a number-one hit around the world in 2003. The lyrics raise many pertinent issues about love in a broken world, but one observation by the band is particularly arresting: they declare that if you have never known truth, then you have also never known love.

They couldn’t be more right. The words “I love you” mean something when the person who utters them knows exactly what you’re like and still cares for you. Love does not exist in the absence of judgment; true love exists when someone has passed the correct moral judgment on who you are and is under no illusions as to what you’re like, but still loves you.

That is the way God loves us. Moreover, He loves us at a profoundly deeper level, for He loves us unconditionally. Nonetheless, that does not mean that God loves us in the absence of judgment. Rather, He knows exactly what we’re like. He sees who we are. He loves us in truth. This is why the Bible says that while we were still God’s enemies, He manifested his love for us by giving us his only Son (Romans 5:8). 1 John 4:9–10 says, “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” God did not love us because we were lovely; rather, in love He gave himself and so has now made us lovely because of what we have received.

The song by the Black Eyed Peas is a long, moral complaint against the society in which we live. Yet sadly, it never progresses beyond its complaint and so never finds the answer to the question it asks. Interestingly, in 2016, the band reunited to sing the song again after many requests for it since the tragic events in Paris and Turkey. As one Facebook post soberly reads: “13 years later, The Black Eyed Peas and rest of the world are still asking, ‘Where Is The Love?’”[5] And in fact, the band’s own Twitter feed said recently: “The question still remains: WHERES THE LOVE [?]”[6]

Even though popular culture may think otherwise, true love—and compassion—cannot be found in the absence of judgment. The word compassion comes from ecclesiastical Latin; that is, Latin that was inspired by the Christian faith and used to help govern and guide the church’s behavior. The word means to make a moral judgment about a situation and to do so with empathy and a passion to respond. So when you see poverty and you say, “That’s wrong. People should not live this way,” you have passed a moral judgment about the situation. However, in order for this response to be compassionate, it needs to be followed both with an appropriate emotional response and a conviction to do something about it. When you see injustice and call it such, you pass a moral judgment. You say, “That is wrong. It should not be this way.” But if you are compassionate, you will decide to do something about it. Compassion and love cannot exist apart from moral judgment.

Similarly, God longs to shine his light of moral judgment into our hearts, not to expose and shame us but to transform us into his likeness because He is a gracious and compassionate God. God’s love for us does not exist without judgment because without it, true intimacy and love with Him would be impossible. God’s love for us also cannot be known without transformation because we are in no state to enjoy Him and have fellowship with Him. On the cross, Christ became a curse for us, taking the punishment of God on our behalf so that we may be redeemed from the curse that we were under and so through Christ be reconciled to God by being transformed by Him.

The gospel is about the God who sees the situation we are in and passes judgment on it. He sees the pain. He passes judgment on our sin and shame, and yet, He so loves us and has compassion on us that He came into this world to be broken for us, so that we can know wholeness in Him. In Him, we find true freedom, love, and grace, and the ability to love others as He has so loved us.

[1] Isaiah Berlin, “My Philosophy,” The History of Ideas (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2005).

Available online at http://www.cs.utexas.edu/users/vl/notes/berlin.html.

[2] Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (London: Peerage Books, 1991), 113.

[3] Ibid., 114.

[4] 113.

[5] See http://www.mtv.com/news/2927221/black-eyed-peas-reunite-for-a-star-studded-remake-of-where-is-the-love/.

[6] Ibid.

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