We live in the age of the hashtag. Even if you abstain from social media, you are constantly bombarded by sound bites and slogans designed to convey not the truth, but some caricature of it.
Recent tragedies have generated a whole new set of competing slogans. Black lives matter, we’re told. All lives matter, others counter. Supporters of law enforcement add that blue lives matter. And of course many arguments are made over which of these slogans is most accurate, or most helpful as we seek to sort through declining trust in law enforcement and a spirit of racial injustice.
So which is it? Black lives? Blue lives? All lives? Frankly, I think we’re asking the wrong question if we’re debating whose life matters. I think it’s a better question to ask: what does it mean to matter? And to whom do we matter? It’s like the old story of the carpenter and the watchmaker. The carpenter says, “I need to hammer this nail,” so the watchmaker hands him a pocketwatch. The carpenter drives the nail into the board, but the watch is now in pieces. “Huh,” he observes, “this mustn’t be a very good watch.” It’s absurd, of course, but why? Because the watch isn’t meant for that purpose. Understanding what it means to matter is a question of purpose, yet we as a culture decided long ago that we had no common purpose; we would remain a nation of individuals, each of us plotting our own course. Yet without purpose there can be only brokenness.
What an opportunity for the gospel to shine.
THE CALL TO LOVE
We’ve been focusing on what it means to “abide,” using John’s writings as our guide. Yesterday we noted that the surest starting point for abiding in Christ is to believe the fundamental nature of the gospel: that in Jesus God came to earth to pay our infinite debt so that we might experience fellowship in him. But John’s first letter focuses not only on the facts of faith but also their results. Abiding starts with faith in Christ, but it is made manifest in the love of Christ:
16 So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.17 By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world.18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.19 We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:16-19)
The starting point for Christian love is the love God has shown us. Do you see how the gospel empowers us to love in a way religion never can? Religious teachers can instruct their followers to love people, but the only thing this might produce is mechanical obedience. Religion says: “Love others and God will love you.” The gospel says: “God loves you, therefore you’re free to love others.”
THE DANGER OF ABSTRACTION
This is partly why empty religion can be so destructive. If I embrace religion—apart from the grace of the gospel—then I may be tempted to think that God loves me because of my own goodness, my own achievements. And once I start believing that, then I tend to compare others to myself. Pretty soon, others start looking less worthy of my love because they don’t match my own standards.
John cautions against this, saying:
20 If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. (1 John 4:20-21)
Abiding is about loving others. When John speaks of “brother,” he’s most likely referring to fellow followers of Christ. But surely love for our neighbors (Mark 12:32) is an essential part of Christian obedience.
In a world driven by slogans, it’s so easy to get off the rails. Love withers when we reduce human beings to mere abstractions. What do I mean? I’m talking about the way we label others as “thugs,” or “racists,” or “liberals.” We shut down conversations because we don’t want to listen to what others have to say. We ignore pleas for racial sensitivity because it sounds to us like liberal propaganda, and with enough digging we can prove that the facts on our side, by golly so isn’t it time to just move on? We fail to love when we dig up dirt on shooting victims, feeling somehow assured that if we can learn that they were somehow guilty of other, lesser crimes, we can sleep better knowing that these men were “thugs” who contributed to their own ill fates. We love our brothers—but we make sure we reserve our love for those without a rap sheet. A world of cause and effect gives us comfort and assurance, because it means that I can have control over my fate so long as I cling to my moral record.
The gospel shatters this, because it tells me that I am so broken that the God of the universe had to die to save me. And because Christ died for the wayward and the broken, the gospel gives me assurance that no one—not even those I might be tempted to label as a “liberal” or a “racist” or a “thug”—is beyond his reach.
THE URGENCY OF “GRACIOUS CONTENTION”
There is division in our nation like never before. Now, more than ever, we need the Church, we need a community of men and women who abide in Christ and manifest this love in their interactions with others.
Now, I sense that some of you will be bothered by some of this, because surely, with all this division, not every side can be right and there are many voices and positions worthy of being challenged. Indeed, the message of the cross runs counter to a cultural message of “empowerment.” Christians are at odds with the world, and conflict is inevitable.
Love is not opposed to such conflict and such challenges. To avoid disagreements is to relegate oneself to apathy rather than the bold love God showed us through Christ. In his book Political Discipleship, Graham Ward of Manchester University suggested that what we need is a climate of “gracious contention,” meaning that we allow for the liberty to wrestle with important issues with an attitude of grace. There is a world of difference between disagreeing and being disagreeable. But love for our neighbor remains our guiding principle. For while there may be no easy answers to our current crises, we can be confident that ultimately, eternally, love truly wins.