Friday, February 4, 2011

Is it Love, or Indulgence?

As Canadians, we pride ourselves on loving our neighbours. Canada’s social policies, our comprehensive welfare system, our hallowed universal health care, our traditional military stance as peacekeepers—all of these national initiatives represent a secular version of the social Gospel rooted in Jesus’ commandment feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those who are imprisoned, and generally care for those less fortunate than ourselves. (Matthew 25:31-46)

The impulse to minister to the poor, the sick, and the oppressed is an inalienable part of the Canadian soul. Even such apparently contradictory decisions to apologize to the First Nations for cultural genocide while honouring Henry Morgentaler with the Order of Canada, in fact represent two sides of the same motivation: to avoid causing grief or harm to people we perceive as marginalized in some way.

This, then, is Canadian love. The question is, is it Christian love? For us, love is often an emotional reality. If I feel good about myself, then I am loving myself. If I make you feel good about yourself, I am loving you. Even if I don’t agree with you, as long as your feel-good activities don’t impinge on mine, I am prepared to “affirm” what you do, because that’s what we think love is. In reality, however, our impulse to “love” usually translates as: “Do what you want where I’m not directly affected, and we’ll all be happy.”

Frankly, this is not love in the scriptural and Christian sense of that word. Let’s take a basic verse: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) You’ve probably heard it before, but read it again carefully. Love is primarily God’s impulse to give life to the world.

And what is “life” in the scriptural sense? For the people of the ancient Near East, the answer was very concrete. Life was an oasis of drinkable water in the desert. It was food in times of drought and famine. Life was about survival, not good feelings. And love was about seeking to preserve someone’s life at all costs, no matter how bad it made them feel in the short run. So John 3:16 is really saying simply that God is quite happy to hurt both His and our feelings in the short run so that we can survive in the “long run,” which is to say, forever.

As a father of three small children, I have learned this truth in very practical ways. When I discovered my two-year-old son running around the house with a pointed end of a pair of scissors in his mouth, I did not hesitate upset him on the spot in order to remind him that such activity is life-threatening. That’s how I love my children: by seeking their life, their survival, both physical, mental, spiritual—no matter how badly they may feel about it at any given moment. To do otherwise is not to love them, but to indulge them. And however pleasant indulgence may feel now, there’s always a price to pay later…

If we call ourselves Christians and choose to live a faith rooted in the Scriptures, our most important imperative is to love one another. But what does love really mean? I cannot speak for Canadian society, but if we call ourselves disciples of Jesus Christ, we need to draw a clear distinction between love and indulgence. And then we need to make a courageous decision to seek life for ourselves and those within our sphere of influence, whatever may come of it. Be sensitive, wise and discreet, by all means, but in the end, don’t pull punches. After all, when it comes to matters of survival, what’s a few hurt feelings and bruised egos?

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