by Mark Gutman
“Love”1 is not enough as a motive. I realize that it is widely considered to be the best motive, but something about that concerns me. Wait a minute, I hear you splutter. How can anyone take issue with love as a motive? That’s tantamount to running down motherhood or the flag. Hear (or read) me out before you write this off.
What about all those Bible texts (and quotations and stories and . . .)! John 14:15 (NASB) quotes Jesus: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” In Philippians 1:15-17, Paul refers to two groups who preach Christ. One group preaches out of selfish ambition, but the other group preaches out of love. 2 Corinthians 5:14 NIV (NLT): “Christ’s love compels (or controls) us.” 1 Corinthians 13 says that love outranks faith or hope.
Love is certainly a better motive than hate or fear, partly because those negative emotions have such undesirable side effects. But if the hate or fear or love ever subsides, actions motivated by such emotions often do too. How many former Adventists or former Christians have taken up smoking once they left the church?2 If they didn’t smoke because they loved Jesus (or the church), their motive didn’t have much staying power once the love faded.
Then again, love can involve a willingness to lay aside common thinking and judgment in order to do what someone else wants. 1 Kings 13 relates the story of a prophet who was fooled by someone else’s claim to be a prophet who was delivering a message from God. If we snap to attention and quit thinking as soon as we hear “God said this,” we risk being gullible. Con-men depend on people’s willingness to act with little or no evidence. The Bereans of Acts 17 were praised because they didn’t accept Paul’s teaching without doing some investigation.
Love can be a beneficial motive. It can provide motivation when I’m not so interested in my own welfare. For instance, if I don’t take care of my health, my family will suffer, so I guess I’ll work a little harder to keep from becoming a medical nuisance when I’m older. Even people who are not all that interested in exercise or getting enough sleep may actually make a little effort in such an area because of love. Maybe I exercise because my spouse wants company while she exercises. Someone seeing me running by on the street may give me credit for being devoted to exercise, not realizing that actually I’m just trying to make my wife happy.
Love is a good motive, but it often is not enough; it leaves us too easily ignorant or unthinking. I remember one missionary’s telling me about a country where he worked where church members knew not to drink tea or coffee. The church members may well have been told that if they loved Jesus they would avoid tea and coffee. But apparently the problem was not caffeine, because the coffee-avoiding members drank lots of Coca-Cola. Perhaps the love that led members to refuse to drink a certain beverage did not encourage investigation that might lead them to understand physical (not just spiritual) benefits of avoiding tea and coffee.
We can search the Bible for guidance, but few practices can be conclusively proved as right or wrong from the Bible. Someone who does not do X may want to convince you that you should not do X either. Warning you that you may burn in hell is losing some popularity as a method of persuasion, but many religious people have no concerns about using love as a motivation. So you’re told that you should not do X because Jesus does not want you to do it, and you will not do it if you love Jesus. That argument still does not pin down that Jesus does not want you to do X; it only pins down that your would-be persuader is convinced that Jesus thinks that. So the proponent is in effect saying that you won’t do that if you love her. Whatever. If I really am going to avoid doing X, I’d like to understand the benefit of avoiding it. In other words, why does Jesus think that doing X is not a good idea?
Related to the love-motive idea is “God said it, and I believe it, and that settles it for me.” People with that motto used to believe that the earth was flat and at the center of the universe. Eventually science showed that the earth is not flat, and that the earth is one of a few planets that revolve around our sun, and our solar system is part of a much larger galaxy that is part of . . . . So the motto would be better stated as “I think the Bible means this, and I believe it,” because understanding of the Bible often changes as science or society changes. Bible believers for centuries had no problem revering the Bible while treating women or minorities as inferior on a regular basis. Women and minorities fare better in many Bible-believing churches now, but society provided those groups with rights before many churches did. Love that was guided by the Bible didn’t seem to cause pangs of conscience for mistreating others. You might see why many unbelievers were not impressed by the Bible-believers who did what they did and claimed they were motivated by love.
You mean that the Christian life is just a calculated strategy? Live the way that seems most logical? Come to think of it, that’s what I’m advocating. Not in the sense that I recommend that someone propose to his girlfriend with, “I’d like to marry you, but not because I love you. It’s that I’ve figured out that you and I would make a very efficient team.” When I act because of investigation and understanding, though, I’m more likely to be acting freely, rather than because someone else has asked me to. Jesus words in John 8:32, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free,” seem to describe this. I don’t avoid Coca-Cola because it’s somebody else’s rule. I avoid it because I believe I’ll stay healthier if I do. If I avoid it only because another church member told me I shouldn’t drink it, I’m not really free. (Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 are for another column.)
Summing up, love is not a bad motive. But people claiming it have used it as an excuse not to investigate, leaving themselves to be taken in by the inconsistent or nonsensical (drink one caffeine but avoid another), or the unkind (worship in church but keep women and minorities “in their place”). But it can also provide a motive when we don’t want to do what we know is best (healthful living, so we’re not a burden to our loved ones).
So don’t quit loving. But don’t use love for God or Jesus or anyone else as an excuse to quit studying. Blind obedience suits cult leaders, but is not a fitting lifestyle for those who follow a God who says, “let’s talk this over together” (Isaiah 1:18, CJB) and “test everything that is said; hold on to what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21, NLT).
1“Love” can mean many things, and is often a catchall explanation of motive because we don’t know what else to say. But even actual love for God or a person can leave us with some disadvantages, as the column goes on to explain.
2Sorry to pick on smoking, but it makes the point quickly. See my column, “Squeaky Wheels” (October, 2012), on the subject of health.