Love vs. Truth: Who Wins?

The Sunday Before the Elevation of the Cross, September 10, 2017
Galatians 6:11-18; John 3:13-17
Very Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

I was recently in a conversation on the Internet in which someone said that in theological conversation truth is the most important thing, not the other person. I am sure that he meant that we should not compromise the truth just for the sake of getting along. And of course I agree with that. But there’s still something about that statement that really rubs me the wrong way.

The problem with that is that it puts love and truth as opposites. In other words, if you’re going to preach the truth, you have to be ready to hurt some feelings. And you shouldn’t worry about hurt feelings, because you’ve got the truth on your side.

Of course, there are people who also believe that love and truth are opposites, except they try to stress love instead. You should go out of your way to compromise in conversations about important things so that you don’t hurt the feelings of the other person. Because giving offense is the worst thing you can do. Being right or wrong is just not as important. Again, truth and love are set up as opposites.

Why do we do this? Why do we act as though to be truthful, you cannot be loving, or to be loving, you cannot be truthful? I think it’s because we don’t like the tension of disagreeing with another person and yet remaining connected to him or her. So we either try to overpower them with “truth” or we downplay the issues with “love.”

I’m sure we’ve all been in relationships or families or communities where this brand of “truth” or “love” is always the underlying motivator. For example, those who like to get their way in the name of what’s “right” and yet never seek to know or hear other people will almost always consistently act that way. It is their version of “truth” that motivates them.

You can see this in certain kinds of theological or political discussions, but really it can be any topic. The goal is not to win the other person and make him part of your community, but rather to destroy any disagreement even if it means shutting out other people. We don’t want them here, because they disagree.

There is also a version of “love” that downplays theological or philosophical differences and teachings. This so-called “love” is what motivates people to say things like, “It doesn’t matter which church you go to, as long as you believe in Jesus” or even “The most important thing is to be a good person—the rest is just minor details.”

But it also motivates people to be okay with abandoning traditional moral teachings in favor of making emotions and desires paramount, with mottoes like “Love is love” and “It doesn’t matter who you love.” And this confusion also erases the difference between how you feel and what you do. If you feel it, then you have to do it, because it’s about “love.”

Again, all of this is based on creating an opposition between truth and love. Something’s gotta give, so if we emphasize truth, then love is out. And if we emphasize love, then truth gets shown the door. This is our world now.

But here is what’s in the Gospel today: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent His Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him” (John 3:16-17).

In this, one of the most beloved and well-known passages of Scripture, the relationship between truth and love is summarized in a single action—God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.

Let’s start with the love. God so loved the world, and He committed Himself to an action. We often read the “so loved” as meaning “He really loved,” but that’s not what the “so” there means. The Greek word there for that “so” is Οὕτως (outos), which means “thus” or “in this manner” or “like this.” That is, God loved the world in this manner: He gave His only-begotten Son. In other words, love here is an act, and the love of God is the act of giving His only Son.

So then what? “That whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” That is, whoever not only accepts this truth but lives it will have eternal life. That is what “believes in” means in a Christian sense. It is not only to agree with Jesus. Believing in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, means a dedication of your life to Him.

So we see here truth and love summarized in a single act—the giving of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. But does this solve the contradiction? Is it really loving of God to expect that we adhere to the truth of Jesus Christ—His person, His life and His teachings? Shouldn’t love let people believe and do what they want? Isn’t that what love is about?

And is it really a dedication to truth to make expectations of adherence to the truth a matter of love? It doesn’t matter what the other person thinks or feels—this is the truth! Right? Who cares if the other person responds well to the truth? We know we’re right!

But there is no contradiction between truth and love. Why? I think I’ve demonstrated that we often have the wrong idea about what truth and love are. Truth is not “being right” or “being correct.” And love is not about feelings or desires, even very deep-seated ones.

So what is truth? And what is love? We have already suggested it from this passage in John 3, but let’s look at some more verses from the Apostle John, which give us the key. In 1 John 4:8 and 4:16, we read these three words together in both verses: “God is love.” And in John’s Gospel, in John 14:6, we read Jesus, Who is God, saying this, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

So what is love? God is love. What is truth? God is truth. There is no contradiction, no opposition between truth and love because Jesus Christ our God is Himself truth and love. You cannot be dedicated to the truth without Jesus Christ. You cannot be dedicated to love without Jesus Christ.

So let’s read again the next verse after John 3:16, John 3:17: “For God sent His Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.”

That is both truth and love right there!

Love is obviously not about condemning anyone, but it’s also not about pretending that we don’t need to be saved, to be healed, to be transformed, to be changed. As I like to say sometimes, God loves you so much that He accepts you as you are, but He also loves you so much that He won’t leave you that way. And here also is truth. Truth is not about condemning, either—it is about how we can be saved. Truth is not about rejection, and it is also not about demanding submission.

Truth and love are not concepts or feelings. Truth and love are the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Savior of the world. And if we would love, then we must be like Him. And if we would speak the truth, then we must be like Him.

Love and truth are not opposites. They are not contradictory. We do not have to choose one over the other. Rather, we simply choose Christ. And we believe in Him, committing ourselves to Him whatever the cost and whatever it takes.

To the God Who is Himself Love and Truth, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, therefore be all glory, honor and power, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

3 comments:

  1. Well said, Father! If I can add or emphasize, as many have said, love is not a feeling. Christ did not ‘feel good’ on the cross. Love is not ‘being nice’. I would say that almost all the time we are nice so that others are nice to us, not because we love them. But we like to think of it as love so that we can ‘feel good’ about ourselves. As such we are good followers of the Law – the old Covenant – but without love. Jews, not Christians.

  2. Pontious Pilate asked Christ “what is truth?” I think it’s a valid question even over 2000 years later. Let’s face it, what is ‘truth’ to one person isn’t always true for another. Even when it comes to Scripture and the teachings of the Church Fathers. What do I mean? Well, for example, if a person is trying to dominate/control another group of people ‘by any means necessary,’ they have no problem with using/abusing Scripture and the church teachings in order to do it! This has happened many times in the past and is generally behind most of the rationale behind promoting racism, sexism, and many other kinds of “isms” out there. The person who wants to win an argument at all costs seems to forget that Scripture also says “speak the truth in LOVE!” (Eph 4:5). Truth shouldn’t ever be used as a weapon to hurt others. Better to keep silence then.

  3. Well, said. There is no truth without love and no love without truth. Christ is the measure of both.

    Recently, a relative of mine on FaceBook liked a meme that was a quote from the Dalai Lama that read, “The prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them at least don’t hurt them.” I thought, “Well, that is not actually the prime purpose of this life from a Christian perspective, which is, rather, to attain union with Christ and our transformation into His likeness. But assuming this is one of the purposes of life, how does a Buddhist (or a Hindu or a humanist, etc.) know when he is helping others and when he is harming them? What criteria does he use?” As a Christian, I know we have no canon for what truth and love (or helping or harming another) look like outside of Christ, and, indeed, as you have pointed out, Christ is both Truth and Love–what we may think of as truth and love (or goodness or beauty) are facets of the same Reality, which is One, and which is revealed in Christ. In order to be genuinely loving and truthful, we must put on Christ.

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