In this and the following part of this series, we will delve into the sensitive issue of how we can lovingly and wisely engage with others when it comes to the more divisive and “thorny” issues of culture, politics, and religion, especially when other people’s perspectives and passions differ widely, and perhaps even wildly, from our own.
The underlying reality of these matters is that the more consequential an issue is, the more value that people place upon it and, therefore, the more “love” that is ascribed to and invested into the matter. Furthermore, the stronger the “love”, the stronger the protective, “hate” response that is generated against anything that might oppose, threaten, and/or violate it. This is why issues regarding culture, politics, and religion, have some of the strongest positive and negative emotions, attitudes, and actions bound up with them and are often the most polarizing and “thorny” to engage in.
We need wisdom to know when we ought to interact with others in these matters and also how we ought to interact with them when it is timely and appropriate to do so. I will be focusing here mainly on this second aspect of how.
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The goal in any and all engagements with others, especially when they concern “thorny”, divisive issues, is to get ourselves, and, to whatever degree possible, the other person walking on the path of love and truth in relation to them. Only as these two aspects are pursued together can any interaction hold the prospect of bearing positive, long-lasting fruit.
In this pursuit of love and truth, love must lead the way! Love is “the perfect bond of unity.” (Colossians 3:14 NASB) and as such, has a “drawing, unifying effect.” Truth on the other hand, though being that which is necessary to bring liberation from all untruth and its subsequent bondages (see John 8:32), also has the nature of being a sharp, two-edged sword that divides (see Hebrews 4:12.) Thus a path that leads to unity and freedom must have love as its firm foundation with truth doing its discerning, liberating work supported by and carried along on the stronger, unifying platform of love already laid down.
In this post, we will focus on building this platform of love and tackle the dicier matter of engaging with truth in the next. In both, we will do so peering through the “lens” and applying the principles/phraseology of what has been shared in this series thus far. For a refresher and for future reference, then, please see the previous post: The “Love”-“Hate” Relationship (mid-series review/redux) for a bulleted review with related links.
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Now, before we consider the most fruitful way of engaging with others on the opposite side of a particular cultural, political, and/or religious divide (no matter which side we may be on), let’s briefly see the unfruitful, even harmful, way of engaging in such situations.
The Bloody Way Into and Out of the Briar Patch
When we encounter those who believe and behave differently than ourselves, our initial conscious or unconscious response may be to view them as in another “camp” and, therefore, as somewhat of an “enemy.” That is primarily because we view their beliefs and behaviors as those which, by their contrary nature to ours, pose some level of existential or actual threat to what we value and love. This tends to evoke within us the protective, rejection/separation, “hate” response of the “love”-“hate” relationship.
If we react and relate to them out of this rejection/separation, “enemy”/”hate” position, even if it is mild in nature, we will undoubtedly set the tenor and tone of our engagement as a “thorny” one and invite a similar rejection/separation response in return. If we try to interject our perception of truth into the interaction, our perspectives will most likely be viewed as a threat to what they value and love, be rejected, and, in the end, serve to harden them in their position and increase the distance between us. The focus in such interactions generally accentuates the differing “loves” and “hates” that exist between the two sides and thus tends to fuel the “friend of my enemy”/”enemy of my friend” “hate-generating” response. This approach lands both parties smack dab in the middle of the briar patch with no “un-bloody” way out. No matter what side of an issue we find ourselves on, we must resist this temptation and choose the more excellent way.
The High-Way of Love
There is a “friendlier” and more fruitful way in, through, and out of the briar patch of divisive, contentious issues, however. This way is one that is elevated up just above the muck and mire that the briars grow in, but not so high as to be removed entirely from their prickly reality. It is like a long, winding boardwalk that spans the entire distance across the thorny landscape. This high-way is constructed of love, and it is up to you and I, by the grace of God, to set its footings, lay its planks, and secure its railings as a matter of first priority in our relationships with others.
Depending on the strength of this “high-way”, varying weights of truth can then be supported by its travelers as they traverse and converse from side to side. If the planks of love are weak or rotted, however, they will break when the weight of truth gets too heavy for them, and both travelers will end up down in the muck and mire, thrashing about in the briars of hate and untruth.
Although in the end it will take both parties choosing to walk on this friendly, fruitful way in order to make it to the other side in greater unity and mutually-increased understanding, first and foremost, we are responsible for ourselves in choosing, building, and navigating this more excellent way.
Loving our “Enemies”
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:43-45 NIV
According to the teaching and commandment of Christ, we are not only to love our “neighbor”, we are to love our “enemies” as well. If we look at God’s commandment to love our “neighbor”, we will find the key as to how we are to love them, and by applying that same principle, how we are to love our “enemies” as well. God says, “…you shall love your neighbor as yourself?” (Leviticus 19:18) The key to understanding how to love our neighbors, and our enemies, is found in understanding just how we love ourselves.
If we look closely at this aspect through the “love”/”hate” relationship “lens”, we will see that we love ourselves primarily according to a “first-generation love” based on the inherent value we consciously and unconsciously ascribe to ourselves and/or recognize as having been given to us. Because of the intrinsic worth we place on all that comprises our self-concept as a unique person made in the image and likeness of God, at our foundation and core is a “first generation love” for ourselves based on our God-given and self-internalized inherent value.
If we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, then, we must, likewise, at our foundation and core, love them with a “first-generation love” based on their own God-given and self-internalized inherent value as a unique person made in the image and likeness of God, regardless of what they believe or how they behave!
This then, is how we are to love not only our “neighbors”, but also our “enemies.” Any secondary and subsequent effects of the “friend of my enemy”/”enemy of my friend” dynamics that makes them in some degree our “enemy” are to be transcended by the “first-generation love” that we have towards them on the basis of their inherent value as those uniquely created and loved by God. On this basis, we can learn to love even the ones we find most difficult to like.
This is where the “new commandment” Jesus gave His disciples likewise factors in: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” (John13:34 ESV) He eternally and unconditionally loves us with a “first-generation love” based on the inherent value He ascribes to us as His beloved Bride. Furthermore, He demonstrated His love for us while we were His enemies; as those who posed an existential/actual threat to all that He values and loves. On the cross He bore in Himself all of the rejection and separation that we generated by our choosing to embrace “rival loves” (sin) that He might remove all “hate” effects and dynamics from the relationship. He is now free and fully justified to love us entirely on a “first-generation love” basis and He invites us into this “enmity-free” relationship with Himself as well. It is this kind of sacrificial, “first-generation”, “hate-transcending” love that He now commands us to have for “one another”, for our “neighbors” and also for our “enemies.”
As we walk in this “first-generation love” towards those we differ from and disagree with, our feet stay firmly on the “high-way” of love as we traverse the briar patch of “thorny” issues. This sets the tenor and tone of our relationships and interactions with others as one of genuine esteem and respect, which in turn has the effect of drawing them upwards to, likewise, come out of the muck and mire of enmity and division onto “the more excellent way” of love!
Building the Platform of Love
As was shared in Part 1, love is comprised of three aspects: 1) esteeming affections, 2) sacrificial/beneficial actions, and 3) a drawing/unifying effect. As we build this platform of love in relationship with those who differ from us, we should keep these three aspects in mind.
Esteeming affections – These are the foundations and footings of love. These deep attitudes of the heart constitute the “pylons” of the boardwalk that bridges the “briar patch of hate.” Because our attitudes towards others are so often based on “secondary and subsequent” layers of the “love”-“hate” dynamic, it is difficult to esteem them deep down in our affections. When we have a negative view of what they believe and/or how they behave, attitudes of rejection and separation quite naturally generate within our heart. It takes a determined act of our will to separate the person from their passions, the “sinner from the sin“, in our hearts so that we can love them the way that God loves. The ultimate key to this is in recognizing and reckoning on their inherent value as those created and inestimably loved (valued) by God, regardless of their inward or outward condition.
No matter who the person is, we can build this type of “first generation love” towards them in our hearts and minds because it doesn’t ultimately originate with and depend on us. God is in us to give us His esteeming affections towards them. If we do not have this as a foundation in our attitude towards another, the problem actually lies with us, not with them! Jesus said,
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the pagans do so?
Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.
Matthew 5:43-48 NKJV
Digging down and laying pylons is not easy or glorious work, but the stability of the platform built upon them lays in their hidden, immovable strength. We must begin right at this point by cultivating “first-generation love” in our heart towards others we might normally deem as our “enemies!”
Sacrificial/beneficial actions – With the “pylons” of esteeming affections firmly grounded and built up in our hearts, we need to then begin to lay the “planks” and build the “railings” of this platform with loving words and deeds. It is through these that our unconditional, unshakeable, “first-generation love” is communicated and made known in our relationships.
These words and actions should, first and foremost, be that which benefits and blesses the other person. These expressions may also be that which is costly to us in some way (even if it is just the sacrificing of our underlying prejudices, pride, and personal comfort.) As was shared in Part 1, the measure of benefit to the other person combined with the degree of cost to us is what equals the amount of love that is expressed.
Every relationship and situation is different, and each one requires its own unique combination of wisdom, sensitivity, creativity, and, often, time. Here, then, are some practical suggestions that we may be able to incorporate into our relationship with another in order to begin building a platform of love:
- Pray for them specifically and regularly.
- Offer a friendly greeting, using their name with a smile.
- Ask a conversation-eliciting question about something that’s of interest to them.
- Use some good-hearted humor to lighten the moment and make them smile.
- Offer to help them with a task.
- Include them in something that you are doing and express your appreciation.
- Give them a sincere, affirming compliment regarding something they are responsible for.
- Do a small, unexpected act of kindness.
Little by little, we need to think of and implement practical ways of showing and affirming our esteem for them as a person. This is how we begin to show our “first-generation love” towards them and begin to lay the “planks” and build the “railings” of the platform of love.
Drawing/unifying effect – As we build esteeming affections in our hearts towards the other person and continue to practically show esteem for them in loving words and deeds, we will begin to feel our heart being drawn to them and, very likely, their heart will begin to be drawn towards us as well. This is the powerful effect that love has and it is the first thing we should pursue in relationship with others…especially with those who are different from us in regard to their views and values.
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In the next post we will explore how we may, after building this platform of love, engage with the other person in the sharing of truth so that there can be a greater understanding of one another’s viewpoints and also possibly come into a greater unity of perspective as well. [Note: the four “keys” discussed in Part 3 will vitally come into play in the next post. I encourage you, if possible, to familiarize yourself with those four points before we move into that discussion.] I look forward to sharing some unique insights that an understanding of this “love”-“hate” relationship reveals when it comes to communicating with others in truth!