If you had to pick one word that best characterizes Christianity, what would it be?
I’m sure an overwhelming number of people would say “Love”.
This is a great answer. After all, Jesus said the greatest commandment is to LOVE the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength (Mark 12:30). He also said we should LOVE our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:31).
In John 13:35, Jesus said, “Your LOVE for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” To Jesus, love was the pre-eminent characteristic of those who would follow Him.
Eleven other times, the New Testament encourages us to “love one another”, “serve one another in love” or some close variant of this admonition.
And of course, if you’ve ever been to a wedding, you’ve probably heard 1 Corinthians 13 read, in which Paul expounds on the characteristics of love and declares it to be the greatest of the enduring qualities.
I’d like to make the case, however, for a word that might rival the word “love” as a word that epitomizes Christianity.
In today’s culture, love has been totally distorted, and to be honest, secularism has co-opted the idea of love and adopted it as its own virtue.
So if you think of love as serving others, well, lots of non-Christians promote the idea of service. Or if you think of love as caring for those in need, or speaking up for those who are marginalized, there are many non-Christian groups that do that as well.
The word I’d like to promote that could rival to the word “Love” as a defining descriptor for Christianity is the word “Forgiveness”.
The other day, I was reading in 2 Timothy 3, starting in verse 1, where Paul says:
1 You should also know this, Timothy, that in the last days there will be very difficult times. 2 For people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful. They will consider nothing sacred. 3 They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control; they will be cruel and have no interest in what is good. 4 They will betray their friends, be reckless, be puffed up with pride, and love pleasure rather than God. (2 Timothy 3:1-4, NLT)
When I read that passage, I first noticed how Paul coupled the idea of love and forgiveness together. He said in verse 3, “they will be unloving AND unforgiving.”
Secondly, I was reminded of a tweet I had read the day before. It was from a woman who is an opinion writer for the New York Times (@ebruenig). She tweeted:
“there’s just something unsustainable about an environment that demands constant atonement but actively disdains the very idea of forgiveness”
I was struck by that statement because I thought it cogently described our current “cancel” culture. If you don’t know what “cancel culture” is, it’s an attitude within our culture that seeks vindication and retribution on anybody and everybody for any transgression that is uncovered, no longer how long ago, that might go against current accepted standards of behavior or current accepted views.
Here’s an example of how this works. Let’s say you tweeted a coarse joke 10 years ago that was somewhat acceptable then but is considered out of bounds now. Somebody might dig that tweet up today and weaponize it by using it to “cancel” you, publicly shaming you to the point that your reputation and often your career are irreparably damaged.
I came across this statement from Alan Jacobs, a Christian who is a professor at Baylor University:
“When a society rejects the Christian account of who we are, it doesn’t become less moralistic but far more so, because it retains an inchoate sense of justice but has no means of offering and receiving forgiveness. The great moral crisis of our time is not, as many of my fellow Christians believe, sexual licentiousness, but rather vindictiveness. Social media serve as crack for moralists: there’s no high like the high you get from punishing malefactors. But like every addiction, this one suffers from the inexorable law of diminishing returns. The mania for punishment will therefore get worse before it gets better.” (https://blog.ayjay.org/vengeance/)
What this says to me is that in our current culture love may be indistinguishable and unidentifiable to others. Of course we should love people, but our loving actions towards others may not set us apart from the culture as much as we might like to believe.
On the other hand, forgiveness, in this culture, stands out because our culture neither teaches forgiveness, nor promotes it.
Forgiveness is hard. It takes an extreme act of love to forgive others and to seek their ultimate good instead of seeking vengeance or vindictiveness.
In Matthew 5, Jesus says:
43 “You have heard that the law of Moses says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. 44 But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! 45 In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and on the unjust, too. 46 If you love only those who love you, what good is that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. 47 If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. 48 But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48, NLT)
I believe that what sets Christianity apart from other religions and philosophies is our ability to love others, even those who disagree with us and even those who persecute us. And I think a primary way we can demonstrate that kind of love in this current culture is in our ability to forgive others who offend us, while everyone around us is seeking retribution and vengeance.
What are your thoughts?
What do you think makes it hard to forgive others who don’t share our views or values?
How can we cultivate a heart that is willing to forgive?