What’s Love Got to Do with It?

The extraneous nonsense becomes starkly clear in life when you find love where it was formerly absent.  As missionaries in Japan we had attempted, haltingly, stupidly, blindly, to bring a little light and love into a place where it was sometimes achingly absent. Eventually the effort, constant work, and for me the hard effort of navigating in a language in which I had very little facility (to put it mildly), wore on us. People live in certain registers of experience and emotion, and while there was much that one could admire in the gentleness and sometimes inherent kindness of Japanese, there was also the isolation of being foreigners and living in a muted or at least differently timbred emotional range. One example of the quiet desperation prevailing among many Japanese: when I would survey my university classes on issues like suicide, it was common that for more than half suicide was a continually open option.  The school secretary at our Bible college found her son hanging in his room. I performed the funeral for a family in our church (a very small church) in which the grandfather had killed himself. All of this to illustrate, joy was often in short supply. We had put our effort into building up a church and working to build a Bible college in Tokyo and we felt the former work was complete and the latter had come to a halt. We decided to return to teach in a Bible college in the States, thinking we would find a network of friends and fellowship – and of course the unarticulated thought: to find a bit of the love and joy we had been missing.

The rest of the story (below) follows the pattern Jesus laid out in the story of the Good Samaritan – we were robbed and left for dead, betrayed by brothers. The point is not the injustices suffered, or the fact the thieves arose from among those we counted on most, but the vulnerable condition in which this sort of betrayal leaves you. One way of understanding love is to eliminate what it is not or, worse, to experience what it is not, and then as we did with the Forging Ploughshares community, find that absence filled.

The experience can be summed up in the following biblical syllogisms which, in delineating love from what it is not or from that with which it may be confused, gets at its all-encompassing nature. (1.) The purpose of the gifts of the Spirit are fulfilled in love but love is not fulfilled in the gifts. (2.) The purpose of the law is fulfilled in love but love is not fulfilled by the law. (3.) The purpose of salvation is fulfilled in love in that love, in its most precise definition, is the undoing of shame, overcoming of pride, and defeat of death.

(1.) In Paul’s explanation (I Cor. 13), love serves the other and this service is through the gifts of the Holy Spirit but one must not confuse this giftedness with the thing itself. Knowledge, wisdom, prophecy, or any of the gifts of the Spirit without love, Paul explains, are a pointless nothing. The inverse of this is that all of these gifts have their point only as they serve the purpose of love. The gifts are not inherently attached to love, as exercise of the gifts may provoke burning envy, inflated importance, or pride and arrogance, in the face of which love is absent. The contrast between love, on one side, and the gifts of prophecy, knowledge, and faith, each without love, on the other side, points to Paul’s earlier contrast and warning that knowledge inflates but love builds up. Prophecy or supposed knowledge received or exercised without love ministers to a false self-importance as “without love, I am nothing” (13:2).

Pride and selfishness can apparently be fed by gifts of the Spirit, so that even our spirituality may feed our self-protective, sinful experience, over and against love. Our power, our self-promotional interests, our thirsty pursuit of life, in a zero-sum sort of economy cannot afford love. Love, in contrast, rejoices in the truth, it never tires of support, never loses faith, never exhausts hope, never gives up (I Cor. 13:4-7). This is not a zero-sum economy but one in which there is an infinite supply of life and resources. As Paul says at the conclusion of the chapter, love never ends. It is enduring; it is spreading; it is inclusive; it is not seeking to horde the glory or the resources of life and the light.

(2.) Jesus quotes Leviticus 19:18 (“You shall love your neighbor as yourself”) when he sums up the law and his own purpose in Mt 22:39. Jesus is not the origin of this idea but he is the fulfillment of its possibility. Love, per se, is not an impossibility before Jesus or without Jesus but neighbor love, which Jesus will define in his story of the good Samaritan broadens the scope of neighbor to include, as Jesus explains elsewhere, enemies.  Such an idea was not considered, let alone put into practice, prior to Jesus.

Kenotic love, or giving up life (“he who loses his life”) to find life and love (restated in all four Gospels as Jesus summation of the salvation he is inaugurating) fulfills the law and neighbor love in that it meets and moves beyond mere justice. This love means giving up on securing the self against the neighbor, preserving the self by means of the law, or sustaining the self through the supposed life in the law. Kenotic service of the neighbor, in which one finds life, is the movement of love. It is modeled in Jesus forsaking power and position (“legal rights” of one with equality with divinity) so as to take the role of a servant (Philippians 2:7ff).

Paul, along with Jesus, says love is fulfilling the law (Romans 13:8-13) but what becomes clear in Paul’s explanation, while love will fulfill the law, the law will not fulfil love. In George McDonalds description, if a man keeps the law, he loves his neighbor but he is not a lover because he keeps the law but he keeps the law because he loves. The law cannot fulfill itself apart from love any more than gifts of the Spirit, in themselves, fulfill love. We are made for love, not law, and love fulfills and keeps the law only because it is infinitely more than law.

(3.) Love is the very point of the Christian faith in Paul’s explanation, but how or why this is the case can best be understood with a shift of focus from guilt to shame as the underlying problem. God is love and salvation is being restored to divine fellowship in love while sin obstructs this fellowship, but the problem is not merely a guilt which requires a price be paid, but shame which requires a remaking of human identity. While Western theology focuses on guilt (as if the obstruction is ultimately with God), what became clear in my reading the Bible in the Japanese context, is the role of shame as the primary descriptor of the loss of self. The self, in Japan, is depicted as consisting of an outward self (tatemae) that serves as a mask to protect an inward self (honne), the exposure of which will provoke the worst sort of shame (equated with death in popular literature). As James McClendon describes it, “In genuine presence I am with another and she or he with me, and there is a Wholeness in shared act or fact of our being there. But shame is a failed Wholeness. Thus, face to face with one another, but ashamed, we sense a loss of presence.” Where one cannot be present for the other, love is an impossibility. The primal emotion of the fallen self is shame (as depicted in Genesis, reiterated in the wisdom literature, and taken up by Paul). Shame compels us not merely to hide from others, to hide the body, but involves hiding the true self behind a mask in the attempt to be invulnerable – creating the incapacity for love.

Pride is directly connected to shame as pride is the identity, the structure (individual, national, tribal, etc.) behind which we would ward off shame. Our greatest gifts and abilities may feed into the cover up. We may organize our entire religion, the Christian religion, as a kind of façade behind which we might remain invulnerable, protected, unexposed. Isolation, invulnerability, self-protection, is not simply a mask we wear, but is descriptive of human experience outside of love.

Romans 7 focuses on this universal incapacity (the dynamics of the body of death (7:24)) in a counter series to what Paul proposes in Corinthians. The “I” covets – burns with envy – but love does not envy. The “I” is deceived about the law due to sin but love rejoices with the truth. Sin is caught up in fear of death; a zero-sum game in which the self cannot establish itself (arrive, find unity, obtain life). The problem of the “I” is precisely that it is isolated in the struggle to constitute itself. “I am I,” not only describes human experience but describes a self-consumptive desire (“I do what I do not want. . . who will rescue me from this body of death”).

In I Cor 13 and Ro 6-8 Paul’s “I” is undone in a corporate identity – “baptized into Christ.” Envy, desire, and conflict are displaced by love, described as making a unity of a plurality, ultimately unifying and drawing in all creation (Ro 8:38-39; I Cor 13:13). If sin involves a dividing and alienating orientation to death (a cover up in pride that kills), then the death of Christ as a confrontation with death denial and slavery to fear of death, removes the obstacle to loving sacrifice. The love of Christ enables entry into love as we can lay down our lives in agape love as Paul, and Jesus before him, defined and modeled it.

In Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan, perhaps the key story illustrating neighbor love, it is clear the religious leaders who pass by on the other side do not qualify as good neighbors. What is also notable is that the thieves are identifiable in their creating the need for a neighbor – putting the poor man in the ditch, beaten, robbed, and half dead. It is enough to note that the thieves who robbed us, though “Christian leaders,” were identifiable in that they played this role for us. “Bad neighbor” would be a promotion for those who put us in desperate need of the love of a neighbor.  In Paul’s description, the proud, arrogant, rude, those burning with envy, longing for power and position (in Corinth or the pitiful conditions of a little Bible college), may only be identified with the absence or “nothing” they generate as if it is an absolute something (Paul’s definition of idolatry).

I would name the loving Samaritans who found us, but as with all great lovers, I know they prefer anonymity. I believe though, that love has to be narrated, as one must either be the neighbor pouring the healing oil, curing thirst with precious wine, binding up wounds, or one must experience having his burden lifted, and the price paid at the inn, so as to know love. It does not matter what the original intent might be or whether it is mixed with duty or reluctance. Love is such that the performance of it is unmistakable and the truth of it requires nothing in addition, just as its opposite is unmistakable.

All gifts find their purpose in love; love fulfills the law; love is the purpose of salvation; love is the substance of life. Without love there is nothing but where it is present one experiences the summing up of the meaning of all things.[1]


[1] I dedicate this piece to the members of our little community sharing love and forging peace.

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Beyond Divine Satisfaction, Penal Substitution, and Christus Victor to a Healing Atonement

If salvation is a harmoniously functioning body (a body “at one” with itself) in which we are united under the head, who is Christ (the thematic picture in the New Testament is of being “in Christ” as part of his body), then the image would seem to also account for the entire movement from damnation to salvation. Sin as discord, disharmony, sickness, or the cancer to be rooted out rules out not only the predominant notions of salvation (salvation from the effects of sin), but the prevailing understanding of punishment, wrath, suffering and damnation.  A good doctor wants to get to the root cause of the problem and so too the Great Physician does not simply address our symptoms but the disease disrupting and destroying the body. Our root problem is not the result of sin. Our root problem is sin itself and yet the prevailing understanding is that sin has caused a series of unfortunate events (God’s honor impugned, the wrath of God unleashed, the law broken, the prospect of hell, suffering, etc.) toward which salvation is directed. Yet, none of these are themselves the cancer of sin which Christ destroys and a Christianity solely focused on dealing with symptoms is inadequate and devastating to the Gospel message (the great insight of George MacDonald). A doctor who only treated symptoms and not the disease would be no doctor at all, so too the primary New Testament picture of Christ as the Great Physician is lost in an understanding focused on the effects of sin rather than the problem itself.

The shift of focus onto sin itself explains how suffering, punishment, anger, and damnation are part of salvation as part of the same process. The destruction of sin, something on the order of radiation treatment destroying cancer, might give rise to suffering but to confuse the suffering with the cure would be the worst sort of doctoring.  A doctor who insisted on making his patients suffer would be a sadist or psychopath and such a notion is certainly not worthy of God. Suffering is not curative, nor is it a means of meting out justice. It is an odd sort of justice or righteousness which imagines suffering “makes right,” the very point of God’s rightness or righteousness given to humans. Suffering is a symptom of sin and increasing it does not address sin nor satisfy anyone but the sadist. Every sort of suffering is a futility (Ro 8:20), even that suffering to which the creation is subjected in redemption. Suffering does not satisfy God nor justice, any more than suffering figures into the cure for any disease.  Suffering may play a part in the destruction of the cancerous sin and one might speak of a doctor punishing a disease or of God destroying sin, but only the worst sort of doctor or judge imagines that punishment or suffering is inherently restorative.

To say God’s honor is restored by extracting a pound of fleshly suffering is already odd, but then to say he punishes someone unconnected to the crime and finds this satisfying, falls short of the goodness of God and in no way addresses sin. Evil is precisely the pursuit of this sort of satisfaction – the pursuit of a human sense of justice. The way we would make things right and what we project onto God is the notion of getting our pound of flesh.

If a theft occurs, punishing the thief does not restore what was stolen, even if it is the honor of God that has been taken (as in Anselm’s picture of atonement).  Neither would a good doctor imagine that receiving radiation for his patient will help the cure. A good judge would not presume that punishing someone other than the criminal is justice. Where God is presumed to be satisfied and penalties meted out in his anger, punishment, and inducement of suffering (whatever one makes of it) this has nothing to do with the work of Christ in making people right by incorporating them into his body.

Part of the issue is to specify how and why sin disunites, alienates, and separates (from the self, others, and God). If salvation is a body united, sin is the resistant core, the alienating power, which as Paul depicts is the turning of self against itself. In the corporate body the foot might refuse to be a part of the body because it is not a hand, or the ear might refuse its place as it wants to be an eye (I Cor. 12:15-26), or as in Ro. 7, it may be that the individual experiences this turning against the self as the mind pitted against the body. This violent turn is a taking up of death as if it is life, as the darkened mind is deceived, given over to “lusts of deceit” (Eph. 4:22) so that humans violently turn on one another and themselves (James 4:1-2). The deceit, to which the self-deceived do not have access, is to imagine theirs is a pursuit of life or a lusting after life (being, power, gratification) when the desire itself is death dealing (“sin deceived me and I died” Ro 7:11) as it is alienating and isolating (it is “I” alone in Paul’s description). Sin is interwoven with death as it is always violence against life together; it is always a sin against the body. What would have us be lone rangers, Marlboro men, individualists in the worst sense, is simply that which causes us to take up death into ourselves. Sin is death because it is a turning from life together (in Christ) and life together is the only kind of life there is.

In Christus Victor, Christ defeated sin, evil, and the devil, by resisting the lie in his manner of life (he resists the temptations as a grab for life through material gain or powerful status) and undoing or defeating the lie in his death (death and the devil are made powerful in death resistance or the grab for life), and in exposing the lie in his resurrection (death is not absolute, the grave is empty and emptied of its power). The fruit of this defeat, though, is the emergence of a new form of humanity which puts on Christ (in his life, death, and resurrection). In this way, the law of sin and death is displaced by the law of life in the Spirit. The defeat of evil and the overcoming of death must be combined with all of the positive atoning (at one-ing) or incorporation into his body through the Spirit.

The gift of the Spirit is life, shared life, and all of the gifts of the Spirit are aimed at promoting this communal reality. These gifts are not bottled separately so that we have the Spirit apart from being in community. The Spirit indwells us communally. There is no such thing as a private gift of the Spirit. The entire point of exercising a gift is for the community, whether that of the body of Christ or participation in the intra-Trinitarian community. God’s grace is channeled to us in community or not at all.

The whole point of grace, gifts, indwelling Spirit is to bind us together. God does not care about individual souls drifting in isolated units up to heaven any more than God cares about torturing individual souls forever so that he might delight and find satisfaction in their suffering. The entire problem of sin is that we are cut off from God and others and the whole point of salvation is to bring about incorporation into the body of Christ.