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The Limits of Love

Love is one of the concepts often misunderstood where the Bible and the Christian life are concerned. Expressing love, it is thought, cannot include anger, invoke bad feelings, or result in emotional pain. Love, in the modern or perhaps postmodern sense must include all feelings of wellness, goodness, and general pleasantness. Even the Bible, it is pointed out, describes love in terms of positive emotional states that bring out positive feelings in others. Certainly love can be and do all of these things, but love is also much more—and much less.

The Bible’s most well-known passage on love is I Corinthians 13:1-3. Both scholar and student have remarked that there is not a single more eloquent written passage in religious literature about love than the Apostle Paul’s homily in I Corinthians 13. That may well be true, but there are many more things the Bible has to say about love. Let’s take a look at Paul’s description of love from I Corinthians 13, and what other Biblical writers had to say about this single most important characteristic of the Christian life.

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (ESV).

The scripture is replete with commands and admonitions to “Love the Lord your God,” (Deuteronomy 6:5), “Love your neighbor as yourself,” (Leviticus 19:18), “Love your enemies,” (Matthew 5:44), “Love the brothers,” (John 13:35, I John 3:14), and to love the church (implied in Ephesians 5:25). Love is given as the first Fruit of the Holy Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23, signifying its primary importance among Christian character traits. Jesus remarked that people would understand us to be His disciples if we “have love for one another” (John 13:35). And yet for all of these admonitions of love, including Jesus’ command for us to love one another as He loved us (John 13:34), there are times when love is inappropriate, even wrong.

Paul’s words in I Corinthians 13 describe the attributes of love from both a positive and a negative view. From a positive view:

“Love is patient and kind…[love] rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all thing.” But notice also Paul’s negative admonitions about love:

“Love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoings.”

In fact Paul says more about what love is not than he does about what love is. And herein is an important instruction for Christians today.

Love is not unlimited.

The characteristics of love in I Corinthians 13 are only a partial list, not a complete one. In the context of the passage Paul is refuting the notion from I Corinthians 12 that service to God with our gifts—even miraculous service—is a sign of spiritual maturity or spiritual acceptability before God. In fact, as Professor Wayne Grudem points out, “Neither Jesus nor Paul nor John point to activity in the church or miracles as evidence of regeneration. They rather point to character traits in life…Prophecy, exorcism, and many miracles and mighty works in Jesus’ name (to say nothing of other kinds of intensive church activity in the strength of the flesh over perhaps decades of a person’s life) do not provide convincing evidence that a person is truly born again” (Systematic Theology, Chapter 34: “Regeneration,” pages 705 and 706). Love, the scripture teaches, is limited in its scope and expression. This is especially true of God’s love. In I Corinthians 13 Paul’s model for love is Jesus Christ. Jesus performed all of the miracles and signs often touted by the so-called miracle workers today. He had all of the gift-traits of I Corinthians 12, but also had all of the traits of I Corinthians 13. While we sometimes think that Jesus’ love was unending (as some think Paul hints when he says, “Love is unending” or “never fails”), in fact God’s love, while superior to our feelings and expressions, is still a limited love. Let’s take a look at what we mean by limited love from the scripture.

Look again at I Corinthians 13. Paul notes that “Love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoings.” We can sum up these things by saying that Love does not sin. Sin is the violation of God’s character portrayed in the Bible as the breaking of His law. Jesus said the whole law was summed up in this, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39-40). Therefore, love does not sin. This is the first, most important limitation on love, or more specifically, on love as expressed by God’s character. Indeed, if God’s love was unlimited, then God Himself would also be unlimited, and this is just not true. God is limited by His character—He cannot sin. If God could love anything by the sheer force of His will and thereby change his eternal nature, then He could love sin, which clearly the scripture rejects. Since the scripture declares the supremacy of love as an attribute of God (”God is love,” I John 4:8), love must therefore also be limited.

Secondly, while God may love all of humankind as His creation (”For God so loved the world…” John 3:16), there are passages in which God expresses or implies that He does not love certain people because of His sovereign choice to do so (Romans 9:19-23), but perhaps also because of the degree to which they have embraced sin in rejection of His grace. “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Malachi 1:3). In this sense God is speaking comparatively of his actions regarding Jacob and Esau. He decimated Esau, but gave rich undeserved blessings to Jacob (Israel). To be sure, neither Israel or Esau was deserving of God’s blessings, yet God chose to bless Israel and make him an object of His love while Esau was an object of His scorn. According to the New Bible Dictionary, “[God] took the initiative and chose Israel because he loved him. This love is spontaneous, not evoked by any intrinsic worth in its object, but rather creating that worth. The corollary is also true, that God hates those whom He does not love (”Love, In the Old Testament: God’s Love for Men,” page 711).

That God’s love is limited in expression (though perhaps not feeling), and thus provides a model for our own expression of love, can also be seen in who He chose for salvation and whom He did not. “It is clear that the Triune God’s redemptive love is not unlimited or universal from the undeniable fact that it does not embrace fallen angels…although they are creatures as much in need of redemption as are fallen men” (A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, Dr. Robert L. Reymond, Chapter 18: “The Divine Design Behind the Cross Work of Christ,” page 675).

Personally, I find these truths to be utterly and completely terrifying, but also completely liberating. I find them terrifying because these truths mean that there is nothing that I (or you) can do to gain God’s favor. I can never be good enough or “make up for” something by doing something better—even over a lifetime. If God has not chosen me (or you) to be an object of His love, then there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. We are doomed. We have no hope. Period. Finis. Enjoy what time you have left because it ain’t much. Yet this truth is also comforting because I am assured by the testimony of God’s word that in fact He has by His expression of unmerited favor chosen me as an object of His love (as the Holy Spirit also testifies), not because there is anything good in me, but because as the New Bible Dictionary points out, He is creating that worth in me because of His gracious sovereign choice to make me an object of His love—and hopefully you too! Of course the only way to find out is to embrace the Lord Jesus with all of your heart. Question answered.

So what does this mean for the average Christian who is trying to work out what it means to love as Christ did? Does it mean that we must withhold or refuse to love certain people? Some might remark that such a notion is ludicrous as we are commanded to “Love our neighbor,” (Leviticus 19:18). Fair enough, yet there is a difference between the feeling or emotional expression of love, and practically demonstrated love. “Do not give what is holy to dogs,” Jesus said (Matthew 7:6). Jesus sometimes expressed His heart of love for the lost, while at the same time withholding his practical (or miraculous) expression of that same love, such as the rich man who refused to follow Jesus because of something so small as his money. “Jesus, looking at him with sadness…” (Luke 18:24) because He loved him (if he did not feel love or compassion there would have been no sadness), but Jesus offered no other demonstration of His love to help bring the man over to obedience, and thus we assume the man was eventually lost.

Love can express itself sometimes in harsh ways, such as punishment for sin that results in changed character (Hebrews 12:6-11); in such cases the expression of love can be painful, and even cause suffering, but it leads to a godly result. However, the scriptures are clear: Love is not infinitely patient, neither God’s love nor human love.

Though this is a difficult teaching it is one we should take to heart. Many Christians approach the subject of Christian love with the idea that they must always, and never fail to express love even to the worst of men. Jesus commanded us to “Love your enemies,” (Matthew 5:44), but even His own expression of love for His enemies (Romans 5:6-8) had limits. How did he express his love to Herod? “He answered him nothing” (Luke 23:9). As the Apostle Peter noted, “Christ died ONCE for sins” (I Peter 3:18). Though He died for “the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:2), His redemptive death is apparently only applied to those to come to Him in obedience (Hebrews 10:26), to those whom God has “chosen from the foundation of the world” to receive eternal life (Ephesians 1:4-6).

There are natural times when the believer will want to continue to express love despite the circumstances facing him. Good. As they used to say in the 70s, “Keep on keeping on.” But when love hits its limit don’t despair. Everyone has their limits, even God. Just keep in mind that the only people whom the Christian is called to love in an unlimited fashion is the fellow believer in the Lord Jesus who has received the same love from God as you. In such cases love must never fail, for “If anyone says, I love God, and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (I John 4:20).

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