In Love in Hard Places, D. A Carson is “not attempting a full-orbed and comprehensive survey of Christian love.” That would be a longer and different book. Rather, he’s particularly focusing on “those aspects of Christian love that are not easy and may be painful as well as difficult” and the truth that, living in a “fallen and broken world” as we do, “we are unwise to retreat too quickly to merely sentimental notions of love” (p. 18). He argues that Christian love is not just a vague “niceness” or a “committed altruism” (p. 21). He warns us “to avoid distortion…[pitting] one attribute of God” against the others. “All of God’s perfections,” love, holiness, sovereignty, omniscience, even His wrath, “work together” (p. 17).
He discusses at length what Jesus called the most important commandments, loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving our neighbors as ourselves, and what they mean and do not mean. He also discusses passages that talk about loving our enemies, both “big” (persecutors, people who hate God and His ways) and “small” (people who are irritating, bitter, arrogant, etc., who rub you the wrong way). Within that discussion he explores what Jesus did and did not mean by his command to “turn the other cheek.” That leads to a chapter on forgiveness and all that it involves and the tension between it and a passion for justice, both of which are characteristic of God. He explores in depth two “hard cases”: racism and people like Osama bin Laden (and Hitler and Pol Pot and the like). Within the latter he covers the “just war” theory and pacifism. He goes on to explain what tolerance means and does not mean and how the meaning of it has changed over the years and shows that love does mean tolerating evil or never rebuking anyone for it. He delves into a case study of Paul’s rebuke of Peter in Galatians 2:11-14 and shows that it is “entirely within the constraints of Christian love. Indeed, at one level, it is motivated by Christian love” (p. 150). He discusses church discipline and defending the gospel. Finally he examines the church at Ephesus in Revelation which, though it had many commendable qualities, had “left its first love.” Finally he discusses how our love should be reflective of God’s love (which has also been referred to throughout the book).
One section I especially appreciated discussed something I have pondered for years. People tend to say today that love is not an emotion, it’s a verb: it’s a self-sacrificing desire to meet the needs of the loved one. And that’s true in some respects. When a tired mother is awakened at 2 a.m. by a crying baby, her immediate response is probably not going to be warm and loving. But by the time she gets up, changes, and starts feeding the baby, usually those warm feelings return. Likewise, I don’t always feel loving when I am interrupted or someone wants me to do something I don’t want to do, but when I respond rightly, usually the feelings change. On the other hand, the first few verses of 1 Corinthians 13 say that without love, the height of self-sacrifice – giving all my goods away or giving my body to be burned – is nothing. Carson notes both of these and says Christian love is more than “committed altruism,” and “the command to love must not be stripped of affective content” (p. 21). But I wish he had expanded on that last point a little further.
A few of the quotes that stood out to me:
So with the demise of Bible reading, what teaches us how to think God’s thoughts after Him? How on earth shall we love Him with heart and mind if we do not increasingly know Him, know what He likes and what He loathes, know what He has disclosed, know what He commands and what He forbids? (p. 32).
Christians do not restrict their moral horizons to immediate results; they make their ethical decisions from an eternal perspective (p. 52).
Forbearance and genuine tenderheartedness are much tougher than niceness, and sometimes…tough love is confrontational (p. 54).
The Bible itself recognizes that unity is not an intrinsic good. There is good unity, and there is bad unity. [Among the bad he cites the tower of Babylon in Gen. 11 and that imposed by the “beasts” in Revelation 11; the good, that for which Jesus prays for His disciples in John 17 and that which will occur around God’s throne with people “bought by the blood of the Lamb of God, people drawn ‘from every tribe and language and people and nation’ (Rev. 5:9).”] … There is both good and bad division. The same Jesus who prayed that His disciples might be one also said, rather shockingly, [that He came to bring division (Luke 165:51-52)] (pp 62-63).
Persecution helps Christians see what their priorities are and can foster a deeply spiritual faithfulness grounded in the ever-present prospect of eternity (p. 66).
Emotional and intellectual persecution, coupled perhaps with subtle exclusions…often seduces [believers]. For the sake of gaining plaudits, it is easy to trim one’s theology or keep silent about the bits that we know will cause umbrage, in the hope of gaining the approval we crave. Alternatively, some believers fight back with a nasty anti-intellectualism, a “circle-the-wagons” mentality that is neither loving nor evangelistic but merely defensive. Ironically, Christians who adopt these postures become just as scurrilously condescending as those who are attacking them (p. 66).
Moral indignation, even moral outrage, may on occasion be proof of love–love for the victim, love for the church of God, love for the truth, love for God and His glory. Not to be outraged may in such cases be evidence, not of gentleness and love, but of a failure of love. This is where our motives can become thoroughly confused, not to say corrupted. For the line between moral outrage for the sake of God and His people, and immoral outrage because I am on the opposite side of a debate, is painfully thin. On the issue I may even be right; in my heart I may be terribly wrong, precisely because I am less motivated by a passion for the glory of God and the good of His people than for vindication in a wretched squabble with a few individuals (p. 85).
The New Testament writers, even while writing the texts on love and forbearance that we are trying to understand and obey, condemn false prophets, expel the man who is sleeping with his step-mother, declare that it would be better for Judas Iscariot if he had not been born, assure readers that the evil of Alexander the metal-worker will be required of him, and solemnly warn of eternal judgement to come. Sometimes, of course, churches with right-wing passions use these same texts to bully their members unto unflagging submission to the local dictator. The threat of church discipline can degenerate into a form of manipulation, of spiritual abuse. Where, then, is the line to be drawn? To a postmodern relativist, any form of confessional discipline will seem nothing more than intolerant, manipulative abuse. From a Christian perspective, what lines must be drawn and why? How does Christian love work itself out in such cases? (p. 149).
Where there is flagrant disavowal of the truths essential to the gospel, where there is persistent and high-handed disobedience to the commands of Jesus, or where there is chronic, selfish lovelessness, there, John insists, we find no authentic Christianity (p. 170).
To appeal…to some ill-defined and sentimental notion of love as the ground for contravening Scripture may be a lot of things, but it is not Christian love (p. 174).
This book is densely packed. I could generally read and process only 2-4 pages at a time. Though the style of Carson’s writing (at least in this book; I’ve not read anything else by him) is more like a college lecture than a cozy devotional, it’s not hard to understand, but I did have a little trouble maintaining the thread of his argument over a chapter sometimes. If I had it to do over again, I’d jot down the outline of the chapters as I read.
The one thing I wish he had added was a little summary at the end and even a working definition of Biblical love. The one thing I want to know is how to be more loving, because I fail in it all too often. It’s a fruit of the Spirit, so it’s not something I “work up” in myself. Yet it is also a command, so it is something I must obey. He does acknowledge that our failure to love is evidence of our fallen nature, redeemed by Christ’s death, yet imperfect til we get to heaven, but something in which we can grow. So in the meantime I remind myself of something I have shared here before, a story from a missionary who grieved because of her lack of love. Telling herself every day “I need to be more loving” did not increase her love but did increase her sorrow. Finally she focused instead on God’s love for her, undeserved, forgiving, longsuffering, and without even realizing it, she was slowly changed. We are changed into His likeness by beholding Him. And I pray that my “love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment” and that the Lord would make to “increase and abound in love for one another and for all.”
Nevertheless, I did find this book a worthy and deeply thought-provoking read, and I much appreciated the author’s thoroughness, carefulness, and balance.