Every normal human being loves someone: family, friends, fiancés, felines, name ’em. However, the inevitable problem of being fallen sinners is that we don’t always act lovingly.
Question: is it hypocritical, then, to tell someone you love them after you have done or said something hurtful or unloving to them? I have faced this unenviable struggle countless times. After prayerfully pondering it for a while — and searching the Scriptures — I have finally settled the matter in my mind.
In my thinking and study, I’ve found Paul’s life and his relationship with Christ to be most helpful. Consider with me…
In Rom 5:5, Paul says:
“… God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit …”.
Pretty straightforward. We know that Paul loves God.
In Rom 7:22 he says:
“For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, …”
Pause for a minute here and notice this proof of eternal blessedness (Psm 1) and God’s love (since Jesus said “If you love me, you will keep my commandments”) and regeneration (for he later says in Rom 8:7 that “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law”). However, he is also painfully aware of the incessant struggle against sin. He therefore goes on to confess:
“… but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am!”
So Paul has the love of God, but Paul also sins against God and grieves the Holy Spirit.
And herein lies the all important question: Can Paul, after crying “Wretched man that I am!”, immediately whisper to God the Holy Spirit, “Be merciful to me, O God! I love you, though my flesh and my heart fail. Cleanse me!”?
I believe he can, and am strongly persuaded that he should, even amidst many tears at the thought of his sinful nature and unloving behaviour towards God.
Yes, the Apostle John says in 1 Jon 2:14 that:
If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.
But surely that doesn’t mean that the love of God completely leaked out of Paul in those moments when covetousness was awakened in him upon hearing ‘Thou shalt not covet’!
We must be careful, therefore, not to make acts of love the definition of love.
There are many fitting definitions of love, but I like best what I heard from Voddie Baucham (one of my favourite Calvinist preachers):
Love is an act of the will, accompanied by emotion, that leads to action on behalf of its object.
It is first and foremost an act of the will. A determination to pursue what would be in another’s best interests. Growing in love means that at first we will be disappointingly inconsistent in acting according to this determination, and even in feeling appropriately towards the person we love, but that’s precisely why the Holy Spirit is granted to us (and why we ought to ask much more fervently for him), to sanctify us as we “spur each other on to love and good works”.
So I hereby have resolved to not let my failures get in the way of communicating, with heartfelt emotion, that I love my loved ones (my close friends, my girlfriend, my brother, my parents, etc.).
I’ll strive to communicate aright even when I feel like (and have been) a failure.
See, if I only tell my loved ones I love them when I feel that I’ve been acting lovingly towards them, I am susceptible to a pernicious self-righteousness and pride (disguised as false humility). Why? Because even when I feel like I’ve been such an amazing guy, truth is that I still haven’t come close to loving with all my heart, all the time — as God expects me to. In fact, unknown to me, are perhaps countless self-serving motives behind my good deeds.
So if love indeed is unconditional, and my heartfelt desire is for the betterment and happiness of my loved ones, I won’t hesitate to say “I love you”, for this heart-set remains true whether or not I’ve acted lovingly towards them in the recent past. May I not forget to let God’s steadfast love — outworking itself in me — be the basis of my expression of failing, feeble, but nonetheless determined love.
I am convinced that if I am careful not to be trite, this will not only give life to whatever relationship’s in view, but that I will all the more enjoy the grace extended to me by those I love yet have failed.
What a joy it is to know that the sovereign God has loved me, and that he has poured out his love in my heart, that it may overflow onto others until he returns to perfect me, or calls me home to perfection.
“… for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his [electing] purpose.” (Rom 8:28, brackets and emphases mine)