Gentle Love and Tough Love
John was the great “apostle of love” who wrote the Bible’s “epistle of love” (1 John), yet notice this interesting instruction he gave concerning judging the fruit of false teachers in the church:
If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house or welcome him. (11) Anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked work.
2 John 10-11
What “teaching” is John talking about? He’s referring to what he just taught in the brief letter, which was that believers should live lives of love, follow the Word, and acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh (verses 5-9). So-called believers who teach or live contrary to this are not to be welcomed into our houses! The phrase “If anyone comes to you” indicates that John was talking about those who go from house to house, church to church or Bible study to Bible study hawking their hatred and false doctrines. We’re to disassociate from them as far as close familial relations go since welcoming them would be tantamount to approval and “sharing in their wicked work.”
According to our quaint modern notions of love and niceness, which includes unconditional tolerance, this instruction appears decidedly unloving. Much of Christendom today embraces this sentiment but the Bible teaches otherwise. As always, we need to be balanced on the issue. Yes, there’s a soft side to agape love, but there’s also a hard side, often referred to as “tough love.” This hard type of love isn’t at odds with the softer variety; it goes hand-and-hand with it. After all, John’s instruction to walk in tough love above is preceded by this admonishment to live lives of love:
I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another. (6) And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.
As you can see, John stressed living a life of love and even defines love as walking in obedience to God’s commands, which is supported by numerous other passages (1 John 5:3, John 14:15, 14:21, 14:23-24 & 15:10). Needless to say, if people say they love God but refuse to walk according to His Word or obey the instructions of the Holy Spirit they’re not, in fact, loving him.
The Full Definition of Agape Love
When you think of love in a non-romantic sense what automatically comes to mind? Usually things like niceness, patience and peaceableness, right? These are all accurate descriptions of agape love, but observe the fullBiblical definition:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. (5) It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. (6) Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. (7) It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
1 Corinthians 13:4-7
A whole book could be written on this simple passage, but I’d like to focus on the fact that love is much more than just being nice. Yes, “love is kind” but sometimes doing what is kind or good may not necessarily be what is nice. What do you do when you see a dear brother keep falling back into booze or drugs as a crutch, limiting his life and destroying it? You’ve been patient and have continued to encourage him and pray for him, for months or years, but he keeps sliding back into his pet sin and you know one day he may not come out of it. I’ve seen it happen. In such cases the kindest thing you can possibly do is to offer a sharp correction or warning by bluntly telling him the truth. After all, didn’t Jesus say it’s the truth that will set us free? Sometimes people need to hear the awful truth before they’re willing to embrace the gospel truth. For instance, you may be provoked in your spirit to say (or yell): “Why are you idolizing alcohol (or drugs)?! Why are you ruining your life?! Turn away from this foolishness – seek the LORD while he may still be found!!” Such an approach may not be nice, but it may be the very thing that’ll snap the man out of his carnal stupor. What would provoke you or any person to such un-nice measures? It’s simple: You can’t stand seeing evil and folly swallow up someone you love. This is tough love. Verse 6 says “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.”
The Balance of Gentle Love and Tough Love
Are there examples of this type of “tough love” in the New Testament? Of course. Jesus called Peter “Satan” for being a mouthpiece for the devil (Matthew 16:23). Let’s keep in mind, however, that Jesus also highly commended Peter in the very same chapter just a handful of verses earlier (17-19). This shows balance – Jesus didn’t hesitate to commend people’s positive qualities, yet had no qualms about correcting folly or evil either. This is the equilibrium of gentle love and tough love. Another good example is Paul’s open rebuke of Peter in front of others for his hypocrisy (Galatians 2:11-14). Of course the most extreme example of tough love is when Jesus cleansed the temple of selfish, greedy riff-raff, which he did twice – once at the beginning of his ministry (John 2:13-17) and later near the end (Matthew 21:12-13). Although it wasn’t his normal every-day manner, Jesus threw over tables, scattered coins, cracked a whip, yelled and chased people & animals out, hardly the actions of a nice-guy doormat. And no one dared challenge him; he was a holy terror, pure and simple. How do we explain these nigh shocking accounts? Doesn’t the Bible say God is love (1 John 4:8,16)? Isn’t Jesus one with the Father (John 10:30 & John 1:1)? Absolutely, but some situations call for the softer side of love and some the hard side. We have to be led of the Spirit realizing that sometimes doing the good thing may not be the nice thing.
This, incidentally, disproves the theory that the fruit of the spirit stem only from ‘feminine’ softness rather than ‘masculine’ sternness. If you’re not familiar with this position, it postulates that a Christian man must deviate from the fruit of the spirit in order to walk in his true masculine strength because the fruits of the spirit are feminine in nature. In short, if a man walks in masculine power he can’t at the same time produce fruit of the spirit. This is nonsense and wholly unbiblical.
The fruits of the spirit are diverse and perfectly balance each other out. For instance, although gentleness is a fruit of the spirit, so is power (Acts 1:8 & 1 Corinthians 4:20). The Greek word for power is dunamis, which is where we get the English dynamite. Does “dynamite power” sound soft and gentle or potent and explosive? Jesus walked in this power when he radically cleared the temple, which amazed the onlookers and provoked fear in the religionists (Mark 11:18). Also, consider the fact that, although ‘kindness’ can mean “niceness,” that’s not all it means. As illustrated above, sometimes the kindest thing you can do for a person is to make a judgment of his/her bad fruit and offer a much-needed wake-up call. Goodness is also a fruit of the spirit but, again, sometimes doing what is good for a person or situation may not be very nice or lovey-dovey. For instance, when Peter sharply corrected Simon the sorcerer he wasn’t being nice, but he was definitely producing the fruits of love, kindness and goodness (Acts 8:9-24). Similarly, when we read of Paul’s open rebuke of Elymas the sorcerer (Acts 13:8-12) it may not seem very loving to modern Westernized readers, but nothing could be further from the truth. Paul did this deceitful trickster the kindest thing possible – he told him the awful truth about himself in order to spur repentance. It can’t be argued that Paul wasn’t producing fruit of the spirit because the text plainly states that he was “filled with the Holy Spirit” when he judged and rebuked the magician (verse 9). As noted earlier, righteousness is also a fruit of the spirit (Ephesians 5:9 & Philippians 1:11); sometimes doing the right thing may not necessarily be the polite thing.
The “Eli Syndrome”
Consider Eli, the priest at Shiloh. His two sons were “in the ministry” but are described in the Bible as wicked men who had no regard for the LORD and even fornicated with the young women who served at the tabernacle! Read it yourself in 1 Samuel 2:12,17,22. Although Eli rebuked his sons at one point it’s clear that his heart wasn’t in it, so to speak, and his sons continued in their wicked ways (verses 23-25). What was going on there? Eli loved his sons, as any parent, but he foolishly only loved them with soft, feminine love. This was a huge mistake and ultimately resulted in God’s judgment, which entailed the premature death of both sons, as well as the capture of the Ark of the Covenant, Eli’s own death, the death of his daughter-in-law and the departure of God’s anointing from his direct bloodline (1 Samuel 4:11,18-22). This could have all been avoided if only Eli was willing to love his sons with the necessary tough love, which would involve more than just a half-hearted verbal correction. It would mean a stern public rebuke and removal from the ministry altogether until they humbly repented and proved themselves. Loving his sons solely with gentle love resulted in their deaths whereas implementing tough love would have saved them. Are you getting this? Tough love would have literally saved their lives, not to mention Eli’s ministry. It goes without saying that tough love is sometimes necessary. It’s a good thing, not bad.
You’ll occasionally see evidence of this “Eli Syndrome” in today’s churches. A pastor will grant status to some undeserving kin, usually children, grandchildren or siblings, which doesn’t necessarily have to be an official position. The pastor will then tend to condone the relatives’ carnal antics, making excuses for them, etc. As long as you get along with these relatives you’ll have the pastor’s favor, but if you dare take a stand against any carnality you’ll be blacklisted in one way or another and eventually forced to leave. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Like Eli, the pastor may offer a weak verbal correction for appearances sake while the relatives continue to wreak havoc, overtly or covertly. There’s only one sad end to the Eli Syndrome: The corruption of the ministry as sin works like yeast through the dough of the fellowship and the inevitable departure of God’s presence and anointing. If only the pastor would implement tough love!
“Do Everything in Love”
We must remember that loving God is the greatest commandment and to love God means to obey his commands, which includes obeying the promptings of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 22:37-40 & 1 John 5:3). Hence, when Jesus radically cleared the temple it was an act of love – love for God and love for the people. This was no time for gentle, soft love; it was time to break out the whip and render tough love by the dynamite power of the Holy Spirit!
This brings to mind Paul’s directive to the Corinthians: “be men of courage; be strong. Do everything in love” (1 Corinthians 16:13-14). There will be occasions that call for decisiveness, boldness and raw spiritual passion, like when Jesus vigorously chased the fools out, but the foundation of any such actions must always be agape love – love for God and love for people. Make no mistake, Jesus did those ungodly clods a favor when he sternly rebuked them and drove them out of the temple on two separate occasions. Those who possessed even an iota of wisdom learned an unforgettable life-changing lesson. Wisdom declares: “Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses” (Proverbs 27:5-6).
Agape love is the primary fruit of the spirit and is, in fact, the fruit of the spirit; all the other fruits are manifestations of agape love (Colossians 3:12-14 & 1 Corinthians 13:4-7). If we’re to “do everything in love,” as Scripture instructs, this means that we’re producing fruit of the spirit even when we’re spiritually compelled to do something audacious and seemingly unloving, like when Jesus openly rebuked the religionists as “blind fools,” “snakes” and “brood of vipers” (Matthew 23). In other words, the believer is still producing fruit of the spirit when s/he shifts to tough love mode and potentially becomes a holy terror. Are you following? Producing fruit of the spirit entails more than just 24/7 sugary sweetness.
When Paul wrote to the Corinthian believers they were decidedly immature, characterized by divisions, jealousies and quarrels rather than godliness, as shown in 1 Corinthians 3:1-3. Paul likely had Jesus’ whip-cracking example in mind when he said: “What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a whip, or in love with a gentle spirit?” (1 Corinthians 4:21). Obviously Paul would prefer to come to them in a spirit of gentle love but was prepared to break out the whip, figuratively speaking, and dish out the tough love if necessary. Can you imagine a minister saying this to a worldly congregation today? It would be scandalous. “How dare he! He’s supposed to be our servant!”
“Blows and Wounds Cleanse Away Evil”
This brings to mind the proverb: “Blows and wounds cleanse away evil, and beatings purge the inmost being” (Proverbs 20:30). The text isn’t advocating abuse, of course, and some would contend that it’s only applicable to parents properly disciplining their children, yet there’s no indication that it’s limited to this. The proverb is a general truth, period. Yes, proper parental discipline will certainly drive out the folly bound up in the heart of a child, as shown in Proverbs 22:15, but what about children who are not trained in this manner by wise, loving parents? They’d still have evil bound up in them as adults since their parents or guardians failed to deal with it. I know firsthand because I was one of them. Unless they pursue and discover wisdom on their own, which is certainly a possibility, the only way their folly will be purged is via society’s rod of discipline or life’s blows. Such “discipline” can come in many forms.
Some people, even professing Christians, are so calloused, so arrogant, so disrespectful, so insulting, so demeaning, so deceitful, so greedy, so hypocritical, so selfish, so malicious, so slanderous or so Pharisaical that the only thing that’s going to provoke positive change is a severe blow, like a sharp rebuke, jail or literally getting the tar beat out of them. Don’t attempt to shield them from such blows in the name of so-called love. It’s precisely what they need.
This reminds me of a Vietnam vet I worked with years ago. He was fifty years old and virtually homeless – he had no vehicle and lived off & on at his girlfriend’s apartment. He was a great guy to work with, but he was obsessed with alcohol. It was his favorite topic of discussion. Although he didn’t allow his alcoholism to interfere with work, it was clear he had a huge problem. Then one day he just mysteriously disappeared. It turned out he was at some bar flapping his jaws one weekend and got beat up so bad he had to go to the hospital. After about ten days he finally called me from a distant VA hospital testifying that he was done with booze and needed to sober up before reentering society. This verifies the truth of the above proverb – “beatings purge the inmost being.” It took the wake-up call of a severe beating to effectively purge his soul of alcohol idolatry.
Now, tell me, was getting beat up a bad thing for this man or a good thing? It was a negative experience, to be sure, yet it produced positive results. The few months I worked with the guy I regularly prayed for him, and intercessory prayer is the vehicle that releases God into lives and situations. The LORD obviously resorted to tough love to set him free from a destructive life-dominating sin problem. There was no other way.
A good example from the Bible is Nehemiah, the godly leader of the rebuilding of Jerusalem and governor of Judah for many years. After spending some time in Persia he returned to Jerusalem only to find the Israelites sliding back into error. Some Judean men had married pagan women and half their children couldn’t even speak Hebrew or Aramaic. This was opposed to Mosaic Law (Deuteronomy 7:3), as well as Ezra’s relatively recent reforms (Ezra 9-10). Nehemiah was a righteous man and powerful leader in whom an entire book of the Bible is named. How did this great man of God handle this situation? He rebuked these men, citing Solomon’s pathetic fall as the quintessential example of this type of folly; in fact, he beat some of them up (Nehemiah 13:23-27)! Why did he do this? Because “blows and wounds cleanse away evil.” Such radical measures were necessary in view of the seriousness of the situation – Nehemiah was attempting to reestablish Jerusalem and God’s holy nation after a horrible Babylonian exile that lasted many decades. There could be zero tolerance for fools who would stubbornly forsake God’s Word in such vital areas.
Since striking someone except in self-defense is against the law in most cultures today, I’m obviously not advocating beating people up in the name of tough love, as Nehemiah did. But a stern rebuke may sometimes be in order or some type of bold stand or audacious display, e.g. throwing over tables, yelling, scattering coins or cracking a whip. Jesus did all of these. It wasn’t an everyday occurrence, of course, but the Scriptures show that he did such things on at least two occasions. It’s righteous radicalness. If you’re moved to such actions, be sure you’re led of the Spirit, like Jesus, and not of the flesh or you yourself will be at fault and culpable of rebuke. Never be a hotheaded, reckless fool (Proverbs 14:16) and always shun the fleshly bent toward authoritarianism and machismo posturing. I can’t stress this enough.
Speaking of authoritarianism, this includes the spirit of condemnation, or “condo” for short. What is a spirit of condemnation? It’s when a minister regularly tears down and beats up a congregation, which is an abuse of the pulpit. Such ministers tend to motivate others based on shame, e.g. “You’re not reading the Word of God like you should! (Or witnessing or praying or coming to church or giving, etc.) And you call yourself a Christian?” The obvious root of this type of wicked spirit is arrogance, which is a superiority complex. How so? When these ministers tear down others they automatically elevate themselves. Its pride, pure and simple, and it’s truly sad when ministers fall into such a religionist rut. Sometimes they never get out and, if they do, it’s either due to intense intercession or because someone dared to walk in tough love and openly correct them, or both.
The spirit of condo is completely at odds with the true ministerial spirit, which Paul summed up nicely when he spoke of the authority ministers have for building believers up and not tearing them down (2 Corinthians 10:8 & 13:10). He also stressed this in Ephesians 4:11-12 where he pointed out the purpose of all fivefold ministers: “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (emphasis added).
It goes without saying that if you’re hooked up with a church where the pastor regularly tears down the congregation, and is stubborn and unrepentant about it, head for the hills! Never submit to a spirit of condemnation. Pray about it, boldly confront it as led of the Spirit and, if necessary, disassociate from it. Make no mistake, if you unwisely opt to tolerate such a spirit you’ll be poisoned one way or another because “Bad company corrupts good character” (1 Corinthians 15:33). It’s an axiom.
Strive for a Balanced Love Walk
Needless to say, we need to keep a balanced perspective when it comes to our love walk. Like Jesus, Paul, Peter, John and others, take the middle road between the extremes of soft love and tough love, moving to one extreme or another as the situation demands and as led of the Spirit. Avoid being one-dimensional. The LORD’s not one-dimensional and we’re called to imitate Him (Ephesians 5:1). Being a perpetually passive doormat that enables people to continue in their error is not what the Bible encourages, nor does it advocate being a rash fool who’s overly gung-ho with confronting and rebuking, which is abusive and usually results in unnecessary strife. Some situations call for the more gentle forms of agape, while others the harder variety. Stubbornly holding to a one-dimensional (and erroneous) notion of agape is sloppy agape. Stay in prayer and trust your spiritual instincts. If you miss it, be honest about it, get cleaned up (1 John 1:9), and continue on in love toward God and people, which are the two most important commands (Matthew 22:35-40).
(For more details on this topic see this video).
NOTE: This teaching was taken from Dirk’s 2012 book The Believer’s Guide to Forgiveness & Warfare. To purchase a copy go here (both print and eBook versions are available).
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