I have seen and heard this phrase a few times in the past few days as Facebook feeds across the country have exploded with comment threads of people on both sides debating the religious merits or evils of marriage equality. (Oh how Facebook has made open dialogue such a rich and classy endeavor!) I’m not interested in speaking to my beliefs about marriage equality in this post (I’ve written about it before), but I do want to parse this notion of “love in Christ, but.”
During my sad and pitiful dating years as a young loser, I once received a handwritten letter (we who lived in darkness before Facebook feeds) from an ex-girlfriend that ended with the sentence, “I love you as my brother in Christ, but please don’t ever contact or speak to me again.” Yes, that is a true story. Of course, it’s always painful to have people tell you they don’t ever want to speak to you again, but that wasn’t what I found so powerfully hurtful about this sentence. Truthfully, she was doing me a favor in cutting off contact and I can be expressly thankful every day that I respected her request. However, I remember distinctly how offended and angry I felt that a person could link the phrases “I love you” and “don’t ever contact or speak to me again” with the phrase “in Christ.” As if somehow Christ makes it perfectly reasonable and acceptable to love someone that you intend to never have any dealings with ever again.
The word “but” is an adverb that Webster’s describes as meaning “on the contrary.” The word “but” links two ideas, the second of which is meant to counteract the first. When we say, “ABC, but XYZ,” we are implying that XYZ is greater or more legitimate than ABC. “I like vanilla, but I’m having chocolate.” “She’s hot, but she’s crazy.” “I love being a parent, but good God help me some days I just want to start walking and never come home.” The “but” isn’t a complete rebuttal or disavowal, but it does suggest that the second clause supersedes the first. When we say “I love you in Christ, but…” we are suggesting that the love we have for that person is challenged or lessened or diminished by whatever “but” follows. It’s the evangelical equivalent of the loaded southern phrase, “Bless your heart.” Whenever I hear “I love you in Christ, but…” what I really hear is “I actually don’t love you, but because Jesus is watching, I will refrain from saying and doing what I really want to.”
Now, having laid out my harsh criticism of this vernacular phrase, let me go on record as saying that I think this might be exactly how love in Christ truly works for us. I’ll be honest, my natural tendency is to not love 99.999999% of the human beings on this planet. If I made a list of people I would love without Jesus telling me I had to, there would be maybe fifty people on that list. And truthfully, every one of those people drops off the list from time to time. (For example, when they throw grapes on the floor and scream “I want candy” over and over.) Jesus pointed out that the most wicked still act nice to the people closest to them. Even Hitler loved Eva Braun. No one is impressed when we love our friends and families. What’s impressive is when we love our enemies.
But Jesus, come on! How do we even do that? It’s the very opposite of what we think love is. How can you love someone you disagree with? How do you love someone that makes you sick to your stomach, that fills you with disgust and disdain, that infuriates and enrages you? The New Testament writers knew this was a difficult concept, so they basically had to redefine the concept of love altogether, reclaiming a little-known word and substituting it for the godly love Jesus called us to display. This word is agape, a word that previously meant the kind of kindness we show out of obligation to servants, pets, or distant and obnoxious kin. It was not erotic and romantic love (eros) or the kind of warm, familiar “brotherly” love we feel for close friends (philos). Agape love is a difficult calling precisely because we are called to show it to people we otherwise would never love.
Every day I pass by people that I have no reason to love. I also pass by people that I have good reason to hate. I will be completely honest: there are some people in this world who are separated from my fist in their face only by my personal conviction that I should be following Jesus. I’m not proud of this. Well, sadly, sometimes I am proud. And that’s kind of pathetic.
I feel this more acutely than ever now that I’m a parent. It’s easy to love my child when she’s being sweet and adorable. But when she’s pitching an epic fit – which is nearly every day during these terrible toddler years – and screaming and wailing and kicking and biting, my natural inclination is not to love her. It’s to yell at her or hit her or simply walk out and leave her alone in her self-destructive ways to be consumed with loneliness and abandonment. In those moments, the only thing that stops me is that I know that I am her father and I have an obligation to love her. I want to say to her, “I love you as my child, but you are getting on my last damn nerve and I’m about to SHOW YOU WHAT IT’S LIKE!” In my better moments I refrain from this because I know I’m obligated to love her as her father. And if that doesn’t work – if it’s not one of my better moments – then I fall back on my commitment to follow Jesus, who told us to love people who act like this.
This really isn’t something to be proud of, even though there are moments where I still feel puffed up with self-regard that my commitment to Jesus kept me from hitting someone. Look at what a good father I am! Look at what a good Christian I am! I didn’t resort to violence and name-calling with this sinful, wicked idiot who clearly deserves it! I’m such a good person. Jesus is so pleased with me.
It’s a good start, I guess. I mean, I’m sure we can all agree it’s better to not hit a person than it is to hit them. The absence of violence and vitriol is more desirable than their presence, but I don’t think the absence of ill will and intent is the same as love. Telling another person that I am going to refrain from doing something nasty because I love them in Christ isn’t a particularly loving thing. Despite my ex-girlfriend’s assurance that she loved me as her brother in Christ, I certainly didn’t experience anything she did to or for me from that point on as loving. Maybe she still had a general sense of wishing me well, or, at the least, an absence of ill will. But I didn’t experience that as terribly impressive.
Some moments this is really all we can manage. Jesus knew this, I think. There are some moments that the only thing that keeps me parenting my child is my tenuous commitment to a higher calling to being a loving Christian father. When those moments come, however, I feel a little disappointed with myself and I want to move back to a place of warmth and affection and deep, passionate connection. So in my mind, I start by mentally reversing the clauses on either side of the “but.” Instead of “I love you, but you’re driving me crazy,” I try to mentally say, “You are driving me crazy, but I love you.” It’s a small, small step. But it helps me settle into myself a little more clearly, to own my imperfections and frailty, and therefore challenge myself to rise to the occasion. The love that Jesus showed wasn’t simply an absence of malice or ill intent; it was active and engaged and was experienced in the moment as a life-affirming blessing. That is the kind of love that I believe Jesus leads us to show others: to be known for our love, and not for refraining from hate.
Next time you find yourself uttering the “I love you, but…” start by reversing the clauses. “…But I love you.” And then just repeat that over and over to yourself until the other clause falls away completely. It is definitely not easy and it may take a very long time. That’s okay. Love is patient.