Are Unbelievers Capable of Love? (A Response to Some Criticism)

Not long ago I wrote an article about homosexuality that caused a stir among my social media friends. The problem with the article wasn’t that I defended a Biblical view of sexuality (one man, one woman, for life) but rather, a comment I made in passing that caused quite a stir. Let me start off with saying that I regret my choice of words and my lack of clarity, but I hope with this post that some of our misunderstandings will be dealt with and God’s word will be spoken clearly.

So, let me clarify what I originally meant.

In the article I said, “love is only possible if the parties involved are saved (1 Jn. 4:8-10).” Quite a few people took this to mean that I said non-Christians cannot be sacrificial, caring, or empathetic. Of course, I think the misunderstanding hinges on how you define, “love”:

If you define love as, “a concern for well being, a powerful affection, a sacrificial action” then yes, unbelievers can “love.” But, what is the standard we are using to make this assertion? I argue there is a human definition and a Biblical definition for love.

And when you think of the human definition of love, you’re painting with a very broad brush:

Consider The Beatles classics, “Can’t Buy Me Love,” or “All You Need is Love.” Or virtually any song on the radio today. Every song seems to deal with a “lost love,” a “first love,” “the love of my life,” or the “one that got away.” We have phrases such as, “I’m in love,” or “falling in love,” that describe being swept up in a wave of emotions for someone else. We are bombarded with this word all of the time, but it is used is an astounding amount of contexts. Some people say they have, “fallen out of love” with their spouse, and leave marriages behind. You hear it said that, “I love ice cream!” or a sports team, or a beverage, or a song. Love is something we apparently have a lot of, but can’t seem to get a solid grip on. When you leave it to the world to define what love is, you’ll get about as many answers as there are people.

So, let me explain:

By love, I do not mean romantic feelings or a general concern for a persons well being. I am referring to love in its basic and highest form: the love of God. According to 1 John 4:8, God is love.

You see, I failed to define the difference between worldly-love, and Christ-like love. “He who does not love does NOT KNOW God, for God IS LOVE. (1 John 4:8)” If you look closely, you’ll see this verse is saying that knowing God is the basis for how you love someone else. If you know God, you’ll love your neighbor. But, what standard do we use to measure whether we have loved someone or not? The standard of all love is God. It begins and ends with Him (Romans 11:31-33).

So, then, who knows God? According to the Bible, it’s Christians.

But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? (‭Galatians‬ ‭4‬:‭9‬ ESV)

Therefore, only Christians are capable of true love, because only they know God.

Now, I understand that there are multiple Greek words for love. But, the love I am talking about here is not a love that is contained in human nature. I am talking about a love the Bible calls, “agape” love in 1 John 4:8. It’s a love that is only fully expressed in God’s nature. Our natures by default are sinful (Rom. 3:23; 6:1-6). There is no part of us that is untouched by sin, including the way we feel and act towards other people. Every part of us needs to be redeemed, even our affections. This is why God says He would give us a new heart, it’s because the old heart was not capable of fulfilling God’s commands, which includes loving Him with all that we are (Ezek. 36:26). So, I am not talking about Phileo love (brotherly), or a human kind of love. The world is capable of brotherly love and sensual love, but only Christians are capable of Christ-like love, because only Christ lives in us (Galatians 2:20).

Although sometimes worldly love and Christ-like love can appear the same on the surface, there are differences. Hear the words of Jesus in Luke 11:

What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (‭Luke‬ ‭11‬:‭11-13‬ ESV)

We are still capable of giving “good gifts” even though Jesus says we are evil. But, when we know God, we are capable of so much more than giving good gifts, we are capable of being God’s ambassadors of Christ’s love to the world (2 Cor. 5)!

In summary: Can non-Christians love other people?

1) Yes, they can love, but they can’t show Christ-like love. They can show a love that is based around society or other people, but not based in God’s character. Their foundation is different. They are still made in the image of God, but they are also dominated by sin (according to Rom. 6:1-12). They can be empathetic, considerate, and apologetic, but that’s not Biblical love. Biblical love is a matter of the heart not just the actions. It boils down to why you do what you do. It is imitating the example of Christ’s love for us.

2) By Christ-like I don’t mean feeding the homeless, donating to charity, or doing something nice for people. These things are good, but if they are not done to glorify God, then, according to Isaiah, they are filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). We are called to do good works, because God has prepared us to do them (Eph. 2:7-10), but not to do them for their own sake, but for God’s sake.

3) Christ’s love was humble, was exemplary, was perfect. He left us an example to follow. Only we can show what His love looks like because only we have His love in us (see 1 John). There is a calling for us to demonstrate a different kind of love, the true love of God that was shown to us sinners.

We are called to humble ourselves just like Jesus, who humbled Himself even to the cross (Phil. 2:5-10). That is a radical kind of humility and love that stands out amidst the pop culture love of today. Ultimately, I am talking about the motivation behind the actions. The Christian is called to do all things for God’s glory, even drinking and eating (1 Cor. 10:31). That’s what separates true love from worldly-love, it’s a love that comes from God and gives God glory.

Hope that clears things up 🙂

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2 Comments

  1. I am so happy to have found this clarification of christian love vs. non christian love. God has led me to this understanding through personal relationships with non believers. I always knew that we were not to be unequally yoked but did not understand why until God revealed this truth to me personally. I can verify from personal experience that non believers love in the way the world has taught them to love they do not understand the love that God has poured into us by the Holy Spirit.
    When a believer and non-believer are in an intimate relationship together they are divided and the bible tells us that a house divided against itself will fall.

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