A Meditation on Romans 12:9-10 and other Selected Scriptures
Yet again, I heard from another pulpit that unsettling dictum: Love is an act of the will, and not an emotion. Apparently many pastors concur with psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, who wrote in The Road Less Traveled, “Love is not a feeling. Love is an action…true love is an act of the will that often transcends ephemeral feelings of love.” On the surface, the dictum seems to smoothly land with self-authenticating insight: Of course, we must love all people, even our enemies as God commands us, but we can’t possibly be expected to “like”, for example, our cheating ex-husband or the close relative who abused us.
The underlying presupposition upon which this dictum is built states that we have control over our wills, but not over our fickle feelings. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that we should do loving deeds, even towards those we inwardly dislike, those we may secretly harbor bitterness or anger towards. We think this explains how we can “love our enemies” (Matt. 5:44). So if we manage to restrain our fierce inclinations to “get even”, and then go the extra mile by doing something nice for the scoundrel, we congratulate ourselves. In fact, we believe this is the highest level of love, a love that “transcends ephemeral feelings of love.” While I agree that we are to act loving and considerate towards those we don’t like, I do not believe this is the pinnacle of love. I’ll be blunt: such unfeeling love falls woefully short of what God requires, and is actually hypocritical.
Allow me to illustrate why I say that, biblically and practically. Biblically, the apostle Paul instructs believers, “Let love be genuine.” Literally: “Let love be without hypocrisy” (NASB). So what is hypocritical love? We could also ask about hypocritical worship or hypocritical charity or hypocritical martyrdom. They’re all related, since hypocrisy of all stripes is an external show or act that doesn’t correspond to one’s internal disposition or heart. The word hypocrite means stage actor or pretender.
The religious Pharisees are perhaps best known for their hypocrisy. On one occasion, Jesus said them, “You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me’” (Matt. 15:7-9a). Singing praise to God that doesn’t resemble the spiritual condition of one’s heart is hypocrisy, plain and simple.
Also, think about the most sacrificial acts of charity and even the ultimate sacrifice, martyrdom. Paul said, “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor. 13:3). The world may stand in awe of such devotion that results from sheer will power, but God looks at the heart. And if the heart is devoid of love and sincere affections there is no spiritual gain, nothing that God will reward. God doesn’t reward hypocrisy.
Practically, John Piper observes, “If we dislike another person it will be impossible to consistently will the loving thing for that person. Sometimes we will simply forget to restrain our feelings and other times when we think we have willed the loving thing, our dislike will have sneaked in through a patronizing tone of voice or a depreciating glance” (article On the Possibility of Saying, ‘I love You, But I Don’t Like You’). Have you ever been on the receiving end of hypocritical love? Externally and outwardly somebody loved you, but you knew instinctively that their “love” came through clenched teeth. Most of us have had that painful experience, and we wanted to take their “love gift” and shove it… We shouldn’t be surprised if others aren’t fooled by or appreciative of our heartless, hypocritical love.
Instead of diminishing God’s requirement to “love one another with brotherly affection” (Rom. 12:10), we should increase our dependence upon the Spirit to pour out God’s love into our cold hearts. During WWII Corrie Ten Boom was arrested and sent to Nazi concentration camps for aiding the Jews. After the war, she spoke to congregations the world over about God’s faithfulness during that trying time. Following one service in Munich a former guard whom she recognized approached her, and thanked her for her message. As he thrust out his hand, Corrie admits that she couldn’t smile or raise her hand. She felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. So she prayed for God’s intervention. Then, she said, “As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me…When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself” (The Hiding Place, p. 238).