In view of the importance that our Lord gives the command to love your neighbor (Matt. 22:36–40; Mark 12:28–33; cf. Matt. 7:12; Luke 10:25–28), it is no mystery why Christians have followed suit in making much of the same. This is well and good, provided that we understand what is (and is not) required of us. Unfortunately, there are two common ways the neighbor-love command is hellishly misinterpreted and misapplied.
The first is when someone turns the command into a cudgel for beating the consciences of Christians, all but forcing submission in matters not required by the Lord (whether explicitly or by good and necessary consequence). This is not a new problem, but we did see a recent example of it in the dogmatic insistence that Christians who dissented from the government’s demonstrably arbitrary lockdowns and/or abstained from getting the Covid vaccine were failing to love their neighbors.1 Cards on the table: I think mounting evidence continues to justify the courage and prudence of those who refused to be blown about by every wind of the zeitgeist. As such, I think it would be good for the souls of any who publicly employed the neighbor-love argument in that way to issue an apology in the form of, “I was wrong. I’m sorry. You didn’t fail to love your neighbor.”
Yet I am even more concerned about the second way that we can abuse the command to love our neighbors, which I fear is even more common—and significantly more destructive—than the first. Namely, there is a growing tendency among many Christians in the West to redefine the second greatest commandment instead simply misapply it. To these misguided minds, when Christ said, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” he actually meant, “Make sure your neighbor feels loved by you.” The difference between those statements can be a matter of (eternal) life and death.
When Man Is the Measure, Truth Always Comes up Short
Though it was Protagoras who first said, “Man is the measure of all things,”2 it is postmoderns who have embodied that outlook par excellence. For the West today is a place where people not only feel free to determine what is true for themselves but also assume that everyone constructs reality according to their own desires.3 This is why Francis Schaeffer felt the need to speak of “true truth” (a tautology in every age before ours).4 He foresaw that a day was coming, and is now here, when people will speak of “my truth” and “your truth” as if such phrases have the power to settle any dispute about reality. Perhaps ‘2 + 2 = 4’ is true for you, a Harvard PhD recently opined, but ‘2 + 2 = 5’ is also true for others.5 That is the way of madness.
Yet many well-meaning Christians have failed to grasp how the postmodern ethos has infected (to the point of destruction) their own understanding of Christ’s command to “Love your neighbor.” In our hyper-subjective age, this command is emptied of all objective content. The result is that some cannot even conceive of a situation in which a Christian could fulfill this command in such a way that a neighbor who is loved according to God’s standards might not feel loved according to his own.
I have spoken about this with pastors around the country, and I regret to inform you that it is not a problem found only along America’s progressive coasts. To give just one example, a friend who lives in the pejoratively-labeled “flyover country” recently told me that his ecclesial superior rebuked him for failing to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). My friend was not at all certain that this was the case, nor were many of those who knew him best. So he asked, “Who gets to determine whether the truth is spoken in a loving way?” My friend’s interlocutor replied, “It all comes down to whether the person we are speaking to feels loved after we have spoken the truth to them.”
If Feelings Are the Standard, Then Jesus Is Sinful
All who think this way have fallen for the poisonous lie that hurt feelings, per se, are sufficient proof that you have failed to love your neighbor. Yet if that is so, we make Christ himself out to be a sinner! For there were not a few times when his words were poorly received by some of those who heard him. Indeed, Jesus was not murdered because he was too nice but because he did and said things that caused some to despise him—yet in all this he was “without sin” (Heb. 4:15; cf. 1 Pet. 2:22; 1 John 3:5).6
The point here is not that we have the license to be jerks for Jesus.7 We plainly do not. We cannot turn the phrase “Love your neighbor” into “Hate your neighbor.” Even so, the idea that we are commanded to make our neighbor “feel loved” is ultimately a form of relativism in Christian drag, a kind of sentimentality that holds to the form of godliness—“love your neighbor!”—while denying its true power.8
Furthermore, in addition to making Jesus guilty of sin (by definition), such a view of Christ’s command places the standard for fulfillment not in the hands of the Creator but in the hands of creatures who are estranged from him (James 4:4). If feelings are the standard, then there is no standard. There also are no constraining limits. For if making someone “feel loved” is the requirement for being loving, there is no end to what darkened hearts may demand in order to feel sufficiently loved. This is, of course, precisely what is happening everywhere in the West.
The Devil Is Cashing the Blank Checks You’re Writing
We have reached the point where no matter how kindly you articulate the biblical view of gender and sexuality, you will be branded a “hater.” Which is to say, you will be seen as unloving (even though you aren’t), and you will hurt feelings (no matter how lovingly you speak the truth). Yet if you have wed the fulfillment of Christ’s command to a runaway train, where then will you go?
In case the answer to that rhetorical question was not plain: you will go to wherever you are told to go, and Christians who are ruled by their sentiments instead of by the Scriptures are sitting ducks for this sort of manipulation.9 They have turned Christ’s command to love our neighbors—along with the many biblical commands to be compassionate and kind—into a blank check for the world to cash. “If you aren’t a bigot, then you will bake the cake” (never mind your religious convictions). “If you truly love me, then you will use my preferred pronouns” (never mind God’s commands not to lie or bear false witness). “If you really cared about the poor, then you will vote for this candidate” (never mind their manifestly destructive policies that mutilate children or undermine the family).
“All who think this way have fallen for the poisonous lie that hurt feelings are sufficient proof that you have failed to love your neighbor.”—Doug Ponder
The devil is only too pleased with this arrangement. Indeed, the situation reads like a new chapter in The Screwtape Letters: since the powers of hell cannot make Christ’s command go away, they will settle for leading Christians to think the ultimate arbiters of whether we’ve obeyed the command are precisely those who are least qualified to understand it (1 Cor. 2:14). In a demonic inversion of Christ’s own words, the worldly person says: “If you really love me, you will obey my commandments.”
The Dead End of Subjectivity (And The Only Way Out from Here)
I am not suggesting that every professing Christian who has fallen prey to the devil’s lies at this point will go to hell—but their neighbors will unless these Christians find the courage to begin doing and saying what is actually loving, according to Christ, instead of according to what makes their neighbor always feel loved. In other words, the only way out of this demonic cul-de-sac of subjectivity is to anchor the command of Christ in the Scriptures, letting the character of God, the acts of God, and the words of God define for us what is (and is not loving) according to the One who gets the final say on the matter.
This is precisely what the apostle Paul alludes to when he says, “The commandments, ‘Do not commit adultery; do not murder; do not steal; do not covet;’ and any other commandment, are summed up by this commandment: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Love, therefore, is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:9–10).
These words can set us free if we let them (John 8:31–32), for they remind us that our Lord has not commanded us to love our neighbors without telling us what he means. Indeed, he has given us explicit teaching on the nature of love (1 Cor. 13:1–8), including additional commands that fill out what love is and what love does (Rom. 12:9–22). On top of this, he has given us examples in the Scriptures, not only in himself (John 8:12; 13:5; 1 Cor. 11:1) but also in those who belong to him (Rom. 15:4; Phil. 3:17; 2 Thess. 3:9; James 5:4; Hebrews 11:1ff).
A Confessional Conclusion: Learning to Love a World That Hates You
Yet some will say to me, “Physician, heal thyself!” It is true that I write as a man who has at times been too quick to speak and too slow to listen (James 1:19). My carelessness has caused unnecessary offense (Prov. 18:19). My pride has hindered apologies for legitimate wrongs (Matt. 5:23–24). And my selfishness has surely been the occasion for many missed opportunities to serve others in a way that accords with their salvation (1 Cor. 10:33).
But I have also known the pressure to keep quiet about matters of eternal significance. I have been tempted to soften the truth in the name of “love.” And I have, in the past, been guilty of espousing a caricature of winsomeness that replaced the real Jesus of history with a false Christ of impotent faith.10 All this was a fool’s errand, for our Lord said the world would hate us in the same ways and for the same reasons that it hated him (John 15:18–20).
This doesn’t mean I now have a desire to be hated (I don’t), but it does mean that I have a firm resolve to fulfill Christ’s command to love my neighbor on Christ’s terms, not on my neighbors’. We cannot be more loving or winsome or compassionate or kind than Jesus. Therefore, he and his Word are the standard—which means learning to love a world that hates us begins with the One who was hated first.
In view of all this, Christians must no longer ask, “Does my neighbor feel loved?” (according to their standards) but rather, “Has my neighbor been loved?” (according to Christ’s Word). Or, to borrow a phrase from the apostle Paul, we all must ask ourselves: Am I seeking the approval of my neighbor or of God? For if I were still trying to please my neighbor, I would not be a servant of Christ (cf. Gal. 1:10).
- Stephen Wellum, “Thou Shalt Be Vaccinated: When ‘Love Thy Neighbor’ Does Not Fulfill the Law,” Christ Over All, February 20, 2023. https://christoverall.com/article/concise/thou-shalt-be-vaccinated-when-love-thy-neighbor-does-not-fulfill-the-law/. ↩
- The exact quote is, “Of all things the measure is man, of the things that are, that they are, and of things that are not, that they are not.” See DK 80B1 in Sextus Empiricus, Adversus Mathematicos VII.60, or in Plato, Theaetus, 160d. ↩
- For more on this, see Carl R. Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020). See also, Trevin Wax, “Expressive Individualism: What Is It?” The Gospel Coalition, October 16, 2018. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/trevin-wax/expressive-individualism-what-is-it/. ↩
- See Donald Williams, “True Truth: Francis Schaeffer’s Enduring Legacy,” Calvinist International, September 24, 2014. https://calvinistinternational.com/2014/09/24/true-truth-francis-schaeffers-enduring-legacy/. ↩
- See “Kareem Carr Explains Why 2+2=5.” https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/biostatistics/2020/09/kareem-carr-explains-why-225/. ↩
- Kevin DeYoung, “Why Did They Kill Jesus?” The Gospel Coalition, December 2, 2009. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/why-did-they-hate-jesus/. ↩
- Dustin Messer, “Jerks for Jesus: Doing the Lord’s Work the World’s Way,” Breakpoint, September 29, 2020. https://breakpoint.org/jerks-for-jesus-doing-the-lords-work-the-worlds-way/. ↩
- See Daniel Strange, “I’m (Not) Getting Sentimental over You,” Themelios Vol. 42, No. 3: December 2017. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/themelios/article/im-not-getting-sentimental-over-you/. ↩
- See Joe Rigney, “The Enticing Sin of Empathy: How Satan Corrupts through Compassion,” Desiring God, May 31, 2019. https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-enticing-sin-of-empathy. ↩
- For more on true and false winsomeness, see James Wood, “This Article Is Not about Tim Keller,” American Reformer, May 12, 2022. https://americanreformer.org/2022/05/this-article-is-not-about-tim-keller/. ↩