Love: Tough or Tender?

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One of the things I was taught growing up in church, over and over again, is that sometimes love doesn’t feel like love. For instance, if someone is doing something wrong that could potentially hurt them, it may not feel like love to confront them, but that is actually the loving thing to do. Or you might have to risk hurting someone’s feelings if you see them falling into sin. It may not feel like you are doing something loving, but if you keep them away from sin you are loving them. I learned very clearly that a loving act might appear to be quite unloving. 

Today I could have a long conversation with you about “tough love.” I have five children and if there is one thing I know it is that sometimes the most loving thing I can do for one of my children may not feel like love to them. Sometimes being a loving parent means making your child go to bed when she promises you that she is not at all tired. (Trust me, she is.) And sometimes the most loving thing my husband and I can do is make one of our teenagers create flash cards for a test, even though he feels very confident that he learned everything he needed to know while reviewing his notes and watching The Office. (Trust me, he didn’t.) My kids may not think we are showing love to them by insisting that they do the exact things they don’t want to do, but we are. We love them and we want what’s best for them.

If a relationship is abusive, sometimes the most loving thing to do is to leave. It may not feel like love to the one being left, but ultimately it is a loving act that may lead to change. Tough love is often about loving ourselves enough to protect ourselves from someone who is hurting us. It doesn’t always feel like love, but it is a courageous way to love our neighbor as well as our selves.  

But sometimes I wonder if the Christianity of my childhood had a preference for tough love. I wonder if we actually preferred tough love to tender love. I think we may have been concerned that any love that wasn’t tough would be mushy and lazy and weak. We felt like we needed to be careful; to hold tight to a rigorous, holy sort of love. A warm, caring love made us nervous. We worried that we might overlook dangerous sinful behaviors if we fell under the influence of compassionate, cozy, emotional love. We couldn’t imagine that God might be calling us to a vulnerable love. 

I still believe in tough love, but now I believe that most real love actually looks like love. The vast majority of the time, love looks like love, and feels like love, and sounds like love. If someone is hurting you and they say it’s because they love you, you need to think and pray really hard about whether it’s true. You must talk to someone you trust who can help you discern, because if it doesn’t feel like love it might not be love. Love is patient and kind. Love is generous, humble and seeks to honor other people. Love stays calm and does not get angry easily. Love finds no pleasure in another person’s sin, but rejoices when people are true and honest. Love protects, trusts, hopes and endures.

“This is how we know love: Jesus laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” (1 John 3:16)

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