“If someone had said to Jesus the words, ‘Love unites; doctrine divides,’ I think Jesus would have looked deep into that person’s soul and said, ‘True doctrine is the root of love. Therefore, whoever opposes it, destroys the root of unity.’
Jesus never opposed truth to love. He did the opposite. He said that He Himself is the embodiment and sum of truth: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Referring to Himself He said, “The one who seeks the glory of Him who sent Him is true, and in Him there is no falsehood” (John 7:18).
At the end of His life, what prompted Pilate’s cynical question, “What is truth?” (John 18:38) was Jesus’ comprehensive assertion about why He had come into the world: “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth” (John 18:37).
Even His adversaries saw how indifferent Jesus was to people’s opinions and how devoted He seemed to be to truth. “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion” (Mark 12:14).
And when Jesus leaves the world and returns to the Father in heaven, the Spirit He would send in His place would be called “the Spirit of truth.” “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness about Me” (John 15:26).
Therefore, unlike so many who compromise the truth to win a following, Jesus did the opposite. Unbelief in His hearers confirmed that a deep change was needed in them, not in the truth. “Everyone who is of the truth listens to My voice” (John 18:38).
“Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God” (John 8:47). “Because I tell the truth, you do not believe Me” (John 8:45).
In other words, when the truth does not produce the response you want—when it does not “work”—you don’t abandon the truth. Jesus is not a pragmatist when it comes to loving people with the truth.
You speak it, and if it does not win belief, you do not consider changing the truth. You pray that your hearers will be awakened and changed by the truth. “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free (John 8:32). “Sanctify them in the truth,” Jesus prayed; “Your word is truth” (John 17:17).
When Jesus prays that people be “sanctified in the truth,” He reveals the roots of love. Sanctification, or holiness, as Jesus understands it, includes being a loving person. He is praying that we would become loving people and would be merciful and peaceable and forgiving.
That is all included in the prayer, “Sanctify them.” And all this happens in and by the truth, not separate from the truth. The effort to pit love against truth is like pitting fruit against root.
Or like pitting kindling against fire. Or like pitting the foundation of a house against the second-floor bedroom. The house will fall down, and the marriage bed with it, if the foundation crumbles.
Love lives by truth and burns by truth and stands on truth. This is why Jesus’ first act of love in commanding love is to correct a false interpretation of Scripture.
Of course, it is possible to use truth unlovingly. For example, when a village of Samaria would not receive Jesus “because His face was set toward Jerusalem” (Luke 9:53), James and John knew this was a truth-insulting response. It was an assault on the truth of Jesus.
So they said to Jesus, in defense of the truth, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” (Luke 9:54). The answer was swift and blunt: “He turned and rebuked them” (Luke 9:55).
But the solution to that unloving response was not to stay in the village and alter the truth to get a better response. He did not say to the Samaritans, “Doctrine divides, love unites, so let’s put our doctrinal differences aside and have relational unity.”
No, the solution was, “And they went on to another village” (Luke 9:56). There are many people yet to be loved with our truth. We will keep offering the saving truth in love wherever we can, and we will not be violent with those who reject us.
But the truth will not be changed. It is the root of love’s life, and the kindling of love’s fire, and the foundation of love’s strength.
When Jesus demanded that we love our enemies by contrasting this with the interpretation that said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy,” (Matt. 5:43) he was lovingly showing us that correcting false interpretations of the Bible is one crucial way to love our enemy.
The next obvious implication of Jesus’ words for the meaning of love is that it is not unloving to call someone an enemy. We live in an emotionally fragile age. People are easily offended and describe their response to being criticized as being hurt.
In fact, we live in a time when emotional offense, or woundedness, often becomes a criterion for deciding if love has been shown. If a person can claim to have been hurt by what you say, it is assumed by many that you did not act in love.
In other words, love is not defined by the quality of the act and its motives, but by the subjective response of others. In this way of relating, the wounded one has absolute authority.
If he says you hurt him, then you cannot have acted lovingly. You are guilty. Jesus will not allow this way of relating to go unchallenged.
Love is not defined by the response of the loved. A person can be genuinely loved and feel hurt or offended or angered or retaliatory or numb without in any way diminishing the beauty and value of the act of love that hurt him.
We know this most clearly from the death of Jesus, the greatest act of love ever performed, because the responses to it covered the range from affection (John 19:27) to fury (Matt. 27:41–42). That people were broken, wounded, angered, enraged, and cynical in response to Jesus’ death did not alter the fact that what He did was a great act of love.
This truth is shown by the way Jesus lived his life. He loved in a way that was often not felt as love. No one I have ever known in person or in history was as blunt as Jesus in the way he dealt with people.
Evidently His love was so authentic it needed few cushions. It is owing to my living with the Jesus of the Gospels for fifty years that makes me so aware of how emotionally fragile and brittle we are today.
If Jesus were to speak to us the way He typically spoke in His own day, we would be continually offended and hurt. This is true of the way He spoke to his disciples and the way He spoke to His adversaries.
People were offended in His day as well. “Do you know,” His disciples asked Him, “that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” (Matt. 15:12).
His response to that information was brief and pointed: “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. Let them alone; they are blind guides” (Matt. 15:13–14).
In other words, “They are plants that do not produce the fruit of faith because God has not planted them. They don’t see my behavior as love because they are blind, not because I am unloving.” These and dozens of other things he said to both friend and foe in ways that would rock us back on our emotional heels and make many of us retreat in self-pity.
The point of this is that the genuineness of an act of love is not determined by the subjective feelings of the one being loved. Jesus uses the word “enemies.” That would be offensive to some, especially since he goes on to unpack his point with words like, “And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others?” (Matt. 5:47).
He does not fret over the possible criticism that He is not being careful enough to distinguish real enemies from annoying brothers. Jesus seems to expect us to handle tough words like “enemy” mingled with tender family words like “brother.”
I do not mean to say that love is oblivious to the words it uses or the effects they may have on others. Love does care about blessing the loved one. It desires to bring the loved one out of pain and sorrow and into a deeper experience of joy in God—now and forever.
But I am stressing another side of the problem that seems unusually prevalent in our psychologized world. I am simply drawing attention to the fact that feeling unloved is not the same as being unloved.
Jesus is modeling for us in his life the objectivity of love. It has real motives and real actions. And when they are loving, the response of the loved one does not change that fact.
This is good news for the lover, because it means that God is God and the loved one is not God. The judgment of the wounded loved one is not absolute: It may be right, or it may be wrong. But it is not absolute. God is absolute.
We give an account to Him. And He alone knows our hearts. The decisive thing about our love when we stand before God is not what others thought of it, but whether it was real.
That some people may not like the way we love is not decisive. Most people did not recognize Jesus’ love in the end—and still do not today.
What matters is not that we are justified before men, but that God knows our hearts as truly (though not perfectly) loving. And He alone can make that final judgment (Luke 16:15).”
–John Piper, What Jesus Demands from the World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2006), 215–220.