Not too long ago, I was helping lead a Bible study on the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. One study focused on 1 Corinthians 13, the famous “love chapter” quoted so often at weddings. Which is sad, actually, because Paul wasn’t even talking about marriage when he wrote that part, and the whole of it is supposed to be applied to the whole of life: family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, everybody. (It’s something to keep in mind that “love is patient, love is kind, it keeps no record of wrongs” applies to your supervisor as well as your spouse.) During the leaders’ prep, an interesting question was posed. Out of sheer curiosity, someone asked who in the room felt that they tended toward the “knowledge” side of life, and who was more on the “love” side. Hands went up for each, and to no one’s surprise, the discussion quickly dissolved into which was better.
It may be interesting to note that in that group, each side thought the other was better.
I’d heard of that split before. It shows up in personality tests: “judging” vs. “perceiving” in the Myers-Briggs, for instance, or “thinking” vs. “feeling”. We hear about head vs. heart, or knowledge vs. intuition, and even so far as justice vs. mercy. It’s like there’s this split in people, and they fall on either side, logic vs. emotion, Spock vs. McCoy. People are quick to point out the failings of each: logic is dispassionate, and is thus cold and hard and unfeeling. It has no joy or sorrow, just numbers and facts. Emotion is unreliable, it swishes around and changes with the wind, it overreacts or acts on bad evidence, choosing lies before truth. In one way, I could point out that logic must include emotion (because it is real and measurable, just like any fact) and emotion must have logic to it (because if it doesn’t, then you may be dealing with mental illness). But as I cast this into the realm of religion, I think I see a similar problem: law vs. love.
You all know the “law” side. I write “church law” and all kinds of references show up in our heads. The first thing that I think of is dancing, and the merits thereof. We draw lines all over the place, determining what’s good and right, what can be allowed, what’s dangerous, what’s utterly wrong, and we have a whole encyclopedia of justifications for them. We know what tempts us, what tears us apart, and we strive to stop it. We’ve got grief and pain and cruelty and heartlessness that we’re fighting against every day in our world, and yet end up back there again because we’ve been chained down with our laws.
But love: we think, “Well, love can’t be bad, then, if it’s the opposite of ‘law’.” Unfortunately, that’s not true. If you have something running entirely on love, it’s beautiful at first. Everything’s about acceptance and tolerance and kindness and grace, which we need. But there’s a rot that sets in. We do what they like, and hide behind “love”. We ask forgiveness, but don’t change. The place where everyone is accepted becomes the place where anything is excused. We’ve torn out the strictures of judgement, and lost the structure for growth right along with it.
Law without love is heartless. Love without law is mindless. We need both.
When people read the Bible, a lot of them notice the contrasts between the Old and New Testaments. The Old’s all full of laws. There’s rituals and sacrifices and “uncleanliness” and lots of smiting. We hear about God’s wrath and God’s judgement, of extreme measures against sin. It’s like you can’t move but for someone doing something wrong, or breaking some rule. It’s harsh, and it’s hard, and it’s a wonder anybody makes it to Malachi alive.
And then you read the New Testament, and it seems all full of love. There’s Jesus pardoning the very worst of society, saving an adulterer from stoning, blessing a thief who’s dying. You’ve got him and his disciples calling out the loveless lawmakers, Peter being told that nothing’s unclean, that everyone is welcome. And you contrast that against the pain-of-death rules about going anywhere near the Temple, and we start thinking, “Oh, well, Jesus did away with all that ‘rule’ stuff.”
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Matthew 5:17
It wasn’t about getting rid of rules and regulations, it was about bringing them back to their point. The old law set the pattern for how people are supposed to treat each other: it was the law-obsessed rulemakers who blew it all out of proportion. Law is pointless without love, and they’d forgotten it.
I’m a law person. I like rules. I like them because they give me clear boundaries as to what’s acceptable and what’s not, of how to deal with people so that they understand me and I understand them. But that’s just it, isn’t it? If I like laws ’cause they’re neat and tidy and I think the structures they make are interesting, I’ve missed the point. Law is the scaffolding upon which I build my life, it’s a foundation that doesn’t move. It’s a cold trust, but it’s trust, and it is something that can be depended on when everything else threatens to fall apart.
And the love side: I can’t let myself forget it. Love makes a home warm. It makes a person welcome. It rescues and pursues and comforts and encourages. When I’m hurt or alone or worried, when I’m ashamed or furious or terrified, cold logic is not enough. Yes, maybe I do need my bone reset, but you’ve got to get the pain down first. Maybe I need to face my fear, but first I should probably calm down. When I need criticism, I’ve got to be in the mood to take it. When my life is entirely derailed, the thing I need first is a hug and a word of kindness, not a rebuke.
Love without law is spineless and weak. It’s formless and vague and can’t stand up on its own. If you live entirely under love, all you’ll have left in the end is an indistinct mush, useless and tepid. Wrongs seethe, unaddressed. Small abuses grow into large ones. You have no recourse, and soon you have no voice. The ground shifts beneath you, and there is nothing to stop it. There is no place to stand.
Law without love is cold and unforgiving. It’s harsh and drives the hurting ones away. It may be just, but it is indifferent and cruel. If you live entirely under law, all you’ll have left in the end is an elegant wasteland, nowhere to rest and sleep. There is nothing to pull you back up, nothing to draw you in, nothing to soothe and heal, nothing to bear you up and give you your hope back when you’ve lost everything.
But love gives law its purpose, telling it when its particulars must bend or change. It keeps law living and true, and rids it of cruelty. Law gives love strength, gives it potency and power. The law shows love where it is needed, for if the law is harsh on pain, then love can find it and comfort it, can bring the hurting where healing can start. Law builds the house, love makes it home. Law protects, love comforts. Law drives out the darkness, love fills the void with light.
I believe that someday we won’t need the law. We cling to this artificial skeleton because ours is broken and can’t hold us up. That’s going to change. But our love is also imperfect, or we wouldn’t need rules on how to do it. We cling to divine love because ours is weak and can’t last. Someday, our love will be perfect and our law redundant. Until then, we must have both.