A Study in Values and "Conflicting" Obligations and
Application of These Principles to the Bible's Use of the Words "Love" and "Hate"
As already shown, there are different levels of obligation, with some taking precedence over others. A person who does not understand this, or who refuses to acknowledge it, will be very quick to see "contradictions" any time obligations on two levels coincide. But the truth of the matter is that there is no genuine contradiction in such cases. The higher level obligation always takes precedence over the lower. It is only when the conflict occurs between two obligations on the same level, that we might have to deal with the issue of "contradictions." And even then, it might not be a genuine contradiction.
Suppose we were facing a situation in which our obligations to one person appeared to be incompatible with our obligations to another. Since both of these obligations are on the same level (involving two different people), we could reach the conclusion that, in these circumstances, we were facing a genuine contradiction. After all, if we couldn't fulfil our obligations to both, we would have to choose between the two - choosing in favor of the one person, possibly even to the detriment of the other. But before we reach such a conclusion, we should consider various issues that influence, or define, the nature of the obligations. Examining these will often resolve the apparent conflicts and show that we are not faced with a genuine contradiction.
Perhaps the first thing we should consider is the context of the obligation. This involves two issues: First, we must look at the context which defines the obligation itself. Second, we must look at our own context or circumstances, which determine the extent to which the obligation applies to us.
First, the obligation itself exists within a context. The nature of the obligation, along with the reasons for its existence, may define or limit the extent to which it applies to us. As we examine our potential obligations, we may discover that some are applicable only under certain conditions - or not at all.
Here is an example from the Old Testament: God gave various rules and regulations to Israel. Some of these rules, such as the Ten Commandments, are a reflection of God's moral requirements for all people, and are applicable to us, even today. (Even the commandment about not working on the Sabbath reflects the basic requirement that we are to give part of our time and attention to God, rather than always focusing on our normal day-to-day activities.) There are other rules, such as certain ceremonial regulations, which had application only within the context of the Jewish nation. This was because of the agreement (covenant or promise) they had made with God. God-fearing non-Jews, who were not under this agreement, did not have an obligation to follow those regulations. [Note: Because the Jews continually failed to fulfil their obligations, God has replaced that covenant with a new one. Today, we live under a different covenant - one that is based, not on our actions, but on what Jesus did on the cross - Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 8:7-13.]
The second issue involves our own "personal context." The circumstances we find ourselves in will often define or restrict the extent to which an obligation applies to us. For instance, though we have an obligation to love all people, the extent to which we can put this love into action will vary from person to person. We may have this same obligation of love to people who live near us, as well as to those who live far away. But our ability to express that love may be greater to those who live nearby, simply because God has placed us in closer contact with them.
This specific example, regarding the extent to which love can be expressed (to those living nearby and those living far away) will be used below (in PART 4), to illustrate a different principle. But before we do that, we should first look at some basic issues which may help us better understand this problem regarding obligations and potential conflicts between them.
To better understand the apparent conflicts between obligations, we need to step back and look at the broader perspective. Ultimately, there are no contradictions between God's commands. Yet there are two factors that influence our perspectives and often make it difficult for us to see this truth.
The first factor, by itself, is not a problem. This is the fact that we are finite. Whereas God is infinite and has an infinite comprehension of reality, we are finite and have a limited comprehension of reality. We must remember, however, that being finite is not the same as being sinful; rather, it is the necessary result of being created. (Living as though we aren't finite is a much greater problem, than being finite!) And though we cannot have knowledge that is unlimited, God has made us so that we can have knowledge that is accurate.
The second factor is much more serious - namely, that we are sinners. All of us have sinned, and this sin has influenced and distorted our perception of reality. Sin has also taken our "finite-ness" (which, by itself, is not a problem) and turned it against us. Altogether, sin has blinded us so that we cannot see truth as clearly as was once possible. It has darkened our understanding, so that what we can see is often permeated with false conclusions and error (Ephesians 4:17-19).
All of us were born trapped in sin, and those who remain in this condition have no hope of ever having an accurate (though finite) comprehension of reality. But God offers us hope; he offers a change for all who are willing to submit to his authority, and to accept his free offer of salvation. For those who are willing to turn to him and to yield to his will, he begins the process of using the Word of God to "renew" their minds. What this means is he uses his Word to change the way we think. This is a change whose effects reach to the very foundations of our thoughts. It is an ongoing process that continues the rest of our lives and does not reach its completion until we take part in the resurrection. The final changes will occur when we see Christ, and at that time, all the effects of sin will be totally eliminated.
In the meantime, as finite beings, it is our duty to grow in wisdom and maturity. We can do it, because God has given us his Word, to enable us! As we submit to what the Word says, we will grow in our understanding of how to deal with the more complex issues of life. And when this happens, many apparent conflicts will clear-up, like fog dissipating in the hot sun.
Because we are not yet perfect, there will be times that we are unable to see the answer to our conflicts and moral dilemmas. When this happens, we must remember that it is not God's fault: It is we who have sinned, not him. As we grow in Christ, the answers to some of these difficult issues will become more obvious.
Our imperfections, though real, need not be a source of constant discouragement. We do not have to close our eyes to the fact that imperfections are present, but we can "balance" this truth with something else that is also true: Every time God uses his Word to change something in our lives, it gives us a good reason to thank him and to be encouraged. Each change is evidence that God has begun a good work in our hearts (and minds). And what he has begun, he has promised to someday bring to completion (Philippians 1:6, etc.)!
At birth, sin was already a part of our nature; its effects permeated every aspect of life - even the way we think. One of the ways it has affected our thinking is by fragmenting our perception of reality. Because of this, we tend to view issues in a way that could be described as "half-truths." This issue is explored in greater detail in the next section.
Dennis Hinks © 2001