A Study in Values and "Conflicting" Obligations and
Application of These Principles to the Bible's Use of the Words "Love" and "Hate"
How does this occur? How does our thinking become permeated with "half-truths"? Sin leaves us with a natural tendency to focus on some aspects of the truth and to neglect (or even reject) other aspects. This neglect introduces error into our own perspectives, and reduces our ability to see the truth in the views of those who have focused on the "opposite" set of facts (also mixed with error). When confronted with those "opposite" facts, such as during an argument or disagreement, we can easily become increasingly one-sided. In the end, we are in danger of completely losing sight of the "opposite" principle or truth. And though we may be fully convinced that we are defending truth, we will actually be denying parts of it (the complementary aspects that we can no longer see) or explaining it away, being fully convinced that it is erroneous. We will also be defending the error that has crept into our own perspective and replaced the truth we have neglected.
It should be mentioned that this tendency to cling to "half-truths" is usually not conscious or deliberate. It is a part of the nature we were born with - a nature we must continually fight. This one-sided focus can also be influenced by many other factors. It can even be due to an over-reaction to the wrong, one-sided emphasis of others!
Ultimately all this is due to the fact that we were born with a "sin nature" that has fragmented our perception of reality. It has affected us at the very foundational level of how we think, by changing our perception of the very nature of facts. This has made it natural for complementary facts to become viewed as contradictory statements that cannot co-exist in one's frame of reference. When this happens, it forces us to side with one or the other, thus polarizing our perspective.
This polarization of views is a major reason for disagreements among people. In just about any issue, people have a tendency to focus on only part of the truth. Since different people focus on different sets of facts, they tend to take sides. And though each side may contain truth (mixed with error), each side loses the ability to see the truth that the opposing side has focused on - all the while becoming increasingly blind to the shortcomings of its own views. Each side begins to view its own perspective as "right" and the other's as "wrong." As the perspectives become increasingly polarized, misunderstandings turn into major disagreements. Tension and hostility increases, which, if allowed to go to its extreme, may result in major strife. At times, it has even resulted in wars between nations.
A one-sided focus is a horrible trap, because it can be self-perpetuating. Not only does it tend to intensify, when the other person stresses the "opposite" set of facts, but it can cloud one's perception, so that a person becomes unable to see the full truth, even when confronted with both complementary aspects of it. This one-sided emphasis will cause him to misinterpret (or re-interpret) the other person's view, so that, rather than seeing it as an attempt to accept all of the truth, he sees it as nothing more than a modification of the opposing "wrong" view, or simply as an "inconsistent" view.
Just about every argument has two "sides." Because of this, many examples can be found, to illustrate the way that "half-truths" can polarize people's thinking, and cause them to line-up on opposing "sides." Most disagreements about the Bible begin on this level - though by the time the views have fully developed, neither side understands the "opposite" side clearly enough to realize it.
However, we will illustrate this "half-truth" concept with the principle already mentioned, concerning love expressed to "nearby" and "far away" people. As already mentioned, we have two complementary truths:
1) We have obligations both to those living nearby, and to those who are far away.
2) Our obligations to those who live nearby may be greater, simply because God has placed us in greater contact with them.
To maintain the full expression of truth, we must give each of these equal emphasis. We must not emphasize one aspect of this truth, at the expense of the other, or we will have started the journey toward "half-truth" - even though it isn't our intention to do so.
Now suppose we were to over-emphasize the needs of those who live nearby. Once we lost sight of the complementary truth (the needs of those who live far away), our one-sided focus would begin to be a justification for neglecting those who live farther away. Since we no longer saw our obligations to them, we would begin to close our eyes to their needs - including their spiritual needs. Even if we acknowledged their needs, we would see no obligation to do anything about it - and might even try to discourage others from getting involved. There have been times in history, that missionaries were opposed by "Christians," who told them that they should stay home and "let God worry about the heathen"!
We do have obligations to those who live far away. When we choose to ignore these people, we are sinning - not only against them, but also against God. After all, who is it who told us to evangelize the world? Since it is God who commands us to share the good news with everyone, an unwillingness to fulfil such obligations is a sin against God, as well as against the people we are avoiding. [Another evangelism issue that involves "half-truths" is whether we should emphasize helping people with their spiritual needs or with their physical needs. Many people focus on one and condemn those who focus on the other. But, though preaching the good news may be the greatest obligation, wouldn't dealing with physical needs be the second greatest obligation? If both are obligations, then shouldn't we do both and neglect neither?]
Suppose, on the other hand, we were to become over-focused in the other direction, on the needs of those who live farther away. This could lead us to neglect those who live nearby. Eventually, we could begin to "idolize" people who travel overseas to evangelize, while despising those who stay home - and considering them "less spiritual." Today, there are many people who consider "foreign missions" to be a lot more "spiritual" than "home missions."
The obligation for us to love those who are "far away" does not necessarily mean that we must go overseas. We need to start with the neglected "neighbors" who live near us. God can provide an opportunity for us to reach out further, if he is willing. But if we are unwilling to start where we are, then going overseas could become an "escape" from obligations we have to those who live nearby! It would be a sin against both our nearby neighbor and God.
While trying to live-out this truth, we must work together as a unit. After all, not all of us can go overseas and not all of us will stay home. Whether our own role is at home or abroad, we must affirm the need (and value) of each other. We must work to avoid the extremes of both of these one-sided errors!
We must constantly be on guard, because this unbalanced emphasis can show itself in many ways. To illustrate this, we will expand our "nearby / far away" illustration into a more-generalized principle. Instead of referring to people as living "near" or "far away," which focuses on geographical distance, we will simply focus on the concept of "distance."
Geography is just one of the many kinds of barriers that can exist between people - barriers which create "distance" between them. There are also political barriers, social barriers, economic barriers, and cultural barriers - to name a few. These barriers can be quite difficult to break down; this "distance" can be quite difficult to get across. And because of this, a person will often find it easier to express "love to neighbor" to someone who is in similar circumstances, than to someone who has a significantly different background.
As before, we can divide this principle into two complementary truths, one that emphasizes interaction with those who are similar to us, and one that emphasizes interaction with those who are different from us. As before, we could (if not careful) take this generalized principle and begin to over-emphasize one of these two focuses, and ultimately end-up with a "half-truth." And if we did this, it would not be long before we began to use it as an excuse for neglecting the other, un-emphasized obligation, or even denying that it exists. And as before, we would soon begin to justify our actions, without even realizing that they were disobedience and sin. (As before, this would not necessarily be a deliberate, willful act, but rather, a natural consequence of our one-sided focus.)
In this specific example, when people start to become one-sided in their thinking, they tend to focus on the easier task of expressing love to those who are similar to them. (There are a few exceptions.) People tend to find it easier to love those who love them back. Yet God requires us to love even people we don't like - those who are not easy to love, those who are "unlovable." More than that, Scripture reminds us that this love for those who don't "pay back" with love is one of the characteristics that distinguishes between genuine and counterfeit "children of God" - compare to Matthew 7:43-48.
Since we find it easier to express love to people who are "like" us, it is very easy for us to have a one-sided focus on them. It is very easy to neglect, and ultimately forget, our obligations to those who are less-easy to love. And once we lose sight of these obligations, it becomes very easy to make-up good-sounding excuses that "justify" our avoidance of those who are "different" from us.
When we justify and excuse our avoidance of those who are "different," it reinforces our negligence. We become increasingly blind to our need to love them. And we completely lose sight of the fact that our neglect is a sin against both them and God - see Matthew 25:31-46. (All the while, we would be claiming that we were obeying the "truth"!) And so, even though Jesus came to tear down such barriers (Galatians 3:26; Colossians 3:11), we would have distorted this principle, and turned it into an excuse for reinforcing them.
Here is another example - this time from events recorded in the Bible: The religious leaders of Jesus' day were often guilty of this sin of "half truths." In their case, they often focused on minor issues (such as ceremonial rituals) while neglecting the things that God considered to be of greater importance (such as love for neighbor). (See Matthew 23:23.) At other times, man-made rules crept in (because of their one-sided focus), and these often conflicted with the truth they had begun to ignore. (See Mark 7:1-13.)
Before we decide that these religious leaders are "horrible villains," we need to remember that they didn't plan to be wrong! They did all their "research" - examining various commentaries and writings that they would have described as being "the godly wisdom of Spirit-led men of the past." In the end, their views were strongly influenced by, if not completely derived from, the writings of these past religious leaders - and they lost sight of the Word of God itself. Jesus, on the other hand, focused on "the Word of God itself" - and in doing so, he incurred the wrath of the religious leaders, who accused him of ignoring (and teaching against) those "sacred" teachings that they, themselves, had accepted.
We must be careful to not follow the example of these past religious leaders. And we must have the humility to realize that we are not inherently better than they. We, too, can find it very easy to put our trust in the commentaries and writings of those we consider "godly, Spirit-led men of the past." (Of course, different people will come up with different, often-contradictory, lists of who those "godly, Spirit-led men of the past" are.) Unless we submit ourselves to God and his Word, we, too, are fully capable of doing the same types of things that the leaders of Jesus' day did. We, too, could end up opposing and persecuting those who accepted "the Bible as is" - just like professing Christians have done to other professing Christians, down through the centuries. That is one of the reasons that Scripture includes so many warnings against their way of life.
Even when we acknowledge complementary (seemingly opposite) obligations, we must do our best to avoid the temptation to de-emphasize one, in favor of the other. In some cases, the obligations - in order to fulfil them all - might require Christians to work together as a group. In this case, each would have to not only do his own part, but would need to consciously affirm the value and necessity of those who had a greater focus on the complementary obligations. Both must be affirmed and encouraged; neither is to be neglected, ignored, or opposed. [This working as a group is not to be used as an excuse for individuals to neglect complementary obligations, when they have the ability to fulfil them.]
There are other times when we must deal with obligations that cannot be dealt with on a group level. There may be obligations that appear to conflict, that we, alone, must deal with. In such a case, we must remember that, when it comes to obligations, the basic rule remains unchanged: When at all possible, we must fulfil all our obligations to everyone involved. At times, it may be quite tempting to excuse obligations we don't like, by claiming that they "conflict" with other obligations, even when they don't. But this is not an option for the disciple of Jesus.
There is one final comment that must be made, related to this issue of "half-truths." All along, we have been stressing that, whenever we face an issue, we must accept both sets of complementary facts. We could describe this as a "both-and" perspective. Most people tend to focus on one set of facts or the other, viewing them as contradictory concepts. This could be described as an "either-or" perspective - something that we must vigorously resist.
However, there is a place for "either-or" thinking, in the Bible, when it comes to the issue of compromise. Scripture tells us that we cannot serve both the true God and idols. As Elijah said, we must choose one or the other - we cannot serve the Lord and Baal (1 Kings 18:21). As Jesus said, we cannot serve both God and money (Matthew 6:24). There is no fellowship between light and darkness, righteousness and wickedness, Christ and the devil (2 Corinthians 6:14-18).
Dennis Hinks © 2001