A Study in Values and "Conflicting" Obligations and
Application of These Principles to the Bible's Use of the Words "Love" and "Hate"
In many passages, the Bible associates the word "love" with God. God loves the world (John 3:16); he has a special love for those who belong to him (the "church" - Ephesians 5:25b; the "children of God" - 1 John 3:1); etc. Most people focus their attention on these "positive" references about God and overlook the fact that many so-called "negative" words are also associated with God. Words such as "anger" and "wrath" can be found in many passages throughout the Bible (Deuteronomy 6:15 and Romans 2:8, for example).
This study looks at some of the verses that use another of the so-called "negative" words, "hate." These specific verses describe both God and righteous people, as "hating" certain people (or groups of people). Some of the verses even command people to hate - at least within the circumstances defined by the context.
We will focus on the way this word relates to "love," and how such verses should impact the way we view our obligations toward God, neighbor and self. Along the way, we will also look at some of the other issues we might face, as we attempt to understand how we should live - issues such as how we should respond when obligations appear to contradict each other.
This study is not the final word, as far as defining the relationship between love and hate. We are all still growing in our understanding of our infinite God. We will never fully understand him, but hopefully our understanding will grow as we explore these issues. If nothing more, perhaps we will be a little closer to appreciating the complexity of God's greatness, when contrasted to our feeble attempts to understand his ways (Isaiah 55:8-9; Romans 11:33-36).
Below are three considerations that may help us to better understand some of the issues related to this matter:
First, the Bible uses many words in both "positive" and "negative" ways. This is important for us to remember, and it might make it easier for us to accept the idea of the word "hate" being used in both "positive" and "negative" ways. The issue has to do with context: The significance of a word is determined by its context.
Take, for example, the word "jealousy." In 2 Corinthians 11:2, Paul claims that he has a godly jealousy. But in 2 Corinthians 12:20, he lists jealousy as one of the sins that he fears is among the Corinthians. In the space of two chapters, Paul uses the same word to describe a godly characteristic, as well as a sinful characteristic. The context - the reason for the jealousy - determines which way we interpret it.
Another example is the word "love." Most of the time, this word is used in a good sense, but it can be used in a bad sense when it is directed toward the wrong thing. Two examples of the word "love" being used in a bad sense are: John 12:43, in which Jesus refers to people who love to receive praise from other people (rather than from God), and 2 Timothy 3:4, which makes reference to people who love pleasure more than they love God.
Sometimes the Bible will refer to a characteristic that must be expressed to all people, but it will tell us to express that characteristic to a greater degree toward one person, than toward another. For example, Scripture tells us that we must be ready to do good to all people, but that we must do this even more so to believers (Galatians 6:10).
In some cases, a certain characteristic may be expressed toward one person to such a great degree, that it appears to be absent toward others - even though it isn't. There may be times that this apparent absence of that characteristic could be described by the opposite characteristic. For example, if the specific characteristic were "love," this lesser expression of love, when extreme, could be described by the word "hate." If the Bible were to use the word "hate" in this manner, it would not be intended as an absolute contradiction of the word "love," but as a relative contrast to the greater expression of love given to the other person (or group). [Of course, if some other person were opposed to that "lesser expression of love," they would describe it as "hate" in the worse sense of the word.]
The Bible tells us that we must obey people who have authority over us. It also tells us that we must obey God. These two commands should never conflict, for the human authority should never want a person to do something that is contrary to God's will. But we live in a sinful world, so we need to know what to do, if the human authority does want us to do something that goes against God's commands.
In answer to this question, the Bible says that certain obligations take precedence over others. In the above scenario, Scripture tells us that our obligation to God is greater than our obligation to human authorities. And so, in this case, we would choose to obey God, rather than men (Acts 4:19; 5:29).
If we were to arrange all our obligations according to their level of priority, our highest level of obligation would be to God - to love and obey him, and to give him the highest place in our lives. Our second-highest level of obligation would be to other people - to love them as ourselves, and to consider their well-being as more important than our own. (This would include obeying them, if they were an authority over us.) Below that we could place a general category that would include any other obligation we may have - to self and to the rest of creation. This third level would also include obligations that are voluntary or optional, religious ceremonial activities, etc. [Since our focus here is on an issue pertaining to people and to God, we will be focusing mainly on the "self" aspect of this third level. Additional comments about this third group can be found in PART 6 and PART 7 of this study.] Sin and the devil have been placed in a fourth category, since we have no obligation to them, other than that of opposition and hatred.
How do these levels work? First, if we are living in obedience to God's Word, we will want to fulfil all our obligations, if possible. We will want to fulfil both of the "two greatest commands" (Matthew 22:37-40). In other words, we will want to honor and glorify God, and give him first place in our own lives (the first command). We will also want to do the types of things that bring good into other people's lives (the second command).
However, if a situation arose in which a conflict occurred between our obligations, such as obligations to God and to other people, we would have to give precedence to the higher obligations. If necessary, we would have to "sacrifice" (or "give-up") the lower obligation, in order that we could fulfil the higher obligation. Specifically, obligations to God would take precedence over any other obligations we might have. And obligations to our neighbor (that is, to other people) would take precedence over all other obligations except obligations to God. [Note that "fulfilling obligations to God" is not the same as "performing religious activities." See PART 7.]
Everyone faces decisions that involve priorities and values, and one's choices will be a reflection of those values. Because of this, those who accept the Word of God will often make choices that are the opposite of those made by people who would rather ignore it. This is because those who do not accept the Bible's order of priorities will not accept the decisions that reflect those priorities. When they see people living by these priorities, they may respond with anything from mere disapproval to extreme hostility. They may even try to force the person who loves God to go against the Bible. In some parts of the world, choosing to follow God may even result in persecution or death. (More Christians are killed today, than at any time in the past 2000 years.)
The person who loves God will reflect it in his choices. It may require very difficult decisions, such as the choice between denying Christ, or acknowledging Christ (and because of that, suffering persecution and possible death). Or it may be a simple decision, such as whether or not to spend some time each day reading the Bible and praying. In either case, the decision made will be a reflection of the person's heart, and will prove whether or not his love for God is genuine. (His love for God will also be reflected in his love for other people.)
Dennis Hinks © 2001