Perfect Combination of Love: Justice and Tenderness

February 20th, 2012
Image © by Scott | Flickr | Used under Creative Commons license.

At a retreat, I talked about our culture’s confused ideas about love: feeling close to people; always being pleasant to people; doing whatever others want us to do. Instead, I proposed that love is engaging my will for what is good for that person, doing what seems best.

I have thought about this as I’ve watched several fellow volunteers, at a drop-in center for the homeless in my town, bend to the demands of our clients, being careful not to do things the clients don’t like. These volunteers want to be liked, and they certainly don’t want to be yelled at so they give in to demands. But it isn’t about kindness. I know because they turn to me, roll their eyes and then complain about those same clients.

After a few months of volunteering, they finally enforce a rule or two and turn to me and say, “I’m sorry but I had to be mean to him.” Was it meanness to enforce a rule? In their eyes, placating crabby people and then complaining about them is love. But if the few rules we have are designed to help us treat each other with love and respect, is ignoring the rules an act of love and respect?

I think people get confused because they’ve seen justice enforced only with meanness. But justice can be applied with loving kindness, with a grin and respectful tone of voice. That’s what I ask God to do through me at the center and although I fail sometimes, I find it wonderful to partner with God in this effort.

This blend of kindness and justice is what I think Paul means by “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). Love must be tough, sometimes, but it can be tough and kind at the same time. We can learn to say very difficult things without hostility.

These ideas are filling my mind as I work on a study guide for Dallas Willard’s book Knowing Christ Today. In it, he points out the natural connection between justice and love.

Justice without love will never do justice to justice, nor will “love” without justice ever do justice to love. (p. 83)

The Jan Johnson version might be: How can justice be truly just if it is not also loving? How can love be truly love if it is not also just?

So you may wonder, How do we become people who live in this beautiful blend of justice-tenderness? Perhaps it starts by admitting our natural tendency: tenderness or justice? I confess that I’m a justice person. My huge learning curve has been to see how justice can be drenched with tenderness. So I’m focused these days on ideas such as “A gentle tongue is a tree of life” (Proverbs 15:4).

Ask God today to show you what you need to know about this God sort of justice-love. What are the gaps in your understanding? How is God inviting you to move into new ways that shore up the gaps in your behavior? Depend upon it: God loves us into goodness and justice.

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