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The writer of Hebrews reminds us that God disciplines, rebukes and chastises those he loves—his children.
The term love has become debased in popular discourse; it has lost its power of discrimination, having become a cover for all manner of vapid self-indulgence.
Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament
For the first seven years of our marriage, my wife and I struggled both to get pregnant and to carry a pregnancy to term. You can imagine the relief and joy when our son, though significantly premature, was finally born. Visualize the radical welcome and joyous love we showered upon him!
That love took many shapes but at the heart of it was limitations born of profound parental affection. We wanted our son to know thorough freedom, but there was a gate across the top of the stairs that prevented him from great bodily harm or even death. When he was a preschooler, we did not allow him to roam the streets. We strictly ensured that he played in a fenced back yard.
This is appropriate love.
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Today, in many religious circles, this element of love seems to have vanished. Celebrated scholar Richard Hays says in his book, The Moral Vision of the New Testament,
One often hears voices in the Church urging that the radial demands of Christian discipleship should not be pressed upon church members because the loving thing to do is to include everyone without imposing harsh demands such as economic or sexual fidelity…in such cases the term [love] has been emptied of its meaning.
Hays quotes Stanley Hauerwas as saying: “The ethics of love is often but a cover for what is fundamentally as assertion of ethical relativism.” He is right, for the truth of the matter is that “the biblical story teaches us that God’s love cannot be reduced to inclusiveness: authentic love calls us to repentance, discipline, sacrifice, and transformation.”
The plea to keep God’s commandments is heard throughout the Bible. Jesus taught that counting the cost was the necessary first step in deciding whether to follow him. The writer of Hebrews reminds us that God disciplines, rebukes and chastises those he loves—his children.
The Message Version of the Bible is characteristically helpful on this passage:
Have you forgotten how good parents treat children, and that God regards you as his children?
My dear child, don’t shrug off God’s discipline,
but don’t be crushed by it either.
It’s the child he loves that he disciplines;
the child he embraces, he also corrects.
God is educating you; that’s why you must never drop out. He’s treating you as dear children. This trouble you’re in isn’t punishment; it’s training, the normal experience of children. Only irresponsible parents leave children to fend for themselves. Would you prefer an irresponsible God? We respect our own parents for training and not spoiling us, so why not embrace God’s training so we can truly live?
The Restraints of Love
Jesus commonly defines the core of discipleship as taking up one’s cross and following him. He taught that the important things of the law were acts that limit selfishness: justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Mt. 23:23). When James and John wanted to misuse power by calling down fire from heaven on Samaritan villages, Jesus rebuked them—which is to say, he restrained them from doing serious evil.
Paul taught ancient Christians to glorify God in your bodies, which includes both positive practices and disciplined restraints (1 Cor. 6:12-20). To seek new creation implies death to our old self.
Christians are an eschatological people. The world and God’s people are going somewhere. A telos, a completion and fulfillment await us. In the meantime, in our actual lives, we are meant, working with and through God’s grace and power, to shape and bend our lives toward that eschatological orientation.
Picture a funnel used for canning or pouring liquid from a large container to a smaller one. The funnel is a huge help, keeping us from big messes. It gives this assistance in two ways: 1) confining and 2) directing so we can hit the mark.
The common Greek term for sin is hamartia. It means to miss the mark. Thus, hitting the mark is a key idea in followership of Jesus, and the constraints of the funnel help us do that. This is what love for God does in the heart and behavior of followers of Jesus. When we resist or reject constraints that facilitate hitting God’s mark, it’s easier to stumble into sin.
Love on the Narrow Road
“Jesus embraced everybody!”
This is the celebrated truism today. But it is only partially accurate. It leaves out the totality of Jesus’ goal: to create a people who strive to live into the righteousness of God. Jesus spoke of a narrow road, which meant that following him required making choices. The narrow road excluded just going with the flow of society, with a given culture. The narrow road, the one with the constraints of love, led to life. The broad road, with no guardrails toward loving obedience, led to destruction. Dallas Willard taught that the narrow gate is a metaphor for obeying Jesus and the confidence needed to do so.
Divine “baby gates” and God-given fences for spiritual toddlers are sprinkled throughout the Bible and our everyday lives. They are born of love. We are invited to receive them with love from our heavenly Father, with confidence in him. When we embrace constraints as an aspect of fully-orbed love, we find the true freedom that exists on the narrow road—and we are spared the false love that paves the wide road toward destruction.