February is the official month of love. It is otherwise known as Black Friday for Hallmark and Russell Stover, all surrounding we show those special to us just how much we love them. What is it about this emotion called "love?" “Love” is an overused word in our culture. It’s used to describe a favorite food or a relationship between people — two extremely different meanings. The word “love” is thrown around in youth ministry quite often and rightfully so. We are commanded to love God and love our neighbors (Matthew 22:39). John explains in his first epistle that love for other believers is evidence of mature faith. Throughout the gospels, we’re reminded of Christ’s love for us (John 3:16 being the premiere passage). And being loved always looks nice. When someone shows love for us is it always something pleasant? It should be gifts, words of encouragement, spending time, or one of the other “love languages,” right?
Let me ask this question, "Should love ever look 'ugly'?” Is there ever a time in Scripture where love was demonstrated, but it wasn’t pretty? Both Paul and Jesus give examples of the “darker side” of love.
We can read Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:15-17 as a pretty harsh statement. The same Jesus who tells us to love others and even encourages Peter in the next verses to essentially never stop forgiving someone also tells us there's a time to confront, confirm, and cease a relationship. We’re given a clear three-step process to work out, in love, an issue between ourselves and another brother or sister in Christ.
- Confront - First, approach the other person on your own. Let them know how they wronged you. Jesus says if they make amends, then “you’ve gained your brother.” Paul gives additional guidance when addressing someone, and that is to engage with humility (Galatians 6)
- Confirm - If that doesn’t work, the next step is to take two or three witnesses and approach the offender again. God designed this process, so the situation doesn’t develop into “you said/they said.” These witnesses will either confirm the offender isn’t repentant or will verify the circumstance is resolved.
- Cease - Finally, if these solutions don’t work, then the offender is to be treated as though they are not part of the body of Christ. Jesus uses some culturally harsh terms for people who are not repentant.
Paul gives another example of the “dark side” of love in his first letter to the church at Corinth. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul is shocked to hear a sin being committed within the community of believers. There was a man who was having sexual relations with his stepmother. Paul points out it was “not even tolerated among pagans” (5:1). Commentators may disagree as to why this was happening (over-realized eschatology, newfound liberty in Christ, etc.). Regardless, it was an egregious sin, and Paul gives clear guidelines for how the church should proceed. He says, “Let him who has done this be removed from among you.” The situation is slightly different here because there were no identified offended parties. The church literally boasted about what was happening within their community! In this present day, those passages can seem unduly severe and rigid. We might question whether those were merely responses to cultural issues of the time. Perhaps the advice given for the unique situations is descriptive and not prescriptive. Granted, the Corinthian church had a very unusual state of affairs (pardon the pun), but the common theme among both Jesus’ and Paul’s words was repentance and reconciliation. Jesus wants the two in his illustration to come together once again in love. Paul explains later in chapter 5 that the church shouldn’t be busy judging those outside the church. Instead, focus on the evil within. God judges those outside the walls of the church. Paul tells the church to be harsh with the hope that “his spirit might be saved” (5:5). He wants the church to have an excellent testimony to those within the congregation and those outside it. How can a 21st century Christian perceive those passages as loving? The Gospel itself demonstrates a love for the soul, the whole person. In each passage, the desire is for repentance. The goal is to bring those who are in sin back to the right standing within the fellowship. This concept is not to be taken lightly. The bride of Christ and her reputation are important. Our desire should be the same as Christ’s: to help people see the dangers of their sinful choices and be made right, reconciled, in God’s eyes.
As youth workers, we find ourselves faced with this “tough love” sometimes with teenagers. We don’t want to alienate them because of poor choices. Teenagers always have, and always will make poor choices just like us. However, when we have a student who is verbal about their walk with God, but their lifestyle doesn’t match their words, what do we do? Are we bold enough to confront them? It’s a risky choice. We may offend them. We may rub their parents the wrong way. There may even be pushback from other teens and their parents. That’s why we’re reminded the goal is reconciliation and our actions must be rooted in love. It’s not an "us" vs. "them" motive. Our humility and genuine care for students can shine through even in the most painful moments of relational confrontation if we are rooted in Christlike love.
- What is an area in your youth ministry where “tough love” might be needed?
- What is the motivation behind approaching the issue?
- How can you best communicate your love for the student while admonishing them?
- Who do you need to “have your back” in this? Senior pastor, other youth leaders?
- What’s one way you feel called to pray for reconciliation in your youth ministry?