Each of us has directives we live by. The directive to love is at the very heart of most faith traditions, along with being the first and foremost standard to live by for many who do not profess a specific religious belief.
But as we know, directives can often be in conflict with each other, leading to what psychologists call cognitive dissonance. I may have love as my most important guiding principle in life, but if someone tries to take something precious from me, whether in the form of possessions, power, or even people, I may also firmly believe that it is right for me to defend, leading me to respond in ways that are anything but loving.
What do I do? If and when these two directives are in conflict, do I love or do I defend?
Before I do anything, I must discern which directive is the more important guiding principle in life.
When I look to Scripture in my faith tradition, I find the most important directive to be love. For example, in Luke 10:27, I am told that the two greatest commandments are to love God and to love my neighbor with all of my “heart, soul, mind, and strength.” There is no “exception clause” in this verse. There is nothing following it that says “unless…” That is why “strength” is a key word. We know it is not always easy to love, and almost impossible when in certain kinds of conflict. We need strength if love is to be our first and foremost guiding principle when we are faced with a conflicting directive. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, wrote this about love in the preface to his sermons:
For, how far is love, even with many wrong opinions, to be preferred before truth itself without love! We may die without the knowledge of many truths, and yet be carried to Abraham’s bosom. But, if we die without love, what will knowledge avail? Just as much as it availeth the devil and his angels.
In other words, Wesley was saying love trumps right belief. We can have knowledge and even wisdom, but if we do not have love as our most crucial guiding principle, then our wisdom and knowledge amount to nothing.
What might this kind of love actually look like in conflict?
Seventeenth-century French bishop Francois Fenelon, in The Seeking Heart, said it looks like this: “True firmness is gentle, humble, and calm. A sharp tongue, a proud heart, and an iron hand have no place in God’s work.” If we find ourselves acting in these negative ways, Fenelon advises, “Humble yourself immediately. Uphold a godly standard, but admit when you uphold it in an ungodly way.”
What a beautiful way to describe love in practice: yes, uphold godly standards, but never in ungodly ways. Acting with gentleness and humility in the face of adversity can be very hard — almost impossible. But it is not impossible, not if we follow the principle to love, first and foremost, with all of our strength.
May we be guided by love in all we do, always remembering that love truly does trump right belief.
Mary Albert Darling is professor of communication and spiritual formation at Spring Arbor University in Michigan. She is co-author with Dr. Tony Campolo of The God of Intimacy and Action (Jossey-Bass 2007) and Connecting Like Jesus (Jossey-Bass 2010).