Love is not affirmation. Affirmation feels right, but in the end comes up short of love. True love is unconditional.
If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-2)
In looking at the ways love is not affirmation, those who disagree with me are likely to think I am secretly attacking or refuting specific groups of people. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, an objective reading would show that if there is any chastisement in this article, it is directed at the Body of Christ. Although it is chastisement the world will not find satisfying.
What I am comparing and contrasting here are not people, but worldviews. God’s definition of love and the world’s definition of love continue to grow further apart. It is not my goal to make people feel unlovable, but to help them understand that God’s love is superior to the kind of love the world is currently offering them.
Love is not Affirmation
Jesus tells His disciples to love everyone, and especially those who despise them (Matthew 5:43-45). Christ calls His followers to a radical love that refuses to quit even in the face of hatred. It is a love that never gives up, even for the unlovable.
Today, this is not the world’s definition of love. The world has chosen to define love as affirmation.
So how do we know love is not affirmation?
In this way: it is possible to give and receive love without conditions or attachments. It may not be completely understood, but the effort can be appreciated, and perhaps even reciprocated.
Affirmation, however, requires specific action or belief on the part of the giver that agrees with the recipient’s expectations. Unless the attempt at affirmation perfectly aligns with the recipient’s expectations, a giver’s attempt at providing affirmation will be called simply a good first step, which is just another way of saying it is not good enough.
The likely conclusion on the part of the receiver is that the giver isn’t enlightened enough to give the affirmation required (and may never be if their affiliations or beliefs are deemed beyond correction).
Affirmation automatically assumes that the person or group wishing to be affirmed is justified in receiving the affirmation. Whereas love freely given does not require justification, nor does it – and this is important – imply justification.
For the disciple, justification comes only by faith in Jesus Christ as we acknowledge our need for forgiveness for our sins (Galatians 2:16). When followers of Christ choose to affirm unbelievers as they are rather than share the gospel of repentance and salvation with them, we are elevating our affirmation above God’s requirement for repentance.
Just as damaging, when we demand our Christian morals be followed by a culture that is becoming demonstrably less Christian, we are putting our insistence on moral behavior above God’s requirement to love at all costs.
So we can see that love is not affirmation. And true justification cannot be coerced into or out of another person.
The Affirmation Problem
If you are reading this and you have been caught up in some way in the self-affirmation culture, let me just ask – are you getting what you want? Is it really giving you fulfillment and peace?
The problem with affirmation is it does not last. It’s a lot like fame in that sense. Unless we are continually communicating our right to be affirmed, nobody is going out of their way to affirm us. And if we have to continually demand affirmation, how can we know it is even real?
Another problem someone seeking affirmation has: how much of what you are receiving in affirmation is really another person making themselves feel righteous? As stimulating as it is to be affirmed, it is just as stimulating for someone to believe they are extremely moral and good because they are behaving in an enlightened way. If the person providing affirmation is really doing it for themselves, do you even matter to them? And how would you ever be sure what their motivation is?
But love – true love – is stronger than affirmation because it is selfless. The true sacrificial love of an authentic follower of Christ is not motivated by how it makes them feel. It is motivated by obedience to Christ.
To a world that is caught up in affirming itself, I can tell you only the love of Jesus Christ offers lasting hope, peace, joy and fulfillment. Unfortunately, it is not pain-free. Please let me explain.
The Sin Problem
An affirming world is a world where sin not only does not exist, it cannot exist. This is because the ones being affirmed, in assessing their own acceptance, say they are ok. There is nothing “wrong” with them, and it is others who need to affirm this rightness in them.
This sounds healthy, right? To accept ourselves? But if the mirror we are using for ourselves is ourselves, we’re unlikely to understand right and wrong objectively. We are more prone to allowing things that God would call sin to be acceptable for us.
If there is no sin, there is no limit to what is ok. An affirming culture will only behave more badly with time. Even now, you can see fighting between different groups in society taking place, because there is no one standard to compare against. If everyone is right, then wrong does not exist – for anyone. But to think this way is foolish (Proverbs 12:15).
With affirmation, there is no sin, other than refusal to affirm.
For followers of Christ reading the Bible plainly, clearly there is a such a thing as sin. It’s why Christ went to die on the cross. The Bible tells us that when we say we do not sin, we deceive ourselves (1 John 1:8).
However, today’s world sees love and affirmation as not just connected but conjoined. If you don’t agree with another person in totality, then you can’t affirm them, and therefore you can’t love them. And if you don’t love them, you actually hate them.
There is no distinction in affirmation between a person and their behavior. This is why when a follower of Christ says “love the sinner, hate the sin”, it is a terribly shallow and painful way to express our love for unbelievers. When Christ calls us to love others, of course He does not instruct us to condone sin. But that phrase does nothing to explain Christ-like love, any more than it is likely the intent behind the phrase will be correctly understood by a non-believer.
We know that love is not affirmation because affirmation is conditional, with conditions set by the affirmed. The kind of love Jesus calls His followers to express is unconditional.
By way of example, Jesus loves us unconditionally. He was willing to die to prove it, not when we were perfect, but “while we were yet sinners” (Romans 5:8). Christ does not affirm us in the state in which He first finds us – He delivers us from it. Otherwise, there would be no need for Christ followers to deny ourselves, take up our cross daily and follow him.
Christ’s Love Solution
Ultimately, it is not feasible to make respectful coexistence conditional upon affirmation. In the same way, it is not right for a follower of Christ to make love conditional on behavior. If we make love conditional on another person’s behavior, we are being judgmental.
It is unfair for us to personally hold another person to a biblical standard of holiness if they are not a believer. After all, holiness apart from God’s direct involvement is unachievable. Behavior follows belief, not the other way around.
In the end, everyone will be held accountable for what they did with the “Christ question”, but it will be God providing the accountability. Until then, Christ calls us to love our neighbor.
True love does not require an attached affirmation. It also does not include mandatory reproach. At the same time, this does not mean we sugarcoat sin. Because if there is no sin, there is no need for a savior (Romans 3:19-26).
The solution is to leave it to God to use your radical love to produce conviction. If you are loving with Christ-like love, and the recipient of that love opens their heart, conviction from the Holy Spirit will follow. Because it is only through repentance that we will find ourselves at the foot of the cross.
And when conviction comes, treat those dealing with the reality of their sin with compassion. At all times be alert for opportunities to share the good news – emphasis on the word good – of the gospel, which is our calling. But do so with love.
Let us strive to love unbelievers so grandly, deeply, and overwhelmingly, that instead of getting trapped in an affirmation conundrum of the world’s making, they recognize and respond to the love of Christ.
This kind of love is represented for us in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Jesus tells us about a traveler who was robbed and left for dead. Whereas some of the most prominent members of Jewish society ignored him, a Samaritan (a people loathed by the Jews) went to him, took care of him and attended to all of his immediate and near future needs.
This is the kind of love Jesus calls us to. A love so great that it gives the world pause, that makes no human sense.
Let’s love our neighbors so radically that the world will clearly see that love is not affirmation.
More verses that show love is not affirmation:
Psalm 5:11-12; Isaiah 54:10; John 3:16; 1 Corinthians 13:4-7; 2 Corinthians 5:14-15; Ephesians 3:18-19; 1 John 4:18