Biblical Love — Not Tough Love

A number of years ago, I was asked to give expert testimony as a psychologist at a State Senate hearing on abortion. Of all that was said that day, there was only one comment that I found absolutely astounding. An Episcopal Bishop declared, "Abortion is the greatest act of love a mother can demonstrate for her child."

After I was picked up off of the floor, I heard his explanation: If a mother doesn't want her child, the aborting of that child is love. Many years have passed since that day. But I have never been able to forget that minister's perverted view of love.

The illustration brings us to the heart of the problem — people are confused about love. If people understood love truly, many current social problems would be dramatically reduced, if not eliminated. Let me explain.


Many divorced men and women say their marriages failed because they "fell out of love" with their spouses. This of course suggests that they "fell in love" with each other in the first place. They are wrong on both counts. People experience moments of strong physical attraction to others (one writer said it happened to him approximately 250 times a day). Of course most of us don't act on those chemical eruptions. But approximately fifty percent of all marriages end because people are confused about love. They believe that if the initial attraction ends, love ends.

At the same time marriages are falling apart, so are families. Children refuse to listen to parents; parents refuse to discipline their children. The result is a generation of self-centered and self-absorbed children, with no respect for their parents and no respect for authority in general. Parents believe that if they discipline (train) their children, their children won't love them any more. These parents do something, not as an expression of love but to be loved.

Let's call the attraction-equals-love and the love-to-be-loved approaches the "weak love" confusion.


The absence of a true concept of love allows for impotent and failing misconceptions. Psychologists have been quick to fill the moral void. They invented (that's right, invented) a concept that was to be a curative — "tough love."

How could this be bad? They knew love couldn't be weak, so they reasoned that love must be tough (good title for a book). Who could argue with that? Even the liberals started to get on the bandwagon and proclaim that love must be tough. Christians quickly followed, never stopping to consider that widespread acceptance in the world demands closer scrutiny in the church.

This concept of tough love found its greatest support from parents who have allowed their children to tyrannize the family. These parents went to counselors who helped them set limits for their children. Many of these children really turned around because they wanted limits, which no one had ever set. Others didn't change, and therefore found themselves on the streets, where they found that the world will not cater to them (although the U.S. and Canadian governments will, the typical examples of parents who refuse to say no to unruly children).

Does this so-called tough love work? To some degree, yes. But systematic desensitization also work" in relieving people of fear and anxiety. Is this our goal though as Christians? Should these be the means we employ simply because they work? I suggest that while you may have to do some hard things when you love, there is no more biblical evidence for tough love than for weak love.


Now we come to the real thing. The Bible makes clear that love is action-oriented, not feeling-oriented. Love involves sacrificing and giving, regardless of how you feel. "for God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son" John 3:16, emphasis added). And again, "In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loves us and gave His Son" (l John 7:10, emphasis added).

That is biblical love, and it is toward such love that I want to direct Tabletalk readers. Biblical love mayor may not be tough. But toughness is not part of true love's essence. Paul defines love with numerous attributes, and toughness isn't one of them. He says love is "patient, kind, gracious, humble, well-mannered, other-directed, long-suffering, present-oriented, truthful, protective, trustful, hopeful, enduring." His summary statement on the matter is "Love never fails" (l Cor. 13:4-8).

Kids need limits, but they need them long before they are ready to become criminals — and long before their parents are ready to voluntarily enter the nearest psychiatric hospital because of all the chaos. If I had to choose between tough love or weak love, of course I would choose the former, just as I would choose authority over anarchy any day. At the same time if tough love becomes an excuse for authoritarianism (which is not really authority) rather than a display of the love of Christ, the body of Christ has every reason to repudiate it.

All in all, we are best served (and most biblical) when we never travel down the tough-love road at all. I want to stay squarely fixed on the path of biblical love. The only thing that should make love tough is that it is biblical. What makes love biblical is that as a concept and as a practice it conforms to the requirements of Scripture.

Copyright © 1997 Ligonier Ministries-Tabletalk Magazine

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Can a Christian work as a psychologist? Should Christians integrate psychological and biblical methods?