Tough Love and Theology

February 17, 2008    By: Geoff J @ 6:22 pm   Category: Theology

Jesus made the steps to inheriting eternal life seem pretty simple.

And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou? And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself. And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live. (Luke 10: 25-28)

Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matt 22: 35-40, see also Mark 12)

What could be more simple? Love God and love each other; all other commandments flow from these two laws and if we keep these two commandments we inherit eternal life.

The problem is that determining how to best love God and our neighbors is not as easy as it might seem.

This is where philosophical/theological assumptions loom large in all of our lives.

Here are just a couple of examples off the top of my head:

A. Let’s assume you are a Mormon who believes that there is no progressions between kingdoms after this life and that anything but exaltation will be somewhat hellish (BRM pushed a theology along these lines). Now let’s assume you have a family member who used to be very active in the church but now doesn’t have interest in praying, going to church, or practicing Mormonism at all. How would you best love that family member? Would a live and let live approach be the most loving approach to take if the universe really worked that way? Probably not. Time here is short after all and if it is largely a “now or never” deal on earth then procrastinating just won’t work. Wouldn’t a much more aggressive approach to this loved one be called for? In other words, if your assumptions about this life being the only good time for this beloved family member to repent were true, wouldn’t “tough love” be called for? Wouldn’t all sorts of drastic means (use your imagination) to get your loved one to repent here and now be the most loving approach to take?

B. Now let’s assume you are an evangelical Christian who is convinced that only believing evangelicals will be saved from burning alive forever in an everlasting hell. You see millions of Mormons out there who are totally unpersuaded by the virtues and tenets of your religion. Wouldn’t a tough love approach be the the most loving approach for you to take? By tough love I mean devote yourself to showing Mormons the evils of their religion and the follies and presumed lies of their current and former leaders. And when they called you a hateful anti-Mormon wouldn’t you know in your heart that you are truly the loving one?

Angels dancing on the head of a pin?

A very common criticism of Mormons who spend time studying Mormon theology is that they are wasting their time on useless trivia. The accusation is that digging into issues like whether progression between kingdoms occurs or not is as useless as digging into a question about “how many angels can dance on the head of a needle”. But correct behavior follows correct belief. How can we know how to best love and serve each other if we misunderstand the nature of humankind, of God, and of the universe? The evangelical anti-Mormon in my example above believes he is loving and serving Mormons by viciously and relentlessly attacking their beliefs, rites, ordinances, scriptures, and prophets. Bad behavior follows bad beliefs.

So is holding a “live and let live” attitude the most loving way to be in this life? Is closely monitoring the behavior of others to be sure they are living their lives in accordance with our understanding of the commandments of God the most loving way to be? What do you think? How do we best love God and love our neighbors?


  1. Under A: Since we know that God is fair, we know that one’s salvation does not depend on anyone else’s actions, God will give everyone the best possible opportunity to accept the gospel–so no drastic action needed.

    Under B: God is not a fair God, many people go to hell because they are simply unlucky. In this case, the most loving thing we could do would be to nuke the entire unbelieving Eastern hemisphere, so they wouldn’t produce more unbelievers who have zero chance at salvation. Under this regime, the crusades were a great and noble act of mercy.

    Comment by Ty — February 18, 2008 @ 8:42 am

  2. I agree with you that the creedal Christians described in example B are in a theological mess Ty. But the problem with your explanation/defense of example A is that it implies that what we do (or fail to do) makes no difference whatsoever in the eternal lives of others. I think that is a hard position to defend theologically.

    Also, your response sidestepped the main question of this post: How do we decide how to best love God and your neighbors? How do we properly choose between “live and let live” and “tough love”? Any thoughts on that?

    Comment by Geoff J — February 18, 2008 @ 9:09 am

  3. Wow… This must be a tougher issue than I even realized. The crickets are chirping around here when it comes to comments right now.

    Comment by Geoff J — February 18, 2008 @ 11:50 am

  4. Well Geoff. It almost seems like a trap you are setting here. Maybe that is not the case. You seem to be saying that if you are a Mormon who does not believe in Kingdom hopping then you may be no better than a vicious anti-Mormon. And that we must either be in the camp that ignores people, or that we overzealously brow beat each other.

    Life and judgement are complicated. Better to teach correct principles and let others govern themselves. This leaves us with the responsibility to strengthen others, and leave judgement to God where it belongs.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — February 18, 2008 @ 12:30 pm

  5. Eric,

    It’s not intended as a trap at all. The examples I gave are just to illustrate the issue I want to discuss so don’t get caught up in the progression between kingdoms thing. There are numerous other examples that could be used. I was just trying to illustrate the basic notion that our paradigm — the theological/philosophical lens through which we see existence — guides our decisions on right behavior.

    Better to teach correct principles and let others govern themselves.

    Herein lies the problem. The correct principle used in this post is that we should love our neighbors. The hard part is determining how that is best accomplished.

    Comment by Geoff J — February 18, 2008 @ 12:45 pm

  6. I know it sounds trite, but follow the Spirit.

    Even if you do think that some “tough love” is necessary for your inactive family member / deluded Mormon, you have to ask yourself if you can comfortably do what methods you want to do in the presence of the Savior.

    I know, I know, it may be easy to imagine up some Jesus who delights in everything from the actions of the middle ages Crusaders to giving a cold shoulder to the beggar on the street.

    But the burden is upon everyone to be honest with themselves. Introspection and sensitivity to the Spirit is the only way to discern the difference between a tough but fair action and a misguided/unChristlike one.

    Comment by britain — February 18, 2008 @ 1:37 pm

  7. …and the only way to discern between an honest “live and let live” approach, and a fearful avoidance of important work that could be done.

    Comment by britain — February 18, 2008 @ 1:39 pm

  8. #2: “But the problem with your explanation/defense of example A is that it implies that what we do (or fail to do) makes no difference whatsoever in the eternal lives of others. I think that is a hard position to defend theologically.”

    I’m not so sure that it is tough to defend theologically. If there was someone who could do something to save me, but that person didn’t do it, then I’m back to the problem of not being saved because I’m unlucky. Now I wouldn’t say that service is unimportant to others–we can do a ton to make others’ mortalities better. But I’m just not convinced that we can affect another’s salvation–it has to be their choice.

    For deciding between tough love and live and let live, if tough love can increase a person’s chance of coming to Christ now vs later, then tough love might be valuable.

    Comment by Ty — February 18, 2008 @ 2:23 pm

  9. Ty: if tough love can increase a person’s chance of coming to Christ now vs later, then tough love might be valuable.

    How would you know one way or the other? The anti-Mormon thinks his form of “tough love” is valuable in just the way you describe.

    If there was someone who could do something to save me

    What do you mean by “save me” in this comment?

    Comment by Geoff J — February 18, 2008 @ 2:34 pm

  10. britain,

    I think there is something to the “follow the spirit” catch all answer. But as you recognize, the anti-Mormon in example B likely thinks he is following the spirit.

    Comment by Geoff J — February 18, 2008 @ 2:37 pm

  11. Of course, but if he chose to quiet himself down, he may detect dissonance between the light of Christ within him, and his actions toward the “deluded.”

    Just like all of us would detect dissonance between how we should live our lives and how we do live our lives.

    Comment by britain — February 18, 2008 @ 3:10 pm

  12. In other words, he may find it hard to kick against the pricks.

    Comment by britain — February 18, 2008 @ 3:13 pm

  13. In other words, he may find it hard to kick against the pricks.

    I wish that were true. Unfortunately there appear to be plenty of lifer antis in the world. Apparently they don’t find it too hard… Worldviews (paradigms) tend to be pretty hard to change it seems.

    39 And that wicked one cometh and taketh away light and truth, through disobedience, from the children of men, and because of the tradition of their fathers. (D&C 93:39)

    Comment by Geoff J — February 18, 2008 @ 6:45 pm

  14. Geoff- For the sake of debate, I’ll say A is correct and there is no progression between kingdoms. This leaves one to ask not whether or not there is no progression between kingdoms, but why. Why would there be no progression. The only satisfactory answer, if such were the case, would be to say that it would be less loving of God to allow such progression (I believe we’ve had that discussion before though)as he knows we would be unable to make it, so he holds us to where we are (and some believe holds us there only until we are able to make such a move forward but that is not the position you seem to want us to take.)

    Anyway, one can hold such a view, that a loving God, who loves us so much to allow us our agency to choose bad choices, etc, would allow us to live our life how we choose. I think it is up to us to follow his example, and beyond teaching correct principles as best we can, to live, love, and move on.

    I am the only one of my family who has joined the church, and have learned to rejoice in the Catholicism of my mother, and in the Methodism of my father and to be grateful for our common ground. However, I personally have to confess that I hold a rather flexible view of the kingdoms, believing the idea of eternal progression is the higher doctrine.

    Comment by Matt W. — February 18, 2008 @ 8:48 pm

  15. The assumption of the post seams to be that by using “tough love” we are more likely to convince someone of the errors of their ways than if we “live and let live”. As someone else said, we should follow the spirit. I have siblings that have fallen away from the church and our family is taking the live and let live approach right now, and honestly I think anything else would just drive them farther away at this point (call it a lack of faith if you must, but I know my family).

    The answer, in my opinion, is that we should do whatever it is that is most likely to help people accept the gospel. For some people that might be tough love, and for others it might be live and let live (while being an example).

    Comment by Mike L. — February 18, 2008 @ 9:53 pm

  16. Matt,

    Obviously one can come up with any number of theological variation in Mormonism. You hypothetically suggest one in which some people are fundamentally and metaphysically not “cut out” for exaltation. I’ve seen others make that very suggestion here at this blog in all seriousness. So you are right — if we believe that we are all predestined or fated to whatever kingdom based on some eternal cap in our personal potential then it is easy to have a live and let live attitude also. (Why bother trying to change people if their fate is already scripted, right?)

    Beliefs drive behavior and our surface beliefs all end up rooted in metaphysical assumptions like the ones we are talking about here. Perhaps my takeaway from this post is that theology/philosophy really does matter in our every day lives…

    Comment by Geoff J — February 18, 2008 @ 10:19 pm

  17. There is a combination here. Beliefs might become ideology, and motivate our goals. How we go about obtaining these goals is also important. A person might be purely motivated, but lack social skills. I think it is a good thing that we train our missionaries to build relationships of trust, find out and resolve conserns, and help them feel the spirit, prior to making comitments.

    I think the best course of action is to first build quality relationships of trust with people. That is what we would do if we loved them, other than if we were driven only by our ideology.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — February 19, 2008 @ 9:36 am

  18. Geoff J-
    to me, “loving your neighbor” means that i shall not: 1.) kill them 2.) Engage in any sexual type-of relations with them 3.) Steal from them 4.) Lie to them 5.) Covet their property.

    Matt. 10:34-39 is good blend of “tough love” and “live-and-let-live.”

    To spend more than enough time to nuture(this includes “tough love”) overly-stubborn people or in your example “a family member who had made the decision to drop his cross and travel down a different path” is not wise. before long you’ve followed your family member deep enough into to mist of darkness that you’ve misplaced your cross and lost sight of path/rod/goal/prize. This has played out in extended family.

    Comment by bay — February 19, 2008 @ 11:09 am

  19. Eric,

    Quality relationships with people are always a plus. But it won’t solve this conundrum we are discussing here. I might truly like/love my friends, but if I believe they will suffer for all eternity if they don’t do X, Y, or Z then I will feel compelled by love to influence them to do X, Y, or Z. This applies in both examples A and B above.

    Maybe the question is: Should we reverse engineer ourselves into a metaphysical position based on the notions we have about proper behavior?

    Comment by Geoff J — February 19, 2008 @ 11:18 am

  20. Geoff,

    I have long been of the opinion that the practical ramifications of theology are underestimated by most people. People commonly dismiss theology as “not essential to my salvation” or other such phrases in an attempt to make theology seem superfluous or unimportant. So, I agree with your point here that theology has a way of getting its fingers into practical matters whether we want it to or not.

    Comment by Jacob J — February 19, 2008 @ 11:20 am

  21. I certainly agree that beliefs are important and that they exert an important influence on our behavior. I think are behaviors are influenced by more than just our beliefs, but beliefs do matter.

    However, if I love somebody, I will try to influence them for good in the way that is most likely to achieve the result I want. There is a difference between being right by preaching truth, and being effective. In my experience, it is seldom effective to nag, brow beat or to be overbearing in preaching repentance. There is no “tough love” and “live and let live” dichotomy. Influence should only be exerted by meekness and love unfeigned. The application of this principle may vary based on circumstances, but our actions must always be guided by that principle.

    Comment by Gary — February 19, 2008 @ 11:35 am

  22. I don’t quite get where you are going here. Are you saying that if our view of proper behavior is something like the characteristics in D&C 121 (power and influence in the priesthood) that the natural motivation that results from our theology should be a match?

    Anyway, I feel there is no question we should try to be a positive influence on those around us. The question is usually how best to go about doing it so that we don’t end up pushing them further away by those efforts. Building good relationships is an important first step in those efforts.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — February 19, 2008 @ 12:36 pm

  23. Eric,

    Jacob captured mostly where I am going here when he said “theology has a way of getting its fingers into practical matters whether we want it to or not”.

    I feel there is no question we should try to be a positive influence on those around us

    I do too, but this is begging the question. Our views on theology drive our views on what being a “positive influence on those around us” means.

    I do like that Gary brought section 121 into the conversation though. If we follow that counsel it will have a tempering effect on any attempts at tough love no matter how screwed up our theological ideas might be.

    Comment by Geoff J — February 19, 2008 @ 12:44 pm

  24. I think mormonism allows people a live and let live escape clause, by way of it’s theological assumptions regarding ordinances for the dead- Anyway, I agree with what you are saying Geoff. Our theology, whether we call it that or not, forms the lense through which we interpret the reality we experience around us. However, I would say our theology is also formed (dare I say determined?) by what we experience.

    Comment by Matt W. — February 19, 2008 @ 5:47 pm

  25. If we make this a chicken and the egg thing, I believe theology comes first. I think this is illustrated in the first principles of the gospel. The first is faith (a theology) the next is repentance (a behavior).

    Comment by Eric Nielson — February 20, 2008 @ 6:27 am

  26. To answer the original question, I think this is an un-generalizable problem. Perhaps that is part of the problem with (B) because he/she thinks that the right answer is simple and straight forward. I’ve got anecdotes that worked for both sides of the coin (“tough love” vs “live and let live”) and I’m sure most people do too.

    I think there’s a distinction between what Jesus is teaching here and what he was teaching with “the least of these my brethren” (ditto for King Benjamin). The contrast comes from the fact that it doesn’t say “love your neigbor as yourself in order to show God that you love him also”. There’s two distinct parts here. The first part implies building a personal relationship with God (and in my opinion learning a good deal of theology in the process). The second part implies building a personal relationship with your neighbors. If you skip one and just focus on the other you’re definitely missing part of the equation.

    You can’t “live and let live” and just sit around all day studying the scriptures. At the same time, I would argue that if you’re approach to everyone is “tough love”, you haven’t taken sufficient time to understand either God or your neighbors. What (B) doesn’t understand is that God doesn’t expect or want him to convert every single person that he thinks is mistaken. There is more to loving your neighbor than saying “I know what’s best for you now take it and LIKE IT”. That’s way too close to the “other” plan.

    Another problem with “tough love” is that many people on the recipient end of such treatment react negatively to the approach/messenger without ever even considering the message. You’ll shoot yourself in the foot before you even get a chance. If you really love your neighbor, you will strive to understand his/her character at least as well as you understand your own and thereby find the right balance of toughness vs tolerance for each individual. If you’ve been working on step 1, then a little personal inspiration/revelation is sure to help.

    As for the issue of progression between kingdoms, I recognize that you were just trying to set up assumptions in order to establish the question. However, I don’t think its a required assumption. Even with progression (which admittedly, I’m not a fan of) you can point to an indefinite period of suffering prior to their completed progression as sufficient reason to want to convert a stubborn friend/relative.

    Comment by Rob — February 20, 2008 @ 9:46 pm

  27. Matt W.,

    The scripture in the original post explicitly calls out the fact that the questioner was a lawyer. We already have one strike against this guy. Then, not only is he a lawyer, he’s a lawyer that tempts Jesus. Now there’s two individuals that tempt Jesus–Satan and a lawyer. I think BY was on to this, but I haven’t heard any ranting in GC against lawyers. “Live and let live” is alive and well in Mormonism.


    Comment by Josh Smith — February 21, 2008 @ 9:49 am

  28. This is a really interesting question. I agree with what a lot of people have been saying about it not being our place to judge other’s actions. I think it comes down to our limitations as humans, and the lens that we see things through (because we are human) which are often foggy. (I think this idea has already been mentioned). So essentially what I mean is that we as mortal beings, usually are not capable of changing other people’s behavior. It is for this reason, that I think love is the most powerful force out there, and I know that power doesn’t come from me, but it can come through me, from God/Christ.

    Unconditional love is what changes people’s behavior. I am willing to guess that none of us here ever changed the way we thought/acted (at least on a permanent basis) due to someone else’s tactics of guilt, fear, manipulation, etc.
    This may not be coming out in the most eloquent, cohesive way, but what I mean to say is that because we, in ourselves, do not really possess the power to change other’s actions (only influence) the only way to love them (in answer to the origial question) is to serve them and love them in the way that they (and all us) need to be; without any kind of judgement or criticism, because it seemly does not work otherwise. Now, please do not misinterpret this to mean that never at anytime should we exhibit tough love with those close to us who are making very dangerous decisions (taking drugs, becoming violent, hanging around violent people, taking dangerous risks, etc). In those more extreme siuations, we need to try to help them see that they could do themselves permanent damage. To stand by and say nothing would be wrong. But there a definite contrast with these kind of situations versus the ones originally referred to ( the family member who is inactive, apathetic about the gospel, ect). And we can all use our own best judgement to distinguish those.

    Comment by Jen — February 21, 2008 @ 2:11 pm

  29. Josh, Not all Lawyers are evil, right? I mean, Christ himself was a great mediator. I think only Lawyers from Texas are evil. /end threadjack

    Comment by Matt W. — February 21, 2008 @ 5:41 pm

  30. Maybe so. Thanks Matt. You gave me a laugh this morning.

    Comment by Josh Smith — February 22, 2008 @ 9:45 am