I love you. Here’s a textbook.

Imagine this scenario, if you will…

It’s little Sara’s birthday, and she’s overjoyed to unwrap a present and discover a brand new pair of shiny roller skates, just like the ones she’s been eyeing in the store for months. With an excited shriek, she runs straight out to the sidewalk in front of her home to try them out, but in her excitement, she leaves her new kneepads in the box. It’s not long before she hits an uneven patch of pavement and goes tumbling, badly scraping her knee in the process.

Sara comes crying into the house. Her arms are scratched. Her knee is bloody. She’s in pain, and her pride is wounded. Her mother turns around and instantly realizes what’s happened.

Question: How should Sara’s mom show her love?

(a) Hug Sara warmly and offer to bandage up her knee and/or kiss it to make it better.

(b) Toss some skating safety pamphlets at her and tell her she should have known better.

If you chose (b), I sure am glad you weren’t my mom!

It’s a parent’s job to show love to their kids. Sometimes that means doing things the kids don’t like (curfews, discipline, saying “no”), but there should always be love undergirding it all, and that needs to be clear. Sara’s mom does need to insist on Sara’s wearing the appropriate safety gear in the future, but in this moment, when Sara is hurting, her mom needs to give her a hug and a kiss and show that she cares about Sara’s pain—that she cares about Sara. You can’t just drop a textbook in your child’s lap and claim that it’s proof of your love because you’re teaching them what’s right.

Similarly, we Christians are called to love our neighbors. In the gay debate, one of the things I hear people argue about is what it means to love someone when you disagree with them on something important. Conservative Christians with a “Side B” view (that gay sex is sinful) often complain that gay people accuse them of being “unloving” just because they don’t support same-sex marriage. That’s not fair, they say; sometimes you show your love for someone by telling them the truth, even if it’s not what they want to hear.

Those Side B Christians are right to be frustrated. Agreement with everything I believe should never be a prerequisite for loving me. Sometimes you show me love by showing me the error of my ways. Other times you show me love by trying to show me what you believe to be the error of my ways, even though I think you’re completely wrong. Either way, you’re still showing your love. I get that.

BUT.

(Yes, there’s a huge “but” here. Hey, I hear you snickering; cut that out!)

textbooksYou can’t use “I’m loving you by telling you the truth” as an excuse to simply debate or argue with me. If your words don’t come wrapped in grace, you might as well be flinging textbooks in my direction. That doesn’t count as love, and you’re not going to change my mind anyway.

You want to love me? Don’t give me a theological treatise on homosexuality and all the reasons I’m wrong. Show me grace. Listen to me. Hear my fears and my pain. Demonstrate that you care about me as a person, not just about winning a theological argument.

If you don’t already know that gay people have experienced a lot of pain at the hands of the church, you haven’t been paying attention. And even if you think some of that pain, like Sara’s, is a direct result of making bad choices, that’s still no justification for callousness. Love calls for you to empathize with the other person’s pain, whatever its cause. If you’re not showing empathy, you’re not showing love. Period. End of story.

Jesus interacted with sinners all the time. He did sometimes call their attention to their sin, or at least encourage them to “go and sin no more.” But notice how he always showed them grace first. The only exceptions in all of Scripture are when he called others out for the ways their own ungraciousness was keeping others from coming to God, such as the Pharisees’ self-righteous legalism and the money changers’ setting up shop in the area reserved for Gentile worship. As a general rule, Jesus’ first response to people was to show them love and meet their needs, not to argue with them.

If there’s anything you ever get from my book, my blog, my speaking engagements, and everything else I ever say, I hope it’s that we Christians should make grace the centerpiece of everything we do. We’re known as Jesus’ followers by our love—lived out with the kind of grace God has repeatedly shown us.

A lot of people assume that because I’m a gay Christian, my goal in life is to convince everyone of a particular viewpoint on the Bible’s view of same-sex relationships. Nope, not at all. I will summarize my views when I’m asked, but that’s not my focus or my ministry. I’d like to get folks on both sides of that debate to show more grace to one another, and I’d like to help Christians understand the human beings behind this debate—to see us as people, not as issues.

If you get that, then you get me—even if you and I disagree on every last bit of theology and Bible interpretation, from transubstantiation to sexual morality. But if you don’t get this principle of grace—if you’d rather hurl words and arguments and Bible passages and textbook-sized diatribes at people in an attempt to prove how wrong they are—then I’m afraid we don’t have much to talk about, even if you and I agree in our interpretation of every other theological point, down to the number of angels who could dance on the head of a pin.

(The answer is 42, by the way. But we can still be friends even if you got it wrong.)