Love Works

August 29, 2021

Series: August 2021

Category: So-called Christian Values

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Today's Scripture: 1 Kings 12:1-20

Today's Sermon


"Love Works"


1 Kings 12:1-20

          12Rehoboam went to Shechem, for all Israel had come to Shechem to make him king. 2When Jeroboam son of Nebat heard of it (for he was still in Egypt, where he had fled from King Solomon), then Jeroboam returned from Egypt. 3And they sent and called him; and Jeroboam and all the assembly of Israel came and said to Rehoboam, 4‘Your father made our yoke heavy. Now therefore lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke that he placed on us, and we will serve you.’ 5He said to them, ‘Go away for three days, then come again to me.’ So the people went away.

          6 Then King Rehoboam took counsel with the older men who had attended his father Solomon while he was still alive, saying, ‘How do you advise me to answer this people?’ 7They answered him, ‘If you will be a servant to this people today and serve them, and speak good words to them when you answer them, then they will be your servants for ever.’ 8But he disregarded the advice that the older men gave him, and consulted the young men who had grown up with him and now attended him. 9He said to them, ‘What do you advise that we answer this people who have said to me, “Lighten the yoke that your father put on us”?’ 10The young men who had grown up with him said to him, ‘Thus you should say to this people who spoke to you, “Your father made our yoke heavy, but you must lighten it for us”; thus you should say to them, “My little finger is thicker than my father’s loins. 11Now, whereas my father laid on you a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke. My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.” ’

          12 So Jeroboam and all the people came to Rehoboam on the third day, as the king had said, ‘Come to me again on the third day.’ 13The king answered the people harshly. He disregarded the advice that the older men had given him 14and spoke to them according to the advice of the young men, ‘My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke; my father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.’ 15So the king did not listen to the people, because it was a turn of affairs brought about by the Lord that he might fulfil his word, which the Lord had spoken by Ahijah the Shilonite to Jeroboam son of Nebat.

16 When all Israel saw that the king would not listen to them, the people answered the king,

          ‘What share do we have in David?
               We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse.
          To your tents, O Israel!
               Look now to your own house, O David.’

          So Israel went away to their tents. 17But Rehoboam reigned over the Israelites who were living in the towns of Judah. 18When King Rehoboam sent Adoram, who was taskmaster over the forced labour, all Israel stoned him to death. King Rehoboam then hurriedly mounted his chariot to flee to Jerusalem. 19So Israel has been in rebellion against the house of David to this day.

20 When all Israel heard that Jeroboam had returned, they sent and called him to the assembly and made him king over all Israel. There was no one who followed the house of David, except the tribe of Judah alone.  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD.

Love Works

            It doesn’t take much to get people talking about “young people these days.”  Generational talk always gives me a chuckle.  We seem enamored with applying labels to various generations, but the generalizations are relatively flimsy.  Invariably, though, an older generation criticizes a younger one as some form of the culturally dreaded label “soft.”  (Younger generations have predictable things to say about those who came before as well).   

            Tough love is what people need!  In almost any arena, there are those who will trumpet this refrain. I grew up in a sports climate where that was the rule in coaching. Men are particularly conditioned to favor this.  We see it in other arenas too:  politics, business.  It’s about being tough, demanding.  Our prison system is now largely predicated on punishment, tough love in its purest form. No matter what we learn from psychologists and developmental specialists, some parents are adamant about tough love.  It took me but a few seconds to find an example on the internet.  It was of a teenage girl in Florida who was forced to stand on the street and hold a sign that said she snuck boys into her house in the middle of the night and how that disrespected the parents and grandparents. She was so ashamed, she stood there covering her face with her arms.[1]

            You can already probably tell where I come down on this matter.  Maybe you expect me to oppose it on a moral or spiritual level, and I do, but I’m not here to do that today, at least primarily.  My challenge here is largely on the basis that tough love, simply and demonstrably, doesn’t work, which may be the outgrowth of spiritual truths.  For the purposes of our discussion, we’ll use this definition of social psychologist Veronika Tait, “actions toward another that are cold, withdrawn, or punitive with the intent to improve behavior.”[2]  Tait is clear that the evidence shows tough love is ineffective.  With respect to spanking, for example, she cites one report which concludes, “Physical punishment is associated with increased child aggression, antisocial behavior, lower intellectual achievement, poorer quality of parent-child relationships, mental health problems (such as depression), and diminished moral internalization,” meaning whatever lesson your trying to instill doesn’t actually make it in, when you try and pound it in.  In fact, it prevents the moral lesson from sinking in.[3]  She continues, “Harsh punishments model problem solving through threats, violence, and aggression,” adding “It also leads children to avoid the punisher.”[4]  Those are two important points, 1) it teaches the child to solve problems through the use of force, and 2) it disconnects the child from the parent, and what you most want for growth is a strong connected relationship.  Tait cites similar evidence about “scared straight” juvenile justice system programs as well as practices such as solitary confinement in adult prisons.  If the goal is to improve behavior, these tactics don’t work. 

            Tough love also backfires when applied to the self.  I know it seems like we are a culture obsessed with building self-esteem, that we have an overabundance of self-esteem and really we need to be tougher on ourselves.  “If you want to find people with high self-esteem,” I once heard a presenter at a conference say, “go look at a prison.  These people think so highly of themselves, they thought the rules didn’t apply.”  Clinical psychologist Christina Carter clarifies this is not true self-esteem.  True self-esteem is showing “self-respect, and self-compassion, even in the face of negative feedback.”[5]It doesn’t mean you don’t allow that feedback to shape and better you; you just don’t let it dangerously wound you. Self-directed tough love isn’t going to get you true self-esteem, and ironically may be a form of self-absorption.

            Before I go further, I can imagine some of you sitting there thinking to yourselves about occasions where tough love seems to have worked for you.  I myself have counseled many a couple about the difficult choice of cutting off material support to an adult child with an addiction problem.  That may be a touch decision, but don’t confuse it for tough love.  Refusing to enable someone’s self-destructive behavior is not, at its core, punitive.  Yes, I suppose there may be a degree to which it is withdrawn, and may even feel cold, but, in fact, it is an attempt to restore a healthily connected relationship and invite the person into a constructive treatment program. Accordingly, refusing to engage in tough love does not mean refusing to set clear and appropriate boundaries—good boundaries actually create safety.  It simply means recognizing you ultimately don’t get the best out of people by intimidating them, belittling or berating, or actively harming them.  

            This is not only modern research; it’s ancient wisdom.  That passage you heard earlier about the two rhyming kings, Rehoboam and Jeroboam, may have been tough to follow, but it embodies this ethic on a scale beyond the interpersonal.  Rehoboam, upon inheriting his father Solomon’s kingdom is approached by some advisors who want him to lighten the rule his father employed.  Rather than listen, Rehoboam doubles down, saying, “Now, whereas my father laid on you a heavy hoke, I will add to your yoke.  My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions” (I Kings 12:11).  This is right after he compares his little finger to…another part of his father’s…anatomy (who said the Bible was boring?).  Toxic masculinity anyone?

            That tells you all you need to know about tough love.  It isn’t.  It isn’t love; I think that’s quite clear.  Yes, it can be a desperate or misinformed attempt by someone who does love another, but in and of itself it is not an act of love.  It also isn’t tough.  Every bully bleeds insecurity.  You can hear it in Jeroboam.  The reason people are harsh is precisely because they’re not tough.  They don’t have the self-esteem Carter describes as self-respecting and self-compassionate in the face of feedback.  They are weak and afraid—and by the way there’s nothing wrong with being weak or afraid.  They simply overcompensate for their fear and weakness with a show of damaging force. 

            Notice what some of Rehoboam’s advisors say to him.  “If you will be a servantto this people…and speak good wordsto them…they will be your servants forever” (v. 7, emphasis added). That’s true strength because it doesn’t have to prove anything.  Rehoboam’s rule is so ill-received that when he sends one of his taskmasters to oversee the forced labor, he is stoned to death.  The only way to lead through the ethic of tough love is through ever escalating threat and punishment.  I love the advice to “speak good words.”  I recently read Rob Bell’s book, Everything is Spiritualand one of the points he makes is the church has gotten lost in sometimes telling some really bad stories. We need to do better at speaking better words. 

            I’ve seen it in action.  When I was in the YMCA camping world, a colleague and I went to observe what another camp was doing with one of their leadership programs.  It wasn’t what they taught in the curriculum or activities that left the most lasting impression, it was a moment where I watched their executive director interact with a child.  I’ll never forget it.  It was lunch time, and the child was carrying a tray full of items.  They lost control and some dishes or a glass slid off the tray, shattering on the floor.  That sort of nervous silence set in.  There were probably a couple laughs and maybe even sarcastic claps, but before any of that could take root, the director of the camp was running toward the boy, saying over and over “It’s okay.  It’s okay. It’s okay.”  It was as if the child’s life depended on him knowing he wasn’t going to be harshly punished for an honest mistake.  Maybe because he knew in some small way the kid’s life did depend on that.

            People do better when they’re in an environment where they have the adequate safe and supportive space to grow.  I listen to a radio show, well a podcast now, called the Dan Le Batard show. In its inception, it was ostensibly about sports.  It’s a good bit silly and sophomoric, but it is also sometimes quite serious and insightful about the subjects of culture and race, human rights, freedom, and the tangible benefits of diverse voices from diverse backgrounds at the table. It’s sneaky smart and some have started writing about it, including Mike Shur who has created some of the most successful television shows in recent years.  He wrote an article for Slate about the show and has since joined its media company.  Le Batard has taken a rather ragtag bunch of personalities and turned them into a tight-night group that is part comedy, part commentary, and wholly family.  He’s launched a number of careers and people in the field, and people line up to be a part of the show. 

            Why? Le Batard plays the role of a gas baggy straight man, often on some perceived moral high horse, but in the way he conducts himself he makes a safe place for this cast of characters to grow into the best versions of themselves.  What he displays is a deep trust that you get the best of people when you let them be the fullest version of themselves.  That’s not necessarily the leadership model we were all taught, where we need to mold people into our vision for them.  There’s a good bit of ribbing in the banter on the show, but at the core is what I can only describe as love, and it’s not tough love.  It’s often soft love.  Le Batard cries regularly, whether it’s in speaking about matters related to his Cuban heritage, or the way he feels about the plight others.  His repeated plea is just to listen to what hurting people say when they’re speaking about their hurt, just listen.  People are given the space to be vulnerable, and, there’s a fierce loyalty in an industry as cutthroat as any.  Success has never been their goal.  Doing it the way they do it is the goal, but it just so happen that it’s enormously successful.  Love works. 
It’s not just that love is good or love is what Jesus said to do.  Love works. Just plain love; you don’t need the tough.   

            You know, I set you up.  At the outset, I made it look like old people always get it wrong, because they’re always decrying the young, but did you notice in the story, who brings the wisdom of lightening the oppressive load on the people?  It’s not the young advisors – they’re the ones advocating for escalating toughness.  It’s the elders.  In my experience, the true elders—those who’ve matured and grown as they’ve aged—often soften, they lighten up, recognize where boundaries need to be drawn and where they don’t, what’s important and what isn’t, and in doing so do understand how to help other people likewise grow.  May we heed them and the calling inside ourselves to become them.  Amen.