Piety versus Love

I thought of titling this piece, “Which Came First?” But when I searched that simple-but-complex question, I found oodles of that title’s instances, most of which had something to do with evolutionary theory. But that’s not what I’m getting at, unless you think of love as having evolved from piety, or vice versa.

As usual, C.S. Lewis addressed the issue more effectively than I can with his question about why some pious people seem exempt from suffering for their faith. My answer is, those who properly represent Christ in his love and holiness will suffer.

“Piety” is word that was once considered a virtue, but in today’s religious—or antireligious—climate, it’s thought to imply stuffy religiosity, and even hypocrisy. Simply defined, though, it means “righteousness through reverence for God.” The issue with that definition is, both “righteousness” and “reverence” need to be qualified.

Love for God may indeed motivate such reverence, but there other motives that aren’t so … well … lovely. One such motive is the desire to qualify for God’s love by currying his favor. The first-century Scribes and Pharisees exemplified this motive by observing all the Jewish laws, ordinances and customs meticulously. Yet Jesus said, Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation. (Luke 20:46-47) 

Let’s move forward 1500 or so years to examine more recent examples of hypocritical motives. Consider the various Catholic inquisitions carried out in the Middle Ages and into the sixteenth-century. There are few more infamous examples of wholesale cruelty and sadism in the name of Christ, especially where the Church profited from the murders of wealthy land owners alleged to have blasphemed Christ or the Church.

Please understand, the last thing I intend with this piece is to become embroiled in arguments about religious history. Having spent my early years as a Catholic, I’ve heard plenty of their side of church history, which justifies the inquisitions and crusades as expedient, if tragic. But the Catholic Church isn’t alone in such excesses; The Church of England once killed people who were caught trying to make the English Bible available to the common people. And history provides many other examples of persecution by Protestant denominations, all of them in the name of Christ.

Today, we can find the effects of messed-up motives simply by studying the actions of some long-time church members. These “saints” somehow have the idea that their religious tenure entitles them to “rule the roost.” Congregants who won’t toe their line become unwelcome in church. And pastors who commit the same sin had best find another pulpit to fill. These “big cogs in little wheels” usually work their dark magic behind the closed doors of board or committee meetings, or even by subtly spreading verbal poison.

Pious reverence can never produce the kind of love that God wants from us, so now we turn it around to consider love for God that produces reverence. Apostle John said, “We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.” (1 John 4:19-21) For the “commandment we have from him,” we must look to Mark 12:29-31, where Jesus pronounced “the most important commandment.” If you want to define “love,” just search it on Biblegateway.com.

What a shame that human religion forces us to contrast piety with love. On which side do you stand?


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