Skip to main content

The love command is meant to encompass all areas of life for Christians, including Christian public engagement. Given cultural understandings of love, defining love carefully becomes a pressing task. Gorman’s cruciform definition of love helps by defining love negatively, as not seeking our own advantage or edification, and positively, as seeking the good, the advantage, or the edification of others. In attempting to apply this conceptualization of love to public engagement, we explicate the Christian virtue of love by means of four virtues: wisdom, courage, generosity, and humility. Dual processing theory is used to understand the human tendency to act in self-interested ways. We suggest virtue-based pathways, informed by dual processing theory, for cultivating a loving approach to public engagement. Focusing on virtue enables contextual sensitivity to difficult questions and prioritization of becoming like Christ in our modes of public engagement. M. Elizabeth Lewis Hall is Professor of Psychology at Rosemead School of Psychology, Biola University; Jason McMartin is Professor of Theology at Rosemead School of Psychology and Talbot School of Theology, Biola University; Timothy Pickavance is an Associate Professor & Chair of the Talbot Department of Philosophy, Biola University. These three colleagues have collaborated on various grants and projects at the intersection of psychology, philosophy, and theology.

In recent years, public engagement has become increasingly divisive. Research has demonstrated a new trend in this polarization. While polarization could previously be seen primarily in terms of the opinions under discussion, in recent years there has been increasing affective polarization, that is, dislike and distrust of those who hold views different than our own.1 In this interdisciplinary essay, drawing on theology, philosophy, and psychology, we argue that public engagement by Christians should be primarily characterized by love—the antithesis of affective polarization. Love should infuse both the content of what is said, and the mode of engagement. Specifically, we need to demonstrate the kind of love modelled by Jesus. However, this is not a straightforward task; love is not enacted in the same way across all public engagement situations. Jesus argued that love of God and love of neighbor are the primary ethical commands (Mark 12:28-31) and demonstrated this abundantly in his compassionate interactions with the poor and the sick. But he also took a strong stand against the moneychangers and vendors in the temple courts (Matt. 21:12-17, John 2:13-17). Presumably, the overturning of tables and the use of a whip to drive out the cattle were also motivated by love, strange as that may seem to our modern sensibilities.

Given the challenges of implementing the love command in the public sphere, we examine four virtues that can aid in this task—wisdom, courage, humility, and generosity—and examine challenges to their implementation by exploring the psychological processes underlying these interactions. We end with some broad recommendations for inhibiting the kinds of automatic, self-centered responses typical of much current public engagement, allowing for more intentional, loving responses.

The Priority of Love

God is love, and as people who know God, our lives should also be defined by love. This love should be evident, not only toward those whom it is easy to love, but also in our interactions with those who are difficult to love (Matt. 5:43-48). This much is clear. What is much less clear is how love should be enacted across the diversity of situations involved in public engagement.

Love is a word with substantial cultural baggage. In contemporary usage, love is paradigmatically romantic, which gives rise to several confusions. First, it focuses on feelings at the expense of cognitive, volitional, and behavioral components of love. But feeling-based love is insufficient for loving others who we do not find intrinsically lovable. Romantic notions of love are also possessive; the loved one is valued primarily in relationship to one’s own needs and desires. As we will see, this is antithetical to a biblical understanding of love. A better paradigm for love is the attachment between a parent and child, or the filial love between God the Father and God the Son, or the love encouraged by biblical reference to God as our “Abba,” the most intimate of designations for a father. The story of the prodigal son dramatically portrays God’s fatherly love, a love of sustained desire for the good of another, often sacrificial in nature, and characterized by great staying power.

Contemporary usage also errs by confusing love with simply being nice. In a society in which autonomy and self-determination are highly valued, being loving is primarily understood as letting others have their own way, tolerating or even affirming the choices of others. But letting others have their own way is often profoundly unloving. As theologian Miroslav Volf explains, “Love doesn’t mean agreement and approval; it means benevolence and beneficence, possible disagreement and disapproval notwithstanding.”2

These cultural understandings of love are, emphatically, not what we are proposing. So, what guidance do we have in conducting ourselves lovingly in the public engagement space? While the catchphrase, “What would Jesus do?” may strike us as trite, it seems to be the starting point for biblical discussions of living out love. The apostle Paul had a distinct vision of how love should undergird the Christian approach to life and be manifested in interpersonal encounters. Theologian Michael Gorman argued that Paul’s notion of love was essentially linked to his understanding of the cross as the expression of God’s love in Christ: love is cross-shaped, or “cruciform.”3 This connection between love and the cross can be seen clearly in passages such as Galatians 2:20, “…the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the son of God [NRSV margin], who loved me by giving himself for me.” Based on this connection, Gorman argued that the essential character of love is, negatively, that it does not seek its own advantage or edification, and that, positively, it seeks the good, the advantage, the edification of others (I Cor. 13:5, 8:1; Phil. 2:4).

Virtues as Forms of Love

Virtues can assist us in our quest to love others well, as they are habits of right (or loving) actions and reactions, including thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. In Colossians 3:14, Paul urged the development of a host of virtues, but “above all,” love, “which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (ESV). Augustine united the cardinal virtues of the classical tradition by delineating them as forms of loving God. For example, he saw prudence (wisdom) as “love making a right distinction between what helps it towards God and what might hinder it.”4 Cultivation of the virtues enables loving engagement in diverse and difficult circumstances.

Discerning the Good through Loving Wisdom

Knowing what is good for self and others requires the virtue of wisdom. Discernment of loving actions is seldom easy. We do not assume that one approach to public engagement will fit all situations. The recovery of virtue thinking in recent decades has been animated by recognition that character matters in the moral life; merely following moral rules is insufficient. Virtues have a profoundly contextual component: the virtuous action is defined in part by circumstances, and so requires wisdom for its enactment. Seeking the well-being of the other in the context of public engagement may take a number of forms.

Gorman notes that seeking the good of others plays out in three patterns in the life of Jesus: in sacrificial, self-giving, and status-renouncing ways.5 These patterns suggest three more virtues, in addition to wisdom, that help to flesh out what it means to love others: courage, generosity, and humility, respectively.

Sacrificial Love and the Virtue of Courage

Christ’s love is a costly act to benefit others. In public engagement, speaking with conviction may expose us to the anger, criticisms, or attacks of others. Pursuing what is good for the other can be costly. Speaking the truth even in the face of resistance, and when it would be easier to remain silent, may result in suffering. The pursuit of the good of others in these ways requires the virtue of courage.

Courage is the readiness to face difficulties well.6 Courage must be animated by love, because “if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (I Cor. 13:3, ESV). Many of Paul’s phrases in I Corinthians 13 exemplify courageous love: “love is patient … love bears all things … endures all things” (I Cor. 13:4,7, ESV). Courage depends on wisdom to identify the good in a given situation, to determine whether the difficulty is commensurate with the good being sought, and to discern the means of facing the difficulty.

Jesus’ courageous and costly love took the form of patient endurance of the cross and its suffering (Heb. 11:2), silence in the face of false accusation and threat (I Pet. 2:21-24), denunciation of religious callousness, hypocrisy, and oppression (Matt. 12:1-14; Matt. 23), and bold action in the cleansing of the Temple (Matt. 21:12-17). Some of these courageous actions precipitated the events that led to his death (for example, Matt. 12:14). Paul also exemplified moral courage, speaking quite firmly in some of his letters, knowing that some of his readers would judge him for it (for example, I Cor. 4:3).

Self-Giving Love and the Virtue of Generosity

Christ’s love is a fully self-involving act to benefit others. In 2 Corinthians 8, Paul encourages his readers to demonstrate generosity, citing Jesus’ generosity, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (v. 9, NIV). Echoing the language of Jesus’ emptying himself in Philippians 2, Paul speaks of pouring himself out like a drink offering in verse 17. Being loving involves the virtue of generosity; it involves giving of ourselves, our time, our commitment, and our intellectual resources. We imitate Christ by “creatively reenacting the virtue of his unselfish love in countless different situations.”7 Being generous toward others may also be reflected in the ways in which we choose to understand their comments: thinking the best of them, rather than assuming the worst. An aspect of this might be what Gorman calls “cruciform adaptability,”8 shown by Paul submitting himself to the ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic sensitivities of others, giving up on nonessentials, in order to eliminate any bar-riers to his message (I Cor. 9:20-23). This cruciform generous love extends even to willingness to die for one’s enemies (Rom. 5:6-10).9

Status-Renouncing Love and the Virtue of Humility

Christ’s love is a deliberate abandoning of status and self-interest in order to act out of concern for others, which locates humility as a form of love. Paul’s lengthy quoting of an early hymn in Philippians 2 links these, as he encourages them to have the same love as Christ in verse 2, and then spells out what this means in verse 3: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” This is followed by an elaboration of the lengths to which Christ went to love us in this humble way.

This status-renouncing kind of love is reflected in several loving patterns of public engagement. In several passages (for example, Rom. 15, Gal. 5, I Cor. 8), Paul prioritizes love over the exercise of our rights.10 Being willing to lay aside our rights when they would be harmful to our brothers and sisters in Christ reflects Christ’s (and Paul’s) willingness to give up what was due them for the sake of others. In Matthew 5, Christ tells us to turn the other cheek when we are attacked, rather than reciprocating with ad-hominem attacks.

Intellectual humility deserves special mention in the context of public en-gagement. Being aware of our own limitations with respect to our views can help us to maintain a stance of hospitality to the ideas of others. Attempting to understand the concerns and perspectives of others and allow ourselves to be challenged by them not only demonstrates love, but it allows us to engage in the world of ideas without the increasing polarization of perspectives characteristic of current public engagement.

It should be noted that intellectual humility, when grounded in “glad intellectual dependence on God,” is compatible with deeply-held convictions.11 In fact, there is some evidence that having deeply held convictions provides a kind of intellectual security that makes it less threatening to consider opposing ideas, allowing for intellectual humility.12 Convictions can serve as a kind of existential anchor that permits more openness to exploring alternative perspectives without the fear of being cast adrift.

Intellectual humility is opposed to vainglory, which is the disposition to seek attention, affirmation, and applause for the wrong reasons or the wrong things.13 As philosopher Rebecca DeYoung notes, Christians may be particularly prone to vainglory because we care so much about goodness. An intellectual form of vainglory would wrongly seek approval for views or positions one holds. In other words, we may be tempted to shift our focus from building others up in love to building up our image. By taking the right stances and making the right declarations, we project the image that we are the right kind of person. Intellectual vainglory is closely related to an approach to public discourse called moral grandstanding, which is “a use of moral talk that attempts to get others to make certain desired judgments about oneself, namely, that one is worthy of respect or admiration because one has some particular moral quality … To grandstand is to turn one’s contribution to public discourse into a vanity project.”14 These non-humble approaches to public discourse threaten to prevent our loving engagement with others.

The Antithesis of Love

We have seen, then, that love can be defined negatively as not seeking its own advantage or edification. Unfortunately, in our fallen state, seeking our own advantage seems to be our default mode. In attempting to follow Jesus’ example in our public engagement, we may find that our default ways of interacting with the world are a hindrance. Psychology can be a partner in learning to love well, in that it has a long history of exploring and documenting the many ways in which we seem hard-wired to seek our own advantage. A growing awareness of our own psychological processes may allow us to cooperate more fully with the Holy Spirit in counteracting our automatic pursuit of self-interest. In this section we will explore the psychological literature showing that when we are responding to issues and to people in our environment as we do in public engagement, the deck is stacked against us psychologically with respect to responding with love. Our largely automatic responses will tend to be self-centered, aimed at protecting ourselves and our social group.

Typical responses to contentious issues in the public sphere are shaped by the combined responses of two interacting systems. Dual processing theory suggests that we take in information, arrive at conclusions, and respond to our environment using two types of processing, which are often labeled as Type 1 and Type 2 processing.15 These roughly correspond to what in ordinary language are called intuition and reflection.16 Type 1 processing tends to be rapid, nonconscious, automatic, and non-linear, in contrast to Type 2 processing, which tends to be slower, conscious, linear, and capable of rule-based and abstract thinking. Type 2 processing differs fundamentally from Type 1 processing in that it requires working memory; because of this, it is effortful, and is also more influenced by intelligence.

Both of these systems contribute to our engagement with others in ways that reveal a self-centered bias, in what is known in the psychological literature as motivated reasoning.17 As summarized in an early report on biases, “motivational biases are characterized by a tendency to form and hold beliefs that serve the individual’s needs and desires.”18 A more recent summary of the goals of motivational reasoning indicates that people are motivated to “hold favorable thoughts of themselves, their talents, and their prospects … to believe that their social standing is good, that they are loved and appreciated.”19 For example, research has demonstrated that we believe that we are more popular, intelligent, attractive, better drivers, and that we weigh less than most others, as well as being more likely to get into heaven than Mother Teresa.20 Motivated reasoning is often directed at protecting one’s identity or standing in an affinity group that shares fundamental values such as political or religious groups; people feel protective of their in-group.21 How do these two systems interact to support self-centered content and hostile modes of communication?

Type 1 processing depends on heuristics, which are kinds of shortcuts or rules of thumb that usually, but not always, leads to the right conclusion. While generally very useful in adapting to the environment, these heuristics are also biased toward desired outcomes, selectively affecting, for example, our perceptions of the environment. In other words, people see what they want to see.22 With respect to beliefs, even prior to being subjected to Type 2 analytic reasoning, Type 1 processing results in a tendency to accept believable and reject unbelievable conclusions.23

Recent research is converging on the insight that emotions have a more central place in this Type 1 processing than had previously been recognized.24 In fact, Drew Westen and Pavel Blagov go so far as to see motivated reasoning as a form of implicit emotion regulation.25 They argue that “every decision is simultaneously an act of emotion regulation, as the goal of any decision is to minimize current or future negative affect states and maximize positive ones.” The assumption is that people will approach or avoid ideas based on whether they elicit arousal/distress, or relief, depending on whether they detract from or advance our self-interest. Research tracking brain activation after exposure to a threatening stimulus has indicated that biased information processing occurs so quickly that there is no time for more conscious Type 2 faculties to be aware of it.26

We are specifically interested in the role of moral emotions such as disgust or anger in bias, given that these seem to drive much public engagement around controversial topics. Specifically, moral judgments associated with personal values and commitments are driven largely by emotional responses in Type 1 processing that signal threat. Public engagement usually revolves around certain kinds of beliefs: beliefs that bear social meaning, in that they convey that the individuals who espouse them are committed to one group rather than another,27 and beliefs that have moral implications. Both of these characteristics, the social and the emotional, are tied to moral emotions.28 So in sum, in Type 1 processing, when we hear an opinion that differs from ours during public engagement, our moral emotions alert us to a potential threat. We intuitively move away from threatening ideas and toward ones that keep us and our group safe, and we jump quickly to conclusions about the issue, seeing only what is consistent with our position.

Type 2 processing also has a role in bias. In addition to satisfying emotional constraints, decisions must also take into account data and rationality. Here, research shows that Type 2 processing is subject to a form of self-serving bias known as “myside bias.”29 People selectively search for evidence that supports or refutes the desired or undesired claims, respectively.30 They also require a lower standard of evidence for desired claims than for undesired claims.31 Put simply, when we want to believe a claim, we ask with respect to evidence, “can I believe it?” When we do not want to believe a claim, we ask, “must I believe it?” Finally, research indicates that the greater the emotional involvement, the more cognitive constraints (that is, the data and rationality) are overwhelmed by emotional constraints (that is, the emotionally desired conclusion).32 It should be noted that myside bias seems to be independent of intelligence; while more intelligent people can produce more arguments, these arguments tend to be biased toward their own position.33 In fact, it has been found that people who are more prone to using Type 2 processing over Type 1 processing (more analytical people) tend to exhibit more myside bias.34

In summary, when we engage with morally charged issues that we perceive as being important to our social group, Type 1 processing elicits a sense of threat and moral emotions such as anger and disgust, which predispose us to entrench in our position, and reject and attack opposing positions. When Type 2 processing kicks in, we selectively look for support for our position, ignoring contrary evi-dence and perspectives. These combined processes lead to ideological polarization and affective polarization, both abundantly in evidence in contemporary public engagement. In the following section we turn to some strategies for overcoming our self-serving tendencies and cultivating virtues that enact love.

Love Enacted

Paul uses a clothing metaphor, instructing believers to “put on love,” along with its supporting virtues (Col. 3:12-15). Enacting love is not an automatic process, but in this section we make suggestions for how to clothe ourselves in love each day, informed by the research reviewed above on dual processing theory.35 While the New Testament assures us of the aid of the Holy Spirit in growing in love (for example, Gal. 5:22-23), the frequent commands to love imply that it also requires effort. The overall goal of these suggested practices is to harness the moral emotions in Type 1 responses so that they facilitate positive and loving engagement, rather than producing automatic defensive reactions which lead to polarized opinions and hostile interactions. While Type 1 processing, and particularly the moral emotions it engenders, does not seem to be directly amenable to change, Type 2 processing can be influenced, and consequently may serve as a point of entry for combatting our essential selfishness.36 This does not imply that only Type 1 processing is problematic; as noted above, both types of processing are involved in motivated reasoning. These practices allow for the cultivation of the virtues we have articulated above: wisdom, courage, generosity, and humility.

Cultivating Wisdom

In the first section, we saw the need for the cultivation of wisdom to provide guidance for what is right in varying circumstances. Wisdom enables us to see situations truthfully and to act on our accurate appraisals. But as discussed in the previous section, truthful evaluation is not our default mode. Many of the historic spiritual discipline practices, such as the prayer of examen, emphasize self-reflection and self-knowledge. These practices provide a first step toward wisdom: self-knowledge. There is a long-standing tradition in Christianity acknowledging the need to be self-aware, as reflected in Augustine’s prayer, “Let me know myself; let me know Thee,”37 or in Calvin’s famous opening to the Institutes, “Nearly all the wisdom we possess … consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”38 In the following sections, we suggest specific ways of increasing self-knowledge as a pathway to increasing our knowledge of our Type 1 tendencies.

We also cultivate wisdom by invoking Type 2 processes to inform our responses by remembering carefully and truly. As the Israelites contemplated the daunting task of entering the Promised Land, God commanded them to remember what he had done so that an apparently foolish task would be rightly seen as the wise course of action (Deut. 7:17-26). Mattison explains, “failing to remember history accurately inhibits one’s ability to make good practical decisions.”39 For instance, remembering the atrocities or heroics of the past, such as the Holocaust or the civil rights movement, provides guidance for the present. In the absence of wise remembrance, our communication will be insensitive, inaccurate, and tone-deaf.

Finally, cultivating wisdom requires listening to and heeding counsel and input from others.40 Since we are frequently blind to the value of the beliefs of those to whom we are opposed, we ought not solicit wisdom only from those who think like us. We can love our enemies by being gracious receivers of the wisdom they offer. Volf argues that this implies that Christians should welcome wisdom even from other religions.41 When we set aside hostility toward the stranger for the sake of hospitable welcome, we may find that the guest becomes the host who gives to us rather than vice versa (I Kings 17:9-24; Luke 24:13-35).42

Cultivating Humility

Humility requires us to consider the person with whom we are engaging in the public sphere. Two strategies can assist in this. First, the Type 1 tendency to stereotype people who hold to differing perspectives can be interrupted.43 Research shows that when inaccuracies in our assumptions about others are corrected, this can decrease our hostility toward them.44 This can take the form of simply educating ourselves about what the “other” is like, using Type 2 processes. For example, while people generally have very defined stereotypes about Democrats and Republicans, in reality the modal member of both parties is a middle-aged, white, nonevangelical Christian.45 A love-based perspective might actively strive to interrupt stereotypes by taking the time to identify the stereotypes one holds of the opposing group and actively challenge them. Love attempts to see people for who they are, rather than assuming things about them. We are told to do to others what we want done to us and we generally do not want others to make unwarranted assumptions about our values or our motives.

Second, focusing on the things that we have in common, rather than the things that divide us, can create room for differing perspectives.46 We can focus on our common humanity, created in God’s image for loving relationship with God and others, loved by God, and consequently worthy of being loved by followers of God.47 When we do this, people become part of our tribe and their perspectives do not trigger Type 1 defensive emotions. In attempting to do this, we might ask ourselves questions such as, “What concerns are motivating their stance?” and, “Are there any points of common ground?” Research also indicates that finding common ground with others can help decrease dislike.48 Humanizing the other is an important step toward demonstrating love to them.

Ancient and divine wisdom, in the form of Jesus’ teachings, provide specific guidance on how we might go about humanizing others. Starting with the most general injunction to “love your enemies,” Jesus then moves into specific practices to aid in cultivating this love: “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matt. 5:44, NKJV). Engaging in these practices can help us to temper our automatic Type 1 emotional reactions toward others, replacing those emotions with ones that reflect concern for their well-being.

Intellectual humility takes us a step further, by requiring us to (re)consider, not just the motivations of the “other,” but their arguments, using reflective Type 2 capacities. It also requires an acknowledgment of the limitations of our own knowledge. In other words, self-reflection in general, and what is known as “metacognition” in particular, should be cultivated. Metacognition refers to “knowledge, awareness, and control of one’s own cognition.”49 It is the capacity to reflect on and be aware of issues influencing indeterminate thinking. Research on metacognition suggests that it is primarily driven by a desire to experience confidence with respect to a particular issue, what researchers call a “feeling of rightness.”50 However, we suggest that metacognitive procedures—rooted in Type 2 capacities—can be co-opted for the sake of cultivating a “feeling of lovingness.” It is not sufficient to be right—we must also be loving. As Paul notes in his letter to the Corinthian church, who seemed to be quite enamored of their own knowledge, “[a certain kind of] knowledge puffs up while love builds up” (I Cor. 8:1b, NIV).

With respect to the issues we have brought up in this paper, the ability to engage lovingly in the public arena requires self-knowledge of our own emotions as they relate to the topic of discussion in order to address Type 1 issues. What are you feeling? Do you feel threatened or angry? We do not intend to suggest that these emotions are inappropriate. Research suggests that emotions can be an important source of knowledge, for example, in this case alerting us to the fact that potentially moral issues are at stake, and can even improve our ability to reason well.51 But when the goal of being loving is added to the goal of representing a particular issue in a public venue, these emotions must be considered for their negative, as well as their positive effects on content and presentation. How might these emotions influence what you say or how you say it? Are you willing to admit that you may not have a complete and unbiased understanding of truth?

Cultivating Generosity

In cultivating generosity, we address the communication practices in which we engage. A first step toward cultivating generosity is acknowledging through faith God’s lordship and ownership of everything we have.52 Living under God’s loving governance influences our automatic Type 1 reactions and frees us from anger, fear, and other reactions that would prevent us from loving others with our resources, including those who actively oppose us.53 Second, by cultivating gratitude, we inculcate the disposition to give what we have freely to others.54Everything we have has been given to us, so we are free to be generous to others. Third, we are to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. A loving approach does not cut off communication or “cancel” others, but instead is willing to engage and to hear. Numerous programs document the effectiveness of planned dialogues intended to foster understanding (e.g., Braver Angels).55 Engaging in civil dialogue often requires generosity in terms of time and emotional energy.

Cultivating Courage

Scripture consistently pairs courage with God’s presence (Josh. 1:9; Ps. 23:4; Matt. 28:18-20). Cultivating a sense of God’s loving presence in our lives can enable us to stand firm and grow in courage. Second, development of healthy emotional responses can enable us to become courageous. For example, Thomas Aquinas commended the use of moderate (that is, proper and wise) anger as a motive toward courageous actions.56 Sometimes the temple just needs to be cleansed. Sometimes the most loving thing to do still requires taking a strong stance. But third, as we have noted multiple times before, even strong stances should be characterized by love. One great detractor from moral courage is what is known in psychology as diffusion of responsibility. When we are part of a group, we may feel less personal responsibility to speak up.57 Sometimes we are misled by the reactions of others.58 How can we overcome these tendencies? Research shows that we are more likely to intervene in a situation when we feel responsible for the welfare of others and when we perceive a common humanity—in other words, when we are motivated by love.59


We must consider that learning to love well is a lifelong process, referred to in theological language as sanctification. While the information on dual processing outlined above might suggest that all we can hope for is to retrospectively overcome the self-centered machinations of Type 1 and 2 processing, that is not the case. The theory of reflective equilibrium notes that neither system is static, and the norms under which they operate can be changed.60 Consider the similar situation involved in learning a second language. Just as with our cognitive processing, the architecture of the language system is hardwired. However, the specific languages we acquire early in life depend on where we live, just as our moral intuitions are shaped by our environments. When we learn a second language later in life, it is effortful and intentional at first, but over time becomes internalized and automatic. When we are intentional about cooperating with the Holy Spirit in reflecting on our selfish moral intuitions and emotions, when we repent of our failures to engage lovingly with others, when we practice loving others well, we are slowly able to change the automatic responses of these systems in ways consistent with our commitments to imitate Jesus in loving others.

“Let all that you do be done in love,” we are told in I Corinthians 16:14. Engaging with others who are difficult, who are different from us, who hold opinions that may strike us as dangerous or incomprehensible, is never easy. But we are encouraged to “grow up” and engage with even these people as individuals formed in Christ’s image, leaving behind childish, impulsive ways (Eph. 4:13-15). We must learn, not just to speak the truth, but to speak it in love. Speaking with great erudition or with amazing rhetorical skills is worthless without love, according to I Corinthians 13. With wisdom, we must choose whether this involves following Jesus in speaking words of peace, or in cleansing the temple. With courage, we must choose whether to sacrifice our safety or pride for the sake of others. With humility, we must carefully consider the needs and perspectives of the other. With generosity, we must give of our time and energy to make the effort to build bridges instead of walls. And, over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Cite this article
M. Elizabeth Lewis Hall, Jason McMartin and Timothy Pickavance, “Speaking the Truth in Love: The Challenge of Public Engagement”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 51:3 , 271-284


  1. Shanto Iyengar, Yphtach Lelkes, Matthew Levendusky, Neil Malhotra, and Sean J. Westwood, “The Origins and Consequences of Affective Polarization in the United States,” Annual Review of Political Science 22 (2019): 129-146.
  2. Miroslav Volf, A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2011), 132.
  3. Michael J. Gorman, Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 155-177.
  4. Augustine, On the Morals of the Catholic Church, in Augustine: The writings against the Manichaeans and against the Donatists, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: a select library of the Christian church, first series, 4. R., ed. P. Schaff, trans. Stothert(Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 48.
  5. Gorman, Cruciformity, 172-175.
  6. William C. Mattison, Introducing Moral Theology: True Happiness and the Virtues (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2008), 180.
  7. Kelly M. Kapic, The God Who Gives: How the Trinity Shapes the Christian Story (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), 200.
  8. Gorman, Cruciformity, 188.
  9. Volf, A Public Faith, 132; Brian Fikkert and Kelly M. Kapic, Becoming Whole: Why the Opposite of Poverty isn’t the American Dream (Chicago: Moody, 2019), 254.
  10. Kapic, The God Who Gives, 205-208.
  11. Peter C. Hill, Kent Dunnington, and M. Elizabeth Lewis Hall, “Glad Intellectual Dependence on God: A Theistic Account of Intellectual Humility,” Journal of Psychology and Christianity 37 (2018): 195-204.
  12. Rachel Wahl, “Risky Receptivity in the Time of Trump: The Political Significance of Ethical Formation,” Philosophy of Education 2018.1(2018): 651-663.
  13. Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, Vainglory: The Forgotten Vice (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 25.
  14. Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke, “Moral Grandstanding,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 44.3 (2016): 199. See also their Grandstanding: The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk (New York: Oxford, 2020). Note that often labeling something as “grandstanding” or “virtue signaling” can be a means of (unlovingly!) dismissing another’s views without bothering to engage it! Grandstanding involves specific desires, which we are in a much better position to know about ourselves than to know about someone else.
  15. Space precludes even a brief overview of this complex literature. We will be focusing only on characteristics relevant to our arguments.
  16. We are here following the convention suggested by Evans and Stanovich. Jonathan St. B. T. Evans and Keith E. Stanovich, “Dual-Process Theories of Higher Cognition: Advancing the Debate,” Perspectives on Psychological Science 8.3 (2013): 223-241.
  17. Dan M. Kahan, “Ideology, Motivated Reasoning, and Cognitive Reflection,” Judgment and Decision Making 8.4 (2013): 407-424; Emily Balcetis, “Where the Motivation Resides and Self-Deception Hides: How Motivated Cognition Accomplishes Self-Deception,” Social and Personality Psychology Compass 2.1 (2008): 361-381.
  18. A. W. Kruglanski and I. Ajzen, “Bias and Error in Human Judgment,” European Journal of Social Psychology 13 (1983): 4.
  19. David Dunning, “Motivated Cognition in Self and Social Thought,” in APA Handbook of Personality and Social Psychology: Vol. 1. Attitudes and Social Cognition, eds. M. Mikulincer and P. R. Shaver(APA, 2015), 778.
  20. Balcetis, “Where the Motivation Resides and Self-Deception Hides,” 361-381.
  21. Kahan, “Ideology, Motivated Reasoning, and Cognitive Reflection,” 407-424.
  22. Dunning, “Motivated Cognition in Self and Social Thought,” 789.
  23. Edward J. N. Stupple, Linden J. Ball, Jonathan St. B. T. Evans, and Emily Kamal-Smith, “When Logic and Belief Collide: Individual Differences in Reasoning Times Support a Selective Processing Model,” Journal of Cognitive Psychology 23.8 (2011): 931-941.
  24. Dunning, “Motivated Cognition in Self and Social Thought,”789; Joshua D. Greene, Leigh E. Nystrom, Andrew D. Engell, John M. Darley, and Jonathan D. Cohen, “The Neural Bases of Cognitive Conflict and Control in Moral Judgment,” Neuron 44 (2004): 389-400; Drew Westen, Pavel S. Blagov, Keith Harenski, Clint Kilts, and Stephan Hamann, “Neural Bases of Motivated Reasoning: An fMRI Study of Emotional Constraints on Partisan Political Judgment in the 2004 U. S. Presidential Election,” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 18.11 (2006): 1947-1958.
  25. Drew Westen and Pavel S. Blagov, “A Clinical-Empirical Model of Emotion Regulation,” in Handbook of Emotion Regulation, ed. James J. Gross(New York, Guilford Press, 2007), 374, 381.
  26. Balcetis, “Where the Motivation Resides and Self-Deception Hides,” 373.
  27. Kahan, “Ideology, Motivated Reasoning, and Cognitive Reflection,” 419.

  28. David Pizarro, “Nothing More than Feelings? The Role of Emotions in Moral Judgment,” Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 30.4 (2000): 355-375; Jesse J. Prinz and Shaun Nichols, “Moral Emotions,” in The Moral Psychology Handbook, eds. J. M. Doris & The Moral Psychology Research Group (New York, Oxford University Press, 2010), 1-36.
  29. Keith E. Stanovich, Richard F. West, and Maggie E. Toplak, “Myside Bias, Rational Thinking, and Intelligence,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 22.4 (2013): 259-264.
  30. See, for example, Jonathan St. B. T. Evans, Simon J. Handley, and Catherine N. J. Harper, “Necessity, Possibility and Belief: A Study of Syllogistic Reasoning,” The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 54A.3 (2001): 935-958; Stupple et al., “When Logic and Belief Collide: Individual,” 931-941.
  31. Dunning, “Motivated Cognition in Self and Social Thought,” 786.
  32. Westen and Blagove, “A Clinical-Empirical Model of Emotion Regulation,” 384-387.
  33. Stanovich, West, and Toplak, “Myside Bias, Rational Thinking, and Intelligence,” 259-264.
  34. Kahan, “Ideology, Motivated Reasoning, and Cognitive Reflection,” 407-424.
  35. Iyengar, Lelkes, Levendusky, Malhotra, and Westwood, “The Origins and Consequences,” 139-141.
  36. Scott O. Lilienfeld, Rachel Ammirati, and Kristin Lanadfield, “Giving Debiasing Away: Can Psychological Research on Correcting Cognitive Errors Promote Human Welfare?,” Perspectives on Psychological Science 4.4 (2009): 390-398.
  37. Augustine, Soliloquies, in Augustine: Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, Soliloquies, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: a select library of the Christian church; first series, 7. C.C., ed. P. Schaff, trans. Starbuck (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers), 2.1.1, p. 547.
  38. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeil (Philadelphia: Westmin-ster, 1960), I.i.i, 35.
  39. Mattison, Moral Theology, 103.
  40. Ibid., Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II.49.
  41. Volf, A Public Faith, 111.
  42. Henri J. M. Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (New York: Image, 1975), 66-67.
  43. Iyengar, Lelkes, Levendusky, Malhotra, and Westwood, “The Origins and Consequences,” 139-141.
  44. 4D. J. Ahler and G. Sood, “The Parties in our Heads: Misperceptions about Party Composition and their Consequences,” The Journal of Politics 80.3 (2018): 964–981.
  45. Ahler and Sood, “The Parties in our Heads,” 964.
  46. Iyengar, Lelkes, Levendusky, Malhotra, and Westwood, “The Origins and Consequences,” 139-141.
  47. Robert C. Roberts, Spiritual Emotions: A Psychology of Christian Virtues, 88-93.
  48. M. S. Levendusky, “Americans, Not Partisans: Can Priming American National Identity Reduce Affective Polarization?,” The Journal of Politics 80, no. 1 (2018): 59–70.
  49. D. Alan Bensley and Rachel A. Spero, “Improving Critical Thinking Skills and Metacognitive Monitoring through Direct Infusion,” Thinking Skills and Creativity 12 (2014): 56.
  50. Rakefet Ackerman and Valeria A. Thompson, “Meta-Reasoning: Shedding Metacognitive Light on Reasoning Research,” in Routledge International Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning, eds. Linden J. Ball and Valeria A. Thompson(Routledge, 2018), 5-7.
  51. Isabelle Blanchette, Serge Caparos, and Bastien Trémolière, “Emotion and Reasoning,” in Routledge International Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning, eds. Linden J. Ball and Valeria A. Thompson(Routledge, 2018), 59-65.
  52. Walter B. Russell, “God and Giving: The Road to Generosity,” in Revolution in Generosity: Transforming Stewards to be Rich Toward God, ed. Wesley K. Willmer (Chicago: Moody, 2008), 64-66.
  53. Dallas Willard, The Great Omission (New York: HarperOne, 2006), 25.
  54. Russell, “God and Giving,” 66-68; Wesley K. Willmer and Martyn Smith, God and Your Stuff: The Vital Link Between Your Possessions and Your Soul (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002), 56-57.
  55. Jane Jacobs, Paul Kuhne, and C. J. Peek, Better Angels: Participant-Identified Effects of Better Angels Experiences, Braver Angels (October, 2019),
  56. Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II.123.10.
  57. Bibb Latané and Steve A. Nida, “Ten Years of Research on Group Size and Helping,” Psychological Bulletin 89.2 (1981): 308-324.
  58. Bibb Latané and John Darley, “Bystander ‘Apathy,’” American Scientist 57 (1969): 244-268.
  59. Samuel P. Oliner and Pearl M. Oliner, The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe (New York: Touchstone, 1992); Kristin Monroe, The Heart of Altruism: Perceptions of a Common Humanity (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998).
  60. Leland F. Saunders, “Reason and Intuition in the Moral Life: A Dual-Process Account of Moral Justification,” in In Two Minds: Dual Processes and Beyond, eds. Jonathan St. B. T. Evans and Keith Frankish (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 335-354.

M. Elizabeth Lewis Hall

Biola University
M. Elizabeth Lewis Hall is Professor of Psychology at Rosemead School of Psychology, Biola University in La Mirada, CA.

Jason McMartin

Biola University
Jason McMartin is Professor of Theology at Rosemead School of Psychology and Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.

Timothy Pickavance

Biola University
Timothy Pickavance is an Associate Professor & Chair of the Talbot Department of Philosophy, Biola University. These three colleagues have collaborated on various grants and projects at the intersection of psychology, philosophy, and theology.