Did Jesus use “teddy bear” love or “tough love”? [archive]

ORIGINALLY POSTED AT RATIONALFAITHS.COM ON DECEMBER 27, 2018.

I often encounter messages from Christians of various denominations and theological orientations that make a claim of Jesus’s intentions as given in the Bible. To support a particular theological claim or political priority, they cite a Bible verse that they argue supports their position. This has come up recently for me in a number of conversations where there are disagreements over whether Jesus was primarily a “soft, teddy bear” in his personal approach or instead a fiery opponent of unrighteousness who meted out “tough love” on a regular basis. Anyone can easily find passages that support both positions, but I wanted to get a better sense of the nature and contexts of these differing approaches of Jesus.

So I did what any good social scientist would do: a quantitative/qualitative content analysis of the words of Jesus as reported in the New Testament. In brief, I got the “red letter” words that are attributed to Jesus in the four gospels and went through, section by section (either a sentence, group of sentences, or paragraph, depending on whether there was a general single theme), giving each one a “code” of the general theme. For example, does this one talk about the Kingdom, belief, repentance, or something else? Because my main question dealt with whether Jesus was mostly a “tough love” or a “soft teddy bear” kind of guy (or both), I used the “tough love” code for any time that Jesus said something that I judged to be confrontational, judgmental (in a good way), or emphasizing obedience, punishment, or consequences. I also used the “teddy bear” code for any time that Jesus said something that emphasized love, compassion, kindness, forgiveness, social justice, inclusion, etc.

This, of course, isn’t a rigorous social science research design. It’s a fairly subjective approach and thus depends a lot on the biases I bring to the table. I also didn’t take the time to separate out the themes spoken of only once in the four gospels as opposed to repeated in several. And the gospels themselves even tell us that there is so much more than Jesus did than is recorded, so this does not represent a comprehensive enumeration of the sayings of Jesus. My goal was really just to get the “gist” of the themes and approaches of what Jesus said, as reported in the gospels.

Here’s my breakdown:

“Teddy bear” 29%
“Tough love” 22%
Father 14%
Miscellaneous 7%
Kingdom 7%
Prediction/prophecy 7%
Belief/faith 5%
Life/eternal 3%
New/break rules 3%
Follow 2%
Light 2%
Rebirth/repentance 1%

At first pass, Jesus says “teddy bear” stuff about a third of the time (29%) and metes out “tough love” about a fifth of the time (22%). Based on this, one could reasonably argue that Jesus uses both teddy bear love and tough love, with roughly equal measure. (This doesn’t change much if you limit the sample to only the sayings of Jesus that scholars deem to be historically likely to be said by him as opposed to being retroactively edited into the gospels by later communities. It’s still about a third teddy bear and another third tough love.)

I thought it interesting as well how often other themes came up. Roughly 14% of everything Jesus said made reference to God the Father, either to describe his unity with the father or that he was following the example of the Father, or something else. About 7% of the time he was talking about the Kingdom of God. Another 7% focused on predictions/prophecies of the future. Interestingly, if you combine the themes of belief, faith, eternal life, rebirth, baptism, and repentance, they make up less than 10% of everything Jesus is reported to have said in the gospels.

Taking a closer look of the “teddy bear” sayings of Jesus:

Comfort/heal/freedom 21%
Social justice (poverty, hunger, etc.) 15%
Inclusion/margins 15%
Love 12%
Forgive 11%
Fear not 10%
Compassion 9%
Peace 4%
Service 3%

About 20% of the time that Jesus was in “teddy bear” mode, he talked about healing people, comforting people, or liberating people. He spent another 15% focusing on the poor, hungry, naked, sick, and incarcerated. Another 15% was spent encouraging us to include those who are outside of our boundaries and focusing on those of the margins of society. Another 20% focused on love and compassion, and about 10% focused on forgiveness and not being afraid, each.

Taking a closer look at the “tough love” sayings of Jesus:

To those who don’t heed warnings concerning the coming Kingdom of God 33%
To those who are hypocritical in their motives 23%
To the scribes and Pharisees 12%
To those who reject Jesus/12/the Spirit 7%
To friends (Peter, disciples, family) 5%
To the first (who shall be last) 5%
To his crowd/audience 4%
Misc 3%
To those who hurt “little ones” 3%
To those who don’t repent 2%
To fig trees (poor fig trees) 1%

It seems that Jesus saved most (a full third) of his “tough love” for those who would not listen or prepare for the coming Kingdom of God. While every religious tradition interprets the “Kingdom” in its own way, scholars generally agree that when Jesus was talking about the Kingdom he was most often referring to the quickly-approaching apocalyptic return of God’s reign to destroy the forces of evil and set up a kingdom of God’s goodness on Earth. 

Another quarter of his tough love was directed toward hypocrites (mostly leaders of the religious community) who taught one thing but did another, and another 12% calling out the scribes and Pharisees specifically. Collectively, this is a full two thirds of Jesus’s tough love.

….

Some of the lessons I took away from this amateur and back-of-the-envelope analysis include:

  • Those who say that Jesus was soft and comforting are correct, but those who say that Jesus was strict and exacting are also correct. However, the recipients of his comfort and tough love were, in general, different. Toward those that his community considered to be outsiders (sinners, prostitutes, the poor, traitors like Samaritans and tax collectors, etc.), he was mostly compassionate, comforting, tender, loving, and forgiving. In contrast, toward those that his community considered to be insiders (“righteous” religious leaders, especially), he was mostly confrontational and fiery in his condemnation.
  • The “Top Three” priorities for Jesus, if measured by the frequency with which he addresses particular topics, seem to be: 1) cultivating our relationship with God, as expressed by his example, 2) showing kindness, compassion, mercy, and love toward those on the margins of society, the economically and politically oppressed, and those that our communities consider to be “sinners” and outsiders, and 3) focusing our righteous indignation on those who seek to exalt themselves based on their appearances of righteousness and holiness, those who use their positions of power (both political and religious) to oppress others, and those who seek to obstruct the coming of the Kingdom of God (whatever he interpreted that to be).

 Questions to consider:

  • In our various personal interactions, when do we tend to use “teddy bear” love and when do we tend to use “tough love”? How closely do they correspond to analogous situations when Jesus used them?
  • In our political and religious communities, how closely do our priorities, budgets, missions, and policies reflect these priorities?
  • Specifically for religious leaders or those who minister in religious environments: what proportion of your attention and rhetoric is focused on “tough love” vs. “teddy bear” love, and who are the intended targets of each of those types of love? How closely do those allocations match up with how much time and energy Jesus devoted to those various priorities and approaches?
  • Specifically for Latter-day Saints: does the canonization of the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants, both of which contain additional words of Jesus, significantly alter the balance of the various themes discussed above? How?
  • Specifically for Latter-day Saints: Elder Christofferson once criticized those who “have imagined a Jesus who wants people to work for social justice but who makes no demands upon their personal life and behavior.” Based on the sayings of Jesus, what was the balance of “social justice” vs. “repentance/righteousness” in his teachings as reported in the gospels?