“Love must be sincere.” – Romans 12:9
I can still remember watching American Marines drop grenades into a stream on a Pacific island during World War II. The black and white news footage showed shirtless, smiling Marines milling about on the bank, surrounded by palm trees and tropical plants.
“These Marines have worked up quite an appetite after clearing out the last of the Jap defenders,” the announcer’s gee-whiz voice enthuses. “Just watch how American ingenuity goes to work to catch some fish!”
Three Marines stand looking at the camera, each holding a grenade and grinning broadly. On the count of three, the Marines pull the pins and throw their grenades into the water. Three silent explosions send fountains of foam boiling up. Stunned fish float to the surface and the Marines wade in to collect their dinner.
“Don’t try this at home!” the announcer booms, his voice oozing baseball and apple pie. “These boys are experts.”
But did you know that cults and other unhealthy religious groups really are experts at this sort of fishing? They call it “love bombing,” or at least that’s what the experts call it.
“Love bombing” describes how cult members shower visitors with attention and affection. A visitor might enter the church building feeling lonely or depressed. Suddenly he or she is greeted by hordes of smiling, attractive people who ask them their name and ply them with dozens of questions. “Where are you from?” “Do you have family nearby?” “How can we help you?” “Would you like to stay for the fellowship meal after the service?” “Oh, you’ll just love our pastor!” “We are so glad you came!” “God is really at work in this church.”
The visitor feels overwhelmed—stunned, even—but also strangely warmed. After all, how many times can you recall receiving showers of attention? Probably precious few.
For a person going through a difficult period in her life, searching for meaning or value, “love bombing” is like throwing grenades into a tropical stream. The sheer concussive force of intense affection can literally stun her into compliance.
“Love bombing” may sound harmless, even attractive. After all, doesn’t the Bible say that the world will know that we are Christians by our love? Sure it does. But the Bible also says that love must be sincere.
The word “sincere” is from Latin and some scholars believe it comes from the two Latin words, sine “without” and cera “wax,” meaning “without wax.” In Roman markets, certain unscrupulous sellers of pottery might try to sell a clay or marble jar which had fallen off the shelf and gotten cracked. By rubbing wax into the cracks, the seller could make the jar look as good as new and sell it to an unsuspecting buyer. If the buyer tried to heat the jar at home, the wax would melt and the contents of the jar would drain through the cracks. Thus, the term sincere came to mean pure and genuine, “without wax,” if you will. God says that love must be sincere.
But love bombing has nothing to do with genuine love. Instead, it is a manipulative weapon used by cults—a tool as effective as flypaper or concussion grenades to make people stick and stay. Hence the term “bombing.”
In my former church, we were love bombing experts. We would greet a visitor warmly and ply him with questions. After the service, our entire church family—about 60 people—would queue up into a “receiving” line to attend to the visitor. Oftentimes a family in the church would invite the visitor to their home for Sunday dinner. If the visitor was having financial problems, this might be communicated to our pastor. On several occasions, families who visited the church were given substantial financial assistance and even moving assistance. Members of the church offered to help watch a visitor’s children during the week, help with grocery shopping, and spend hours listening to the newcomer’s problems.
If you think such over-the-top attention sounds smothering, then you’ve likely never been lonely or isolated and seeking friendship and a sense of belonging and security.
While folks in my church never called what we did “love bombing,” that was exactly the tactic we used. Once a newcomer was hooked by our affection, the screws tightened and the so-called “difficult truths” that God had supposedly taught us were applied. No more Christmas celebrations. No more designer clothes or jewelry. No more free weekends. No more independent choices about what to do with free time. No more visits with family members. No more personal liberty. No more right to say “no.” No more critical thinking. No more assurance of salvation. And so on.
Recently a young man from Arkansas* talked with me about his experience with love bombing. He shared about how he had almost been sucked into a local cult because of the cult members’ intense attention and affection toward him. “I’m a pretty smart person,” he told me, “but I was in a vulnerable place in my life and was beginning to doubt my salvation. These folks seemed to offer me everything I wanted: love and security. I was so close to joining them.”
It’s true that the world will know that we are Christians by our love. But love should never be used as a manipulative tool to gain recruits. Nor should it be used as a concussive weapon to stun newcomers into compliance. Such tactics are just growth strategies masquerading as love.
When you critically evaluate a new church, always ask yourself, “Are these people genuinely interested in me, or are they trying to ‘hook’ me?” The Spirit of God can help you to tell the difference.
Consider that God never uses love to manipulate us. He may draw us toward himself with cords of human kindness, but he never knocks us out and drags us into a prison cell of “love.”
Jesus Christ is the ultimate example of God’s sincere love. He came into the world in a lowly manger and died on a painful cross. Look at Jesus’ life and notice how often he let people make their own choices about how to respond to him. He never manipulated or “love bombed” them. He never tried to make them do something against their own best interest. He merely loved them to death.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:16
That’s sincere love without wax.
How will you respond?
*Identifying info has been changed.