Sunday, March 29, 2015

Loving Our Neighbor, Neglecting Our God

Jesus said: “'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt 22:36-40)
If loving our neighbor is, as Jesus said, the second greatest commandment, then it's certainly vital for Christians to know how to obey it. And in order to obey the commandment, Christians need a biblical understanding of what loving our neighbor actually means.

Knowing how to love our neighbor seems like it should be a clear-cut concept, doesn't it? For it's true that after being pressed for answers by a self-seeking Pharisee, Jesus explained the commandment using the simple parable of the Good Samaritan, who, at his own expense, selflessly cared for a man in need (Luke 10:25-37). The Good Samaritan showed unmerited favor to a man whom others had passed off as unworthy of their love. The parable illustrates the way that loving our neighbor should mirror the nature of God's grace to us; for it was while we were unworthy sinners that Christ died for us (Rom 5:8).

But despite the simple truth exemplified in the parable, the pure, powerful, and gospel-centered meaning of the second greatest commandment has become distorted in our worldly culture today. To love one's neighbor has been twisted into something entirely different from the self-sacrificial love that Jesus demonstrated for us on the Cross. "Loving" others has been reduced to a flimsy paper-chain of feel-good human relationships that flutter and tear in the winds of emotion and circumstance—these relationships aren't rooted in Godly love, but are tied together by a frail substitute.

As the Apostle Paul reminded us, Satan comes disguised as an angel of light. There are many warm and fuzzy expressions of love in the world that may make us feel good for a time. But in actuality, they are cheap counterfeits of the everlasting love we can experience through Christ.

And, tragically, the perverted concept of "loving neighbor" that prevails within our worldly culture has even permeated the hearts and minds of many believers todayas the things of one's cultural context have a habit of doingadversely affecting the way Christians demonstrate our love to those around us and weakening our ability to truly love God and others.

This is because we have attempted, like the world, to fulfill the second commandment without first fulfilling the greatest commandment: to love God with all of our hearts, souls, and minds—And just as Jesus so aptly indicated when he quoted the greatest commandment, we do need to use our minds (as well as our hearts) to discern how to love our neighbor in a way that honors God and points others to Him.

More specifically, we need to use our minds by delving into a deeper study of God's Word (2 Tim 3:16-17; Josh 1:8; Deut 11:18-23; Acts 17:11; Heb 4:12). Knowing God's Word enables us to distinguish God-honoring love from the counterfeit that our worldly culture promotes. In doing so, it's useful to consider 1) what it actually means to love our neighbor, 2) the underlying reason why worldly love and God-honoring love are two very different things, and 3) why they may appear to be the same thing at first glance.

So, firstly, who is our neighbor? Jesus demonstrated this clearly in the parable of the Good Samaritan; our neighbor is anyone whom we may come across in life. Our neighbor is not a title reserved for certain people based on our personal preferences or political leaning. Our neighbor could be a stranger, a loved one, an acquaintance, an enemy, a fellow believer. And when the opportunity arises, we need to demonstrate God-honoring love toward them. Paul expanded on this in his letter to the Galatians, "Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers." (Gal 6:10).

Secondly, we need to determine what God-honoring love is. When John said, "God is love" (1 John 4:8), he points us to the origin of love, for in the previous verse, he writes unequivocally, “love is from God” (1 John 4:7). Therefore, love doesn't first originate with us, but in God. As John further explains, "This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins." (1 John 4:10). John used here the Greek term agape, a form of agapeis, which is also used by Jesus (agapaō) when he quotes the greatest commandments. The essence of agape-love is unconditional self-sacrificeThe purest expression of love was demonstrated by Christ's death on the Cross. And it is the Holy Spirit who empowers us to love God and love others in a truly self-sacrificial way.

Loving our neighbor in light of the first and greatest commandment is to love others in a way that first honorsand in no way neglects—our God.

Because God-honoring love is not self-seeking (1 Cor 13:6), but is self-sacrificial, living it out can be costly to us. Having God-honoring love for our neighbor motivates us to die to self (Luke 9:23; Gal 2:20). It can cost us material possessions, timeeven friendships and popularity! For because God-honoring love is of the Spirit and not of this world, it is often rejected by the world. And because God-honoring love rejoices with the truth (1 Cor 13:6) it can cause offense. Indeed, God-honoring love cannot be separated from truth. God is love, just as He is truth, for not only did John say, "God is love," but Jesus also said, "I am the truth." (John 14:6). Because of this, if we truly love someone, our strongest motivation will be to share the saving truth of the gospel with them and to point them to Christ.

But, worldly lovethe fleshly love of a world that has rejected Christdoes not rejoice with the truth and it is ultimately self-seeking.

Loving others in the flesh may appear, at first glance, to be the same thing as loving others in the Spirit. This because all humans are made in the image of God and therefore reflect His likenessimperfectly albeit. Each of us has, for example, an innate desire to give and receive love and occasionally even to sacrifice ourselves for those we love. For as Paul tells us, the law—summed up by Jesus in the two greatest commandments—is written on the hearts of men (Rom 2:15). We all have a God-given conscience that bares witness to this law in our hearts; We are all pre-wired to express and to seek love.

Yet while the law is written on the hearts of men, the fulfillment of that law is another story. Paul says, "but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous." (Rom 2:13). And to fully obey the law is impossible without Christ; Paul also writes: "For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit." (Rom 8:3-4). If we live in the flesh, then, we are unable to fulfill the law to love God and neighbor. But if we live in the Spirit, the righteous requirement of the law is fully met in us, through Christ, not through ourselves.

Loving others without loving God first is a fleshly and corruptible way of expressing our natural propensity to love. It will ultimately lead to a self-serving, consumerist form of "love" that actually takes away from God and other people more than it gives. For Scripture is clear that to live—and love—in the flesh alone is to be bound by sin and death (Rom 8:13). Without being made righteous in Christ, we cannot love others in a God-honoring way with a love that endures forever.
It's vital, then, that the second commandment is viewed in light of, and motivated by, the first and greatest commandment: to love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds.

Despite this, however, there are many Christians today who are failing to love their neighbors in a God-honoring way. This isn't necessarily for lack of effort; the theme of loving our neighbor has been more strongly emphasized of late among Christian preachers and within many churches. And this is a good thing. But if loving our neighbor becomes the ultimate thing, then it actually becomes a bad thing. For anything that takes God's place in our hearts is an idol. And unfortunately, it is a misapplication of the second greatest commandment that has, in fact, led to unbiblical patterns of behavior within the Church that fail to uphold the gospel and instead mimic the flimsy, paper-chain love of our worldly culture.

These unbiblical applications of loving neighbor are widespread and are sometimes so subtle that they fly under the radar. They can, however, be identified by the following behaviors, some specific examples of which are sadly all-too common among Christians today:

Part I: When loving neighbor becomes pleasing [postmodern] people
Part II: When loving neighbor promotes tolerance over truth
Part III: When loving neighbor puts friendship before faith (coming soon)
Part IV: When loving neighbor turns peace into pluralism (coming soon)
Part V: When loving neighbor emphasizes humanitarianism over evangelism (coming soon)

1 comment:

De said...

The second commandment is understood in context of the first commandment. So you love you neighbor according to your first obligation to love the Lord your God.