One of them, a lawyer, asked Jesus a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”— Matthew 22:36-40
In one sense, the Christian life is so simple: love God and everyone you meet. That’s it. There is nothing else. It’s clear enough for even a small child to understand. In these two commandments, Jesus shows us God’s vision for the world. Just think of how well we would reflect the Kingdom of God if every Christian had practiced this diligently for the past two thousand years.
Indeed, Christians have often lived up to the vision. Consider those who helped victims of plague at great cost to themselves. Christians have founded hospitals and schools, and have transferred vast amounts of wealth to people who are poor and suffering. On a daily basis, followers of Jesus do small actions with great love for their neighbours. All of this brings glory to God.
We have not often lived up to the vision
Sadly, not everything Christians do brings glory to God. Followers of Christ have not been immune to the general weakness and cruelty of humanity. Christianity has its own long list of sins that I won’t go into here. The world isn’t as full of love and grace 2000 years later as it should be. Indeed, I have talked to many who doubt that Christianity has ever been a positive force for good.
Why is that? Why is it that not every Christian has been a perfect saint? Why is it that I, who have never persecuted anyone and try to be a good person, am not a perfect saint? I don’t do big bad things. Most people would (I think) call me a good person. Yet, I still feel the weight of Paul’s dilemma: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15) I love the wrong things all the time.
People who struggle with addictions know this well, but the reality is that everyone shares the same predicament. There is an internal struggle between the person I am and the person I want to be. This is a large part of why Jesus Christ came to earth. He wants to help us in this struggle.
Sin and idolatry
What is at the heart of that struggle? The simple answer is sin, but the deeper answer is what the Bible calls idolatry. Idolatry might summon pictures in your mind of people worshipping statues, but that is not the full meaning. For instance, Paul tells us that greed is idolatry (Colossians 3:5) because greedy people love money more than God and neighbour. In general, idolatry means loving something more than God. Or, to say it a different way, idolatry is loving something in the wrong way.
Love is a good and beautiful thing, and we are people of love. We love all kinds of things: food, wine, cars, vacations and more. All of these things have an important place in our lives and are GOOD to love. But problems arise when we love things in the wrong way or to the wrong degree.
Loving something good, but in the wrong way
If I love wine too much, it could turn into an addiction and compromise my ability to love God and others. If I love a person in the wrong way, our relationship could go from healthy to codependent. To value security is healthy. But taken out of proportion, it can lead me to live in fear: bolting my doors, keeping the world out, regarding others with suspicion, and never connecting.
Being accepted by others is a human necessity. But if I value my need for acceptance out of proportion to the point of idolatry, I can become needy, and base my self-worth solely on the judgement of others. All idolatry is loving something good, but in the wrong way. And from this dynamic comes sin and all manner of hurt toward ourselves and others.
Why can’t we just will ourselves out of it?
Jesus says that from the human heart arise evil intentions, murder, adultery, theft, and so on. Can’t we just stop loving things and people in the wrong way? Apparently not. Human history and our personal experience should make us skeptical about the possibility. We seem to be pre-programmed to get this wrong.
So what do we do? When Paul meditated on this question, he got pretty discouraged at first. He wrote: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Then he found his answer in God’s love revealed in Jesus: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25)
Next time, I will explore what he meant.