Published on December 18th, 2013 | by Dave Bitler
Love God And Love Your Neighbor – The Order Matters
There is an ever growing trend among Christians and non-Christians alike to reduce the Christian religion to the simple tenant of “Love your neighbor.” The support for this trend comes from the belief that Jesus came preaching a message of love to the outcast while dropping the proverbial hammer on the religious conservatives for being hypocrites. The conclusion then is drawn that in order to be like Jesus we need only to love and accept the outcast and the “sinner” and despise any type of strict religious rule-keeping. In short, we demonstrate that we love God by showing love and acceptance to other people and leave the judging to God.
Indeed Christians should love their neighbors. Every person is made in the image of God and that in itself is a huge honor, but every person also bears the sin of Adam and that is the source of our shame. As C.S. Lewis put it, “That is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth.” (from Prince Caspian) It is important to understand who we are, but it is equally, if not infinitely more, important to also understand who God is.
The problem is this, when we take such a narrow and simplified view of the teachings of Christ, we end up no better than the hypocrites. Jesus did command us to love our neighbors (Matthew 22:39), but it is important theologically to note that “Love your neighbor” is not the greatest commandment. It is “like” the first, but it is not the first. The first is this, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.” (Matthew 22:37-38) The order here is very important as indicated by the emphasis Jesus gives to the first commandment. Thus the commandment to love God, is greater than the commandment to love your neighbor. So to contend that Jesus taught that we demonstrate our love for God by loving our neighbor is backwards. Jesus is saying that the second commandment must flow from the first, not the other way around. If we are not totally committed to loving God first and foremost, then we can’t properly love our neighbor … and we are just as wrong as the hypocrites.
So how do we love God with all our heart, soul and mind? First, we must seek to know God through reading and studying His Word, the Bible. Because God is infinite, we can only seek to know Him by the ways in which He has chosen to reveal Himself to us. In other words, we cannot examine God in his person the same way a botanist studies a plant. We need God to make Himself known to us through revelation. Graciously, He has given us revelation through creation itself (His general revelation to the whole world) and through the Bible (His specific revelation of His relationship to creation). And because the Bible is God’s special and specific revelation of Himself, it must provide the lens through which we seek to understand God’s general revelation to us in creation.
Here is where things get difficult (humanly speaking). In order to know God, we must first come to know about Him through revelation. But simply knowing things about God is not enough (James 2:19). The first problem comes from our own laziness. Many Christians today refuse to devote the time to learn about God personally; instead we chose to believe what others tell us without any verification from the Bible or, even worse, we seek to define what God is like on our own terms. Many today have decided what God is like based on their own perception of what the ultimate good should be. In short, we have switched roles with the creator God and have decided to (re)make Him in our own image. We need to lay aside our preconceived notions of God and allow Him the freedom to define Himself.
Second, we need to understand that God’s desire is for fellowship with people. He is not content to simply have us know facts about Him; He wants to know us and be known by us. We need to allow our cognitive knowledge of God move into an experiential relationship with Him. The Bible tells us that God’s desire for this kind of relationship was fulfilled with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. But when they sinned, that fellowship was broken. God in His love and mercy was not content to simply forsake that fellowship, but enacted a plan to restore it. That plan finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. This is why John 3:16 has been key to understanding the Gospel. It is God’s love for the world that prompts Him to send Jesus, who is God in the flesh, to die so that our fellowship with Him may be restored perfectly and eternally. When we understand His love and redemptive plan for all of creation, we should be moved with the desire to produce that same love in our lives and in the lives of our neighbors.
More obviously can be said here, but for now I think we’ve established the proper order for understanding our relationship with God and with our neighbor. Both are foundational for being a Christian, but the order is important. As for the question of should Christians engage in “judging” or should we leave that to God, I will deal with that topic more fully in a future article. But briefly, we can say that with this knowledge and experience, we can also judge rightly what pleases and displeases God. To judge rightly, the judgement is based on God’s revelation and not personal opinion. Having a heart that seeks out the holiness of God and the truth of His revelation, the Christian understands that the goal of any judgment is to promote the glory of God and the fellowship of believers. Our attitude should be the same as that of Jesus Christ (Philippians 2:3-11). To Christ alone be the glory!