Jesus taught us two commands that sum up the law and the prophets: Love God and love your neighbor. Seems simple enough, until you try and do it. I’m constantly falling short of how I am to love others. My thoughts, predispositions, prejudices, fears and anxieties begin to show themselves when I try to love people. I only love those I’m naturally inclined to love. Or loving people becomes a competition. Or a means to an end – a good sermon illustration to tuck into my back pocket for later.
Or, rather than failing at loving people, I turn it into a philosophical discussion about who exactly my neighbor is. That’s what the expert in the law did when Jesus told him to love his neighbor. I don’t think I am different in this. I think this is what we do. Not because we are horrible people looking to get out of loving others. Just the opposite. I think we are genuinely good people who feel guilty about how poorly we do at loving people and so we seek to lower the bar to feel good about ourselves. Either way, we fall short of the command and seek to justify ourselves.
For some, the question isn’t, “Who is my neighbor?” but rather the question is, “What is loving?” Is it loving to bake a cake or tell the truth? Is it loving to stop financially supporting this organization or keep supporting it? Is it loving speak up or stay quiet? Is it loving to….?
For as simple as the command is, loving your neighbor is ridiculously complex. In fact, I can’t help but think it is more likely that Christians disagree on what it means to love our neighbors than we do on who our neighbor is.
Recently, I saw a conversation on Facebook that my friend was having. In it, someone proposed this idea: What if the problem we have with loving people is because we are taught is not how to love, but how to judge.
Here’s how he illustrated this thought:
Picture a dry erase board with the word “LOVE” written at the top. Then imagine there is a line drawn down the middle and on the left side is all of the things that ARE love and on the right side is all of the things that are NOT love. This teaches people how to judge the world as being loving or not loving. The subject is “love,” but the skill being taught is judgment.
I couldn’t help but wonder, is this what we are doing in our churches? Put the word “TRUTH” at the top of the board. Do the exercise. Have we taught truth, or just the judgement of truth? Judging truth isn’t all bad. It is, at times, necessary. But more important than judging truth is living truth. After all, Jesus said, “If you keep my commandments (read “live”), then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” So the way in which we know truth is when we live truth.
For all the talk of love in our churches, have we made love the subject while secretly teaching judgement? Have we, rather than helping people embody the characteristics of grace, truth, and love, them the subjects of our judgement? Have we written the word LOVE on the top of the white board and, rather than learning how to love, honed our skill of judging by describing what we should love and what we shouldn’t love?
No doubt this is where the objections will come in. “We are to judge! Paul clearly told us to judge the moral behavior of other Christians in 1 Corinthians 5. How will we affirm and what is right and good without judging?” And I’ll concede, that’s all true. We are to judge. Christians are to be people of truth, beauty, and goodness and who point their finger so that others might see the in breaking of the new creation around them. And to point at something and say, “That is beauty!” is to imply that what we did not point at is not beauty. In other words, to proclaim good we have to judge.
There is a distinction between judging ideas and behaviors and judging people. The question we must consider is, “Can we love and judge at the same time?” I really wonder about this. Because so often, when we hear people talking about radically loving our neighbors, we immediately jump to judgment. What if they do this? What if they do that? What if they identify as such? What if they have done this? We stand before the white board, LOVE written across the top, and we make our list. To the left of the line are the things we love, and to the right, the things we don’t and we get so caught up in getting that list right, that we neglect actually loving people.
Judgment is a more natural response than love. You are probably judging right now. Do I like this post or not? Do I agree or not? How should I comment to prove him wrong? All those are judgments. And they are go-to response.
When I was in high school I played soccer all four years. During our game, there were two referees who ran up and down the field, following the ball wherever it went. Sometimes, they accidentally got in the way of the ball…or players. They blew their whistles when the ball went out of bounds. They handed out yellow cards when players played too aggressively. They did exactly what they were supposed to do. They made judgments. And the did so to make sure the game abided by the rules.
But you know what those refs never did? Play the game.
Judging keeps us out of the game. Sure, we may be on the field with people playing all around us, but we aren’t playing. You can’t be a referee and play the game at the same time. Maybe this is why Jesus cautioned us by saying, “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged.” Or why he told us to pay attention to the plank in our eye before we start worrying about someone else’s speck. Or why James tells us that “mercy triumphs over judgement.”
The whiteboard and the skill of judging can be helpful in keeping people at a distance. It can provide assurance that we are loving the right people and doing exactly what we are supposed to do. The truth of the matter is, that when you look at who Jesus told us to love, there really isn’t anyone we get to cross off our list. We can try, but any objections we might have to calling someone or treating someone as a neighbor would simply be met with “love your enemy.” We are to love our brother, sister, neighbor, enemy – that pretty much encapsulates anyone we would ever meet.
What would it look like to begin to learn the skill of loving our neighbor? I think it begins by starting the exercise over. Write LOVE at the top of the board, and then start writing names. Dave, James, Bob, Heather, Hilary, Kim, Steve, Jessica, Ben, etc. Practice writing the names of people without judging whether or not they should be on the list. Then maybe move on to people groups. Liberals, conservatives, evangelicals, Catholics, homosexuals, Baptists (couldn’t resist), Muslims, etc.
Just write them without judgment.
I know. It’s scary. Because we are beginning to see just how bad we are at loving.
At least that’s what’s true for me.