Since I became a Christian as a teenager, I was ushered directly into the youth group of my small Baptist church where we learned about end times, apologetics, and keeping ourselves pure. I remember the first time it dawned on me that the biblical story of creation I was now being taught meant I could no longer believe … or even joke about … evolving from monkeys or being the product of the Big Bang.
I didn’t attend a “skirts below the knees, sleeves below the elbows” kind of church, but we did ban bikinis at youth group swimming events. We were taught to question our consumption of pop culture, but that didn’t stop one youth leader from inviting us over to his pole barn to make music videos to the Oldies. On one song, I played the part of a man (our youth group ran a little low on guys), and after I tucked my hair in a hat and drew on a mustache with my eyeliner, I was shocked to see how much I looked like my dad.
But what we lacked in rules we made up for in conviction. If I learned nothing else, it was this: if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.
For years, I lived by this strong principle of deciding on and standing by what I believed. Really, my beliefs were little more than opinions, but they were informed by what I read in the Bible and what I heard on Sundays and in direct contrast to what the “world” taught me. Sexuality, drugs, drinking, ethics, end times, creation, the definition of life, morals, and entertainment were all being corrupted, and if I didn’t take a stand, I’d end up being deceived and tainted myself. In my experience, issues like race, immigration, and justice weren’t even discussed, but if they were, I’d have taken a stand on those, too.
The problem was I was so busy taking a stand on so many different issues that I overlooked the one cause that should have mattered most to me: loving God and loving others. It’s the cause Jesus stood up for most devotedly himself. When asked by a teacher of the law what was most important in the life of faith, Jesus could have taken any stand he wanted to. He could have lambasted the murderers or the adulterers. He could have once and for all cleared up the issue of idolatry or substance abuse. He could have given us the final word on priorities or ethics or money. Instead, he gave this as his answer: “‘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.”
Even though Jesus himself drew this line in the sand, it’s tempting to feel it’s is an over-simplication. Our lives are more complicated. We could ask questions like: What does it look like to love God with my mind? What did Jesus mean by the word “all”? And this: who is my neighbor? That’s a particularly good question, because it’s one another expert of the law asked Jesus. I didn’t realize until a recent rereading of Luke’s Gospel that when this second expert of the law asks Jesus what he should do to be religious, Jesus actually prompts him to recite the answer Jesus himself gave earlier.
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:25-29; emphasis mine)
I don’t want to overstate this, but often, when we try to move past Jesus’ simple commands to love God and love our neighbor, it’s often because, like the expert, we want to justify ourselves. We want to be right or better or first or most. Maybe we don’t believe that these two commands really sum up the law and the prophets. Maybe we believe that if Jesus had been asked about the next greatest command, the third one, it would have been the thing that we’ve chosen to take a stand on.
Don’t misunderstand me. Just because these commands are simple, they aren’t easy. Their application feels murky at times. Even when we’re not trying to justify ourselves, we wonder just how far we need to go to love our neighbors. One person thinks loving God with all their strength means using every ounce of energy to evangelize. Another thinks it means self care. One person reads only the Bible to love God with her mind. Another believes he should read widely to reach the same goal. And while we’re trying to love God with all our souls, he says,
I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5:21-24)
That’s what complicates these simple commands Jesus offers: we live in a sinful world. Loving our neighbor may give our neighbor the opportunity to take advantage of us. Other neighbors are hard-pressed, harassed, persecuted even, and we don’t have the resources to care for them like we should. One Christian’s love might feel like enabling to another. Another Christian’s tough love might seem harsh. And real people are starving and enslaved and dying in this world. People are discriminated against and treated differently because of their skin color, their beliefs, their gender, and their sexual orientation. If we don’t take a stand, we’ll fall along with them. Somebody has to do something.
I think the Apostle Paul understood this from his many missionary journeys. He saw new churches struggling to live out these commandments. They were kicking against the goads, like Paul himself was when Jesus met him on the Damascus Road. The early Christians were choosing sides, drawing lines, and taking stands. Some were claiming their ethnicity gave them an advantage. Others believed their logic would save them. But Paul had had a face to face encounter with the risen Christ. He’d been taken up into the third heaven. He knew from direct revelations about the expansive nature of God’s grace through Christ. And Paul had only one stand to take:
When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power. (2 Corinthians 2:1-5)
I’m not saying we shouldn’t believe in things. And I’m not even saying we should never take a stand on issues that are important to us. But know this: the stand you take today might not be the one you’ll wish you’d taken 20 years from now. If you’re like me, you might wish you’d loved better, that you’d communed with God more, and in the process, you’d given these other issues their proper priority below loving God and loving others.
If our faith has changed so far, who’s to say it won’t change again? Our four-week series, A Change of Heart, will explore all the ways that what we believe changes, grows, and varies over the years. I want us to move beyond regret but also pride, or the sense that we’ve finally arrived, not only so we can deal more kindly with ourselves, but also so we can be people who accept that others are on the same journey.