The highest laws of God for Christians are guidelines, not rules but guidelines, for the Christian life. They are few and simple: Love God; Love your neighbor; Love yourself; Love others as Christ loves you. That’s it.
Learning what it means to love others as Christ loves us is what the gospel record illuminates. Learning in that light is a life long work of reflection and discernment that never comes to an end. Loving yourself is especially difficult. It seeks to honestly own the reality of who you are that includes the public you, private you, hidden you, and everything in between. It’s something that can be done only by recognizing that you are beloved of God not by merit but grace. Anything else leads to self abnegation or narcissism. The others we are to love, as the story of the Good Samaritan demonstrates, include enemies, people we don’t like, and people who challenge our prejudices. Curiously, it’s not only a matter of loving them, but also allowing them to love us when we don’t want them to. Loving God is the summation that has little to do with warm hearted affection, though it might, but with words and deeds that demonstrate loyalty and obedience to God above all other authorities. In a world filled with competing authorities, that’s not an easy thing to do.
The practical application of these guidelines has two parts. The first is to develop habits of the heart that reflexively direct word and deed in the direction of godly love. They’re habits; they don’t require much cognitive effort, they’ve become a part of who one is. The second is to pause in deliberate reflection when faced with choices in conflict. Is the deed or the words a defensible form of loving God, neighbor and self as Christ loves you? The answer may not be clear. God asks only that you do the best you can and trus in God.
It’s nothing new, and when I taught it in a class I could count on an avalanche of responses in the form of “”Yeah, but…, and “What if…”. Each question was a way of probing for an escape clause that allowed one’s personal desires to evade God’s law as inapplicable to this or that situation. There are no loopholes, no bypasses, no buts or ifs. There is grace. Do what you can, as you are able, with what you have. Will you blow it, make big mistakes, hurt others? It seems likely if you are like me and everybody else I know. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and get on with life. That’s what Confession is about – admitting errors, receiving assurance of God’s forgiveness, and being guided in appropriate mid-course corrections.
College professors are famous for presenting classes with ethical problems in which every outcome involves the death of one or more persons. They’re interesting classroom thought experiments forcing discussion about moral choices. The circumstances of daily American life are seldom that dire. Christians are commanded to engage with others in the ordinary ways of life at home, work and play in ways that demonstrate godly love. As a clergy friend said a few days ago, “We are not to ask what would Jesus do? We are to ask what would Jesus have us do? At a minimum it is do no harm, but the minimum is not enough. Christians are to engage with others in ways that heal, reconcile, make whole, and break down barriers that separate us one from another. In like manner, Christians are to receive the same from others, even others we dislike and distrust.
Christians, as citizens practicing citizenship (see country Parson, October 29) are obligated to evaluate public policies and public office holders on the criteria of godly love. The moral rub for many Christians is that they put their political ideologies ahead of Jesus’ commandments, and finagle flimsy resolutions to the cognitive dissonance that cannot be defended except by emotionally charged “yeah, but.”…
It is not our duty to promote a Christian nation. It is our duty to promote policies and office holders more likely to demonstrate what it means to love neighbor and self as Jesus love us. There are a couple of things that need to be done to help the most disadvantaged: create conditions enabling others to help themselves, conditions needed for society to run efficiently while caring for God’s creation; establish norms against oppression and discrimination. It’s a balancing act with no perfect solution, yet bequeathing a better society to future generations.