People are generally likely to appreciate the connection between loving God and loving their neighbors [Matt. 22:37-40]. Yet, most of us would have to agree that we tend to focus on one element to the neglect of the other. Those who appreciate the importance of social justice are likely to emphasize the “love your neighbor” aspect. Those who recognize the importance of sound doctrine tend to lean towards the “love God” command. In Jesus’ words, everything God had said up to this point (the Prophets) and every command God had ever given (the Law) hung on these two things: love God and love your neighbor.
Here are four reasons why we are to love God and love our neighbor:
- The Great Commandment: We are to love God supremely, because this is the greatest commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment” [Matt. 22:37-38, Deut. 6:4]. The critical work that reflects love for God is faith in Christ, “This is the work of God that you believe in Him whom He sent” [Jn. 6:29]. We are frequently reminded in the church that our faith in Christ is manifest by an attitude of dependence upon Him, and actions of obedience to Him. Similarly, we are focused on certain behaviors and spiritual disciplines: Bible reading, prayer, worship, serving, tithing, sharing your faith, and being involved in a small group. In essence, the implied message is, “Do these things and you demonstrate that you love God.” While these are undoubtedly good attitudes and behaviors, they may unintentionally neglect what Jesus pointed to – love your neighbor. Nevertheless, you will not do what He has called you to do unless you love God.
- God inspires love: The idea of loving God solely out of duty (commandment) doesn’t seem to inspire. Similarly, God’s divine attributes should inspire worship, reverence, and awe. We marvel that God is eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, immutable, and able to create from nothing. But worship, reverence, and awe are distinct from love. I would suggest that God’s attributes alone do not inspire love. I believe (apparently along with the Apostle John) that our love for Him is inspired by His love for us, We love Him because He first loved us [1Jn. 4:19]. His love is certainly demonstrated in a host of ways, but the most compelling is the cross [Jn. 3:16, Rom. 5:8]. This is the pinnacle of love. Never before, and never since has such love been displayed. God gave His only Son to experience His wrath on our behalf, even while we were in rebellion to Him, so that we could be reconciled to Him. This completely sacrificial, unconditional, and incomprehensible display sets the bar so amazingly high. It not only assures me that God is worthy of my love, but provides the only true litmus test to measure what I might describe as love. If I want to know whether an attitude or behavior is “love” then the standard to measure against is revealed by God. Because God is worthy of my love, and has inspired love, I’m compelled to contemplate, “God how can I love you better today?”
- Loving my neighbor proves my love for God: Jesus revealed the second greatest commandment, “And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself” [Matt. 22:39, Lev.19:18]. The lawyer asked Jesus, which was the greatest commandment (i.e. singular). Yet, Jesus volunteers the second. Jesus reveals that these two commandments are so united that they cannot be separated. Furthermore, we are to demonstrate agape love to God and to our neighbor. It is my love for my neighbor and others that proves that I am His disciple [Jn. 13:35]. The connection between loving God and my neighbor is so clear and simple that it is humbling to honestly consider the implications. I confess that I am often too busy to befriend and build relationships where I live, work (or go to school), and play. I’m alarmed by the thought that a life filled with activity that is actually seeking to advance God’s kingdom can demonstrate love for God in the absence of love for my neighbors. How humbling it is to consider that we can be so busy doing our religious activity that we have no time to love neighbors. Because my neighbor is worthy of my love, and loving my neighbor proves my love for God, I’m compelled to contemplate, “How can I love my neighbor better today?”
- Loving my neighbor reveals God’s love to others: We should consider loving our neighbors where we live, work (or go to school) or play. Many of us who declare our devotion to Christ would humbly confess how poorly we love our neighbors. We may not even know their names. We are unlikely to know much if anything about their life, marriage, or family. We probably haven’t discovered their challenges or rejoicings. A neighbor is not a project. Certainly we want to see all come to faith in Christ, but when we make that the objective then our neighbor feels exploited by our overtures. They are likely to feel like a cog in our program. Loving your neighbor is not a program, but an attempt to reveal God’s unprecedented love. The display of God’s love through human instruments is often a bridge to revealing Jesus and His gospel. But that work, as inspired by His Spirit, will likely hinge more and more in a post-Christian culture upon loving our neighbors.
Here are some simple ideas to help us love our neighbors better:
- Simplify church life and life generally to create margin to spend time with neighbors where you live, work (or go to school), and play.
- Befriend and build relationships with neighbors by asking, “How are you doing?”
- When your neighbor is struggling ask, “Can I pray with (for) you?”
- Ask, “How can I help?” If the request is reasonable and you are able then seek to help.
What ways have you discovered to love your neighbors?