Rev. Glen Shoup is the Executive Pastor of Worship and a Congregational Care pastor.
I think we trip over what Jesus is teaching/commanding in today’s reading for two reasons: we don’t really understand it and it’s hard.
We don’t understand Jesus’ command to love our brother, sister, enemy or neighbor (i.e., everyone) not because it’s so complex but rather because we tend to assume a wrong understanding as to the essence of love. We tend to think love…and loving someone…has essentially to do with how we feel about that person. If we love someone (we tend to think) then we must feel a certain way toward them because while no one descriptor fully captures the feelings of love, the feelings of love must include a certain profile of emotions that all of us would widely recognize as love.
The only problem with this assumption that the true essence of love is grounded in what we feel…is that it’s wrong…it’s inaccurate.
Love—at its core and essence—isn’t grounded in what we feel; it’s grounded in what we choose. Oh to be sure, there are feelings that accompany love, but the feelings of love are like the ocean’s tide—they come in and they go out. There are high-tide moments (or even seasons) when we feel intently the love we might have for someone else and there are low-tide moments (or even seasons) where might feel things, but what we feel is resentment or irritation or frustration…or nothing…and none of these are feelings that any of us would categorize as “love”.
Yet even in those times when we are feeling things that seem antithetical to what “love” feels like (including those times when we feel nothing)—we are still fully capable of loving. Because Love is grounded in what we choose. But love isn’t just any choice—it’s a very particular and specific choice. Love is choosing to keep on choosing the other’s best interest over our own selfish interest…regardless of how we feel.
Now only God does this perfectly and without fail…but this definition of love is what it means for God to love us. While God may very well have feelings for us as his children (Jesus seems to me to suggest this in Matthew 7:11ff), God loving us isn’t grounded in how God feels towards us—God loving us is grounded in the fact that God has forever chosen our best interest no matter what it costs God…the best image or icon of this that I know of is the crucifix.
And us loving God isn’t principally a statement of how we feel towards God, us loving God is us choosing God’s interests and God’s agenda over our own selfish interest.
Me loving my spouse, my children or my neighbor isn’t principally grounded in how I might feel about them at the moment—me loving my spouse, my children or my neighbor is about me choosing to keep on choosing their best interest over my own selfish interest.
That’s what love is; it’s a choice. It’s the very specific choice of choosing to keep on choosing the other’s best interest over our own selfish interest…regardless of how we feel.
So hearing and living Jesus’ teaching and command to love in today’s reading is first about understanding accurately what it means to love. And second, it’s about tackling the thing that makes choosing the other’s best interest over our own selfish interest so hard—namely our own tendency to be self-addicted.
Loving (accurately defined) is hard because I’d much rather be self-focused than other-focused (and so would you)—it’s our MO as human beings. And in all my years I’ve only found one ongoing treatment for my tendency to be a self- oholoic and that’s daily (sometimes moment-by-moment) surrendering to the power and grace of God.
All I can say with certainty is what I’ve found in my own life and that’s this: there’s never been one time when I’ve been tempted to choose myself over the other person when I’ve asked God to give me the strength to choose the other over myself when God has not faithfully done that…which is to say everytime I’ve asked God to help me love—He has. Now there have been plenty of times when I’ve been tempted to choose myself over the other’s best interest and I’ve had no interest in asking God to help me—I’ve just gone ahead and not loved and chosen selfishness instead…but never once have I asked God to help me love (choose the other’s best interest over my own selfish interest) when God has not faithfully done it…it just comes down to whether I want to let God do for me what I can’t do for myself…or not.
So yes, Jesus’ teaching and command to love is oft misunderstood and hard—but it doesn’t have to be that way. It doesn’t have to be that way for me, for you, or for anybody—and that’s good news. That’s freeing news. That’s gospel news.
Return to the GPS Guide to read today’s scripture and reflection questions