When a Pharisee lawyer asks Jesus which is the greatest commandment, he replies:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. and a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
– Matthew 23:37-39
This famous passage is one of the most direct answers Jesus provides. These two commandments are simple, yet they lack specificity. Exactly how are we supposed to love our God and our neighbors? Or for that matter, ourselves? Is God commanding us to feel a certain way, and if so … is that even something we can control?
We like to say that nothing is impossible with God (Luke 1:37), but we can also be assured God does not ask us to do the impossible. In the case of these commandments, “love” is not expressed in feelings; rather it is demonstrated in attitudes and an actions. Loving a creator we can’t see or hear may be challenging, but we can maintain attitudes of praise, gratitude, and a healthy kind of fear.
Regarding neighbors, we can love someone in a Christian sense without feeling any affection for them at all. We demonstrate it by respecting all persons as beloved creatures of God, offering charity when needed in a manner that respects the dignity of the recipient, and doing the hard work of forgiving offense. Some people will say being nice to someone we don’t like – maybe the opinionated brother-in-law who sucks all the air out of the room on Christmas Eve – is a form of hypocrisy, but that’s only true if we speak of or do ill to them when they aren’t around. The agape love Jesus calls us to is indifferent to our actual feelings. Otherwise, it’s not sacrificial at all. We’re allowed not to like someone. We are called to love them anyway.
And the “ourselves” part? It is perfectly fine to have boundaries and expectations that we will also be respected. Sacrificial love is about the betterment of others, not the abasement of ourselves. Sometimes we suffer because we love, but we don’t love because we suffer. To love is to approach the world and its inhabitants as though God has entrusted their care personally to us … because God has.
Comfort: Our loving actions can heal our unloving hearts.
Challenge: Pay attention to whether your emotions are dictating your actions, or vice versa.
Prayer: Let your steadfast love, O LORD, be upon us, even as we hope in you. (Psalm 33:22)
Discussion: Do you feel you can love someone without liking them?
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