I must confess that it took me longer than I would have liked to write my blog post on this chapter. The simple reason is that what this chapter instructs me to do appears much too difficult.
In chapter 4 of Faithful Questions, the authors Shobe and Gunn lead the conversation with the projection that, since Jesus died for us, the next step is to consider how we ought to live our lives. There are, of course, the Ten Commandments, and some of them are commonly misunderstood as if they prohibit the speaking of four-letter words, or as if they prohibit envy (a thought) as opposed to covetousness (conspiracy to take away). This is a very good list to reflect upon, and is not too hard to do. But when Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment, he listed none of the ten.
“Jesus said, the first commandment is this: Hear oh Israel, the Lord our God is the only Lord. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Moreover, at the Last Supper, Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment. I disagree with Shobe and Gunn inasmuch as they assert that this new commandment is on par with what Jesus had previously described as the greatest commandment. To me, the two commandments above are the most important, because Jesus said they were. But Shobe and Gunn are probably better educated than I am, so I will discuss the matters of this chapter on their terms. And, of course, to say that a commandment is not the most important in no way means that it isn’t important: Jesus’ Last Supper Commandment is very important—in spite of, or perhaps because of, its great difficulty. It’s very great difficulty.
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
So, for a quick review, Shobe and Gunn project that, given Jesus’s death for us, we should consider the following list of obligations (in order of time of revelation):
- Observe the Ten Commandments
- Love the Lord God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your capacity
- Love your neighbor as yourself
- Love one another just as Jesus has loved you
Reading the Ten Commandments is easy; observing them is not the most difficult thing in the world. Loving God with all one’s capacity seems to take all one’s capacity. Perhaps some good habits can be formed to make this easier, but I wouldn’t count on it.
Loving one’s neighbor as one’s self could be harder still, but prior to reading this chapter I thought that since I view myself with a healthy respect but am not a narcissist, I could get away with doing the same for others – for it says “love your neighbor as yourself,” not “adore your neighbor, since you obviously adore yourself.” I do not adore myself: that would be gaudy. Moreover, I interpreted “loving my neighbor” to mean that I should look out for my neighbor, that I should be altruistic toward him or her, that I should consider a good thing which happened to them as just the same as if it had happened to me. That sounded plenty neighborly and would allow me to focus on loving God, which required more effort.
I interpreted loving God with all my capacity to mean something like “Above all else, do what you know to be moral, and let nothing in the world stand in the way of your doing this.” This, I reasoned from time to time, involved things like not letting my friends steal. Though I care for my friends, I must love morality, which unfortunately meant I had to stand up for morality even when my friends didn’t like it.
So I thought naively that, if I lived to an old age, I’d strike a balance and find how to observe these three commandments proficiently. But now I am not so assured, since Shobe and Gunn point out that the disciples were instructed to love one another just as Christ had loved them.
Now, to what extent did Christ love the disciples? Well, I take it he loved them more than I love anything, since he was willing to die for them, not to mention how much he put up with Peter despite all his stupid questions and foot-in-mouth disease. So now, according to Shobe and Gunn, I am commanded not only to love God with all my might but to love other people as Jesus loved his disciples. How much love does the Bible expect me to come up with?!
What am I supposed to do if I accept that this is my burden, to love others as much as Jesus loved me? Now Jesus commanded this of his disciples to one another, but what if it applies to me and concerns how I am to think about all my neighbors, near and far? I feel this is a Gordian knot. Its seriousness is on the order of “it is harder for a camel to thread a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven,” or perhaps, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” In brief, loving people like Jesus loved me seems like something I ought to do, but something I cannot do. My reply falls somewhere between “It’s not my fault, if in God’s plan, he made the devil so much stronger than a man,” and “All right then, I’ll go to hell.”
However, Christianity is not about adherence to strict lists of rule, but about forgiveness. It isn’t about perfecting humanity, but about accepting our neighbors as they are and caring for them. “With man this is impossible,” dare I say, for me to love my neighbor as Jesus loved me, “but with God all things are possible.” I imagine this to be similar to how I imagined adulthood to be terribly complicated and frightening when I was a little boy, but now it’s actually not bad. Maybe loving my neighbor will turn out that way. As Calvin Coolidge observed, “If you see ten troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you.” A brave face alone scares most foes away.
Nevertheless, the original spookiness and enormity of Shobe and Gunn’s thesis in chapter 4 will not soon leave me. I’ve got my work cut out for me. I’ll do my best because it’s all I can do, but I know I’m very far from loving my neighbor as God loves me. I’m probably closer to birth, closer to the mental state of a monkey, than I am to loving my neighbors, even a few of them, the way God loves me. Hopefully, if God loves me so much, he’ll accept my best efforts.
This internal tumult, I think, is a valid initial answer to a realization such as mine of the enormity of commandments which we are taught. Only though years of reflective consideration, discipline, and practice, can I hope to become so selfless and God commanded his disciples to be. And it seems that the only option is to get moving!