The Greatest Commandment

36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Matthew 22:36-40 (ESV via biblegateway.com)
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This is a familiar Bible passage, and one that Jesus quotes from the ancient writings (in Deuteronomy and Leviticus). All the laws and regulations of history boiled down to two commands. And they are not what one might expect. The greatest commandment isn’t to believe; it isn’t a “shalt not”; it isn’t even to “obey.” Instead, the greatest commandment is to LOVE– love God wholly and without reserve, and love your neighbor “as yourself.”

It sounds so simple, but we don’t do it. In fact, we spend countless hours and waste energy trying to make the commandments MORE complicated and adding conditions, additions, interpretations, excuses, and critiques.

There is not enough time or space to list all the ways we try to avoid the greatest commandment, but here are a few I struggle with:

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  • My heart–I love the Lord, but I don’t always love Him with my whole heart. I love His creation; I love His promises; I love the “idea” of God. But I also love my comfort zone; I love my own moods (especially happiness and self-esteem); I love the admiration of my peers; I love God, but…I don’t always pray to God the way I would talk to my best friend. I don’t seek Him out ahead of everyone else. I don’t always seek His correction or welcome His Lordship.
  • My soul–Most of us would claim that we are “spiritual” on some level. But many of us (including me) don’t do a very good job of tending to our souls. We assume that behaviors and habits and a list of beliefs are “enough.” We spend very little time in prayer, worship, and Bible study (compared to the time we spend on chores, sleep, entertainment, driving around, daydreaming, etc.). I’m not suggesting that we all need to go into a cloister (especially in light of the second great commandment to love our neighbor). But souls, like bodies and minds, need to be nourished, exercised, and cared for. Very few of us make it a priority to nourish our soul-connection with God–to Love Him with all our soul. We skim over this part of the commandment, assuming it is much the same as loving Him with all our heart or all our mind.
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  • My mind– My mind wanders– a lot! And I spend a lot of time learning “about God,” instead of learning “from God.” I want to know what God is like– to be able to explain Him or comprehend Him. But God is bigger than my ability to “know” or even to imagine. And yet, He invites me to “know” Him, not just know about Him. In fact, He invites me to “follow” Him, to be His disciple, to model my character and my thoughts after His own.
  • My neighbor–I want to love humanity. I want to love “everybody”– from a comfortable distance! But God calls me to love my neighbor– that person who cuts in front of me at the grocery store, or revs their car engine outside my bedroom window at 3 in the morning, or laughs at me when I’m having a bad hair day. And not just “love” them in the sense of tolerating them– God wants me to love them “as myself.” To value them, reach out to them when I might rather avoid them, or seek peace when they are “pushing my buttons.” God wants me to offer them grace and forgiveness, when I might expect to demand justice or recognition.
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  • “As Myself”–Sometimes, I don’t love myself. Sometimes, I idolize myself. Other times, I despise myself. And the attitude I have rubs off on to others. God doesn’t call me to idolize my neighbor; to lie to my neighbor about Sin and its consequences, or to let my neighbor’s wicked behavior go unchallenged. Just as God wants to call me to repentance, He wants me to lovingly reach out to my neighbor, not enable her/him to live a lie. But if I am living a lie–not dealing with my own sin– I cannot demand from my neighbor what I am not willing to give to God. Similarly, I can’t give honest love to my neighbor when I despise myself– God created us both and loves us with an everlasting love! How can I give love I am not willing to receive?
  • My understanding of “commandment.” God has the authority to command my attention, my obedience, my worship, and my loyalty. But my “love?” God has given us the CHOICE to Love Him, and to Love others– He also gives us the imperative to live our lives filled with Love. It is not God’s will that we Love out of coercion, robot-like and against our own free will. Rather, God commands us to submit our will to Love in every situation. We are slaves to Sin, powerless to love perfectly–even when we try, or think we are doing well, we will fall into faulty thinking, ungoverned emotions, and uninformed, unloving reactions. We WILL break this greatest commandment, just as we will break other, lesser commandments. But God has also promised to listen to our confession and forgive us, redeeming our soul, cleansing our heart, and renewing our mind as we follow Him. God does not command us to Love perfectly in our own power. He does command us to choose Love–first and foremost for Him, and then for those around us whom He loves. In so doing, we will grow to understand the power of God’s commands as we experience the power of His Love!
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What’s Next?

As I write this, votes are being counted in our Presidential/General Election. I don’t know what the final outcome will be, but it looks like the election will be close; it may even be contested for days or weeks to come.

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There are consequences to this election– consequences for our legal rights and freedoms– consequences for churches and Christians businesses and services, and the individual free exercise of speech and religion. And the consequences reach beyond just my city or state or even the U.S. This election may impact how (or if) I can continue to write about prayer and Christian living. It may impact how my local church continues to operate. It will impact how mission organizations and religious services continue.

But there are several things that will not change as a result of any election: God is still sovereign; the Bible is still true; I will still be a follower of Christ– committed to living for Him and sharing His Gospel.

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In that sense, “what’s next” is exactly the same today as it was yesterday or last year– I am to trust in God’s plan; God’s provision; God’s timing. And I am to obey His word. I am to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with my God” (see Micah 6:8); I am to “love the Lord my God with all my heart, mind, and soul, and my neighbor as myself” (see Matthew 22:37-39).

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Yesterday, I did my civic duty; I voted my conscience. Today and going forward, I will do my civic duties– I will pay taxes, I will obey laws and guidelines that do not contradict God’s commands. And I will work to make a positive difference in my community and my country. I may have to make changes and adjustments in the way I serve and work and interact with other people. But “what’s next” in my Christian walk doesn’t depend on what happened yesterday, or what will happen tomorrow. My eyes have to be focused, not on any political race, or its immediate consequences, but on the race described by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Philippians:

12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus...17 Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. 18 For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

–Philippians 3:12-14; 17-21 (NIV via biblegateway.com)

Of course, I hope that outcome of this election will honor God and preserve the freedoms I hold dear. But God’s purposes and plans may involve hardship, persecution, and judgment on this nation. I must still run my race, and rejoice in my Heavenly citizenship– one that doesn’t change with election cycles or depend on politicians.

..And Love Your Neighbor as Yourself

How can I please God? What does He require of me? I’ve been exploring the most basic answer to this question by looking at Jesus’ answer to the related question, “What is the greatest of all the commandments?” (See Matthew 22: 34-40) Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy (6:5) as He gave His two-part answer– Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and Love your neighbor as yourself! He went on to say that ALL of the commandments and laws hang on these two concepts.

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So today, I want to look closer at the last of these– Love your neighbor as yourself. In another gospel, we see that Jesus is challenged to clarify, “Who is my neighbor?” https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke%2010%3A25-37&version=NIV When we want to justify ourselves, or narrow the letter of the law, we often stall obedience by seeking to “clarify” God’s commands. Jesus’ words are broad, but perfectly clear– Love your neighbor as yourself–love the next person you meet; the person closest to you, as if they were YOU.

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This doesn’t give us room to reject anyone or exclude anyone from our love, compassion, or respect as a child of God. Nor does it give us the right to live someone else’s life, or take away their God-given free will to think and act for themselves. I have been guilty of both offenses, and I don’t think I am alone.

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Two of the great mistakes we make in failing to “love our neighbor” come through fear and pride. In the story of the “Good Samaritan,” we see two examples of a priest and a Levite, who fail to show love to their fellow Jew. They act in fear– fear of being the next victim, perhaps, but also fear of being inconvenienced or pulled away from their plans and purposes, and fear of being “defiled.” How many times do I let fear keep me from reaching out? How often do I fear that people, even God, will think less of me for associating with those who need help? Yet Jesus was known for interacting with sinners, lepers, and other outcasts. How can I act differently, and please God more than His own son?

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The other great mistake I have made is to “love” out of pride. Sometimes, I think I have more wisdom, or more material wealth, or greater skills, and that it is my right to “help” my neighbor in my own way and at my own convenience. I think I know how they should live, what they should do, and what they need– more than they do; sometimes even more than God knows! But I cannot love where I am not willing to be humble. This is true with God, and it is equally true with others.

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That doesn’t mean that I love others best when I let them take advantage to my harm or to their own harm. And it doesn’t mean that I must agree with them completely or deny what I know to be right. But it means that I must value their well-being and worth in God’s eyes as equal to (and often greater) than my own. It makes me feel good to “fix” someone else by fixing their circumstances, or demanding that they accept my help, but their greater need may be to take control of their own circumstances and attitudes. My need to be “right” or “righteous” or “charitable” needs to take a back seat to whatever their greater need may be. I need to listen more than I speak; wait when I would rather act (or vice versa); to take direction rather than give it; and to give advice rather than orders.

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The Apostle Paul spoke at length about love:

13 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

1 Corinthians 13: 1-7 NIV (via biblegateway.com)
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I can “care” about others; I can be generous; I can be knowledgeable; I can volunteer, and make sacrifices; I can “feel” deeply, and empathize with others– and still NOT love them. Conversely, I can disagree with them about a number of things, including their life choices, political views, and spending habits, and still love them as Christ loves them. I can love those who like me, or ignore me; those who hate me, as well as those who love me back. But I cannot do this in pride or in my own emotions and thoughts. This kind of love can only be sustained by the source of true Love– God Himself.

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This is why it is so important to learn from Jesus’ example. His perfect Love casts out fear and pride, and allows us to see others (and ourselves!) in the proper perspective.

Do Justice

Sometimes, we pray for God to “show us the way,” to help us know how best to please Him. We are faced with choices that seem right or good, but other choices seem equally good. In fact, sometimes, “God’s ways–” His laws and commands– seem awkward, outdated, harsh, even “wrong” in light of circumstances.

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But the prophet Micah points out the God has shown us how to please Him. He even spells out three things God requires of us: to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. (Micah 6:8) Later, Jesus confirmed that the two greatest commandments are to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:36-40) I want to explore this in greater detail, beginning with Micah’s first requirement– Do Justice.

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On its surface, this seems sensible and self-evident– Justice is good; injustice is bad, and a good God would always want us to be on the side of justice. But this is not a statement of thought or sentiment. God’s requirement is not that we prefer justice, or agree that justice is a good thing, or even denounce injustice. Instead, it is an action statement– DO justice (some versions use the phrase “act justly”). Those of us nodding our heads, or pointing our fingers, or arguing about past injustices miss the requirement entirely. We are to love mercy (more about this in another post), but to do justice– act justly–behave in accordance with justice.

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DO. JUSTICE. Tell the truth; honor commitments; pay debts; actively share with the needy around us; actively defend our neighbors against threats; actively confront and seek punishment for those who are doing harm; honor and respect those in authority over us; accept the limits and limitations of our circumstances; obey the law, even when others don’t. There is nothing easy or self-evident about doing justice in a fallen and unjust world.

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This is not a “social justice” or social media activity; not a matter of “being on the right side of history” about a specific political agenda, or a moral crusade. It is a personal matter– personal choices to take action toward individuals for the sake of justice. It may involve personal sacrifice of time or money. It may involve confronting family members or close friends who are lying, cheating, or breaking the law, rather than turning a blind eye or excusing their actions. It may mean saying “no” to an opportunity that involves sketchy practices.

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We like to think of JUSTICE–in big letters, stretching across decades–as an ideal to which we aspire. We don’t like to see it as a discipline that imposes on us a set of actions and reactions.

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Our current political situation in America is a great example of this. As a Christian– someone who wants to follow Christ’s example and please God in every area of my life– I’ve had to confess to being very unjust in my words and attitudes toward political candidates, media personalities, even neighbors and family members. I am constantly bombarded with photos, news stories, FB posts, memes, and more expressing criticism, sarcasm, innuendo, half-truths, exaggerations, and out-right lies. When I pass them on, comment on them, rejoice in (or proudly dismiss) their messages, am I acting justly? Am I doing justice to the people involved when I pass instant judgment or give instant approval? When I impute motives before I even know the full extent of actions taken? When I ignore uncomfortable truths, or insist on “my” truth? Can I do justice if I refuse to seek the truth, refuse to get involved or be inconvenienced?

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It is easy to point out hypocrisy in others, but if I want to please God– to do justice– I have to begin with me. I have to begin with the small acts I do every day. Am I doing justice to my spouse if I complain about her/his habits? Am I doing justice to my boss if I “call in sick” to go shopping or go to the beach? Am I doing justice when I keep the extra change because the cashier made a mistake at the store? Am I doing justice when I pretend that my stances on abortion or marriage or the minimum wage give me the right to silence, or harass, or destroy my neighbor?

I have to stop just talking about justice, or demanding justice for past wrongs, or making an idol of “Justice”– I need to pray for the wisdom and strength to act justly.

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Lord, help me to seek justice. But even more, give me the wisdom to discern what is just, and the power to do it whenever and wherever I have the opportunity. For the glory of Your Name. Amen.

He Hath Shewed Thee…

Wherewith shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the high God? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God…

Micah 6:6-8 (KJV)

“What does God want from me?!” Ask a dozen people this question, and you will very likely get a dozen different (and even conflicting) answers!

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Abject obedience? Memorizing a creed or list of rules? Sacrifice? Humiliation or self-abasement? Blind faith? Constant repentance and confession? A crusader’s militancy? Your answer reflects your relationship with and belief in God and His character.

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But instead of asking a dozen people, you can ask God Himself! The prophet Micah does this, and receives a simple but startling answer– God requires three things: to do justly (or practice justice), to love mercy, and to walk humbly with Him. Jesus also gives us a simple answer in the book of Matthew. When asked by a lawyer, “Master, which is the greatest commandment?,” Jesus replies, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all they soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandment hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:36-40 KJV) In giving this answer, Jesus was referring to writings He had dictated hundreds of years before to Moses (Deuteronomy 6:5, and Leviticus 19:18 respectively).

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God is very clear– there is no single and measurable act we can do, no oath we can take, no quest we can complete, and no gift we can give that will, in itself, please Him. There is no magical number of times we must confess, or sacrifices we must make, or rites we must go through to be acceptable. But, as simple as the answers appear, it is impossible for us to meet the requirements on our own. We do not love God with all our heart, soul, and mind– we do not walk humbly with Him; nor do we do what is just, or love mercy toward our neighbors– we do not love others as ourselves.

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Even though Micah wrote before Jesus came to earth, he proclaims that God “hath shewed” us how to please Him. His commands teach us His priorities and His character–God values life (Thou shalt not kill); He values family (Honor thy Father and Mother/ Thou shalt not commit adultery); He loves truth (Thou shalt not bear false witness) and Holiness (Thou shalt not have any other gods before Me/Thou shalt not make graven images/Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain). God loves those who trust and rest in His provision (Thou shalt not steal/ Thou shalt not covet/Remember the Sabbath). He is pleased to provide good things; He is a God of Love.

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Jesus came to “fulfill” the law– to demonstrate both who God is, and how He wants to help us live life to the fullest. He also came to prove that the law, while good, is not a means to an end for us to please God.

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I have a heart to explore this further over the next few days. I pray that what God has laid on my heart will draw me closer to Him, and that sharing it might help others to do the same.

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