When I was in college, I was taught that I needed to love people. I was taught that Jesus loved people and I needed to love people. It was my Christian duty to love people.
This was stressed over and again so much that it would have been easy to make my entire life about loving people. I knew many friends who did just that with terrible consequences.
That last sentence may strike you as a horribly offensive thought. If so, please read on. This post is for you and it may save your life.
I’m not going to blame the people who taught this, because it is such a pervasive idea within Christianity that it would cast blame almost everywhere. I’m sure, unfortunately, I have at times come across this way. There is no problem with teaching others to love people. As you would suspect, loving others is a really good thing. But like building a roof on a house with no walls or foundation, a really good thing can be useless, destructive or even deadly if you do not understand the proper context of that love.
When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, He answered unequivocally:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.
This is our foundation. It is our walls. It is our structure, our form and our hope. If we build anything before this, it will fall. It will injure. It will destroy us.
Love Your Neighbor
Jesus didn’t hesitate to spell out the second-greatest commandment in the same breath:
The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.
So yes, loving others is completely part of Christianity. The problem is not with loving people, but the order of importance we give it. Jesus was very specific here. He knew the danger that comes with getting these out of order. Both are very important commands and both bring about great good when done in the proper order. When done out of order, they are very damaging.
This epidemic of teaching has produced an epidemic dilemma in the West today. We have chosen to love our neighbors before we love God. We have chosen to reach out to the poor, the brokenhearted, the weak and the lowly. These are all excellent things. The problem is not that we have done these things. The problem is that we have done them first.
How can I be so sure that we have done them first? The evidence is everywhere today.
How many Christians have you heard approve of and support gay marriage? This isn’t the singular issue at stake, but one that perfectly illustrates my point.
Sin, any sin, is something that causes our hearts to grow cold to the Lord. When we engage in sin, loving the Lord our God becomes more difficult. It doesn’t necessarily change how He feels about us, but it makes it difficult for us to connect. When we continue in that sin, our hearts grow even colder and harder. It makes it that much more difficult to love and connect with God.
Eventually, that sin will cause us to wander away from the Lord. If we accept and endorse sinful behavior that causes other’s hearts to wander away from God, we are not loving others. We are hurting them. This is why we must keep the order in tact: 1) Love God and then 2) love people, or we will actually be doing neither.
Again, I’m only picking on gay marriage because it is the issue du jour. You could look at so many other issues this gives rise to. Racism. Corruption. Infidelity. You name it. When we choose to love people before God, we will get all sorts of things wrong. We will see the plight of people bullied for their sexuality. We will see the inner torment that homosexual people have struggled with. We will see abuse, hate, anger and despair.
Then, instead of truly loving those people by helping them learn to connect with God, we will wrestle ourselves. “How can God be against these good people like this?” we will ask. “I see them, and they’re trying to love God. Surely this cannot be wrong.” Instead of showing them the way to truth and love, we will, in Jesus’ words, make them twice the sons of hell we are. (Matthew 23:15)
I have seen this play out too many times in the circles I have run in. If we do not first understand and teach what loving the Lord our God looks like, we will run afoul of Him. If we choose to assume that people understand that and instead focus on teaching how to love others, we will do great harm to those we lead.
Every week there seems to be some new evangelical leader proclaiming that they believe God is okay with gay marriage. They say it because they have “wrestled with scripture” and have watched the lives of those they know. What they do not understand is that in doing so, they are condemning those they believe they are loving to a life of increasing sin and separation from God.
Over Land And Sea
Forget the burnout, the betrayal and the pain that comes with loving people before we love God. That pales in comparison to the real trouble that comes with putting our love for others before God. It’s really very serious.
In case what I am saying has not been clear to this point, I will end by reiterating what Jesus said to the Pharisees on this point.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.
If you choose to love people before God, what you will do is condemn yourself to hell and those you search the globe to rescue.
It really is that big a deal.
I am not kidding. Loving others before we love God is a big deal because Jesus Himself said it was a big deal.
When you make loving God first, loving others will flow somewhat naturally. It will still take work and intentionality, but it will give life to those we love as opposed to stealing it from them.
Please, in a church culture devoted to loving and serving people, evaluate your heart and see if your love and service is springing from a deep love and devotion to God, or is it actually usurping it. It’s probably a lot more important than you realize.