Why is it that people who claim to follow Jesus act in such contradictory ways? I’m not talking about people who fail to live up to their own standards of behavior. All of us do that. I mean people who honestly, sincerely seem to have completely opposite views about what it means to follow Christ?
Some people believe that being Christian means violence. Others believe it means trying to stop violence.
- Some people are inspired by Christianity to hate people. Others are inspired to serve people.
- Some Christians attack people of other beliefs. Others respect people of other beliefs.
Most of these Christians claim they’re just following what the Bible says. How can Christians be so confused? Why can’t there be a simple way to figure out what the Bible really means and what Jesus really wants? Well, as it turns out, there is.
The Most Important Thing
First, a little quiz. What is the most important quality you can have as a Christian? Most Christians would probably say, “faith in Jesus”. Wrong. Most of the hating, violent, intolerant people in the groups I just described have faith in Jesus, or at least they think they do.
The apostle Paul says that after everything else is gone, three things remain. Faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these is… love. 1 Not faith. In fact, Paul says that you can have enough faith to move mountains, and if you don’t have love – your faith is completely useless. 2
The Great Commandment
Jesus said the same thing earlier. There aren’t just 10 commandments in the Old Testament. According to Jewish scholars, there are 613, and arguments were common about which of them was the most important. When they asked Jesus for his answer to that question, it was simple. Love God with all your heart, soul and mind. And the second was love your neighbor as yourself. 3 And just in case we want to make the category of neighbor as small as possible, he makes it clear it includes our enemies 4. Then he says something interesting. He says on this idea of love “hang all the law and the prophets”.
Missing the Message
In other words, if, at any time, you think that God is telling you to do something other than love people, you’ve missed Jesus whole message. If you think your faith in Jesus requires you to do something other than love people, you’re completely wrong. Two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, made this mistake when a Samaritan village refused to receive Jesus. These two thought they knew what to do about unbelievers. They knew their Bible, and they knew that the prophet Elijah had called down fire from heaven to burn up the unbelievers. They asked Jesus’ permission to do the same to the Samaritans. But according to Jesus, all the law and all the prophets hang on love. And Jesus told them they had missed the whole spirit of his message. “You don’t know what spirit you are. For the Son of Man didn’t come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them” 5
In fact, the first letter of John says that God is love. Not that he has love or exemplifies love. God and love and one and the same thing. “Whoever lives in love” it says, “ lives in God, and God in them.” 6
Of course, we can make excuses for hateful behavior in the name of love. We can tell ourselves that by burning heretics at the stake, we’re actually saving their souls, which is really loving. Or that by shouting slogans and waving signs, we’re loving the sinner, but hating the sin. Or we can try to have vague happy feelings about people in general but do nothing to help people individually.
This is why Jesus makes love a very practical thing, and we have come to call it the Golden Rule. “In everything,” Jesus says, “do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” The entire law and all the teachings of the prophets boil down to this – treat people with love. Treat them as you’d like to be treated. The great rabbi Hillel, who lived at about the time of Jesus, was once taunted by a gentile who said he would become a Jew if Hillel could teach him the whole Jewish law while the gentile stood on one foot. Hillel answered “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn” 7.
If you were a heretic, what would you prefer people do to you? Burn you at the stake to save your soul, or try to persuade you with real love and friendship? If you were living an immoral life, what kind of approach would you prefer people use to help you improve? Would it involve signs and slogans, or genuine concern?
But what about the parts of the Bible that some Christians quote to justify hateful behavior? St Augustine had a hard and fast rule about how to interpret the Bible. “Whoever, then,” he says, “thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.” 8 In other words, if your interpretation of a particular verse of the Bible makes you act like a jerk – try again. Repeat as needed. On the other hand, Augustine says, if you interpret a verse in the Bible in a way that makes you love God and love humanity, even if it’s not what the authors actually intended, you’re still fine. When you err on the side of love – even when you’re wrong, you’re still right.
Let’s review then. Love is rule #1. Love is more important than faith. Love is more important than any of the other commandments. Love is the very essence of God. Love the meaning of any true interpretation of the Bible. And if your version of Christianity doesn’t put love first, then you don’t really know what spirit you are. This one rule can rescue your Christianity from all sorts of traps and pitfalls. To conclude with the words of St. John of the Cross, “In the evening of life, we shall be judged on love alone.” 9