February 21, 2014

Loving others . . . not idolizing them

I don’t know how men substitute human love for God’s love, but I know how women do it; we expect the man in our lives to do for us what only God can do.

Depending on human experiences, each person might think of different expectations. Personal “love language” will also have a bearing on what we want from others. For me, I feel loved when someone listens and talks to me. This puts me in danger of idolizing anyone who does that. Others might feel loved when given gifts or by physical touch with the possibility of idolizing anyone who does that for them.

This past week, the course I’m taking on Ethics had me reading parts of Karl Barth’s tome, “Church Dogmatics,” particularly a section on what it means to love your neighbor as yourself. Barth used the following passage from Luke, and his understanding was full of blessed surprises . . .

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25–37)

Notice that Jesus did not answer the lawyer’s questions. Instead, He had him answer the first one, then told him a story to answer the second. The story illustrates the nature of love, but it goes far deeper than what appears at a casual reading.

First, the ending has always puzzled me. Why did Jesus point to the Samaritan as the neighbor, the one to be “loved as thyself” rather than the man in trouble? Barth says that this Jewish man by law had to love the one who helped him, a hated Samaritan. Turn it the other way and the Samaritan was helping a man who was truly helpless, a man in no position to repay him. Neither one could easily love the other as God commands. Barth’s theology ran deep as he showed how this incident points to the gospel, Jesus Christ, and the way we are supposed to love our neighbor.

He pointed to Jesus who loves me in my helplessness and comes to my aid. I am to respond in a grateful love for Jesus who I cannot repay, remembering He hates my sin, sin that deserves wrath not mercy. Love is about this kind of giving and receiving that is demonstrated in the gospel and in Jesus Christ.

It is also about seeing my uselessness in utter brokenness and transparency, but also seeing the same in others who are just like me, even seeing my own sinful condition as I observe theirs. This too is a gift from God who wants me to repent because of what I see.

This response to the love of God intends that I also see the image of God in others, the image in which they were created. He wants me to know that even in the worst of them, God is there to reveal back to me my own condition and need of Him. Because of this, I am to love others in the transparency of who I am, not pretense or with ulterior motives, but “as myself,” my true and helpless self who needs the grace of God to love anyone.

My words are not as skillful as those of Karl Barth, but I understand what he wrote and I see that love is about sharing our weaknesses in relationships of shared and transparent helpfulness. The reality is that neither me or my neighbor have anything to give. All our resources are in Jesus Christ, and if we are truly going to be helpful beyond that weakness and love each other, then we have to draw that love from Him by faith.

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:14–19)

Loving others instead of idolizing them means that I see them and myself as we are . . .  sinners without any resources unless God gives those resources. If the other person is a Christian, then whatever they do that gives me motivation to put them on a pedestal comes from God . . .  and He is the one who should have the praise, not the person whose “faith works through love” and benefits me. (Galatians 5:6)

There is more, but it took Barth thirty years and more than 8000 pages to express the wonders of God’s love and the amazing truth that His Spirit enables me to trust Him. Faith sets me free to love others as He does, not to ignore them, walk by them, or over-appreciate them, and certainly not to idolize them instead of Him.

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