Over the past few days I’ve been musing on love–specifically on love for God, love for others, and how they are related. Following are some loosely-connected thoughts on the subject that I first shared on Twitter, gathered here in one place.
We often hear “love God AND love your neighbor” as if they are two separate commandments. Some even go so far as to say that first is more important than the second. But my reading of the New Testament suggests our love for God can be measured BY our love for neighbor.
In the prophets and the New Testament, piety divorced from compassion is regularly regarded as worthless. For example, John says “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.”
Interestingly, I can’t think of a single example in scripture where compassion apart from piety is likewise condemned. We should be rightly cautious about arguments from silence, but that still seems at least marginally significant.
This isn’t to suggest that we must choose between one or the other – that would be a false dichotomy – BUT…the consistent biblical prioritization of the horizontal over the vertical ought to shape our own priorities.
Love for neighbor precedes and is the foundation of love for God. Scripture says that love for God *cannot exist* in the absence of love for neighbor. Fascinatingly, however, scripture never suggests that love for neighbor cannot exist in the absence of love for God.
In fact, Jesus says “even tax collectors and sinners” love those who love them – “neighbors” in the narrowest sense of the word. The parable of the good Samaritan was scandalous precisely because it portrayed an outsider demonstrating love for neighbor better than the insiders.
We know this to be true in experience. We know that there are people who reject God and yet still demonstrate genuine love and compassion for others. If “even sinners do that,” then clearly love for people can exist in the absence of love for God.
According to Jesus, the thing that should separate his followers is their love not just for those like them, but for those who are not like them and do not like them.