The Chief Commandment

July 25, 2006

’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

What’s been on my mind the last day or two is how we are called into chiefly two categories of relationships.

The first is a relationship with God, and that is one that we must build through prayer.  I’ve heard prayer called “wasting time with God.”   I like that.  I don’t think some people get prayer.  In a book I’ve heard quoted, I think it is called The God Gene, I heard an interesting statistic (and I may be misquoting).  What I understand is that there is something like 50% of the population who are spiritual and 50% who are not.  There are also about 50% of the population who go to church and 50% who do not.  The numbers have nothing to do with each other.  In other words, the study showed that roughly 50% of churchgoing people were not spiritual at all, and roughly 50% of non-churchgoing people were spiritual.  I find that extremely interesting.  I think that spiritual practice is one of the most under-talked about subjects in the church, as it is the entire basis for this personal relationship with God.  Whether daily devotional reading, prayer, meditation, journaling, or even walking in solitude (I love to walk a labyrinth), getting in touch with your spirit; talking and listening to God is really important.

The other kind of relationship we are called into is relationship with each other (the passage above implies that we already have a healthy self-image, but I’ll ignore that for now).  Of course that means that we are patient with each other, friendly, nice, and look out for each other.  Everybody knows the story of the good Samaritan.  But how many of us look at strangers in the face when passing them on the street, smile, and say, “Good morning!”  Now if that’s too “Father Knows Best” for you, how about giving back to the community, taking care of the poor, trying not to act out in anger the next time you read something you don’t like on a blog, being compassionate towards those who disagree with you, and so on.  We’re all one big family, after all, and we’re stuck here together on this tiny planet island together, like it or not.  We might as well make the best of it!



9 Responses to “The Chief Commandment”

  1. Rick Harris, O.P. Says:

    Another way to think about it is that we are all called to give special attention to our relationship with God. The methods you suggest, prayer, meditation, quiet time, journaling, reading devotional literature, and studying Scripture are all excellent ways to do that. If we start from the perspective of utter devotion to Jesus Christ as the personification of God, we can then fruitfully examine our relationships with others.

    Inevitably, of course, each of us falls short. We lust. We fear. We get angry. We feel jealous or envious. We ignore the problems of others. We walk right past the streetperson who asks us for money. We don’t always feed the hungry, clothe the naked, tend the sick, or visit the prisoner.

    OK, so now I have identified an area of my relationship with others in which I fall short of the glory of God. (And incidentally, I would argue that this is the real function of the law– to help us each as individuals identify areas in our lives where we sin, that is, where we separate ourselves from God, that is, where we fall short of God’s glory.) So what should I now do? One answer is that I should go out and redouble my own efforts. I should resolve to give one dollar to every panhandler I encounter, or I should sign up for prison ministry, or I should work in a soup kitchen, or I should smile at every person I see in the street.

    I believe that method cannot possibly work. If there is an area of my life where I am falling short of the glory of God, then that is an area of my life where I am choosing to keep God out. No, Father, I am saying, I don’t want to change. I like myself the way I am.

    If I come to see, through prayer or meditation or Scripture study, that I have cut off from God in that part of my life, then I have been convicted by that experience. God hasn’t actually convicted me– I have convicted myself. The remedy then is to confess my sin, ask God’s forgiveness, and ask Him to amend my life, to change me from a dirty lump of coal into a sparkling diamond.

    The difference between the two approaches is that, in the first, I haven’t given up on my own ability to change myself, by myself, into something that is pleasing to God. In the second, I have come to believe that my own efforts to change are destined to be futile, and that I need supernatural help, which I can only obtain by throwing myself on God’s mercy.

    The first approach calls on me to earn reconciliation with God. The second approach relies on grace alone.

    “‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.”

  2. Jeff Says:

    I *think* I agree with you.

    My focus in this post was not so much on repentence, though, as building relationship with God and each other. One part of that relationship, as with any relationship, is learning to ask for forgiveness.

    Of course divine forgiveness is a little bit different, but I believe that the full appreciation of the grace we have been given comes after we start building the relationships around us– after we start the journey of change forward that you mention. When we elect- of our own free will- to begin that journey, and choose to walk the path instead of staying in stagnant waters then our appreciation of the grace that we are freely given abounds, and we become aware of some of the things we are doing that we need to ask forgiveness for and want to go further down the path. Then we ask for further guidance. Of course the sequence of events doesn’t really matter- this is just an example.

    So, again, I *think* I agree with you, but I am uncomfortable with the traditional notion that we are bad, and that without God we are worthless. I believe that God created us, that the Spirit dwells within us, and that we want to do good (I’ve got a post on that around here somewhere). I think also that inevitably we fail, we stumble along the way, and that we need help to attain the good goals that we desire (we get distracted with not so good stuff despite our best intentions– you want to give the homeless man $1 but your fear/greed/hurriedness prevents you, etc.).

    I’m just not so sure that the idea of “I’m worthless” is a healthy one, and I believe God wants us to be healthy because without being healthy we aren’t of use to anyone.


  3. Rick Harris, O.P. Says:

    Not worthless, Jeff. We cannot be worthless because God does indeed love us. But we are His prodigal children. He longs for us to come home, where He stands at the door, watching for any sign of us on the long road home, ready always to welcome us back. For our part, we are dirty, imperfect, deeply flawed, self-absorbed, callous, proud, and, most important of all– powerless to change ourselves in a way that is meaningful to God. We cannot possibly make ourselves into something that is holy. We are instead dependent on His mercy.

    Our cry to Him is, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you and I am no longer worthy to be called your son; please treat me as one of your servants.” And His answer is, “My son was lost, and now he is found.” And it is then, after we have acknowledged our sin, that He gives us a robe and a ring and a great feast.

    We are also intrinsically incapable of perceiving in advance how our acts might fit into God’s plan. Maybe if I give a dollar to the homeless person then he will be inspired by the Holy Spirit to give it to another homeless person and, in the act of giving, come to see and accept God’s love in a way that will bring salvation. Or, maybe God needs for that homeless person to be turned down by everyone he asks money from tonight, because then, hitting rock bottom, in total and utter despair, he will at long last turn to the Only One Who can actually bring salvation. Or maybe God has some lesson that I need to learn from this homeless person tonight. Maybe if I disobey Christ’s command to give to everyone who asks of me, I will later be overcome by shame and for the first time I will be truly and wholly convicted of my own sinfulness, and at last turn to God in genuine repentance. There is no way we can know what God has in mind when we are first approached. All we can truly know is that God has a plan, and none of us know what it is. And that in everything God works for good with those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose. (Rom. 8:28) I have two friends who found their faith only after they were arrested for serious crimes. Both turned to Christ for the first time in prison– one of them actually prayed to God that he would send a lightning bolt through the barred prison window and strike him dead. Both are productive members of society and prominent members of their parishes today.

    My strong belief is that when we turn to God in devotion and love that consumes our hearts, souls, and minds, that God engineers circumstances in such a way that we will not so much choose to do particular actions, but we will simply find ourselves doing them without any need for a volitional act on our own part. by their fruits you shall know them means that those who love God will be unable to keep themselves from doing good works; it comes as naturally as breathing. But if we have to TRY to do good works, it is a sign that we have fallen short, and need to turn back to God and repair our relationship with Him.


  4. Jeff Says:

    See my post here on this topic.

    I don’t believe that we are innately bad, which seems to be your point. If we were, we wouldn’t have the desire to repent. We would feel perfectly fine when we do something wrong.

    We deeply desire to do what is right– at our core we are good because God created us. We have layers of “stuff” packed on top of it, though, which prevent us from acting on that good inner core. That prevents us from always acting good, or always thinking good.

    For example, in today’s Daily Office, Peter denied Jesus three times and then wept. I think he denied Jesus out of fear of retribution. Not because he was bad, or because he didn’t love Jesus in his core- but something on top of that good inner-self prevented him from acknoweldging Jesus.

    If he wasn’t good in his core being he wouldn’t have wept afterwards– he would have been indifferent; apathetic.

    We do need God to help dig through all that outer stuff to get to the inner good stuff, but I don’t find it particularly helpful to think of ourselves as bad in our core being.


  5. Rick Harris, O.P. Says:

    I don’t think I said that we are innately bad. But let me immediately answer by saying that no, we are not. God created us. We are not innately bad. We are not bad in our inner core being. You are right that the good inside us makes us feel guilt and shame when we sin, and makes us wish to repent, as happened to Peter that fateful night before the crucifixion.

    But I think we are nevertheless innately flawed, innately prone to sin, innately rebellious, innately proud. No, we don’t want to be that way (well, at least most of us don’t). But we cannot stop sinning on our own. Paul said it amazingly well in Romans 7:

    “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

    Our tendency is to keep trying to fix ourselves through our own efforts. We want to do good, but we also want to take the credit for our successes. The brother of the prodigal son wanted to do good. He worked hard. But he simply could not understand why his father rejoiced when the lost son returned.

    We figure we know what God wants, and then we want to do His work for Him. It is arrogant, another trait that nearly all of us share. The fact is, it’s not a question of doing good. It’s a question of maintaining our devotion to our Father.

    Oswald Chambers again:

    “We are apt to say that because a man has natural ability, therefore he will make a good Christian. It is not a question of our equipment but of our poverty, not of what we bring with us, but of what God puts into us; not a question of natural virtues of strength of character, knowledge, and experience – all that is of no avail in this matter. The only thing that avails is that we are taken up into the big compelling of God and made His comrades (cf. 1 Cor. 1:26-30). The comradeship of God is made up out of men who know their poverty. He can do nothing with the man who thinks that he is of use to God. As Christians we are not out for our own cause at all, we are out for the cause of God, which can never be our cause. We do not know what God is after, but we have to maintain our relationship with Him whatever happens.”


  6. Jeff Says:

    OK, I’m pretty much in agreement with that. I just like to frame it a little bit differently because I think that to frame it critically– that is to focus on our shortcomings instead of our ability to live fully into the grace given to us– is to set us up to fall short of the gifts we have been given. We’ll end up constantly beating ourselves over the heads, giving ourselves guilt complexes about it, and not being able to serve fully into the mission that we are called to do in the world.

    But I do agree with what you’ve said.


  7. Jeff Says:

    One more thing…

    I hear in your post a description of the need to remain humble in the face of God.

    I firmly believe in that. I believe that one of our biggest problems is that we forget how small we are in the big scheme of things.

    That’s one of the reasons I always like to say something that I once heard Susan Brooks Thistlewaite (of the Chicago Theological Seminary) say:

    “I don’t know whether we are called to win in this debate, only that we are called to have it.”

    That shows the smallness that we have, and our place in God’s plan.

    Too often we think that somehow God’s will is left to us, and that leads us to (sometimes even violently) try to implement what we perceive to be God’s will. That, in my opinion, is a lack of proper humility.


  8. Rick Harris, O.P. Says:

    On the one hand you might say that guiilt feelings are a bad thing, because they can paralyze from work. But then, what if we really are guilty? Imagining myself standing at the foot of the cross and looking up at the One blameless person who is bearing painful punishment for my sin– maybe it will make me overcome with guilt feelings, but maybe, just maybe, it will bring me to that point of humility that is so important. God doesn’t want my strength. He wants me to confess and realize my weakness so that I can then depend on His strength– made perfect in my weakness.

    To get back to my overriding point: I am skeptical of attempting to do good works, or to work for social justice, or even to feed the hungry, as an end in itself. As I recognize that there are areas of my life where I fall short of the standard laid out in Matthew 25, the answer is not to go out and try harder to do good works. The answer is to get on my knees and beg God’s forgiveness. As I turn myself over to devotion to God, I will find myself doing what God wants and manifesting the fruit of the spirit without even trying. It will just happen. The choice before me always is whose strength should I lean on– my own or God’s? Too often I choose my own and problems inevitably ensue from that choice. Back to my knees. I don’t advocate letting oneself be overcome by guilt. I advocate acknowledging where we fall short and asking God to intervene and grant us amendment of life.

  9. Jeff Says:

    I agree with you. I think the call to do work in the world is a response to the love we receive from God, not the other way around.

    I would argue, though, that if you have faith without taking any action, though, your faith is probably not very deep, as I don’t believe you can feel the grace of God without wanting to do something different in your life in response.


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