Loving People, Loving God

good_samaritan_photoOne of the readings that day was from 1 John 4:20 which says in part, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” . . . While I can’t say that I hated anyone particularly, this reading challenged me. I knew that I loved God with all my heart, but people? Well, people were mean and obnoxious. They rejected you and treated each other terribly. Loving God was a lot easier than loving people. God is love. People are annoying. How could it be possible that I couldn’t truly love God unless I also loved people?

R. Trotter, The Upside Down World ~ A Book of Wisdom in Progress

For a long time, I believed that loving others was an act of love towards God. A way of serving him and living out the love you had for him. If you really love God, then you would love other people as well. If out of obedience if nothing else.

There is truth in that perspective. However, I’m coming to understand that the reality is much more profound. Notice that the scriptures say that if you do not love others, then you CANNOT love God. Not do not – cannot. It’s saying that you are not even capable of loving God if you do not love other people. Considered this way, a lot of what we think we know about God, love and our relationship with him gets turned right on its head.

The bible says that we love because God first loved us. That is, God’s love for us is the source of our ability to love. But it is only through loving other people that we gain the ability to love him in return.

The issue, it seems to me, is that we humans don’t really understand love. We think we do. But a quick glance around the world shows that we’re actually very bad at it. What we’re very good at, though, is self-justification. It doesn’t matter how wrong or how outlandish our treatment of others is, we can quite easily find a way to explain how our actions are actually loving. (Exhibit A: Westboro Baptist Church.)

As long as we allow our ideas about love to remain in the spiritual realm, we can continue being oblivious to just how bad and unloving they actually are. Our ability to receive feedback from or see results in spiritual realms is very limited, at best. So if I have the idea that it is loving to offer blood sacrifices to the gods, I can continue doing so indefinitely without ever learning that this isn’t actually a very good way to love God. 

In order to discern whether our ideas about love are accurate or not, we must test them here in the physical world. And this is why I think the bible says that we are not capable of loving God if we do not love other people. By applying our ideas about love to how we treat other people, we are able to see how well they actually work. If they don’t work so well here in the physical world, then that means we’re doing it wrong.

Learning to love other people becomes a way to test and correct our ideas about what love actually is, how it behaves and what it looks like in action. At least if we are open and humble enough to receive correction when we fail. Thus, as we love other people, our love gets purified. Which means that the love we direct back to God is also purified. We gain the ability to actually love God rather than direct our erroneous ideas about love back at him, calling that love.

Often, it is through learning to love others that our ideas about God, who is Love, get corrected as well. Let’s say that I see God as loving, but wrathful and angry. And then I have children. In the course of raising them and loving them, I discover that I am quick to forgive them, unwilling to allow any error or slight on their part to destroy our relationship and that I see them through eyes of understanding and mercy. At some point it may occur to me that God’s love must look more like my love for my child than like the stern, disappointed version of him I had in my head. Once I realize this, my love for God is able to be directed to God more as he actually is and less as I presume him to be.

And it’s not just about getting rid of our bad ideas about love. When we learn to love other people, it changes and shapes us. It drives out our pride. It teaches us patience, understanding and grace. Through loving other people, we take on more and more of the shape of that Love in whose image we are made. Unless that happens, what we consider love of God will be filled with pride, demands, conceit and judgment. It and we won’t look anything like Love.

Jesus famously says that on judgment day, he will welcome those who had cared for those in need. A lot of Christians, for all practical purposes, reject this. They see this as a demand for works and we can’t be saved by our works, of course. But once we understand that it is only through loving people that we gain the capacity to love God, Jesus’ words make more sense. He’s not saying that if you didn’t feed, cloth, visit and otherwise care for others, you haven’t done what is required to get into the Kingdom. He’s saying that if you haven’t done those things, then there’s no way you have the capacity to enter into the Kingdom. Because unless you know how to love people who you do see, you aren’t capable of loving God whose face you have yet to encounter.

5 thoughts on “Loving People, Loving God

  1. Another point… Although God is not “imaginary”, our image of God is necessarily constructed from what we’re able to imagine.

    Even though God has always been ‘with’ me, I’m not necessarily consciously ‘present with’ God, can’t understand what God is ‘telling me’ except through occasionally seeing what God is showing me… I don’t know what “loving God” feels like, except for those moments when I realize something that God is/has-been specifically doing in ways I can experience.

    What it means “to love God” is hard to define, what it means “to love this person here” is familiar. And if I realize that whatever I can love about them is God living as them, is something they can do because God is in there…

  2. I find it curious that there is very little written in the Epistles about humans expressing love towards God. There is much written about God and Christ’s love toward people, however. And there is quite a bit about how God’s people are to love one another. When Paul and James write about fulfilling God’s law, it comes down to loving one another (Rom. 13:8, 10; Gal. 5:14; 6:2; James 2:8).

  3. Rebecca,
    I love this post. It will be among the posts of yours that I save and go back to again and again. Once again, you do a beautiful job of making the Master’s words clear and practical, with fresh insight (however challenging they may be!) to understand in a way that is grounded and always allowing yourself to be transparent and as a result I get to not feel so alone in my humanity and failings at doing this very well at all I’m afraid. In fact, I’m so clear that the struggle is so basic for me that the only label that I decided I could be comfortable with at all, the only one that would be accurate is “2GreatCommandmentPreschooler”; a version of Brennan Manning’s “ragamuffin”, I guess. But so much as you point out above can only default back to ego, pride, and self until there is even an elementary mastership of this follower of the Way basic tenet. Only by Grace at all. Thank you, Rebecca!

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