And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”Mark 12:28-31, ESV
Whenever a biblical phrase goes viral across the Christian landscape, I get a little suspicious. And when that phrase is employed in a moment of confusion to help Christians reach the exact same conclusion as those who hate Christ, I add some natural crotchetiness and unnatural cantankerosity to my suspicion and this, quite naturally makes me a very pleasant person.
I want to address the hypnotic chant that has, for the past few months, been sounding down the corridors of Christianity. As is stands, the chant is good. It is, after all, from the lips of our Lord: Love your neighbor as yourself. Wonderful. Say it loud, say it often, repeat it in the same fashion and frequency they played the nursery mantras in Huxley’s Brave New World.
We don’t dispute Jesus’ words. But we must be very willing to dispute their meaning until we’re certain we have interpreted and applied them correctly to our present state of affairs. This will be my task in the following paragraphs.
Jesus makes a tight connection between loving our neighbor and loving God. So tight, in fact, that we can say with certainty that the one who does not love his neighbor does not love God, no matter how loudly he professes. Hate your neighbor and you’ll go to hell. It’s that simple.
What’s not that simple is how you should love your neighbor. In his book What Jesus Demands from the World, John Piper makes a convincing case that we cannot finally judge whether or not we’ve truly and properly loved someone based on whether or not they feel loved. It is possible to truly love your neighbor, while he concludes you hate him.
Parents run into this when disciplining their children, as the heavenly Father does when he trains his. Job, for example, didn’t feel God loved him. Jesus, crying out “Why have you forsaken me?” apparently didn’t feel loved in that moment either.
Jesus actually tells us pretty plainly how to love our neighbor: as yourself. On the one hand, this makes for an easy solution, since no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it (Eph 5:29). Fundamentally, self-love is self-preserving. And that’s not a bad thing. Self-destruction is a bad thing. Hatred causes us to destroy what we hate, love compels us to preserve and protect what we love.
Love saves. Love sacrifices to save. Love dies to save. Preservation and protection is not only good, it is godly, it is Christlike. What does Jesus do if not preserve and protect us? His very name means Savior.
Yet sometimes He does not save those he saves.
When Jesus predicted Peter’s gruesome death, he was also telling Peter he wouldn’t protect him from it. Jesus stood to witness the stoning of Stephen, but refused to lift a finger to stop the rocks from bashing in his head. Jesus is able to both save his own and allow their heads to be severed from their necks. How can this be?
Jesus not only understands the distinction between short-term preservation and long-term preservation, he modeled it. He endured the cross, hardly an act of physical self-preservation, despising the shame, hardly an act of emotional self-preservation. But he did so knowing that losing his life would mean gaining a new one, joyful, glorious, and eternal, seated at the right hand of the Father.
Jesus is sometimes committed to short-term salvation (as, for instance, on the stormy sea), but he is always committed to long-term salvation (John 6:39). When Jesus refuses to protect his loved ones in the short term, we aren’t to conclude his love has waned or failed, we are to conclude that in love he is using the misery of short term non-protection to fashion the glories of a long-term salvation.
if [we are] children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.Romans 8:17
this light momentary affliction [that Jesus could save us from but doesn’t] is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison2 Corinthians 4:17
Jesus urges us to be ready to sacrifice short-term protection in favor of long-term preservation:
Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.John 12:25
If someone loves his life in this world, he will strive to keep it, but in the long-term he’ll lose it for eternity. Hating your life is destroying it, but Jesus says that’s the path to long-term preservation.
When God’s elect refuse to love themselves in a short-term, self-preserving way by abandoning Christ, they end up conquering Satan:
…they have conquered [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.Revelation 12:11
Those who love their lives and avoid death by distancing themselves from Christ won’t conquer Satan, Satan will conquer them. Preserving yourself in a way that ultimately gets you conquered by Satan is, to be blunt, a bad, unloving plan.
Let’s apply this to neighbor loving. We can love our neighbor’s life by striving to protect it from any and all short-term harm. That’s intuitive, instinctive, the fruits are immediate, and any costs are pushed down the road. But better to love our neighbor’s life by helping protect him from long-term harm, even though this may mean we refuse to protect him from all short-term harms.
When most Christians today say “Love your neighbor as yourself,” they’re laser focused on Covid, an immediate, short-term threat to our neighbor’s safety, just as it is to our own. How then do we lovingly protect our neighbor in the short term?
The answer to this varies, but it’s neatly summed up in two mottos: First, the orphan child of the dearly departed “Fifteen days to flatten the curve,” is “Stop the spread.” It is assumed we love our neighbor when we observe lockdowns and distancing, engage in contact tracing and wearing masks. This is, after all, how we stop the spread.
The second motto, younger cousin to “We’re in this together,” is “Stay safe.” This means not only helping our neighbor to actually be safe, but to feel safe. Preserve and protect both body and feelings.
On the one hand, this is all fine and dandy, so far as it goes. Even if a person has a common cold it’s not terribly loving to run to your neighbor’s house just to cough in your hand and shake his. On the other hand, if his house is burning down, it’s infinitely better in the short term to run inside and drag him out, even if you’re simultaneously hacking and sneezing directly in his face. He’ll probably get over the cold much quicker than the incineration.
And this is where we find ourselves. Our national house is burning down. Some may not consider the fire to be of much concern, a mere flicker coming from under the couch, but let’s be honest: there’s smoke coming from almost every room in the house. But Covid itself, though a real problem, isn’t why the couch is burning. It’s burning because of how we’re fighting it. I want to be very clear: I’m not referring here to the methods that are being used to fight it, I’m referring to the fact that we’re now requiring the use of those methods and punishing those who don’t.
That, as they say in the merry old land of Oz, is a horse of a different color.
On their own, and coming from a heart of good will, the anti-Covid methods are fine and anyone who wants to employ them is quite free to do so. But when the methods become compulsory, and the non-compliant are threatened with fines or jail, the methods become something more than tools to stop the spread. They become tools to force certain behavior from free citizens. What’s more, the one doing the coercion is demanding that I, a minister of the Gospel, act as an enforcer of his rules in the house of worship. For the record, I won’t do it. I love my neighbor too much, and you should too.
Again, the methods to stop the spread and stay safe are fine, so far as they go. It’s the compulsory nature of them that’s the problem. And when Christians use “Love your neighbor” to coerce us to do the identical thing the state is trying to coerce us to do, our radar should pick up a second blip, flying in at a higher altitude but otherwise following the same path. At least non-Christians only have to deal with the state coercing behavior they have no business coercing. Christians get to face the same order, coming at them ostensibly with the authority of God himself. I call that theft of authority, but that’s for another time.
Any state willing to strip away its citizens’ freedoms in the name of short-term protection is creating a long-term disaster for those same citizens. Fallen, sinful men (which is all of them) in positions of great power will, given the opportunity, take to themselves more power by taking away the rights of their citizens. This is particularly true (and easy) when the proper checks and balances aren’t working. And they will not easily or freely relinquish their power or restore the God-given rights confiscated from their citizens. Any Christian who becomes a willing participant in this confiscation is hardly loving his neighbor.
Sadly, for their part citizens tend to be not only willing but eager to give up their rights to whomever makes a believable promise to keep them safe from whatever they fear. So often tyranny rides the wave of popular demand. But once a populace is paralyzed by the fear of a thing, they desperately search for a savior from it. Too often, professing Christians share in the same fears in the same proportions, and join the search for an alternative, immediate savior.
Satan himself understands this reality, probably better than anyone, and leverages it to his advantage. Consider:
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, [Jesus] himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.Hebrews 2:14-15
The devil “has the power of death,” and uses it to permanently enslave those who live in the fear of it. He knows men will acquiesce to the demands of whoever promises to save them from what they fear most, which is often death. But Satan is a counterfeit savior, offering deliverance, but delivering slavery.
In the exact same way, a people overcome by fear of death by Covid are prepared to willingly subjugate themselves to anyone who promises to deliver them from it. If you want proof, check the Minnesota governor’s Twitter feed and see how many of our fellow citizens are begging him for deliverance, demanding tighter restrictions, stiffer penalties, less freedoms, more slavery. Joe Biden proudly campaigned on this very thing.
Jesus destroyed the devil “through death” (sounds a little like Rev. 12:11), and through death delivered the slaves who were afraid of… death. When the state, appealing to the fear of death, moves its citizens nearer to enslavement than to freedom, we have good grounds to suspect the devil is behind all of this. And if the devil is behind this use of fear in the service of tyranny, the least loving thing we can do for our neighbor is to aid and abet his enslavement by our hearty approval of, cooperation with, or voluntary enforcement of the state’s long-term enslavement program. And yes, I believe that’s coming, and fast. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does echo, and the echoes are getting clearer.
When Christians appeal to “love your neighbor” but really mean, “protect him in the short-term,” they may feel like they’re being loving. Their neighbor may feel well loved. But Christians ought to be highly suspicious of short-term protection programs. We are to be people of wisdom, which at the very least means we understand human nature and acknowledge the law of unintended consequences.
Enforced lockdowns and masks, criminalized holiday gatherings and the slow, steady stripping away of God-given rights may indeed offer a short-term protection (though considering the current state of affairs it seems even that is not the case), but these do not come without other long-term effects. Isolation, dehumanization, suspicion, division, depression, destitution, corruption, all these things and more have increasingly plagued our fellow citizens in the past months, and those plagues show no signs of abating either. But this is the price of this current enslavement, and this is the price so many Christians, in the name of love are demanding their own families and neighbors pay for some short-term protection.
Jesus asks, rather demands we make short-term sacrifices for long-term gain. False gods, on the other hand, always demand long-term sacrifices (your children, for instance) for short-term gain. Gain the world at the bargain-barn price of your soul. Survive Covid, on sale now for the low cost of your neighbor’s freedom.
The Christian loves with a love that looks long-term, because that’s how our Savior loves, and that’s how he taught us to love. So please, love your neighbor. But love him well, in the long-term kind of way. He might hate you for it, who knows? He might call that shiny new reporting hotline we just got here in Minnesota and have you written up or thrown in jail. But his reaction is not the true measure of our love for him. Only Christ can truly judge the quality of our love.
Help your neighbor to be able to live in a state where he can have all his family over for Thanksgiving without getting fined or thrown in jail. Help him live in a state in which the fear of death isn’t used to confiscate freedom.
Model freedom from the fear of death. You’re going to die, and who knows when, but why be afraid of it? Live as one freed from that fear because you belong to one who defeated death. Who knows, your neighbor might ask the reason for the hope that lies within you. Live freely, love freely, as one given to nothing less than the eternal good of ourselves and our neighbors.
top picture is “Parable of the Good Samaritan” by Jan Wijnants, 1670