Thursday, February 4, 2016

Love Your Neighbor as Yourself?

Yes, I know the statement is not usually followed by a question mark, but stick with me for a minute or two.

This morning, I saw a Facebook meme with St. Paul's quotation of this teaching from the book of Galatians chapter 5 verse 14, "For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

It is quite intriguing that in the midst of a diatribe against those who are trying to impose the Law upon others, Paul quotes the Law, is it not?  In fact, Paul is trying to walk a delicate balance in this book.  He is trying to show that because of what Jesus has done, we are free from the Law.  We are no longer under its discipline, but we certainly do not have a license to do whatever we please--"lest we devour one another."

Paul unflinchingly says in this book that the Law cannot bring life.  The Law cannot justify.  This is quite a telling statement given that "love your neighbor as yourself" is indeed a command, a law.  And this command cannot bring life.  It cannot bring justification.

I puzzled over this for a while this morning as I looked at that Facebook meme.  For the fulfillment of the law seems to be contingent upon how we love ourselves.  I mean, look at it carefully.  Love your neighbor as  you love  yourself. 

How do you love yourself? 

When you look in the mirror, what do you see?

If you are like most in this world in which we live, you probably see one of two things:

1.  You see something despicable.  Don't stop reading.  Hear me out.  When you look at yourself and who you have become and compare it to what the rest of society says you should be; what you should look like; and how you should act, you see something despicable.  I mean, in my own case as a white male (depending upon which circles you run in), I should:

  • have a sense of guilt because of white, male privilege
  • have a six pack on my abs because I should be taking care of my body
  • have a six figure salary
  • have changed the world
  • be sensitive to those around me
  • be strong at all times
  • be the perfect father, husband, friend
  • work like a dog, but still have plenty of time for my wife and kids
Well, I have none of those things.  I am a tremendous failure.  If  you measure yourself by what society says you should be, you will have a great sense of that.  You will despise yourself, so how can you love others if you despise yourself?

2. Which leads to the second thing that you might feel when you look in the mirror.  You see someone who is fine just the way they are.  You don't care what the rest of the world says.  You are comfortable in your skin and see no need to change.  It is the rest of the world that needs to accommodate you not vice-versa. 

So, what is the problem with this?  Isn't that what we try to instill in our kids?  A sense of personal well being and satisfaction?  A sense that it doesn't matter what anyone says about you?  That you are perfect and deserving of love just as you are?  What is wrong with this?

This: a teacher I know spoke about two girls who had been caught shoplifting at a local store.  They were prosecuted and received probation.  Did they have any regret?  Did they feel any remorse for their actions?  No.  They laughed about it.  They blamed the store employee for turning them in.  They had done something, which in their eyes was harmless, and they felt nothing; no shame; nothing.  If you think you are fine just the way you are, this is the inevitable result: narcissism.  Complete self-centeredness.  And how can you love others when you are so completely and totally in love with yourself?  How can you practice the sacrifice loving another requires when you have no humility?

You can't.

Rarely does anyone get caught at the extremes of these positions.  Generally, we vacillate between the two poles: sometimes feeling down and depressed that we aren't who we should be; sometimes feeling we can take on the world; sometimes self-righteous that we have accomplished much; sometimes self-depreciating because we don't feel we have accomplished enough.  Back and forth.  Back and forth.  Is there no end?

It reminds me of a poem one of my members wrote before he died. 

Take a look–I’ve got it all
A great wife, health
Bank account that’s not small
Yet what is that sporadic, niggling burr
that nestles underneath my saddle?
Is it the ebbing of the physical
or a flaw in my gear box?
Maybe nature’s perverse trick to ruffle my feathers
Or one last long squall before the water calms.
I wrestle with this wisp of unease
It pins me more than not
A twinge of craziness asks
Am I a gerbil on a treadmill?
A captive in a cosmic joke?
A malcontent without a cause?
Is my chain being yanked because I care?
Maybe it is a plague of self absorption?
Blind faith would–could–be a lifeline
But for whatever reason no solace there.
Is the question unanswerable?
A maddening changing of the guard
Truth unacceptable
An accelerating slide down a slope
To a place I don’t want to go.  --Mark Chapman

I remember vividly a few weeks before Mark had a massive stroke he spoke up when I asked for prayer requests from the congregation, "That we may come to understand the theology you are preaching."

This request came a few months in after a complete change in my preaching style: a change in focus from what we are supposed to do to what Jesus has already done.  A switch in pointing out what we should do to proclaiming the Gospel of grace.  For it is grace that changes a heart, ends the back and forth battle between despair and arrogance, and brings final fulfillment to the Law.

For you see, the Gospel states that you are an unmitigated failure.
It also says you are deeply loved.

The God who judges all has condemned you because you haven't fulfilled His commands.
The God who judges all has taken on human flesh to die for you because He deeply loves you.

You cannot become arrogant because you have failed.
You cannot despair because you are deeply loved.

You cannot love yourself too much because in God's eyes, you are unlovable.
You cannot love yourself too little because you are the apple of God's eyes.

Such a realization instills a deep, deep sense of humility.  No longer do you look upon your neighbor with contempt or pity.  You look upon them with love and mercy.  You know they are broken--just as you are broken.  You know that they are loved--just like you are loved.  You see that your neighbor is just like you; loved just like you, and you can indeed love them just as you are loved.

The fulfillment of this command cannot come by sheer force of will, it comes only through the grace of God shown through Jesus.

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