What “Love Your Neighbor As Yourself” Does Not Mean

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?Love your neighbor as yourself.? Jesus gave us this as the second of the two greatest commandments. Paul described it as the summation or fulfillment of the whole law. No complicated explanations, lists of caveats, or endless parsing ? just ?Love your neighbor as yourself.?

And we westerners have taken it to heart. Sort of. It?s more accurate to say that we have taken it and fit it to our hearts.

It has morphed from ?Love your neighbor as yourself? to ?Love your neighbor because you love yourself? to ?Love yourself so you can love your neighbor.? Instead of reflecting the one who gave the command it has been, to create a term, Gollum-ized into a twisted, nasty, self-focused, inverted mantra. We have made ourselves the focus of the love.

Watch reality TV some time. It could be American Idol, The Biggest Loser, The Bachelor, or something else. But no matter which show it is there is good chance that you will hear something to the effect of ?you know, you just have to love yourself before you can love anyone else.? It?s the American mantra of self-love that we claim leads to real love but really offers no love at all.

The claim of increasing one?s self-love in order to love others more is rubbish. Increased self-love impedes love of others; it is an obstacle. It?s not even real love, more like idolatry. And it is not what Jesus intended and it is not the kind love about which Paul wrote.

Jesus knew the reality of human nature, that we value ourselves above anyone else. So he used the human commitment to our own well-being and comfort to set the bar for love of others. In one simple phrase Jesus called us out of ourselves and into an others-focused life. The reality of self-love ought to be a constant reminder of the need for real others-love.

As Christians, we know that the origin of genuine love does not come from within. And, in fact, the reality of self-love is a twisted, idolatrous worship. We love others because we are loved, because God loved us first, because from him comes our worth. We love ourselves because we make ourselves better than others and seek to be our own god.

When we seek to love our neighbors as ourselves we are not to idolize self. No, we are to be aware of our propensity for self-care and self-comfort and transfer it willingly to others to care for and comfort them instead. We are to love them as we love ourselves not because we love ourselves.

This column originally appeared at WORLD News Group’s website (wng.org). Reprinted with?permission. Copyright ? 2012 WORLD News Group. All rights reserved.

Are Our Hearts Really Idol Factories?

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John Calvin famously said:

From this we may gather that man?s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols?Man?s mind, full as it is of pride and boldness, dares to imagine a god according to its own capacity; as it sluggishly plods, indeed is overwhelmed with the crassest ignorance, it conceives an unreality and an empty appearance as God. ?John Calvin, Institutes, 1.11.8

This quote is often used?when discussing the issue of idolatry in the Christian heart. The argument usually goes something like this: Our hearts are perpetual idol factories, always leading?us to worship something other than God. Therefore, we must be constantly evaluating our hearts to ensure that we are not drifting into idolatry.

I have made this argument myself. I included this argument in a book I wrote. But recently, my thinking on this issue has changed a bit.

To reference that other great theologian, Jay-Z, I’ve got 99 problems,?and two of them are with the “idol factory” line of thinking.

First, Calvin was not referencing regenerated, Spirit-filled, New Covenant Christians when using the phrase “idol factory”. He was discussing?the fact that throughout all ages, men have sought to create visual representations of God. He was not speaking of the Christian’s every day battle against sin. He was speaking of the unregenerate, and probably also taking a swipe at the Papacy, which Calvin liked to do in about every other sentence. Calvin concluded this particular section of the Institutes by saying:

In consequence of this blind passion men have, almost in all ages since the world began, set up signs on which they imagined that God was visibly depicted to their eyes.

If we’re going to quote John Calvin, let’s at least do him the kindness of quoting him in context.

My second problem with calling the Christian heart an “idol factory” is much more theological than literary.?The dominant problem of God’s people in the Old Testament was idolatry. Shortly after being delivered from Egypt, the people of Israel erected a golden calf to worship. God punished the people, the people repented, and the people of Israel temporarily returned to God. This pattern repeated itself again and again. Reading the books of Judges and 1 Kings is like listening to a scratched record.

  • And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals (Judges 2:11).
  • But whenever the judge died, they turned back and were more corrupt than their fathers, going after other gods, serving them and bowing down to them. They did not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways (Judges 2:19)

  • And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord after Ehud died (Judges 4:1).

  • Then Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Molech the abomination of the Ammonites, on the mountain east of Jerusalem. And so he did for all his foreign wives, who made offerings and sacrificed to their gods (1 Kings 11:7-8).

  • And Judah did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and they provoked him to jealousy with their sins that they committed, more than all that their fathers had done (1 Kings 14:22).

You get the point. The people of God repeatedly turned away from God to worship idols. They repeatedly loved false gods more than the true God. And this pattern would have repeated itself indefinitely if God himself had not intervened. In Ezekiel 36:25-27, God promised that a day was coming when he would give his people the power to follow him:

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.

The beauty of living in the New Covenant is that we have the Spirit of God dwelling within us, empowering us to obey and cleansing us from our idols. Are we still tempted to worship things other than God? Sure. That’s why John tells his readers to keep themselves from idols (1 John 5:21). But the fundamental disposition of our hearts has changed. Our hearts are not primarily bent toward idol worship, they are bent toward obeying God. When we do sin, the Spirit convicts us of sin and draws us back to himself.

When we refer to ourselves?as “idol factories”, we are undermining the glorious, wonderful, God-given power that is ours in Christ. We are minimizing all that God has accomplished for us through the work of Christ. And, we potentially put ourselves in the position of being navel gazers – always looking inward in an effort to detect the slightest idol, rather than trusting the Spirit to do what he promised.

Are we sinners? Yes. But we are redeemed sinners with changed hearts. We are no longer “idol factories”, we are children of God.

What Do You Look At Most ? Jesus or Your Idols?

An accurate working knowledge of the idols of our hearts is essential. I see this played out in my own life and in the lives of others around me. A conflict with my wife spirals hopelessly down what my senior pastor calls ?the tunnel of chaos? until the moment God shines a spotlight on my heart: this conflict isn?t who said what. It?s about my idolatrous desire to always be right. The tunnel of chaos begins to dissipate. Repentance can be sought not blindly but intelligently. Knowing our idols is important.

But it?s not the heart of the Christian life. Jesus, the perfect Savior and Redeemer, is at the heart of our faith ? not our own idol hunt. Ed Welch, in his blog post ?Who Talks About Idols Among Friends?? makes a great point. While the quote is about biblical counseling, it?s equally as applicable to how we do ?self-counseling.?

Idolatry isn?t at the heart of biblical counseling, Jesus is. Biblical counseling is not a process of lying in wait for the idols of someone?s heart. It is the application of the good news to everyday life, especially to the stubborn trials and sufferings of life. As such, the death and resurrection of Christ is the one thing that is always in view. It animates all encouragement, wisdom, illumination, trust, love and hope.

Today, what have you thought about, pondered, and given the most mental energy to ? your sins, whether expressed outwardly in actions or buried deep in your heart through idolatrous desires? Or your Savior, who has completely atoned for your sins and is perfectly content with His own pace as He unfailingly transforms you into His image? Yes, there is a place for self-examination and consideration of our sins, but never as an end in and of itself. Self-examination or idol-hunts as ends in themselves don?t lead to hope and are dead-ends. Considering Jesus, pondering His work and glorying in it, brings life, joy, and hope. So know your idols ? but know your Savior even better!

How Much Steak Is Too Much?

If you hang around with me for more then ten minutes, you’ll find out that I have fanatical, possibly unhealthy obsession with meat. In fact, Jen and I are planning on going to “Outback Steak House” tonight, and the very thought of it sends shivers of delight down my spine. Yeah I know. Weird.

But, as with all of God’s gifts, whether it be food, television, merlot, football, coffee, hiking, or reading, it is possible to love it too much. So how can we use and enjoy God’s gifts in ways that bring him honor? After all, there is nothing in the Bible that says, “A 42 oz. steak is acceptable, but 48 0z. is sinful.” How much steak is too much? When does steak go from delightful to devious?

In trying to decide these kinds of questions, people seem to gravitate in one of two directions. The first is to impose arbitrary limits on to things, with the extreme being complete abstinence. The most obvious example of this is alcohol use. The problem with doing this is that it binds people in a way that the Bible does not.

The second direction is to say, “I’m under grace, so you can’t impose ANY limits on me at all.” This doesn’t really work either, because we all know that it’s possible to turn something good into something idolatrous very quickly.

So is there a middle ground? I think there is. John Calvin has some very helpful words in this regard:

…the use of God’s gifts is not wrongly directed when it is referred to that end to which the author himself created and destined them for us, because he created them for our good, not for our ruin. Accordingly, no one will hold to a straighter path than he who diligently looks to this end. Now if we ponder to what end God created food, we will find that he meant not only to provide for human necessity but also for delight and good cheer. (Quoted in Historical Theology, pg. 265)

When we are thinking about the use of God’s gifts, it’s helpful to ask why God gave these gifts to us in the first place. Why did God give us food? For nutrition, yes, but also for our delight and good cheer. When I delight in a piece of meat, and that meat turns my heart in thanksgiving and praise to God, that honors God. When I watch a football game with my friends, and watching that football game allows me to rest and enjoy friendship, that honors God.

We know things have started to go south when the gifts of God begin contributing to our ruin rather than our good. When a bottle of wine leads to drunkenness rather than gladness (Ecclesiastes 9:7), it has begun to ruin us. When a hobby leads to family neglect instead of rest and recreation, it has begun to ruin us. We are not using God’s gifts as he intended us to.

God has given us a vast array of wonderful gifts for our good and for his glory. Let’s ask him to help us use these gifts in a manner that brings him pleasure.

+photo by bark

Expect Nothing

They’ll get you every time.

They’ll bring you grief and aggravation, and make you gnash your teeth in frustration. I’m not talking about Barry Manilow songs. I’m talking about something far more subtle and subversive – your expectations.

“But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (LK 6.35-36).

We live in a world of payback. I scratch your back, you scratch mine. But Jesus says do good to others without looking for payback from them. Love your spouse, your kids, and fellow Christians, even your enemies expecting NOTHING back from them, not even so much as a “Thank you.”

We parents say things to our kids like, “After all I’ve done for you, how could you do this to me”? In other words, “Since I’ve slaved for years providing for you, I EXPECT you to always be grateful, respectful and kind to me.” We want them to fall at our feet crying, “How can I thank you again today for all the food and clothing you provide, all the ball games you drive me to, and all the wisdom you give me?? Thank you, thank you, thank you! Is there anything I can do for you? Clean the kitchen? Make my bed?” Ain’t gonna happen.

Our subconscious expectations of others are usually dashed.? We clean the house and our spouse doesn’t notice. We take the kids to Disney World and the whine about not going to the beach.? We loan a brother $500 and he never pays it back. And when our expectations don’t materialize, we get bitter.

So Jesus commands us to love “expecting nothing in return.” After all, this is what God is like.

He’s kind to the ungrateful. He lavishes blessings on committed rebels. And he dispayed his mercy most starkly on the cross when he crushed Jesus for us while we were his enemies. And Jesus himself healed lepers who never returned to thank him, fed thousands who didn’t believe in him, and prayed for those who nailed him to the cross.

Hoping others will repay the good we’ve done them will make us bitter, because they will rarely return the favor.? But Christ can empower us love others without looking for anything in return.

And don’t worry. God is watching.? Your reward will be great.

photo by Darwin Bell

Dreams and Expectations

God has given humans the incredible ability to dream.

We can imagine the fun we’ll have on vacation, or hitting the ball over the fence and rounding the bases. We can imagine heaven, seeing Jesus’ face and hearing the thunderous waterfall of the praise of multitudes. We can imagine our children growing up to serve God. What an amazing gift to be able to hope and dream.

But we must be on guard, for our idol-factory hearts can so easily turn dreams into demands. Our hopes can easily begin to drive our lives. We can subtly shift from living for God’s glory to living for our idols.

We can unconsciously embrace certain ideas of the way the world is supposed to be. We can buy into the “American Dream”, and then when life doesn?t turn out the way we think it should, we can become disillusioned, depressed, and an easy target for temptation.

Our dream might be as simple as thinking when we turn 16, we’ll get our driver’s license. Or that we’ll graduate from college, marry, have children, a home and minivan. Our expectation might be a long, healthy life.

But what if these things don?t happen? What if we never marry or we lose our health or our job? What if we retire and our wife gets Alzheimer’s?

A member of our church for years dropped out when his son got a girl pregnant and then they got married. ?It wasn?t supposed to be this way,” he said. “I did everything I should and look what happened.? He had a certain EXPECTATION that if he did everything right, his children would grow up perfect. When his dream failed to materialize, he became angry at God.

Though Scripture contains many promises that give parents great hope their children will follow him, it doesn?t guarantee a painless pleasure cruise.

Remember:

? God doesn?t owe us our dreams. He doesn?t owe us long life, health, wealth, a marriage partner, godly children, or anything. In his lavish kindness he gives us many of these blessings but he never owes them to us.

? Our dreams will never fulfill us even if we achieve them. Only Christ can satisfy. He alone must be our portion.

? We shouldn’t be surprised when we suffer in this fallen world. Things break, people get sick. We sin, our children sin. Others let us down.

? God?s dream should be our dream. God?s dream is to glorify himself through a rescued people who are increasingly enjoying Jesus and becoming like him. We can live for this dream no matter what our circumstances are.

So who’s dream are you living for?

photo by au ro