Be the first to love

by Anthony Bradley
Posted on Wednesday, August 17, 2011, at 4:14 pm

One of the profound distinctions between Islam and Christianity is that Christianity is centered on the chief command to love. But is this how Christianity in America is known? I wonder how a commitment to cultivating a Christian culture of love would affect the way believers are received in a Western world that's increasingly hostile to classical Christian ideas? What if the operating system of the Christian life was "be the first to love?"

When encouraging Christians to love others first I find that some want to quickly jump to discussions about God's justice and holiness. Others will use silly aphorisms like "hate the sin, love the sinner." But I find these to be excuses for how to not show love. What if conservative Christians operated under the principle to show love first when engaging target adversaries like political liberals and progressives, practicing homosexuals, and pro-abortion advocates? What if "progressive" Christians on the left used the principle of "be the first to love" when engaging conservative Christians who hold to classical Christian commitments? Progressive Christians claim to be different than the "mean conservative Christians"-that is until you read their books, blogs, tweets, and Facebook postings about the "Christian right."

The greatest commandment God gives His people is to be a people of love. Jesus makes this really clear as He summarizes the Law in Matthew 22:37-40:

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets."

The entirety of the Christian life is to apply God's Word within the context of loving God and loving others. The greatest commandment is not social justice. It's not even to "share the gospel." One can be committed to social justice and evangelism and not be committed to love. It's quite easy. I can share the gospel out of guilt, pride, condescension, anger, self-righteousness, and the like, and do it in such a way that does not demonstrate love. I can be committed to social justice and help others out of a narcissistic self-love that makes me feel good about how much better I am than others.

To take it one step further, Jesus told his followers, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 5:44-45). This is crazy talk, right? Looking at the Christian blogosphere and other social media platforms, it seems that believers justify personal attacks of Christians and non-Christians by name because some unlovable other "deserves it." The thinking goes something like this: "I don't have to show love first because that person says or does unlovable things" (i.e., things that I don't personally like). But it seems that loving people first-and even praying for people you don't like-is the stuff that makes one a recognizable member of the people of God.

Christians love first because God loved them before they knew Him. "We love because he first loved us," writes John the Apostle (1 John 4:19). Moreover, Paul reminds Jesus' followers that "faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love" (1 Corinthians 13:13). Since it appears that the goal and motive of the Christian life should be love, why does American Christianity tend to raise successive generations of men and women who are on crusades to attack either the rich and powerful or liberals?

I am not convinced that Christianity is becoming irrelevant in Western society because churches aren't committed to "the gospel" or that Christians are ignoring the poor and the oppressed. The real problem might be those committed to various practical commands in Scripture do not practice their faith in light of what God says about love. After all, love never fails (1 Corinthians 13:8).

Anthony Bradley

Anthony is associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York and a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.

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