Someone close to me was telling me this morning about her struggle to accept her rabbi’s teaching that she should love God more than anything or anyone. “I can’t help it,” she said, “I love my daughter more!”
In the past I might have given a neat response, paraphrasing Tim Keller, to the effect that idolizing any created thing puts unbearable pressure on yourself (because you can lose it through failure or mischance) and on the one idolized (who feels compelled to be impossibly perfect). C.S. Lewis illustrates this distortion in The Great Divorce, his fantasy of damned souls on a field trip to heaven, through the character of an old woman who mourned her dead son so obsessively that she neglected the surviving members of her family. Lewis suggests that over time, the object of her passion became her own identity as a mourner, rather than the real person she had lost.
To love someone properly, on the other hand, is to recognize that you are not the author of the universe, which sooner or later means that you must surrender to God’s will for the other person. After all, didn’t Jesus say, “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me; and anyone who does not take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me” (Matt 10:37)?
And yet, my past year of queer activism makes me think that something is indeed amiss with the rabbi’s formulation of the question about how love of God relates to love of neighbor. This opposition between them is a common one in Christian apologetics, as the examples above show.
How many times have gay people been told that their loving partnerships are a form of idolatry, a choice to value their own desires more than God? Conservative Christian friends have warned me that I was imperfectly surrendered to God because I refused to leave my GLBT brothers and sisters outside the fellowship of believers. My friends hardened their hearts toward these people and called it “putting God first”. In a book I recently read about the ex-gay movement, the gay men in the “reparative therapy” program were encouraged to project all their longing for intimate companionship onto Jesus, the one relationship that would never let them down. I believe in Jesus, but this still sounds to me like a dangerous retreat into fantasy.
The mistake behind the question “Do you love God more than your husband, wife, child…?” is that it prescribes the via negativa as the norm when it’s probably not the healthiest spiritual path for most people. Some do find God through the path of asceticism, quieting down all human distractions in order to rest in the stillness of the Wholly Other, the “deep and dazzling darkness” of Henry Vaughan’s wonderful poem “The Night“.
But for most of us who don’t live in monasteries, God is mainly known through our interactions with His creatures. “For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.” (1 John 4:20) The formulation that puts God in competition with our human beloveds subtly encourages us to hold back a portion of our heart from them, to dampen down our feelings for them, in the name of religion. This is a “jealous God” in the crudest sense, a God whose evil eye we attract if we praise our child too much. To prefer this God is really to prefer ourselves, because we are putting a mental construct ahead of a living person who can challenge our preconceptions and agendas.
I would contend that the problem with idolatrous love, such as the old woman’s feelings about her dead son in The Great Divorce, is not too much love but too little. It does not see the other person for who he really is, and therefore cannot seek the highest good for him. It turns the lover away from caring for others, rather than producing an overflow of creative energy that seeks new outlets for service. (For a beautiful discussion of how marriage can generate neighbor-love, I recommend Sacred Unions by Thomas Breidenthal.)
To love anyone rightly–that is, skillfully, compassionately and unselfishly–is to love God. If you want to show that you love me, Jesus says to Peter, you will “feed my sheep” (John 21:17). Conversely, if our love for God isn’t increasing our love for other people, then it probably isn’t the real God that we’re worshipping.
So what was Jesus saying, in Matthew 10, if he wasn’t telling us to worry about loving our family and friends too deeply?
I don’t think he was prompting us to seek out conflict between our loyalty to God and our loyalty to our loved ones. Rather, he was warning us to make the right choice in the conflicts that would inevitably come as a by-product of kingdom living. Quoting the prophet Micah, Jesus says, “For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law — a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.'” (Matt 10:35-36)
Sometimes our loved ones don’t understand the way we feel called to serve God. A career military man may feel rejected and dumbfounded when his son reads the Gospels and decides to be a pacifist. An evangelical mother may feel afraid when her daughter studies Buddhist meditation as a way to enrich her prayer life. A feminist mother might be angry that her daughter votes pro-life for religious reasons.
In such cases, to put God first means letting the other person work out his or her own salvation. When we can’t come to agreement on what the Bible says, we have to trust that somehow it’s God’s will that each of us sees the world from a particular angle. We’re part of a larger pattern where these differences will ultimately be transcended or reconciled without shame to those on the “wrong” side.
Every morning, in our separate homes, my conservative Christian friend and I pray the Daily Office. We read the same psalms and speak the same prayers. I am praying that she and others like her will open their hearts to the full equality of gay people and the salvation of non-Christians, and she is probably praying that I will return to an orthodoxy that anathematizes these views. This scares me, sometimes so much that I become angry and frightened by Christian talk in general. The word of God is indeed a double-edged sword (Hebrews 4:12). But if I’m so afraid to live without that friendship that I can’t follow my own sense of God’s will for me, then I am not obeying the command of Matthew 10.