Breaking through legalism to love

“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.” (Matthew 22)

Let me tell you something: A while back, I was getting to a point in my life where I was twisted up in knots over the culture war that raged between Christianity and secularism. The harsh words that were being thrown on both sides. The political correctness. The injustice and fanatical responses. The lack of discourse and civility, and the rise of hate and condemnation. Again, on both sides. I hated reading anything political. Like many people, I am not fond of confrontation, even when it’s reading something someone wrote in general that goes against something I believe and know to be true.

I struggled with my stances and opinions, how I would handle different situations, playing out scenarios in my mind. I agonized over coming up with the best possible responses to people and situations that went against what I believed. I had to show them how very wrong they were and say the God-approved right thing while not compromising my beliefs. But the problem with that is that this mental judo I was doing with myself felt wrong. This attitude grated with me and contributed to my twisted-up self.

See, here’s the problem. There might be someone who says, does, identifies with, or believes in something that I don’t and possibly strongly oppose. I’m not an extremist, so I’m not going to go full-on condemnation at them, nor am I going to roll over and play cultural relativist puppy dog where all viewpoints and opinions are equally valid. But how to strike that right tone? How to win the argument? How to correct the entirety of the internet in my spare time?

That’s when I had a revelation that was as liberating as it was simple and obvious. I looked to what Jesus did. I looked to how he engaged in the culture wars of his time (and, oh yes, they were raging even back then). I saw his response to the fundamentalists and legalists as well as the unrepentant sinners. I read how he engaged those who openly broke God’s laws and lived for their own pleasure instead of God’s. At no point was he extreme. At no point did he use his divine authority and power to dominate the conversation and force people to repent — or perhaps smite them on the spot.

He. Loved.

And Justin, he said to me, that’s what you need to do too. That’s your answer, right there. You’ll never win every argument. It’s not your mission to win arguments. You need to love these people above teaching them, above correcting them, above struggling to come up with the right answer.

Jesus had this incredible, irrepressible attitude of love that ran throughout his entire life and ministry that we often lose sight of. He didn’t come to the world to condemn it but to save it (John 3:17), because he loved us silly, selfish sinners as his children. He was the good shepherd, the faithful father who was literally going to the ends of the earth to reach out to those he passionately loved, those he made, those he knew everything about. He didn’t see them according to the categories we give each other, the labels that are thrown about, or the identities we assume. He saw us as his kids, and he simply could not help but to love us with his whole heart.

That’s why I grabbed on to that passage above as the lifesaver to keep me above the waves of cultural brawling. The legalists of Jesus’ time were trying to trap him by asking which one of the many commandments in the Law was the most important. No matter which one he picked, he’d lose. These guys were trying to show their intelligent superiority to Jesus and score some cheap points as they mocked whatever answer he said.

But Jesus wrote the law, he owned the law, and he saw past the legalism to the purpose of the law. That’s why his response is so incredible: It side-steps the trap by pointing out the spirit of the law of the Old Testament. The law isn’t about condemning specific people; we are all guilty of breaking the law. The law is the correct path for our lives, one which we have so greatly wandered off of in search of our own way. And so Jesus doesn’t give a second ten commandments but instead simplifies everything into two guiding principles, two great commandments: Love God, love others. Boom. If you can’t get that, the rest doesn’t mean anything.

So we love God with all our hearts, souls, and mind. We submit to God’s authority and kingship over our lives. We acknowledge that we cannot save ourselves and that we need the forgiveness and salvation that Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection supplies. We see the limits of our own wisdom and intelligence, and we exalt God’s limitless nature. We hold to God’s truths in our life no matter what society and culture says is right today, because society and culture change on a daily basis while God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. We put our hope, our trust, and our faith in him.

And then, after receiving and being made right by God’s saving love, we turn to others in that same spirit. We love. We see others as wonderful creations of God first and foremost. We see others as those who, like us, were made in the image of God. We don’t decide whether someone is worthy of being loved, because God commands us to love all. We don’t put conditions on our love if only they’ll change their mind about something, because Jesus certainly didn’t do that.

We, as followers of Jesus, become a force of love. We should see as Jesus did that often the words don’t matter and aren’t remembered as much as the actions, the acceptance, and the loving hearts that are encountered. Jesus reached out to save the thief on the cross, the tax collector in the tree, the adulterous woman on the road, the Roman centurion, those of different races and creeds and cultural identity. He loved so very, very, very much.

If there’s one thing that the church needs to get right and prioritize, it’s this attitude of love. We can love and accept others without accepting the sin — yes, it’s possible! We can love others fully because we know that we are not better; we are sinners just as they, just as much in need of redemption. We can use the Bible to guide, to correct, and to teach, but never to beat others over the head, to subjugate others, to score ugly cheap points by shining a light on someone’s sin, or to act as some sort of holy bouncer that says, “Lookit here — you’re not good enough to enter this club!”

The religious leaders of Jesus’ time were baffled that he would choose to eat with sinners rather than the holy rollers. But that’s because they didn’t see humanity the way Jesus did, all equally in danger, all in need of salvation, and all worthy of being loved.

I acknowledge that I’m not smart enough to always win arguments. And I really have given up engaging in them. I’ll talk with people and discuss important issues of faith and life, but I’m not going to waste my time trying to prove that I’m right. I’m frail, I’m faulty, and I’m a sinner who Jesus loved and died for. And Jesus told me to love you, and so I do without reservation.

One Comment on “Breaking through legalism to love

  1. How very true.
    God is Love, and if we/ I were to Love others all the time arguments would be few.


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