From kindergarten to graduate school, my life was measured by term paper due dates, reading assignments, and of course, finals. I don’t know what else I learned, but I did learn how to take tests. I also learned the most important thing to learn is what’s on the final. Do whatever you had to do, but find out what’s on the final. You could ask the professor, but this rarely worked. You could talk to other students who had taken the same course under the same professor. You could even act as if you were interested in the course, but you did what you had to do to find out what was on that final test.
Growing up in church, I developed the same kind of thinking about the final judgment. Do whatever you had to do – come to church, read the Bible – but find out what’s on that final! In my small town, evangelical, hell-fire-and-brimstone church, we were frequently reminded of the coming day of judgment and how awful it would be if we were not ready on that great day. It could be today, could be tomorrow, but it was going to be soon. On that day, we’d all be brought up before the great white throne and there, Jesus would give us the final. Going to church wasn’t so much about worshipping Christ or learning about Christ but to find out what we needed to know in order to pass the final.
Fortunately, we aren’t the only people to wonder about that question. Matthew tells us about a lawyer who asked Jesus which commandment was the greatest commandment of all. I love this question because, well honestly, this is the question I would ask Jesus. Of all of the commandments, is there one, Dear Jesus, that you’ll be paying attention to? Is there one question on the test that counts more than the others? What do I have to know or do to get a passing grade?
Most of us don’t care that we don’t make an “A” on Jesus’ final. We just don’t want to fail.
Do you remember how Jesus answered the lawyer? “Love God with everything you have. Love each other. Love yourself.” (Mike Glenn’s translation.)
Like a lot of things Jesus says, His words sound wonderful when you hear them. You want to cross-stitch them and put them on your refrigerator door. But when you try to live them out, these words will tear you in half.
If you’re paying attention, you’ll realize that Jesus has set up a triangle. You can’t do one of these without doing all three. You can’t love God without loving each other, and you can’t love each other without loving yourself. You can’t love yourself without allowing God to love you. Take away one aspect of this commandment and the whole thing falls apart.
Think about it. What does it mean to love God with all of your mind? Your heart and soul? Your strength? What does it mean for our entire essence to be focused on loving God for the sake of who God is? How does it change what we think about? What we read? What we say? Loving God like this is all-consuming…and that’s the point Jesus is trying to make. It’s either all or nothing. We pass or we don’t.
And when you love God enough to get close to His heart, He’ll tell you how much He loves your friends and neighbors. He’ll bring people into your life for you to love for His sake. And He’ll bring you some doozies. They’ll be broken and lost, confused and angry, totally unable to believe in God’s love for them until they can see someone love them in real life. When you allow God to love others through you, indirectly, you will be loving God.
The hardest part of learning how to love each other is learning how to love yourself. Because most of us don’t love ourselves, we go to other people hoping they can fix what’s wrong with us. We have holes in our lives, so we look for someone to come and fill those holes. The problem, of course, is that no one besides Christ can bring this kind of healing to your life. This means most of our relationships with each other end up being dysfunctional and co-dependent. This leads to disaster.
So, how do you love yourself without getting into unhealthy patterns? You remember the gospel and you remember it every day. You remember that each of us is created in the image of God. Think about it. Each of us bears something that reveals the reality of God Himself. It’s the signature of the artist that gives the work of art its value and it’s the signature of God on each of us that gives us our value.
Second, each one of us is someone Christ died for. My friends in real estate tell me that something is worth only what someone is willing to pay. On the day He was asked, Christ was willing to pay for us with His own life. This is where we find our value as people. We are loved by Christ with an unspeakable love.
Knowing this and living in this freedom allows us to love each other without needing or expecting anything in return. We can simply love our neighbors for who they are. We can seek the best for our neighbors without needing them to validate us in any way. Our validation comes from Christ and His work of salvation on our behalf. We can love ourselves. We can love each other. We can love God.
So, there you have it. Love God. Love each other. Love yourself. You should do well on the final. There are only two questions on the test, and you know what both of them are.