Jesus said the first and most important commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30) – and coming in at second is to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31).
The first one is pretty easy—at least, it is pretty easy to make an appearance of loving God. Whether it is real or not, only God knows.
The second commandment, however, is a little harder to fake. Merely saying I love my neighbor doesn’t mean much; I have to live it out. Jesus didn’t just say “I love you” to humanity; he put himself on a cross to show it.
Last weekend, my dodge of this second commandment was painfully exposed. My church participates in “Love Portland” – a Saturday in August when we prepare local schools for the students’ return. The work involves mostly simple tasks like trimming, weeding, and painting, which these under-resourced schools don’t have the staffing or funding to do; If we don’t do it, the campuses simply remain untrimmed, unweeded, unpainted.
The purpose of this event is put hands and feet to loving our neighbors, expecting nothing in return. The underlying desire of the organizers and participants is give a gift of service to our community.
In my case, however, my underlying desire was to avoid giving that gift. I had my reasons, some of them legitimate. First, I work graveyard on weekends, and big events like this tend to get me stirred up so that I have a hard time sleeping to prepare for work. Second, the temperature was supposed to hover in the upper 90s that day, and I turn into a real crab-bucket at anything over 80. Third, the wind was full of smoke from raging forest fires some miles away, and the news kept warning everyone to stay inside and avoid breathing it. Fourth, I have a bad back, so I always try to avoid activities that might tweak it.
Unfortunately, beneath all of those reasons—or excuses—for not loving my neighbor hid the truth: I just didn’t want to.
Once again, Jesus’ command to “love my neighbor” came down to an ultimate cage-match between my spirit and my flesh (sin nature). I didn’t want to be inconvenienced. I didn’t want to leave my comfort zone. I didn’t want to share another’s burden. To which Jesus responds: “Love your neighbor.” And then, as if to seal the deal, he adds: “as yourself.”
Jesus’ words launch an inescapable circle of reasoning inside my head. I do love God, I insist. Then show it, he says. How? I hedge. Well, he repeats, by loving others exactly the same way that you love yourself.
Every day, I expend an ocean of effort to get my own needs met, look out for myself in the name of self-preservation, and pump up my Facebook profile to impress everyone else. And that ocean is the amount of love I am called to pour out on others.
In other words, as much as I don’t want to be inconvenienced—that is how much I am to love my neighbor. As much as I don’t want to leave my comfort zone—that is how much I am to serve others. As much as I don’t want to share another’s burden—that is how much I am to come alongside the needs of my community.
Just because God—who I say I love—commands it. And loving God is loving my neighbor.
Suddenly, as all my selfish excuses fall flat, these two commands combine to trigger another spirit-versus-flesh battle within. I think Jesus intends it to be that way. These are not commands with which to impress others; they are internal. They create a struggle between the self-centered desires of my flesh and the God-centered desires of my spirit.
This struggle between my flesh and my spirit went on for an entire week before the service day. But two things helped my spirit win out.
Self-awareness. We must be aware that we consist of flesh and spirit. After we put our trust in God, our spirit desires to please him, but our flesh still wants to please itself. So ignoring our flesh, and pretending it isn’t there, gives it the advantage of stealth: we never see it coming. Instead of engaging us in a full-frontal assault, it can sidle up next to us and woo us with sly arguments. I believe this lack of self-awareness is how I can rationalize away bad choices and even sin.
Last Saturday, I was completely aware of the source of my resistance. I knew full well that it was my flesh which was copping the attitude. And the Holy Spirit used this awareness to show me just how self-centered I was being.
Accountability. In my case, accountability came through my wife. She encouraged me to join her in serving the schools, but she also allowed me to talk through my objections, helping me get to the bottom of my resistance. She even gave me the freedom to back out. All of this processing helped turn my heart away from selfishness and toward loving my neighbor.
It’s no secret that Jesus called his followers to be in community with one another. We need close friends who will challenge us to fight against our own flesh, give us the freedom to reach our own conclusions, and pick us up during those times when our flesh wins the day.
Fortunately, on that hot, smoky Saturday last week, my spirit won out: I did participate in the event. My flesh kept screaming its displeasure even as I walked into the school; but my spirit fought back and did what was right.
But how about the next time I am confronted with the opportunity to carry out the second greatest commandment? Will my flesh gain the upper hand or will my spirit win? The battle between flesh and spirit will continue as long as I live. Starving the flesh and feeding the spirit is an ongoing process. I will take the wins whenever I can get them.
For now, I will be grateful that this time, Jesus helped me choose to love my neighbor. In his name.