Saturday night, as we drove south on Route 9 in the rainy twilight, a billboard shone out from the gloom. In huge white letters on a red background were the words, “Jesus, I Love You.” Although I’ve seen this billboard before, this time the words struck me as seriously off base. “No,” I thought. “My love of Jesus isn’t the point. My love of Jesus isn’t the good news of the Gospel. God’s love for me—for all of us—is the good news.” This insight was reinforced by the sermon the following morning, in which my pastor reminded us that the Christian life isn’t primarily about us finding God, but about God finding us. These reminders that faith is a response to a God who desires, seeks, finds, and loves us are vital because as soon as we make the Christian life about what we do instead of what God does in, for, and through us, we become vulnerable to all sorts of misplaced, self-absorbed faith practices. When faith is about how and how much we love God, instead of how and how much God loves us, how easy it becomes to declare who is in and who is out, which practices are acceptable and which are not.
A recent spate of spiritual memoirs by young women who were raised in strict fundamentalist or evangelical cultures—and who eventually left those cultures behind in search of a less constricting, more vital faith—give stark witness to the damage done when Christianity becomes all about proving how much we love God. For example, I’m reading/reviewing Girl at the End of the World by Elizabeth Esther, in which the author recounts her childhood and young adulthood in a fundamentalist, end-times–obsessed group founded by her domineering grandfather. In her family’s church, The Assembly, loving God meant spanking children (with a paddle) from the age of six months, wifely submission, courtship (i.e., no hand holding, kissing, or private conversation) before marriage, and following God’s (i.e., the church leaders’) lead in every decision, from what to wear to whether or not to attend college. It’s easy for those of us who have never inhabited such a community to ridicule these practices. But all of us can diminish our faith by making it more about doing things a certain way (worshipping the right way, voting the right way, talking about God the right way) instead of receiving, and then sharing, the lavish, forgiving love of God.
That billboard—”Jesus, I Love You”—reminded me of those first, adorable “I love you”s uttered by my children when they were first learning to talk. When they said, “I love you” in their squeaky toddler voices, they certainly meant it—to the extent that a self-absorbed two-year-old can understand what it means to love another person. They understood that love has something do with attachment and good feelings, with need and comfort. But they were developmentally incapable of practicing a mutual, sustaining love in which other people’s needs become as important as—and sometimes more important than—their own. As children grow, “I love you” becomes less and less a parroted phrase indicating feelings of attachment and more and more a meaningful statement about their relationship with those they care about and the wider world. Actually, their saying “I love you” becomes less important than their learning to act in ways that are loving.
A few weeks ago, my kids’ church choirmaster emailed the choir parents to let us know that he is leaving to work at a well-known Episcopal Church in New York City. That day, I went to pick up my kids from choir rehearsal with a pit in my stomach. For my kids, church choir has not been merely about developing musical skill. The church choir has been a primary community for them—the thing that (finally!) made them want to come to church. I knew that Jason’s moving to a new job would feel like a threat to this primary community. When my oldest daughter Leah walked out into the parking lot that day, I saw that she was struggling to keep her composure. She looked at me, red-eyed, and with a catch in her voice, said, “This is good. This is his dream, to get a job like this. So it’s all good.” I was overwhelmed with gratitude (and amazement) for this child’s ability to hold another person’s happiness and her own grief side by side. She is learning to receive people (and let them go) as who they are and who they were made to be, apart from whatever role they play in her life. Leah has learned what love looks like. As my friend Rachel noted when I shared this story, Leah is a true “mensch” (Yiddish for a person of honor and integrity). While saying, “I love you” is meaningful, all the “I love you”s in the world don’t matter if we don’t also demonstrate love for other people in word and deed.
While there’s nothing wrong with the billboard’s message of love for Jesus, that message is not the central truth of Christianity. The central truth is that God first loved us and loves us still, every day, no matter what. There are times when it’s appropriate, even necessary, to speak our love of God in words. But just as seeing my kids act in loving ways in more important than hearing them say “I love you,” the more essential way to express our love of God is to love one another well. When my teenager held up another person’s well-being as more important than her own sadness, she wasn’t just revealing her love of her teacher or her choir community. She was mirroring the love of God.
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22: 34–40