Two Great Commandments

We all know that the two great commandments are to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. I find the differences between the two refreshing and apt.

God, as I understand him, is Good and, therefore, incomprehensible to me. If I love my neighbor, it is done through (at minimum) extending him the same benefit of the doubt I grant myself (more on that later). God, on the other hand, is wholly trustworthy, reliable, and loving. As a result, I can devote myself fully to him without fear. Unfortunately, I don’t really understand him as a result. There is nothing in my experience (outside of God) that would hold up to that sort of standard. The goal in life is to know God, but there isn’t any way to do it outside of the experience of God himself. The world, the opportunity for learning that we have, is flawed, deliberately so. Our human experience, natural though it may be, obscures the divine and our connection to it. But it does provide some access to our fellow humans.

To love our neighbor as ourselves is as profound a command as I have ever encountered. I don’t know that I am sufficient to the task. It seems to me that the great problem of human existence is not the question of how to perfect one’s self, but rather the problem of how to love someone who is flawed. Loving the imperfect is what God and Christ excelled (and excel) at, but I often find it difficult. People with whom I disagree are idiots or deluded, manipulators of the worst sort. I, on the other hand, can justify away my moral compromises, my moments of poor form by pointing to the mitigating circumstances which required (or, at least, prompted) my bad behavior. If I have behaved poorly, please rest assured that I feel bad about it and that I didn’t intend harm or offense. I hate to overgeneralize, but I doubt I am the only person to have felt this way.

It strikes me that if knowing God is the goal of our existence, then loving our neighbors is the means. Certainly, God loves us and we are flawed, terribly so in most cases. Remember Elder Eyring’s counsel that if we assume that the people we are talking to is in some sort of trouble, we will usually be right. Finding it in our hearts to genuinely love those who have used us or, even harder, those who have used those we love is almost beyond human ability. Which is weird, because we mostly love ourselves and we have mostly used, abused, and hurt others. Loving your neighbor doesn’t just mean accepting your neighbors flaws; it means accepting (in a non-abstract manner) that you are possibly equally flawed. It means loving your self and your neighbor in the imperfection.

God doesn’t forgive us in sin, but rather from sin. No unclean thing may enter God’s presence. But we are all unclean; we are all in sin. Humans don’t have the option of loving, trusting, saving, embracing, or listening to the perfect (outside of God). Nor should we want it. God loves the killer, the thief, the jerk, the pervert, the meanie and the junkie, along with the little children and the saints. Why should we, in our striving to emulate and become like God, to know God, expect any other task?

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  1. I’m not sure the “goal in life is to know God”. John quotes Jesus as saying that “life eternal [is] to know… the only true God and Jesus Christ whom [he] has sent” but life eternal is something that is unachievable here in mortality. Although maybe experiencing the Second Comforter would qualify. But I think you’re right in that if we want to follow Christ, we need to seek to develop in us the same unconditional, charitable love that he showed for all of us, his imperfect, flawed siblings.

  2. It seems there are a lot of folks around on a depravity kick. Maybe not total depravity, but depravity. Am I being foolish to want to maintain some faith in the basic goodness of humanity?

  3. Eric, The goodness of humanity is most abundantly manifest when face to face with that depravity.

  4. Eric,
    I think of folks as naturally selfish and divinely good. The world, too. So, I don’t think that we are totally depraved, but that we are universally unable to save ourselves.

  5. I like this post a lot, John. I especially appreciate the insight in your penultimate paragraph. (Also, I like to say “penultimate.” Especially if I can pair it alliteratively with “paragraph.”) “Finding it in our hearts to genuinely love those who have used us or, even harder, those who have used those we love is almost beyond human ability.” And thus it is the means by which we become like God.

  6. Very interesting thoughts. I was once taught and have since often thought about the scripture in Matthew 5 “be ye therefore perfect…” is preceeded by commandments about loving others. So I think you are right- it is by learning to love others as God loves them that we eventually become perfect as our hearts are changed through the Atonement and by the Holy Ghost.

    I sometimes wonder why it is that serving and loving others that we may not know well sometimes seems easier than serving family members or others that we do know well. I think that with those that we know, it is often easy to focus on their faults, which then makes loving/serving them more difficult.

  7. It’s hard, but it is what we’re asked to do. Dang. Now I have to go off and think.

  8. Also, when we realize that our love is less than perfect, I think we sometimes approach our need to love more perfectly in somewhat counter-productive ways. We might try to perfect our love out of sheer willpower, like we would try to accomplish some physical feat. While I believe that loving perfectly requires conscious effort, I also think that it comes naturally out of who we are- somewhat of a contradiction that perhaps someone else can clarify.

    But it is clear that God loves not because we are lovable but because He is capable of loving us. It is from His goodness, not ours. His love for us is not a reaction to what we do- it is always there. Somehow we too need to learn to love others not because of their lovability or out of a reaction to what they do but out of our love-filled hearts.

  9. God, as I understand him, is Good and, therefore, incomprehensible to me.

    Hehe. The “as I understand him” is an amusing touch here.

  10. Rob,
    As far as I can tell, God doesn’t usually qualify his commandments by telling us to worry about certain aspects only after we are dead. I don’t see why this would be an exception to that.

    I think that little contradiction probably tells you all you need to know about me and my personal theology. Good means Good (also, not Bad), but beyond that I have a very hard time defining it.

  11. I think becoming capable of loving people who, for instance, have been cruel to ones I love, is something beyond all my ability to try. Somehow, though, when I try hard, fail, then pray for help and try again, I find that my nature has been changed a little. Not from my own doing, but by God. It seems that he can perfect us but only if we try hard ourselves and then ask him for his help becoming someone else than we are, someone who is better than we are, someone who can love.

    I know that doesn’t really make sense. But I don’t make the rules, I just try to figure them out. =)

  12. I’ve been struggling with repentance, forgiveness and love. An idea that has helped me is to realize that if I want to accept Christ and be forgiven for my own sins, I need to turn everyone else’s sins over to Christ too. In other words, I can’t hold a grudge. I can’t hang on to hurt because I’m worried that Christ won’t punish them enough. If I want to be forgiven, I need to acknowledge that anyone else can be forgiven too and that’s between them and Christ, not them and me.

    This works into loving my neighbor as I love God because as I forgive and forgive again, I trust God’s goodness, mercy and justice more and more. I don’t have to judge my neighbor anymore, or hate them, because God is in charge of their punishment and repentance. Because I’m not judging them, I can see them as another child of God, and accept them. For me, that’s been the key to learning to love people who have hurt me and my loved ones, and is still hurting them.

    And I liked Jim #8’s paragraph about how God loves us because he is good, not as a result of our actions.

  13. Thomas Parkin says:

    Great stuff, John.

    As to the goodness of humanity, I don’t believe in it one bit. I don’t believe in total depravity, obviously. I think BKP hit a bullseye when he said, speaking of our nature, some of it is good and some of it bad. But I have yet to know a person well who isn’t doing active harm to himself and others, maybe unwittingly, possibly in ways he is totally blind to – lying a little, especially to himself, cheating, digging a pit for his neighbor. I trust God, and I also trust folks – but in the latter case it is against, at least in my life, pretty overwhelming evidence from which I hardly exclude myself. That doesn’t mean I don’t find people lovable. In fact, I find them worthy of all sorts of mercy.

    This is how I define good and evil for myself:

    Whatever tends to enable, entice, encourage or actuate a person or people towards their fullest possible expression of life tends to be good; whatever tends to discourage a person or people, or blind to, or hinder from actuating their fullest possible expression on life tends to be evil. ~

  14. Eric Russell says:

    It seems to me that the great problem of human existence is not the question of how to perfect one’s self, but rather the problem of how to love someone who is flawed.

    They’re the same thing, John.

  15. Eric,
    I don’t disagee, but I’ve encountered a fair number of people (myself included) who don’t seem to see the lack of distinction.

  16. I think the two greatest commandments are very misunderstood. Everyone has a different definition of “love your neighbor.” The most common mistake I see (and make) is insufficient consideration of others values.

    Ignoring someone’s values, even if they disagree with God’s values, is an example of ignoring God’s values.

    Is there some way to allow a person to live his values while you live yours? Similarly, I don’t consider it acceptable to ignore the values of society as a whole (to the extent they reflect the true values of your society – as opposed to laws created by “special interests” with no real support by society). Judgment soon enters the picture.

    Really, I could go on. I consider “love your neighbor” to be an “intention”. This then brings up “intention” vs. “outcome” with the associated understanding of “love your neighbor”. I would argue that, in general, intention is more important than outcome. If you think about it, this impacts your interaction with all aspects of this existence.

    Sorry if I got too esoteric…

    Thanks for the post.

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