People seem to have an innate desire to rank things. What was the best Star Wars movie? Who has New York’s best pizza? What was the worst television show of all time? What are America’s 25 best beaches?
This penchant for ranking things is nothing new. When Jesus was on the earth, he was approached by a biblical scholar who wanted him to rank the biblical commandments. “Which commandment,” he asked, “is the first of all?”
I wonder what he expected Jesus to say. Was he hoping that Jesus would rank the Ten Commandments in reverse order from least to greatest? (This, by the way, has been attempted.) If he was, he was disappointed. Jesus did not even mention the Ten Commandments.
Instead, he quoted Deuteronomy 6:4-5, a passage that all Jewish men, Jesus included, were obligated to recite daily. The commandment he ranked as most important was: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”
Though he was only asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus went on to list the second greatest commandment as well. Once again, he bypassed the Ten Commandments, this time going to Leviticus 19:18: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus highlighted these two as the chief or greatest commandments because, in his own words, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” The rest of the Old Testament (“the Law and the Prophets” for short), is a working out of these two commands. Humanity, it appears, was created by God to love, and be loved.
So far, so good. The greatest commandment, according to Jesus, is to love God. But how can someone know whether they love God? People can know whether they have committed adultery, stolen, or told a lie. But how can they know if they have loved God?
The 17th century Cambridge educated Non-Conformist pastor Thomas Watson proposed fourteen signs that a person loves God. Spectators cannot easily spot these signs and even the person in whom they appear may be unsure of them at times. Yet the preponderance of these signs (or, better, traits) is evidence of a genuine love of God.
Among Watson’s fourteen signs is a mind that thinks a lot about God. “He who is in love, his thoughts are ever upon God,” says Watson. Simply put, people who love God, like newlyweds who love each other or parents who love their children, think frequently about the person they love.
Watson’s other signs include: grief over our unkindness to God (our sins); a desire to be close to God; courage to stand up for God; a concern not to displease God; a desire to speak of God’s virtues to others; a willingness to engage in difficult or disagreeable duties for the sake of God; and an increasing love for the things God loves.
With this last sign – a love for what God loves – Watson has struck the same chord that Jesus played when he said that the second greatest commandment was to love your neighbor as yourself, for to love a neighbor is to love what God loves.
It is easy to deceive ourselves into thinking that we love the God whom we have not seen. It is not so easy to convince ourselves that we love our neighbor whom we have seen. Thus, a genuine fulfillment of the second greatest commandment – love of neighbor – is an indication that we are fulfilling the first – love for God.
It is important to remember that this kind of love is much more than a feeling. It is a whole-self orientation to promote the good of another person, so it acts with patience and kindness and without envy or boasting. It protects others and honors them. It willingly sacrifices for their benefit.
This kind of love is not something people simply choose to do (though it won’t happen if they don’t), still less something they happen to feel. It emanates from who they have become through a transformative relationship with the loving God; hence, St. John’s conclusion: “Love comes from God.”
(First published by Gannett.)