Just fake it?

Loving God is one thing.  Loving your neighbor?  That’s something else.  Maybe one particular person comes to mind.  Love him?  Love her?  The very idea seems nearly unthinkable.  So if you know that God wants you to love someone, and you don’t really want to, is it okay to just fake it?

That was the unanticipated core of yesterday’s Sunday School discussion. Here’s the passage in question:

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together.  One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “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.”  (Matt 22:34-40, NIV)

Jesus took as the greatest commandment a portion of the Shema (meaning “hear” in Hebrew), cited from Deuteronomy 6:5; devout Jews would have prayed this every morning and evening.  The second commandment was drawn from Leviticus 19:18, which Jesus had cited in his earlier conversation with the rich young ruler (Matt 19:19).  Jesus, in responding this way, was suggesting that the sacred texts defining the identity of God’s people boiled down to love: the fullness of loving God with all of one’s being, in a way inseparable from its expression in love for other human beings.

Was that answer unique to Jesus?  Maybe.  But there are hints that anyone who truly understood and loved God’s law should have approved.  Mark’s version of the story (Mark 12:28-34) certainly suggests this.  And in the lead-in to the parable of the Good Samaritan, the two greatest commandments aren’t spoken by Jesus, but another legal expert who was testing him (Luke 10:27).  It’s possible, of course, that the man in Luke’s story was merely quoting Jesus.  But even so, I take the significance of Jesus’ answer in Matthew to lie in the fact that it’s the answer the Pharisees themselves should have given, had the question been an honest one.

So: love God with everything you’ve got; love your neighbor as yourself.  Easier said than done?

We know that God commands us to love, but there are some people that we would rather not.  The reasons are many and varied, and often quite understandable given the circumstances.  So what does one do?  Does obedience to God mean faking a love for others, going through the motions when our hearts aren’t in it?

Yes.

And no.

Yes: as has been repeated so often in Christian circles, love is not a feeling, but a behavior.  There are times where obedience to God means doing what you know is right even when you don’t feel like it.  The feeling, it is said, comes later; behave in a consistently loving way toward someone, and in time your heart will change.

But also no: as I’ve written in earlier posts on Romans 12, God wants our love to be sincere and thoroughgoing, extending even to our enemies (“Love without hypocrisy,” 2/26/12; “Overcoming evil with good,” 3/4/12).  It’s true that we often find ourselves conflicted: our emotions rebel against what we sense may be the right thing to do.  But it’s both unwise and unbiblical to make too rigid a distinction between the emotions and the will.  We obey, not merely in spite of our emotions, as if they were a constant inconvenience or irritant, but in order to tutor them.

It’s a matter of cultivating integrity, a consistency of heart, soul, and mind that grows from the soil of the greatest commandment.  Jesus, in his love of the Father and his love for others, had that integrity.  The Pharisees, for all their outward piety, did not.

Thus, one might say that there are two ways to “fake it”: you can fake it like a Christian, or you can fake it like a Pharisee.  (I’d better explain that.)  Faking it like a Christian means obediently putting on righteousness like a cloak, clothing ourselves with the character of Christ and his love (Col 3:12-14)–believing that we have already been given the gift of new life, and desiring to be transformed by the Holy Spirit from the inside out.  Faking it like a Pharisee means treating the cloak as if outward behavior was the only thing that mattered, not the righteousness of a renewed mind and a sanctified soul.

Faking it like a Christian means realizing that our own love is too often shallow and self-protective, a far cry from God’s love for us in Jesus.  It means cultivating the desire to know that love more deeply, to remember it more constantly.  It means learning to inhabit that love, thus to begin seeing others–even our enemies–through the eyes of the crucified Christ.  Faking it like a Pharisee means acting as if our love for God needs no further demonstration than the proper behavior, whatever the state of our hearts.  It means doing our duty without the desire to be cleansed of resentment, bitterness, or disdain.

So to answer the original question: when it comes to loving our neighbors, if you have to fake it to be obedient, then by all means do so, and with good conscience.

Just be sure to fake it like a Christian.  And in so doing, reach toward the love of Christ, a love that flows from the integrity of all that we think, feel, and do.