Today as I depart a summer spent in the Northwest for six more weeks of photographic work in the Southwest, I would like to share another set of images I was blessed to make recently along the truly incredible Oregon coast. I hope through these photographs you can sense the power of the Creator, his unparalleled artistic hand, and a glimpse of his love. It is on that topic of love I am now compelled to write more about.
Bumper stickers can be irritating. Sure, a few resonate with me when they align with my own opinions and biases, but often times bumper stickers have provided an opportunity for me to criticize and rant about why the particular phrase is messed up, and so must be the driver of that car. One sticker in particular used to elicit from me loud groanings about how oversimplified and naive it was, that there was much more important and profound truth the vehicle owner clearly did not grasp if this was all he had to say. The bumper sticker simply read, “Love God and People.”
I’m sad to say that much of my Christian life has not been about loving, but about rule-keeping, and splitting fine hairs of doctrine. I grew up obsessed with trying to follow the law as laid down by my Christian parents, in hopes of earning their approval and love. And I became obsessed about doctrine, believing that I need to be ‘right’ about every fine point and nuance of Christian belief. This became the way I related to God for many years. My faith was focused on trying to live by rules, harshly judging myself and others when rules were broken. And an arrogance that grew in proportion to my attempt at absolute theological ‘correctness.’
What I failed to see in God’s law, in all of the scriptures, in the living out of daily faith, was the beautiful heart of God behind it, and how he summed it all up.
My first glimpse of light came from reading the words of Jesus in Matthew chapter 22. When one of the professional rule-keepers and theological perfectionists of the day (called a Pharisee) asked Jesus which of the hundreds of Jewish laws were most important, Jesus created the basis for a future bumper sticker with his reply:
“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.”
These simple but profound words of Christ should have been enough to clear up any confusion and wrong-headedness, but at the time it was just a hint, a seed planted, and it would be years later that my eyes were further opened to the primacy of love. It was through the teaching and guidance of a wonderful counselor that my heart looked deeper into the truth. In Romans chapter 13 the apostle Paul writes:
“The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal, ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command:
‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”
A lot of things clicked when these verses were unpacked for me. I saw God’s heart behind his commands. He wasn’t being harsh. He wasn’t trying to limit our freedom or fun. Rather, he was creating the most loving environment possible for me and my neighbor. He was seeking to protect us all from harm and help us thrive in peace and joy. I suddenly realized that all of the laws of the Bible were ultimately about loving God and people, because they were an outpouring of the heart of God, who is in himself the very definition of perfect love.
I don’t discard the importance of essential doctrines. I am grateful that God has provided foundational truths that enable us to know who Jesus is and to be able to rest our faith in him alone as sovereign savior and king. But the newfound focus on love is keeping me from returning to the days of lording assumed theological precision over others. The growing focus of life for me is spelled out eloquently by Paul in a section from the famous ‘love chapter,’ 1 Corinthians 13:
“If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.
Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.”
The next time I spot a “Love God and People” bumper sticker I will smile warmly and give the driver a big thumbs up.