One of the teachers of the law came to Jesus. He heard Jesus arguing with the Sadducees and the Pharisees. He saw that Jesus gave good answers to their questions. So he asked him, "Which of the commands is the most important?" Jesus answered, "The most important command is this: 'People of Israel, listen! The Lord our God is the only Lord. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.' The second most important command is this: 'Love your neighbor the same as you love yourself.' These two commands are the most important." (Mar 12:28-31 ERV)
Why are these two commands listed in this priority?
One way to flush out an answer to this question would be to invert them and observe the effect. Another is to take into account the essence of what love itself is and how we are designed to participate in love. If we bring confused ideas about love to these passages then we are likely to get faulty answers to our questions that can be misleading.
One thing I have been learning over the past few years is my inability to generate genuine, selfless love within myself. Humans were created to be reflectors of God, not independent gods. Genesis clearly says that God created us in His image and an image is a reflection, not an original. God is love and for us to have love we must come to function in the way we were originally designed to live, as reflectors of God's very essence which is love. Conversely if we are having difficulty experiencing and giving love the core problem can always be traced back to a bad connection with the One we are supposed to be reflecting.
So if I am designed to love by reflecting God but very little love is seen in my life and in my relations to others, what is likely going on in my life? I am still a reflector so maybe it has something to do with the direction of my focus. The answer might be observed when the priority of these two commandments is reversed. The effects of this switch would come as no surprise since pretty much everything in Satan's kingdom is a reversal of the order originally designed by God. Almost everything I have observed over the years related to Satan's methods and God's principles is that Satan has caused us to live upside down and backwards to how God designed for us to live. But since this is almost all we have known most of our life it seems to be normal to most of us, but that doesn't mean it is valid.
Jesus came to reveal what life should look like when humans come back into harmony with the original template they were designed to reflect. In fact, Jesus' life was lived out among us to give us a clearer example of what our lives will look like when we finally learn to reflect what we were intended to reflect. So what is the problem? I strongly suspect that much of the issue lies in our choices to focus on the wrong sources which in turn produce faulty reflections. If I find myself reversing the priority of these two commands from how Jesus (and Moses) presented them I will unavoidably end up reflecting whoever it is I look to as a god for me rather than the Source of true love.
As I thought about this more carefully I realized that my ability to love others is totally contingent on the effectiveness of my picture of God in transforming me back into His likeness. If I am ever to have more love toward others than the fickle 'love' I currently have, my only hope is to become a better reflection of God's love by first experiencing it in my own heart. If my heart is not warmed and transformed by the activity of heaven in my life and through communion between my heart and the heart of God, then it will remain impossible for me to really love anyone else the way God loves; it will be impossible for me to be a reflection similar to how Jesus reflected Him.
This sheds more light on something I noticed a few years ago. As I meditated on one of the Ten Commandments it hit me one day that the first commandment talks about this very same priority. The more I thought about it the more I became intrigued with what it was really saying. But I don't want to go too far into that exploration at this point since I have already explored that elsewhere. But briefly explained, I see potential in this commandment and from other passages that God may be referring more to our priorities in where we turn to receive life and our sense of value and identity more than He is forbidding us from treating any other source of provision as a god. And one reason this can be so confusing is because we have confused notions of what the term god means.
Notice what the command really says.
You shall have no other gods before Me. (Exodus 20:3)
If God was forbidding other gods in the correct understanding of that concept, then there would have been no reason to add the last two words in this verse. I now am beginning to see more clearly a parallel between these passages as an issue of priorities rather than exclusion. And the reason for that is based on how we were designed to live and to relate to others.
What helps me to see this more clearly is what I mentioned above about our being reflectors. God designed us to live our lives dependent primarily on Him as our highest priority and our supreme authority. Yet He has also put in place many other sources and channels through which He intends to provide for various needs in our lives. Embedded in the very concept of a 'god' is the idea of receiving various things we need for us to live and thrive and for protection against all that threatens our well-being. Ancient people invented many gods to fill this void in their lives and a careful analysis of the reasons many of these gods were invented reveals the nature of why humans feel desire for gods in the first place.
The reason God is so insistent about making Him the highest priority as our highest God is because whatever we turn to as a god becomes the source of what will be reflected as well as molded into our own characters. We inevitably become like the gods we turn to for identity and provision. Humans innately crave an outside source to define who we are and why we exist. This is the function of a god and this fact is inescapable. Every human being is going to worship something or someone as a god in their life and in turn what we worship will shape what we become. The gods we choose to define us will also be reflected in all of our relationships with everyone else.
As long as I keep my focus on God as my primary source of life, identity and input for my life, the one I rely on to satisfy my needs and fill the emptiness of my heart and soul, I will then be empowered to love others in the same way I am experiencing being loved. If the God I choose to focus on, to commune with, to emulate, to value, to hold as most important and most authoritative in my life is the God who is able and eager to transform me into an person of grace and beauty and truth like Himself, then the reflection of my relationship with that God will result in my ability to selflessly love others, serve without desire for credit or repayment, lay down my life for others and consider others better than myself without fear of losing my own value. As my life is filled with the value and peace that God gives me through my reliance and close proximity to His presence my ability to bless others as He blesses me will become ever more expansive and effective.
On the other hand, if I get these priorities backwards and my heart looks to other sources to fill the void in my life, to define my value, to determine my future, to mold my picture of what God is like, then life suddenly becomes very complicated, confusing and even disastrous. This makes sense when we understand the principle of reflection coupled with the fact that we always treat others based on our internal picture of how we perceive God is treating us.
If the god I am relying on is any other than the true God of pure, unconditional love that created me, then the picture I have of God is defined by the various sources/gods that have taken higher priority in my heart. If I allow other people, churches, religions, tradition, supernatural manifestations or a multitude of other counterfeit sources, to take precedence over my relationship with the true God of heaven, then my ability to love others will be inhibited by the ideas about God I receive from these other sources. It can now be seen that with so many confusing and even conflicting notions about what God is like swirling around in my mind and heart, my ability to relate to others with selfless love will be pretty much impossible and my own heart will be filled with dissatisfaction and disturbance. I cannot enjoy the complete peace of Christ in my soul as long as my picture of God is tainted with mistaken ideas about Him received from lesser gods.
This is why the first commandment warns us against allowing any other source to define our picture of God. I now see that this commandment is not so much about not having other gods – other sources for provision, encouragement, affirmation or other things they legitimately may be intended to provide for me – as it is about not allowing our 'neighbors' to take precedence or priority over the only true God who is totally consistent – one God. This first commandment along with the summary of the commandments by Jesus quoted from Moses together reveal the importance of priorities far more than the issue of what we view as a god. We need to correctly understand the real meaning of the word 'god'.
I am learning that a core issue that must be addressed in my own life above other problems is my internal concept of what God is like. My perceptions of God, how He feels about me, how He treats me and how He relates to all of His creation is the main issue that must be addressed if my external life is ever to be transformed from the malfunctioning life I now experience. I have learned long ago that attempting to change my behavior from the outside is nothing more than an exercise in futility except to keep me out of unnecessary trouble with society around me. I am seeing more and more clearly from Scripture that the only hope I have of being transformed where it really counts – at the heart level – is for my picture of God to be transformed. As my view of what God is like becomes more accurate, then the corresponding effects will be seen in my treatment of everyone else around me. This is the only method possible that works for my salvation. All other attempts at righteousness are doomed to miserable failure no matter how promising they may appear for a period of time.
If I allow other people, even good, religious people to shape my internal picture of God and my beliefs about Him instead of allowing God to directly form those views in my heart Himself, then I am reversing the priorities of these passages and in effect I am allowing other people to become gods ahead of the one true God. It is not necessarily that they are not intended by God to act in the role of lessor gods in my life, for I have come to realize that may be a legitimate role for some to play. However, if I allow any other source to become higher in my mind than the authority that I give to God then I am violating the first commandment and will find myself in resulting confusion and distress.
This is a far more important issue than many realize. There is constant pressure for all of us to allow other gods to assume higher priority in our hearts than pursuing a true relationship with the God of heaven directly. Particular is the threat of allowing religious leaders to fill the role of too much authority in our lives instead of learning to practice direct, personal accountability to Him and communicating with Him continuously. The religion I find in the Bible is very different from the religion promoted by churches and religions of the world. What I see nearly everywhere are religious authorities who seek to be the source of belief for their followers rather than leading people to rely directly on God and a personal investigation of His Word as their highest authority. It is very easy and appealing for people to allow others to do their thinking and digging in the Word for them rather than to invest the effort and discipline needed to discover truth for themselves, but that can be a fatal mistake. Likewise, it is very tempting for religious teachers and leaders to attract people to listen to them and rely on them as their primary source of truth while failing to appreciate their own role as lessor gods representing the one true God and teaching their followers to think and believe in God for themselves.
As long as we allow any other source to trump God as the sole definer of who He is and what He is like we will be unable to experience the power of transforming salvation as God intends for us to experience. And only by coming into personal connection with the God of heaven will true unity ever be realized in the body of Christ on this earth. If we seek unity by trying to control what others believe rather than leading them to connect directly to God more closely, we only serve to insinuate ourselves into a place that belongs to God alone and we become sources of confusion about God rather than an encouragement for other people's lives.
I sense that many too many of us are fearful that the Holy Spirit cannot be fully trusted to lead each of God's children into a unified family of believers. As long as we keep meddling in the Holy Spirit's work in people's lives instead of giving Him freedom to transform each child into becoming reflectors of His image, we are actually inducing others to make us a god ahead of the one true God. I don't think this is a place too many want to be found in come the day of judgment.
We need to be extremely cautious about how we participate in assisting God in drawing people to Him. We do have a role to play and that role according to the Bible might possibly be labeled as a 'god' at times. But as reflectors of the one true God our function as channels for Him in the role of little gods is to pass along His truth and blessing to others and then to encourage them to make Him their primary source of life and truth and love for themselves instead of continuing to rely on us. We may be temporary intermediaries for God for a time but like parents who by default act initially as gods to their children while they are little, we need to train people to grow up into Christ. This means we train them to become spiritual adults who are directly connected to their true God and Father in heaven.