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The Idolatry of “Love Your Neighbor”

The Idolatry of “Love Your Neighbor”

April 19, 2021 | Jake Each

Idolatry can seem like an Old Testament problem. Not many of us are struggling with building statues and images to bow down to, but idolatry is still plaguing people today. According to famous preacher David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, an idol is anything in our lives that occupies the place that should be occupied by God alone. By this definition, idolatry happens when priorities get out of order. When we begin to long for, treasure, or pursue something, anything, higher than God, that is idolatry.

If we are serious about our holiness, we must understand that the idols in our lives are not always the obvious evils like lust or greed. Sometimes the idols in our lives are harder to acknowledge because they are the good, celebrated things that have become more important than they ought to be, like our spouse, kids, church, or our favorite charity. Romans 1:25 tells us that idols are not always sinful things, but good and basic things elevated to be ultimate things. We begin to look to these good things for meaning, significance, and a sense of worth. It doesn’t take long for these things to become even more precious and important to us than God himself.

In our lives, loving evil is usually easy to detect and condemn, but loving something good more than God, those are the sneaky idols we need to be aware of. In Matthew 22, Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, and his answer was, “You shall love the Lord you God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment.” He then said, “And the second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and Prophets.”

There is no arguing the importance of the call on the believer’s life to love their neighbor. Even so, it’s a command that is often neglected in the name of selfishness, pride, laziness, or flat-out ignorant discrimination. Our love for others should be a defining trait in our lives as believers. When asked what the single greatest commandment was, Jesus gave two answers. He had to include both. The second is like the first. Loving others and loving God are connected. But what happens if the second commandment begins to get treated like the first? What happens if we prioritize loving our neighbor over loving God?

If we ignore the second command altogether, there is an obvious sin, the neglect of loving others. The less obvious, more subtle, sneaky, and dare I say more dangerous sin happens with order reversal. The first commandment becomes to love your neighbor as yourself, and the second is like it, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind.

You might think, “What’s the big deal? As long as someone is doing both, they’re living it out well enough.” But the order of these commandments is extremely important. In giving these commandments Jesus ordered them purposefully and intentionally. Love God, that’s the first and greatest. That’s the priority. Love your neighbor, that’s second. It is extremely important, but it follows the first. It submits to and is shaped by the first.

If we reverse the order, then we begin to act as if loving God submits to and is shaped by the call to love our neighbor. This is how “Christians” come to conclusions of affirming sin in our neighbor in the name of loving them, and then assume loving God falls in line with that. Loving God is now defined as whatever is deemed loving of others.

This is how you get a Christianity that feels it is noble to ignore the commands of God in the name of camaraderie with others. This is an idolatry of love your neighbor. And with the idolatry of love your neighbor, affirming your neighbor in whatever they desire is now seen as a God honoring, loving thing to do. We see our neighbor as the highest priority in place of God.

If God is not the highest priority, we lose what it truly means to love our neighbor. We seek only to please our neighbor, not truly love them. It is order reversal. Something good has become ultimate, taking the place that belongs only to God. It is the idolatry of love your neighbor. And it is a real threat to American Christians immersed in a self-centered society that has embraced secular humanism as its religion.

The truth is the first and greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. And this command is what helps us understand what loving our neighbor really looks like. What’s best for our neighbor isn’t their priorities or desires. It is the priority of God, the truth of God, the worship of God that they need. We are to love our neighbor as ourselves, and “ourself,” according to the first command, is someone satisfied in God. Someone who has tasted and knows the goodness of God (heart), the peace of God (soul), and the truthfulness of his Word (mind).

The idea of “love your neighbor” is popular in our culture, it’s trendy to help the poor and confront injustice, and we should rejoice in that. It is, after all, the second greatest commandment. But that commandment carried out without the priority of God is idolatry.

We don’t want to be people who sing loud on Sundays and ignore the hurts of our neighbors all around us. Nor do we want to offer our neighbors empty compassion, void of the priority of God. We long to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind. And we long to have a love for our neighbor that is shaped and defined by our love for God. We want to be a people so satisfied and fulfilled in God that he is seen as the greatest thing we can offer our neighbor. The joy, peace, contentment, wisdom, and compassion found in him goes out from us to others.

When it comes to loving your neighbor, it is deserving of the silver medal. I hope truly loving our neighbor is something we excel at, but in order to do it the right way we need to keep the love of God first and greatest and let that define and shape what it means to love our neighbor.

Jake Each

Lead Pastor