It is good and right to be pious, to be devoted to our Creator with an ultimate allegiance of heart, mind and will. And this pertains to matters of our hands, our feet, and our mouths — indeed, our entire beings. Of all the commandments of God, only one is the greatest: to love the Lord our God. He is our center, the One around whom we orbit.
But how our love is expressed sometimes is above and beyond our calling. We desire to ascribe to God superlatives that are ultra-superlatives, ascriptions that exceed even what he has revealed as most worthy to ascribe to him. Our motives may be honorable though our extrapolations unnecessary if not muddled and mired in thoughts that are not God’s thoughts.
Such excessive expressions may be found, I believe, in such ejaculations as, “God is all I need,” and “no creed but Christ,” and “no law but love.” Such a list could be extended by the length of bumper stickers lathered on the rears of the vehicles that God’s people own and operate.
“God is all I need.” This ultra-superlative may be motivated by the intent to whittle down the world and focus on the uttermost importance of our Creator. However, our Creator neither created merely “me” nor described the first “me” as “good” while alone. No, our all-wise Creator described Adam’s first state as “not good” precisely because he was “alone”: “It is not good for man to be alone.”
This may seem an odd description of Adam. After all, there was a lush and ample paradise in which Adam was placed. There was food to be eaten and animals to be named — a garden to be guarded and cultivated. Even more so, Adam was not alone: God was with him. But Adam discerned the lack, as did his Creator, and it was “not good.”
Adam was not properly human as solitary, as “alone.” God was not all that Adam needed, as God himself acknowledged. So our Creator extended his work day to provide Adam with what was lacking, a complimenting and completing partner in Eve. If this pre-fall aloneness was remedied not with the ultra-superlative, “God is all I need,” then how much less so after the fall?
“No creed but Christ.” Analogous to the first misdirected ultra-superlative, this one also suffers from a less than full embrace of Christ Jesus. Truly, we are redeemed from wrath and the power of sin through the body and blood of Christ. Without his cross and resurrection we would remain without hope. But is the Christian life properly constellated by “me and Jesus”?
No. And Jesus said so.
We are branches in a vine, people who are to love one another. We are redeemed not as “me” but as “us,” as God’s people, as the body of Christ. We are grafted into the olive tree not to be solitary but to be community. The gifts of the Spirit are for the edification of the body, the community of Christ, and not for “me,” not for the self. When we keep them to ourselves or use them for ourselves, the gifts devolve from virtues into vices. This is because their purpose is not self-gratification, not self-aggrandizement, not selfishness. No, the gifts of God — and superlatively the gift of God that is Christ — are not “for me” but “for us.”
Not only so, but Jesus himself taught us that our creed, our beliefs, our convictions, are plural: they are many, though they orbit the One. Surely, without Jesus all else pales and withers and dies. But with Jesus, we have “us,” the body of Christ, his people redeemed to embrace not only himself — and certainly not merely ourselves, but each other as well. The second greatest commandment demands this otherness, this love for others, this embrace of others.
By believing in Jesus we believe in all of Jesus, including all else he taught us to believe and to obey. And these are not unitary, though they are uniform.
“No law but love.” Perhaps by now you see a pattern to my thoughts. Truly, in our culture, “love” comes either undefined or ill-defined. Far too often love is imaged as four bare feet in a bed. The shallowness of this misperception is easily perceived in the lawlessness so evident and pronounced and promoted in our culture.
The Apostle Paul taught us that “love fulfills the law.” But Paul did not teach us that lawless love is the fulfillment of the law. No, he himself sought long and hard to correct those early Christians who thought that with love one may enjoy license. Rather, rebuking such foolishness, Paul illustrates that law bounds love, providing it shape in a shapeless and relativistic age. The law is not against the fruit of the Spirit. And that fruit not only is love but also self-control, peace between people, patient toward irritants, kindness toward strangers. And Jesus said that if we loved him, we would obey his commandments.
Thus, these and other ultra-superlatives may arise from commendable motives but they result in what is less than virtuous, what is less than true, and what is less than beautiful. Piety can become presumption when we construct fanciful slogans of our faith, when we put words in God’s mouth, when we elevate our own speculations into ultra-superlatives.
God is no cosmic mime. He has spoken. May we have ears to hear.
(first posted 3 July 2008)