I was an atheist for the first thirty-five years of my life. While I was a committed (and often aggressive) non-believer, most people who knew me would probably have described me as a “nice guy”. My behavior wasn’t all that different than many of my Christian friends. I worked with many other atheist police officers. We were often suspicious of the Christians in our midst and the people we arrested who claimed to be Christians. Even as atheists we were familiar with Jesus’ directive to “love your neighbor as yourself.” My partner, Tim, used to say, “If there is a good God and a good Heaven, I think I will be there when it’s all over. I’m a good person. I try to ‘do the right thing’. I’m not a bad guy; I put bad people in jail. So I’m not worried about it.” Tim held a “works based” moral worldview and he was sure his good deeds would earn him a spot in Heaven if he was wrong about the existence of God. But Tim (and I) were unfamiliar with Jesus’ teaching in its full context, and now, years later as a Christian, I’ve come to understand why the first part of the “Greatest Command” is even more important than the second.
When approached by a skeptic, Jesus affirmed the greatest commandments of God in the following way:
One of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”
Most unbelievers recognize the value of the second half of this command (“You shall love your neighbor as yourself”) but deny the value of the first part (“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”) There’s a reason, however, why Jesus listed these two commands in this specific order. The first command (loving God) is the “great and foremost commandment” because it is required to achieve the second command (loving others). You can’t truly do the right thing unless you understand the relationship between these two commands:
You Can’t Do the Right Thing Without Knowing the Right Thing
Most people claim to accept moral truths, but how are these truths established? Are they simply a matter of personal opinion (moral subjectivism) or cultural utility (moral relativism)? I’ve met a few sadomasochistic killers in my time as a detective. You sure wouldn’t want them to apply their personal standard of morality to those around them. In a similar way, cultures and societies are often abusive in their views related to moral truth. If we believe there are transcendent moral principles applicable to all people, at all times, in all locations across the globe, from where would these transcendent principles emerge? Unless there is a transcendent moral law giver, deciding what is right (or wrong) is little more than opinion. If you want to do the right thing (rather than simply express your opinion), you’ll need to establish a source for the right thing. Acknowledging the existence of God as the source moral truth is foundational.
You Can’t Do the Right Thing Without Some Help
If you’re a Christian, you know how hard it is to do the right thing, even though you know what you ought to do. There are times when the only thing keeping me from chasing my passions, my anger or my selfishness is the Spirit of God, reminding and calling me back to the truth. As a Christian, I often experience the “tug of war” between my own fallen nature and the God’s continuing work in my heart. God’s Word is the standard I pursue, but God’s Spirit is the power upon which I rely. If you think you can consistently “do the right thing” without this supernatural assistance, you’re not paying attention to your own moral failures. If you want to do the right thing (rather than what you think you can achieve on your own), you’ll need to rely on the source of the right thing. Acknowledging and embracing the power of God is foundational.
You Can’t Do the Right Thing While Denying God or the Gospel
We sometimes think loving others is simply being “nice” to them. But, if you’re a parent, you already understand the complexity of true love: it demands a balance between truth and compassion, justice and mercy. You can’t really love someone without telling them the hard truth on occasion. Sometimes the clearest expression of love is a harsh warning or an inconvenient truth. If God exists and He’s revealed the way to be united with Him in eternity, we would be unloving if we rejected His existence or failed to share this truth with others. If you want to love others as you love yourself, you’ll need to investigate the existence of God and share the truth with others. If you want to do the right thing (rather than simply the “nice” thing), you’ll need to share the truth about God and how we are saved. Acknowledging the existence of God is foundational.
There’s a reason why Jesus listed these two commands in this particular order. My partner, Tim, can treat people nicely without loving God, but he can’t really do the right thing unless he embraces the existence, power and source of what’s true about right and wrong. Unless God exists, moral truth is little more than opinion, and without God’s power we are unlikely to do the right thing with any consistency. You can be a nice person and still be separated from the God of the universe. But if you love God first, the truth will overflow in truly “good” actions. If you love God, you’ll find yourself loving others. The first part of the “Greatest Command” is even more important than the second.