I was pretty young when I realized that a lot of people who say they preach the gospel of Christ and know The Truth don’t practice – don’t even make a real effort to practice – what they preach.
I wasn’t much older when I realized that the only honest reply I had for friends and others who criticized my faith by pointing out the greed, hypocrisy, bigotry, and cruelty of these “preachers” was “You’re right. They are behaving viciously.” What can one say, really, when there are hatemongers like the Westboro Church or Jeremiah Wright or many others who use their pulpits to shame, ridicule and incite people to despise others? Explaining that the ideologies espoused by these institutions is not at all what is actually in the Bible doesn’t go far enough. So, I’m going to (try to) avoid my soapbox about the effects of bad examples and instead refer to what is written down.
Today’s reading comes from 2 Peter 1:5-8.
… Make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance, and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
There are many passages in the New Testament describing how a person who follows the teachings of Jesus should treat others, and they all come down to one thing: love. We are also told that “by their fruits you will know them.”
We can and should spend a lot of time looking at each of these nouns and discussing what they mean. Despite the brevity of the passage, there’s a ton of content. “Increasing measure” is the phrase used to prioritize this list – which is really interesting because not only does it put “love” on top but “faith” ends up last. It isn’t enough for me to say “I believe” and then go around willy nilly bashing in the heads of those who disagree with me. I shouldn’t act hatefully if I have faith.
If I approach *everyone* lovingly, I am far more likely to treat people with kindness, respect, and compassion than if I simply used a checklist of good vs bad to determine to whom I should be nice.
Going deeper into the list, I see the word “knowledge” – and it too is not qualified. It’s not limited to one specific kind of knowledge, not just “knowledge of the Scripture” or “knowledge of good cooking” or “knowledge of limericks.” It’s all kinds of knowledge. I ought to be a student of the world. A student learns, respectfully, about whatever he or she can. So I am to learn about other ways of seeing the world – including other religions, philosophies, sciences and arts, the whole thing – and respond lovingly.
“Lovingly” is not synonymous with “approval” or “acquiescence.” I think we’ve lost sight of the distinction. My being tolerant of a different point of view is not the same thing as condoning it. Whatever my opinion is, my instructions are clear: I am supposed to be loving. This fulcrum at the center of my personal ethics and the ethics of others is where we find kindness. How can someone stand on a bully pulpit and condemn anyone? How can that possibly be seen as loving? How can protests at funerals or carrying signs of vitriol and bigotry ever be thought of as kind?
I trip over the kindness instruction every day. I’m full of disdain for all kinds of things – pop culture, politics, bad television, bad beer, bad books. I suspect that I am, in fact, a snob. This judgement is not only directed outwards; I’m full of self- flagellation too. It’s just so easy to be spiteful.
When I consider that I am taught to treat others as Christ would, and more importantly, that He loves everyone – even me, though I’m not always so loving to myself – it’s like releasing the clutch too quickly when changing gears. Everything grinds to a full stop. I realize that I don’t have the position to criticize others when I’m falling so short myself. This is where we find self-control.
If I can’t feel lovey-dovey towards others, the first thing I ought to make sure of is that I do no harm. I need to stop saying unkind things. I need to watch how I behave. Maybe I can’t be kind right out of the gate, but I can start with trying not to be rude. The simple act of prevention requires enormous self-control. Doing it again and again requires perseverance.
As for godliness, I think that the best instruction on how to be godly is found in others. The obvious example is Jesus. The Son of Man is also the Son of God, the symbiosis of both God and man. It can be hard to look at Christ directly. We can look at others, including people who do not identify with Christianity at all. We can look at Gandhi, for example, but I think the best place to look is in our own neighborhoods.
People of all creeds perform acts of love and kindness everyday. In their reflection, I can see the Divine. God isn’t confined to one box, one identity. He can be found all over the place. If people prove impossible, we can look at nature. Dogs, for example, are striking examples of affection, forgiveness, and loyalty. Dolphins. Elephants. Wolves. Birds in Spring. It’s everywhere we look, if we try to see.
Sometimes, we are given negative examples instead of positive. Sometimes, the best way to determine what something is is by looking at what it is not. We need to determine for ourselves what is good and what is not, and we need to avoid taking the words of others at their simple value. Our words never mean as much as our actions. I urge us all to look critically – but lovingly – at what we do.