My Big Problem With the Big Commandment

February 17, 2004 | 18 comments
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The greatest commandment, so says Jesus, is that we love our neighbor as ourselves. I confess that I have always had a difficult time understanding, let alone obeying this commandment. I take it to mean that God wants me to love everyone. I frankly find the idea of this impossible.

It is always dangerous in an LDS forum to bring up a mission story — who knows what flood gates of like narratives you will open — but I will risk one that illuminates my problem. I remember once teaching a discussion on my mission. (In Korea that in and of itself makes it a memorable event!) The young man we were working with was intelligent and curious, but also arrogant, smug, and patronizing. He was our most active investigator and I remember pouring a tremendous amount of energy into thinking, preparing, and praying over this young man. At the end of the discussion my companion and I were talking about the investigator and I came to a stunning realization. I did not like him. In fact, I affirmatively disliked him. I disliked his company and conversation. I disliked his character (or at least what I thought was his character). I disliked his mannerisms, and his affected university-student way of talking. I just didn’t like him at all. This, I realized, was a great sin on my part. I was supposed to be a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and I didn’t even like, let alone love the man to whom I was supposed to be ministering. What was more, I really didn’t know how I was supposed to go about obeying the commandment that I was clearly breaking.

Now there have two stock answers to this dilemma. The first is that we should ask God and he will transform our hearts and we will come to love our neighbor. The second is that we should serve our neighbor. I don’t find either of these responses completely satsifying. No doubt God can make us love those that we do not, but that has been a rare event in my experience. Furthermore, their is a certain deus ex machina quality to this response that offends that semi-Pelagian corner of my Mormonism. God’s commandment must be more demanding that a simple request for his grace.

Service is difficult because I find that my capacity for action far exceeds my capacity for concern. I can do good deeds for a fairly large number of people. (I generally don’t, but I have seen myself do it in the past, so I know it is possible.) However, I find that lack the capacity to care deeply about large numbers of people. I simply seem to lack the ability to assimilate the information necessary to understand and care about the particularity of very many individuals. At the same time, I lack the energy necessary to direct real emotional interest toward large numbers of people.

I care deeply about my family and about my friends. However, I find it difficult to extend out beyond that. I am in awe of bishops or other noble souls who seem to have the capacity to know and care deeply about a group as large as a ward. So large a group, I fear, probably exceeds my current ability to love or care about deeply. And God wants me to love everyone!

There are some other solutions to this problem that I dislike. One is to love mankind, in the abstract. This is the cheap charity of Rousseau, in which one elides over the difference and the particularity of individuals and loves instead some vast amalgamation of them, whether it takes the form of the “masses” or “the human spirit” or some other iteration of the same concept. This kind of regard strikes me as a very different sort of thing than that illustrated by the samaritan on the road to Jerico. Also, I find it politically a bit frightening. Lenin was a great lover of the masses, and Pol Pot seemed genuinely interested in the fate of the proleteriat. I would much rather have misanthropes who love their friends and family. (Of course this may simply be a way of saying that I like me.)

A related solution to the problem of universal love, is to reduce people to cardboard characters. We can thus love Frank as a “poor person,” or perhaps we can reach out to Francis as “a lonely widow.” This seems better to me than a Rousseaian universalism, but it still seems to fall short of loving a person. That requires a greater investment in their life and character, an investment that places greater demands on my finite emotional resources.

I notice that in my last sentence I slip into the language of economics. I frame the problem in terms of allocation and scarcity. Love of family and friends is an perhaps an efficient solution to the problem. It invests my limited energy to love in those places where the love is likely to matter the most. On the other hand, this seems like a pitiful response to the invitation of the one who invited us to love as he loves.

I understand Christ’s love as a universal engagement with our particularity. As such it seems almost paradoxical, and certainly beyond my capacity. And so I am left sinning, which perhaps makes me less of a Pelagian than my posturing suggests.

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18 Responses to My Big Problem With the Big Commandment

  1. Jim F. on February 17, 2004 at 2:01 am

    A small nit to pick: doesn’t Jesus say that the great commandment is to love God and that the second commandment is like it, to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:37-40)?

    More importantly, I think your antipathy toward “the cheap charity of Rousseau” is exactly right, but it does make love of others more difficult. Does it help that the commandment is NOT specifically to love everyone at once, but to love those with whom we have intercourse, our neighbors, as we have dealings with them?

    That isn’t easy, but I think it is at least meaningful whereas I don’t see how it is possible for a human being actually to love every individual.

  2. Jim F. on February 17, 2004 at 2:21 am

    One more note: I doubt that “love” in this context has much to do with emotions. It is, instead, a matter of action. Though certain emotions, such as disdain or hatred, would seem to be incompatible with true love of the neighbor, I doubt that loving one’s neighbor requires the feeling we associate with love.

  3. mike on February 17, 2004 at 2:53 am

    Very few people, and I mean very few, actually live like Jesus did. And I think that most people would probably look down on someone who truly follows the spirit and words ascribed to Jesus. Hence you have smart people like Nate Oman trying to reconcile the way Jesus is said to have lived with the way he (Oman) lives. You also have people like Jim who try to make modern sense of what made sense to Jesus in the context of what he was trying to achive.

  4. Russell Arben Fox on February 17, 2004 at 3:45 am

    I actually suspect, Nate (and Jim), that there may well be something more to Rousseau’s “universalism” (which, strictly speaking, isn’t universal–it’s “general,” an important difference) than just “cheap charity.” But I have my own struggles with Rousseau, so I’ll let that go. I’m interested, rather, in what you confess to be a kind of semi-Pelagianism in your thinking about God. You seem reluctant to accept the possibility that God may have commanded us to do, or to be, something which we cannot; something which is, strictly speaking, impossible. Why?

    I should note that I’m not sure the commandment you specifically cite is in fact such a commandment; as Jim notes, there is a particular context to Christ’s statement about loving one’s neighbor as oneself, a context which may make it practicable in one form or another. But if that’s the case, then we can always turn to others which seem to fit into the “impossible” category even better. For example: the truly big commandment, the one Christ gave to his apostles at the end, the new one which summed up all previous commandments, was to “love one another, as I [Christ] have loved you.” Of course, that cannot be done. Either we are to believe that Christ was engaging in worthy inspirational rhetoric, or we conclude that He was telling all of us, who are not Gods, that we are to love others as God has. We will fail in this commandment, all of us. Which to me, at least, presents the possibility that the commandments, or at least some of them, are not really about performance and progression; rather, they are about establishing relationships of humility and dependence.

  5. Adam Greenwood on February 17, 2004 at 9:52 am

    Grey Fox,
    Can’t we also see that type of commandment as aspirational? It describes an end state, and our real commandment, and our real possibility of sin, is not doing everything we can (including asking for divine intervention) to move towards that end.

    Nate,
    You dwindle off into talk of loving the abstract mass of humanity, but notice that your initial problem was with an individual. The story of the Good Samaritan doesn’t teach a general love for all mankind, it teaches love for a Samaritan whom we happen to meet on the roadside, even though we’ve never met him before.

    I also think love isn’t entirely to do with like. God loves me–he wants my good and he wants it bad–but I’m quite sure he dislikes me some of the time. Any sensible person would. I don’t want to make too much of this, but might not the contrary of loving your neighbor be indifference?

    Finally, as for the grace of asking for love. I think the parallels are very close to the asking for a testimony we associate with Moroni 10:5 or the NT plea “Lord, I believe, help thou mine unbelief.” In both cases, our own resources are inadequate, but in both cases our desire is all-important. We have to form that desire through a course of earnest pleading and hard effort, and only then are we open enough that God can grant us our boon.

  6. Nate Oman on February 17, 2004 at 10:58 am

    Adam: I believe it is in Moroni 7 where Mormon explicitly teaches that we can pray for a gift from God that we may have the love that he desires that we have.

  7. Russell Arben Fox on February 17, 2004 at 11:04 am

    Adam, I agree with what you say regarding the “aspirational” quality of certain commandments. I would just want to put that aspiration, as I think you do implicitly, explicitly in terms of longing, desire, and hope. It seems to me that we cannot, in fact, as falled human beings, achieve certain conditions and levels of obedience; yet that is what we are given to aspire to. Consequently, we plead for relief, for the ability to even conceive an end state (perfection, Christ-like love) that is, within this mortal coil, I think, plainly inconceivable. Thank you for the “help Thou mine unbelief” reference; I find that statement one of the most plaintive and truest in all the scriptures.

    Oh, and good point about the difference between love and like. I am quite certain God loves me fully. I also have little doubt that He considers me, a good portion of the time at least, a self-centered, irresponsible, whiny fool. Indifference is a far worse sin than disliking someone, for if you dislike someone you still acknowledge them, still recognize them. Some years ago, I watched a wonderful documentary on Pope John Paul II, and they gave a fair amount of time to the comments of Germaine Greer, your classic bitter ex-Catholic athiest feminist from the 60s. They really let her build up a boil, talking about the injustice of the church, and God, and all that He supposed created. Then brilliantly, they cut to a wise old priest who commented “Wonderful! Lash out! Express your disappointment and anger! Those who curse God are so much closer to Him than those who have forgotten about Him.”

  8. Nate Oman on February 17, 2004 at 11:10 am

    Jim: I appreciate what you are saying about action v. sentiment (or at least I think I do), but I am not willing to give up on “feelings” so easily. What I find difficult is not the ability to work myself into some kind of sentimental condition, but rather my ability to direct my actions toward people. Take the example of home teaching. In my time, I have had some high needs home-teachees. I tried to assist them with their problems, etc. etc. In other words, I took action. However, there was a strange sense in which at times it seemed that my action was disconnected from them. It is not simply that I was motivated by guilt or duty or something like that. Rather, it was that my activity wasn’t really direct toward them. I found it satisfying and even worshipful, but there is an odd sense in which their identity was secondary to what I was doing. For example, my experience of serving my hometeachees was very much like my experience of driving from Boston to Worcester to pick up food from the Bishop’s Storehouse. Yet in that case I didn’t even know the identity of the people that I was serving. What I found disturbing was the fact that I DID know the identity of my hometeachee and in a strange sense it did not matter.

  9. Chris R on February 17, 2004 at 11:11 am

    Adam, would it be problematic if we are able to reduce the commandments to merely aspirational if they can not be easily achieved? Harking back to the WoW thread, would our counsel to eat meat sparingly be something to aspire to?

    The Scriptures also tell us that we may judge righteously. To me, that indicates that we may be offended by the actions of others, but we must be ready, and willing, to help that same person when asked. We may not like the actions of others, but we should be always ready to lend a hand, or an ear, when prompted.

  10. Nate Oman on February 17, 2004 at 11:24 am

    Russell: I confess that I have never liked Rousseau, so I have not studied him as I ought. (Although I think that his “Discourse Concerning the Origins of Inequality” is brilliant.) I would be interested in hearing the distinction between general and universal. I have always read Rousseau as looking into himself and finding something that he deeply loved. He calls it the “General Will” and ascribes it in some way to humanity. But I can’t help be thinking that the whole exercise is simply a convoluted way of repackaging narccicism as charity.

    As for my semi-Pelagianism, I don’t know whether or not I think God will give us unobeyable commandments. Nephi certainly didn’t think so — “I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded for I know….” On the otherhand, I have never completely trusted Nephi, and the commandments in the Garden seem mutually exclusive and the injunction to love as Christ loves seems impossible (and almost too terrible to imagine).

    Still, I can’t help but think of commandments as requirements of action. Hence, I tend to assume that they at least have implications for my goals and for my activity. Hence my suspicion of grace-based-accounts. That said, I don’t think that I would want to go all the way to Pelagianism. (If for no other reason than that Dennis Potter is an avowed Pelagian, and I always get very self-critical when I start agreeing with Dennis Potter too much ;->). Grace must mean something, but I dislike the accounts in which it becomes either a deus ex machina (I keep using the phrase, because I don’t want to use “miraculous” in a pajorative way; I believe in miracles), or else an implicit (or perhaps explicit) claim that all striving for righteousness is so much existential nonsense.

  11. Brent on February 17, 2004 at 12:06 pm

    I don’t know how this contributes, but I remember an experience that I had while serving in a bishopric a few years ago. Being in the bishopric, I knew quite a lot about the members of the ward. I generally knew who was having marital problems, work problems, who didn’t do their hometeaching, who didn’t serve well in their callings, etc. I spoke regularly with many people because of my calling whether in interviews or in the course of fulfilling other assignments. Some people were more difficult to love than others (may be something of an understatment). However, I remember a couple of times sitting up on the stand and looking over the congregation and particularly over each individual in the congregation and having such strong feelings of love for the members of the ward, that I nearly became emotional. I truly could feel God’s love for them, and it awed me. These were not just my feelings, because I could think of any number of people with whom I might have issues, but none of that mattered. Perhaps my heart was right at the moment, or maybe God wanted me to learn something, but I can truly say that in feeling God’s love for them, I felt love personally for them too, and it was in spite of the many things I knew about people which might give me cause to dislike them or not love them.

    As a result of those experiences, I have greater hope of being able to fulfill the command to love my neighbor and my enemy. I have found it takes great effort and seeking continually the mind and will of God.

  12. Adam Greenwood on February 17, 2004 at 12:18 pm

    Nate,
    I am saying ‘grace,’ but I’m not saying deus ex machina. I’m suggesting that just as we cannot by ourselves gain a testimony (I’m using testimony to mean something like ‘a conviction of the divine based on some contact with it,’ which obviously requires a second party), we cannot by ourselves learn how to love someone as God does. We need God to share with us his own love for the person. But, like a testimony, I don’t see this happening until we’ve shown sufficient desire through repeated effort and hard pleading. Don’t ask me why.

  13. Karen on February 17, 2004 at 12:51 pm

    Nate and all,

    I agree with the earlier post that this is an aspirational commandment. I think to truly fulfill it, it requires a god-like capacity for both omniscience and omnipotence. Omniscience because to truly love someone, you have to have a “family” like knowledge of them: loving someone both for and despite the shortcomings. And Omnipotence because having that deep knowledge, and acting on it requires vast stores of energy and power that we currently can’t access in our “condition of mortality.” I think that progress is truly one of the most intriguing and necessary doctrines of the gospel, and this commandment requires a life long stretching of our souls. We can’t live this commandment perfectly, because we’re mortal, but I think we’re supposed to be striving for immortality by living it.

  14. Jim F. on February 17, 2004 at 1:48 pm

    Nate, the Doctrine and Covenants gives some evidence for why you should be wary of taking 1 Nephi 3:7 as the only word on the question of commandments. Section 124:49 tells us that sometimes the Lord releases us from his commandments–if we have striven diligently to perform the work commanded. Of course that doesn’t help much with this case, for we aren’t prevented from loving others because our enemies have hindered us from doing so.

    I recognize Brent’s experience enough to hope that it has something to say about how the ability to love fully finally comes. I’ve found myself loving people some of whom I didn’t even like. Perhaps the law of love is like all other law: it can convict us but not save us from our deficits. Perfection in love is not something that I can achieve, and the commandment to love teaches me that I cannot so that I know on whom I must depend.

  15. Jim F. on February 17, 2004 at 1:53 pm

    Russell, you’re right that there’s more to Rousseau than “cheap charity” captures. I don’t know him well, certainly not as well as you, but I know enough to recognize that. I should have been more fair to him, but I only intended to agree with the point of Nate’s rhetoric: I think I know the kind of cheap charity of which he speaks; I shouldn’t have pinned it on Rousseau. Mea culpa.

  16. Rob on February 17, 2004 at 2:30 pm

    Home teaching=recipe for learning to love. I like M. Scott Peck’s definition of love as being willing to give of oneself for the spiritual or emotional growth of another. Home teaching gets you out of your comfort zone, as your mission did, and that’s good for you and for those you are to home teach. If all you can care about is your friends, then you just need to make more freinds! Starting with those you home teach. Put down the Ensign and have fun!

  17. William Morris on February 17, 2004 at 3:47 pm

    I think I understand why the cheap universal charity is a cop-out, does that mean that it’s impossible to have God-like feelings towards those you don’t know?

    Is it possible to see others and have positive feelings about the fact that they are individuals with their own specific histories, connections, problems and, most importantly perhaps, potentials? To get a glimpse of why God is working so hard to get us to progress. Or in other words to feel that for this person to do good is a triumph that add value to your own life and progression and for him to sin is a tragedy that impacts you as well?

    I don’t know for sure. Charity is not one of my strong points.

    I do know that there’s something about people that I like — something that has to do with the fact that we are all uniquely intelligent beings.

    Or to take a different tack — one of the things that makes it easier for me to find value in and (especially) forgive others is my belief in a father in heaven who is a unique, embodied individual instead of some amorphous universal good. In other words, I have this faint, nagging feeling that the Mormon concept of God should make it easier for us to love individuals as individuals and avoid the whole cheap vague love for the idea of humanity thing.

  18. Melissa on February 19, 2004 at 2:46 pm

    I rarely worry about Nate’s worry: that I can’t love everyone or lots of people in their particularlity all at once, but perhaps I should.

    A careful look at this commandment reveals the difficulty I personally find. The commandment says that we are to love others as we love ourselves. What does it mean to love ourselves? It certainly seems to imply that self-regarding actions are natural and even appropriate as models to follow. But what if self-regarding love conflicts with other-regarding love? Here’s my real-life recurring situation that best manifests the dilemma for me:

    I’m driving by myself late at night from Providence to New Haven or Boston. I am a young female. I don’t have a cell phone. Someone has pulled off the side of the road and has their hazard lights on. Should I stop?

    Notice in Jesus’ parable, the good Samaritan doesn’t just happen upon the wounded traveler. He crosses the road, deciding to go to him. Certainly the Samaritan risks his own well-being in taking care of someone who would likely spit in his face if he could do so. Doesn’t this parable require me to risk my own safety and stop to aid the traveler on the road? It is highly likely that no harm will come to me (it is also highly likely that without a cell phone I might not be very helpful—but for the sake of argument let’s pretend that there’s something I could do—like offer a ride to the stranded person, etc.)

    My question is at what point is it alright for self-regarding actions to trump other-regarding actions? Are there such things as wholly other-regarding actions since there are always implications for ourselves? Does the knowledge that service to others brings personal benefits undermine radical benevolence?

    It seems like members of the Church are often encouraged to do their home/visiting teaching, etc because they will receive some blessing–thus, making what should be an other-regarding action a self-regarding action.