Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.
This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The ones for this chapter are: Matthew 6:9-15; Luke 15:11-32.
My father golfed only occasionally, but one time he told me this golfing truth: ‘If you hit the ball straight, you will have better scores.’ The problem with truths, of course, is absorbing them into the core of our being so that they can shape our lives. Even today, when traipsing through weeds off the fairway or poking my club into some pond to retrieve a ball, I recall that little golfing truth my father told me.
He was, and is, right.
The most important divine truth ever given is far truer and even more difficult for us to absorb than a simple golfing truth. From Moses to Malachi and from Jesus to John, the Bible witnesses to this elemental truth: God loves us. He loves you, and he loves me — as individuals. This big truth needs to be absorbed into our beings.
God’s love is an easy creed to confess but difficult to absorb.
I’ve opened simply with a quote from the beginning of the chapter because that truth strikes me as so utterly foundational. He is a good God who loves mankind. The words and actions of far too many Christians say many things about God that stray from that simple statement. We need to be reminded. And we need to say it until we believe it.
There are many studies and articles today about ‘fatherless’ men (and women) and the way that experience shapes their lives. I would contend that, given the clear teaching and example of Jesus, no Christian can truly be ‘fatherless’, whatever their situation with their earthly father. Does that mean people can’t carry wounds, even deep wounds, from those (father, mother, or whoever) who should have loved us and cared for us, but didn’t? No! Of all people, I would certainly never minimize or denigrate that pain. But we are the people who should know this truth in our bones. We have an Abba who loves us, who will never abandon us, who will never hurt us, and who can heal us. It is because Abba loves us that we are able to love him and love others. Yet this can be a very hard truth to absorb and and a difficult reality in which to trust.
The Jewish people at the time of Christ did have a concept of God as a loving and protective father. It was not a completely new or alien concept to them as I’ve heard some modern Christians erroneously assert. But they rarely addressed God as “Father” in prayer, which Jesus almost always did. (Scot McKnight says the only exception is the ‘My God, My God’ exclamation on the cross.) Jesus also taught, even commanded us, to address God as Abba as well.
What Jesus wants to evoke with the name Abba is God’s unconditional, unlimited, and unwavering love for his people. In this name for God we are standing face-to-face with the very premise of spiritual formation: God loves us and we are his children.
McKnight describes this love as one which originates in the home where an Abba dwells. He also describes the home as the place our first understandings of God begin which are ‘transfers’ from both parents to God.
We are wired this way. This is not something we do rationally and intentionally. It is something we do instinctually.
Grant me this point, and I’ll give you one back: since none of us has perfect parents, none of us has a perfect sense of love to transfer to God. In fact, some of us — and I say this with the empathy of someone who has heard students’ stories for two decades — had awful childhoods, and just thinking about God’s love is confusing, bewildering, and nearly incomprehensible.
The point he makes strikes me as deeply important. I have to say I’ve never considered my childhood ‘awful’, though it seems those who hear me describe some of the more dramatic parts of it do. Now this is not because I’m in denial about the reality of my childhood. There’s a lot of it that was, at times, distinctly unpleasant. But it rarely devolved to something ‘awful’ and my overall sense has never been that it was ‘awful’, though there are times I’ve wondered why myself. I think that’s because there were almost always multiple adults around me who genuinely and deeply loved me. And I knew it. There is something richly nourishing about being loved, whatever your other circumstances might be. Apparently it is even able to temper some pretty difficult and painful experiences. In fact, despite the overall stability and even prosperity of some people’s childhood, if love had to be earned, I think their experience was in some ways much worse than mine. Even so, McKnight’s overall point is granted. My path to full conversion was … circuitous and difficult.
McKnight then explores how the parable of the prodigal son is what the Jesus Creed looks like as a story. He notes something critically important — Jesus offers this story as his justification when asked why he eats with sinners.
He justifies his love for others (the second part of the Jesus Creed) by appealing to an Abba who is the focus of the parable.
McKnight then explores how central absorbing this truth and knowing or experiencing our Abba’s love for us is to all healing and spiritual growth. Trust. Abiding. Surrender. All that and more requires that we be open and receptive to that love. And then McKnight wrote something that resonated deeply with my experience and practice at the time I first read it and which still marks my life today.
Another way to open up to Abba’s love is to repeat throughout the day a short prayer reminder: ‘Father, thank you for loving me.’ The wisdom of short — sometimes called breath — prayers has been planted in the church, in the pages of the Bible, and in the lives of spiritual advisors.
And finally, McKnight closes the chapter with this.
The Jesus Creed is to love God, and the premise under the Jesus Creed is a promise of truth: Abba loves us.