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Non-Self-Interested Love

There is much more we could say not only about the New Testament but the entire Bible as well. But the intent of this overview has been to trace what we may consider the Bible’s “core message.” Everything included in the Bible contributes in some way to this message, but the idea here has been to present its essence.

In this context the contribution of the New Testament is twofold: it reveals the universality of the Covenant, and the meaning of the Covenant as God’s response to the presence within us of non-self-interested love.

In this we find a continuity between the teachings of Jesus and the Hebrew scriptures. When Jesus says that the first great commandment is to love God with all one’s heart and soul, he is quoting the Hebrew Bible (Matthew 22:37, Deuteronomy 6:5). When he says the second great commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself, he is quoting the Hebrew Bible (Matthew 22:39, Leviticus 19:18). And when he tells us to love the one who is different, he also echoes the Hebrew prophetic tradition going all the way back to Moses (Luke 6:32, Deuteronomy 10:19). And Jesus goes so far as to say that the entire message of the Hebrew Bible (in his day known as the “law and the prophets“) comes down to this commandment to love (Matthew 22:40). Jesus has just distilled centuries of spiritual history and pages of scripture to their purest essence.

But how exactly can one love in this way? Only God’s love can be trusted not to contain any trace of self-interest. As Paul discovers in his own spiritual struggle, recorded in his Letter to the Romans, this love cannot be willed. But it can come to us if we make a place for it in the soul.

At the end of Paul’s great description of this love he says something curious: “Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). There is a reason Paul says this right after he has told us what love means. To experience love is to experience being known. To love without self-interest therefore means to know another, to be aware of the core of that person’s being, to the extent permitted by our very limited human capacities. Therefore we may say that love is the awareness of another’s individuality: this is the very definition of non-self-interested love. When we are aware of the individuality of another, on more than a surface level, then the feelings of good will that we associate with love spontaneously arise.

But who can love this way purely? Nobody. And we are not asked to do so. We only need to seek this love, to commit ourselves to it, to practice it as far as our human limitations will allow. Even the greatest saint is not entirely free of self-interest - without some self-interest we could not survive. But our self-interest is also a challenge to be overcome at all moments when love must take priority.

The Bible speaks over and over again of “seeking.” This is all we are asked to do: seek with all our heart. If we really want this love, then something beyond our own limited power and wisdom will help us find it. “The Lord is with you, while you are with him. If you seek him, he will be found by you” (2 Chronicles 15:2); “Search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7). We cannot do it all, but a power and a wisdom beyond ourselves and greater than ourselves will meet us on the path and take us the rest of the way. This is the ultimate basis of faith.

Finally, having this faith, finding this love, does not mean we won’t have to suffer. It would be a simplistic interpretation of the Covenant to believe that those who adhere to it are entitled to an exemption from hardship. We learn our greatest lessons in suffering, and Jesus taught this not only by word but by example. There is a reason that Paul compares Christ and Adam (Romans 5:14), and that Jesus so often refers to himself as the “son of man.” Jesus’s life experience is the prototypical human experience. We will all suffer and die on the cross, and for many of us the suffering will not be done in a single night, as it was with Jesus. This is why the Gospels are so compelling - Jesus’s story is our story too.

The fact of suffering does not mean God has abandoned us. Even Jesus suffered, was betrayed, and left entirely alone by his friends. The experience of Jesus shows us that when faith and love are present, redemption will always come. We may have to sit still for a while in darkness and ignorance, in anticipation of the light we do not yet see. “But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:25): if in spite of everything we continue to seek to be loving, then God, whose nature is love, is still with us, and “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Romans 8:31).

The difference between Jesus and us is that he embraced his cross willingly. He did not run from it, he did not resent it, he did not complain about it. He waited through it until he was met by the presence of God. And so he set an example for us as well. None of us is exempt from suffering: God “sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). The difference is that the “righteous,” or those who live in the Covenant anticipating its fulfillment, who “wait for it with patience” in a dark place that has become sacred, can count on God’s presence to walk them through that rain.

If biblical faith means anything, it means this. Don’t just take it “on faith.” Live it, test it, discover whether it contains any truth. We have not spoken yet of Jesus’s resurrection, and it can and has been understood in many different ways. But however one understands it, it is the ultimate symbol of God’s enduring presence in the life of one who has faith.

The forces of resurrection are available to transform the life of each one of us as well, no matter how heavy the cross or how imposing the darkness.

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