The Order of Love
Devotional or Speech given at
Brigham Young University-Hawaii
February 27, 2016
John S. Tanner
Graduates, Faculty, Family, Friends--Aloha!
I often say to my wife, Susan, that I love her just this side of idolatry—and I truly do! I confess that I borrowed this phrase from Ben Jonson, a Renaissance playwright who said that he loved and honored his fellow playwright Shakespeare “on this side of idolatry.” I like the phrase because it succinctly describes what I believe to be the proper order of love, which the topic and title of my brief remarks today.
In response to the lawyer’s question, “Master, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus said, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thy self. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matt. 22:35-40).
Jesus’s response orders love in two senses. He orders love in the sense that he “commands” us to love; to love God and neighbor is to fulfill all the law and the prophets. He also orders love in the sense that he prioritizes our love: he makes loving God the First Great Commandment and loving neighbor the Second.
I am going to focus today mostly on the way the gospel orders love by helping us prioritize our love. I wish that there were time, however, to speak about how the gospel orders love as the fulfillment of the law. Love subsumes every other duty as disciples of Jesus Christ. I used to tell my missionaries that there is only one righteous motive for missionary work and for every other good work: it is love. We ought to do everything—even go to war if we must—out of love for God and his children. The longer I live the more convinced I become that the process of salvation is essentially that of learning to love what and as God loves. It “shall be well” in the last day for those found possessed of such love, which the scriptures call charity, “the pure love of Christ,” for they shall be like the Savior when they meet him. For God is love and we become like him as we partake in the pure love of Christ. Hence God orders, invites and entices us to love.
But today I shall focus not on how the gospel orders (or commands) us to love but on how it orders (or prioritizes) our love in the First and Second Great Commandments. Jesus’s response to the lawyer makes clear that loving God is our first and highest duty. All other loves are secondary. Secondary loves are properly ordered only as they are subordinated to, or nested in, the love of God or charity. To put any secondary love in first place—whether love of sports teams, of hobbies, of career, of country, of pets, of friends, of family, or even of spouse--is to engage in a kind of idolatry.
C. S. Lewis makes this point at length in a book entitled The Four Loves. In it, Lewis discusses four types of love: affection, friendship, Eros, and charity. Each kind of love enjoys a blessed place in a properly ordered Christian life. However, if we make affection, friendship, or erotic love our highest value, our lives become disordered and subject to countless ills—such as jealousy, pride, petulance, cliquishness, snobbery, lust, and violence. In a properly ordered life, love for God must always be first. It must order all other loves. For, as Lewis repeatedly remarks, human love become a demon the moment it begins to be a God.
Let me illustrate this by looking at the highest of these secondary loves, what Lewis calls “Eros” or that sort of love we refer to when we speak about “being in love.” There are few, if any, human loves grander or more exalting than this. However, “It is in the grandeur of Eros that the seeds of danger are concealed” (151). For “Of all loves [Eros is] at his height, most god-like; therefore most prone to demand our worship. [Eros] always tends to turn ‘being in love’ into a sort of religion” (154).
We can clearly see the dangers of disordered romantic love in stories of wicked lovers such as Bonnie and Clyde or Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Eros says it is better to go to Hell and be miserable together than dwell in Heaven without the lover. But we are never justified in doing evil in order to please someone we love. To lie, defraud, or murder out of loyalty and love for spouse or family is to embrace a Mafia ethic. Disciples are to love and follow our spouse as he or she loves and obeys God.
The poet John Milton reminds us that married love needs to be governed by divine love in his re-telling of the story of the Fall. Milton’s Adam excuses his choice to disobey by saying that it was motivated by his love for Eve. He felt that he could not live without her. So he disobeyed God’s commandment. Eve also presents his choice to transgress as a “glorious trial of exceeding love” (PL 9.961). But when the Savior confronts Adam after his transgression, he cuts right through this excuse: “Was she thy God, that her thou didst obey”?” (PL 10. 145). In Milton’s view, Adam was right to love Eve but wrong to let his love for her trump his duty to obey God. Such romantic love, however seemingly noble, is actually idolatrous.
Can you see now why I say that I love Susan “just this side of idolatry”? I believe that this is how we are to love everyone and everything other than the Lord. Moreover, I am persuaded that by keeping the First Commandment first we are able to love all other people and things more truly. As a 17th-Century Cavalier poet wrote to his beloved on going to war, “I could not love thee, Dear, so much / Loved I not honor more.” (Richard Lovelace, “To Lucasta, going to the Wars”)
This is true for all human loves. We can only love others the way they deserve to be loved and the way that will result in their full flourishing eternally when we love them the way that God loves them. Moreoever, those we love often become more like God the more we love the divine in them.
I like the way Elder Bednar illustrates how loving God brings a married couple closer to each other. He imagines the husband and wife starting life’s journey apart, each one striving to be perfected in Christ. As they move upward, closer and closer to Christ, they grow closer and closer together. I have found this to be true not only of married love, but of family love and of friendship. The more we strive to love God, the more united we become in good ways.
Putting love of God first orders our often disordered loves. It keeps sexual love from becoming lust, and family love and patriotism from becoming “my family or my country right or wrong.” It provides the proper perspective on our duty to love.
Susan and I tried to teach the principle of ordered love to our adult children after our mission. We were concerned that they were being buffeted confused by the world’s disordered notions of love—notions that exalt erotic love of every sort and that fail to embed the Second Commandment in the First.
We encouraged them to confront the confusion by fully following the Lord’s two Great Commandments. We should reach out to every child of God with profound, genuine neighbor love. We have an obligation to do more than merely tolerate differences. Tolerance is in fact an Enlightenment concept, not a scriptural one. Our deepest Christian obligation is to go beyond tolerance. It is to love. I know of no authorization for any posture toward neighbor that is not grounded in love. We are even to love our enemies, Jesus said.
But neighbor love, the Second Commandment, needs to be embedded in the First Commandment. Indeed, we cannot properly love neighbor without loving him or her as God does—which is certainly with profound compassion for all the weaknesses and trials that “flesh is heir to,” but also with a recognition that love can be disordered. The true potential of every soul will only be realized as he or she develops divine, Godlike love and becomes like God.
To learn to love what and as God does is, as I said the purpose of life. We are often tempted to dis-order the First and Second Commandments. But the true disciple must embrace the priorities that Sir Thomas More so succinctly and memorably pronounced on the scaffold as he was about to be beheaded for choosing love of God over love of King: “I die the King’s good subject,” he said “only God’s first.”
Now in conclusion: It is customary for commencement speakers to give advice. It is also customary for graduates to quickly forget this advice. I hope that you won’t forget the advice I am going to give you, for it is grounded in the Great Commandments as I have explained them.
My simple advice to our graduates is this: ALWAYS ACT OUT OF LOVE. And ALWAYS PUT THE LOVE OF GOD FIRST.
In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.