Tag Archives: jesus

Should we use love to understand Scripture or Scripture to understand love?

This week I’m diverging from my typical book review/summary to review a cartoon I read a few weeks ago. In it, Jesus says to a group of modern Pharisees “The difference between me and you is you use Scripture to determine what love means and I use love to determine what Scripture means.” The implication of this cartoon is clear: We should interpret the Bible like Jesus did, through the lens of love.

The problem in interpreting Scripture through love

While this cartoon contains an element of truth, which I will get to later, I want to begin by pointing out a rather obvious danger: Who is to say what “love” means? “Love” is an especially ambiguous word with an incredibly broad range of meaning. That meaning is culturally bound. If 100 cultures use “love” to interpret Scripture, you will come up with 100 – probably wildly divergent – interpretations. In most of those cases, Scripture will end up being said to value whatever that culture already values (whatever the culture loves.) To put it more bluntly, a culture that equates love with sexual expression and freedom will interpret Scripture as permissive, even celebratory, towards sexual expression and freedom. In other words, to use one’s cultural conception of love to interpret Scripture will likely simply lead to an interpretation that already agrees with one’s preconceptions. 

The question remains, though, did Jesus read the Scriptures through this hermeneutic of love? Consider, for instance, Mark 2:23-28:

23 One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”

25 He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? 26 In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.”

27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”

Jesus counters the Pharisees’ interpretation of the Sabbath law with one that gets at the heart of the Sabbath. The Sabbath was given to man to give life. The Pharisees failed to love, so they arrived at a rigid understanding of the Sabbath. Jesus loved, so he saw the deeper meaning of the Sabbath. Or so the argument goes. But, more subtly, we see that Jesus didn’t interpret the Sabbath through an abstract concept of love. He interpreted the Sabbath law through Scripture, namely, the story of Abiathar the high priest feeding David and his companions (1 Samuel 21).

The necessity of love in interpreting Scripture

Jesus made it clear, however, that love and God’s commands should never be separated. Loving God and loving neighbor are the two greatest commands and “all the Law and Prophets hand on these to commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40). The apostle Paul agrees:

The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:9-10)

Interpreting Scripture apart from love would be a dangerous thing indeed. “Knowledge puffs up,” says Paul, “while love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). Again, in the famous love passage, “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2). Without love, interpretation of Scripture, no matter how scholarly, is of little value.

We need something like the “hermeneutical cycle” I learned about in seminary. We use Scripture to correct and refine our cultural conception of love (this is not Pharisaical) and we read Scripture through the lens of love, recognizing that the two (when properly understood) will not contradict each other.

A brief note on this point: Should we expect any continuity between our human/cultural conceptions of love and God’s apart from Scripture? We should, for two reasons. First, God has given each of us a basic understanding (Romans 1:20) and the law (Romans 2:14-15). Since God’s law is fulfilled through love, we will all have a sense of God’s love and his law of love. However, we should not trust that conception to surely, since it can be warped by our fallen minds, our fallen cultures, and Satan’s deception. 

A third component to our cycle

To this “hermeneutical cycle” we must add a third component: Jesus. I know, that’s the Sunday School answer, but Scripture itself invites us to interpret Scripture and love through the Messiah. 

How do we know what love is? “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16-20). Jesus’ life and sacrificial death cut through many of our cultural misconceptions of love. In Jesus, we see love personified. 

Likewise, Jesus instructs us to read Scripture in a “Christo-centric way.” Jesus says, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40). Jesus’ words and life fulfill the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 5:17). In the passage from Mark quoted earlier, Jesus’ interpretation of the Sabbath, gave future generations new insight into its core meaning. His interpretation of the Sabbath was right for two reasons: First, because he used Scripture to interpret Scripture, but second, because He was Lord of the Sabbath. In a theological sense, he wrote the law, so he can give its authoritative interpretation. And, because all Scripture points to him, he fulfills the Sabbath (Colossians 2:16-17). 

But, the picture gets more complex: How do we know about Jesus in the first place? We know about him through our Christian communities, but also through Scripture in whom he is revealed. And, once again, we cannot help but bring our cultural conceptions of love to the table, the good and the bad.

At the end of the day, then, we have a hermeneutic cycle: Love, Jesus, and the Bible. Each helps us come to a clearer understanding of the others. But of these three, in a twist of Paul, the greatest of these is Jesus.

The Christian Essentialist

As you head into the New Year, I want to encourage you to become a gospel-centered essentialist.

I just finished my second reading of Greg McKeown’s Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. The book has been influential in my thinking and it has some core ideas that are helpful to Christians and non-Christians alike. It has an underlying philosophy that needs evaluation, but I believe there’s a uniquely gospel-oriented version of essentialism that could be a gift to the church. 

What’s the Big Idea of Essentialism?

Essentialism is a mindset and set of core practices designed to give us a more intentional and focused life. As the subtitle says, essentialism is the “disciplined pursuit of less.” I find it easiest to describe essentialism as minimalism for your whole life.

Essentialism is based on the idea that most things in life are trivial and that only a few things are essential. The essentialist aims to cut out the trivial and maximize the essential. Essentialists live under the creed “less, but better.” They believe that if they focus their energy on the few most important things, they will be able to do those few things that will lead to the greatest contribution. They embrace trade-offs instead of trying to do everything at once, dissipating their energy and effectiveness.

Essentialists follow the threefold process of explore, eliminate, and execute. They explore to distinguish between the trivial many and the vital few, eliminate the trivial, and execute; establish practices to make doing the vital few things almost effortless.

What does essentialism contribute?

Author Greg McKeown has filled essentialism with practical wisdom that conforms with the reality of the world around us. In that sense, it applies to all people, regardless of their faith.

I think about essentialism all the time in my role as a project manager. Projects are constantly bombarded with a lot of good work, but to be successful, we need to focus only on what is truly essential.

The book is especially applicable in the modern West where we’ve never had more choices and opportunities. In such a world, we need to learn to choose the best from the good. We need to learn to discern the vital few from the trivial many, if only because our world bombards us with so many trivial distractions.

Consider the following insights:

  • If we don’t deliberately choose where to focus our time and energy, others will choose for us. It is better to live by design, than by default.
  • Our world is filled with “noise” that we have to sift through to find things of value.
  • We shouldn’t just try to get more things done, but get the right things done.
  • “Certain efforts produce exceptionally more results than others” (45), so it’s critical we identify which type of effort produces the best results.

We are wise to judge whether these principles conform to the world in which we live. There’s nothing uniquely “Christian” about them but they are helpful insights nonetheless, a form of common grace inherent in the created order.

Since reading the book, I’ve started listening to the Essentialism podcast which has helped me see how the intentionality of the Christian faith merges well with the philosophy and practice of essentialism.

Two of McKeown’s episodes (Nov 23, 2020 and Nov 30, 2020) highlighted guests who approached essentialism from a distinctively Christian perspective. They were sure of their core values (faith / relationship with God) and so were well-prepared to identify what was essential in their lives and then adopt the practices of essentialism to have more effective lives of faith.

What are the dangers of the essentialist mindset?

As much as I value essentialism, there are two dangers in essentialism, or at least certain interpretations of essentialism, if adopted to the extreme. 

First, McKeown defines the main goal of essentialism as achieving our “greatest contribution.” The happy and fulfilled life consists of this, that we make a contribution. To his credit, McKeown doesn’t limit contribution to career or achievement in the typical sense. He includes family and social good as well. In fact, his story of becoming an essentialist includes his shame in putting a client meeting above his family.

Also, he doesn’t equate contribution with activity. Indeed, he devotes a whole chapter to rest, but that rest serves the purpose of making us more productive when we are fulfilling our greater purpose of contribution.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to contribute to the world in which we live. Such a mission is commendable. But if you set up contribution as the greatest good – in whatever form it takes – you have set up an idol. What if, God forbid, you fail to make whatever you have defined as your “greatest contribution”? Happiness will have eluded you. As an achievement-oriented person, I have sometimes had to learn this the hard way (and I’m still learning).

By contrast, Christians believe that the good life is found in communion with God through Jesus. We could contribute nothing and still have found not only what is good, but what is best. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus has already accomplished everything that is truly essential for us through his death and resurrection.

Second, KcKeown places a major emphasis on individual choice. If we don’t choose, someone else will choose for us. Our first responsibility as an essentialist is to recognize the power of choice, to choose to choose.

Again, there’s something to be said for personal agency and intentionality. And, to the extent that McKeown opposes social pressure (which might be called “fear of man”), I agree with him. However, Christians also value submission as an essential virtue, wherein Christians give up their independent choice for the sake of someone else. At their essence, Christians submit their wills to the lordship of Christ. But even beyond that, Christians practice mutual submission within families and communities.

A uniquely Christian essentialism

Can a synthesis be found between essentialism and the gospel? I believe that it can and I will take Paul and Jesus as my examples. Both lived highly intentional, essentialist lives. That is, they were focused on what was truly most important.

Jesus lived with a focused mission. There were many miracles he could have performed and many things he could have taught about. He performed those miracles which pointed to his identity as the Messiah. He taught in such a way that pointed people to the immanence of the Kingdom of God and the need to repent. He taught a form of essentialism when he told Martha, “You are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one.” (Luke 10:41-42)

He knew the culmination of his ministry was on a cross in Jerusalem and resolutely set himself to the task.

Paul’s essentialism can be found in 1 Corinthians 2:2: “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Paul had a single-minded focus on the gospel, its implications for the world, and planting churches committed to the gospel.

The key distinctive found in Jesus’s and Paul’s essentialism from the more generic form prescribed in the book is that Jesus and Paul didn’t come up with their own “greatest contribution”. Instead, they submitted that choice to God (Jesus, the Son, submitted to the Father, Paul submitted himself to the Godhead) and then lived “essentialist” lives in pursuit of that goal.

I would submit that a uniquely Christian version of essentialism is one that sees the pursuit of God as the first “essential” goal. This is exactly how Dana Biberston describes her experience of essentialism in the aforementioned podcast episode. Her essential activity was to prioritize time in Scripture and prayer. All streams of thought and action flowed from that source. From there, we pick up and use all the wisdom offered by McKeown as tools to use along the way.