Among the “difficult” sayings of Jesus is this:
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Lk 14:26
Of course, the statement is so extreme that it is quickly recognized as an exaggeration. Jesus is not asking us to hate our family (or even in our own lives). And yet, the saying stands. It suggests one thing quite clearly: the love we have for God is not something we have along a continuum. It is not simply the strongest version of something else. The love of God renders every other love to be like hate, by comparison. They simply do not belong in the same category.
Another way to say this is that every love in our life is under the judgment of the love of God.
This reality comes into focus for me each year around the July 4th holiday. I have many Christian friends on social media. Something within me cringes each year as I see the mix of patriotism (love of country) and Christian piety (love of God). It is not a political judgment. All such loyalties (country, family, sports team) do not belong in the same breath with the love of God. It’s like saying, “I love God and my cellphone.” Nothing belongs in a category with God.
Most of the “loves” in our lives have a certain commonality. One way to think about it is to think of things to which you have a sense of loyalty: family, sports team, college, locality, nation, etc. When I was growing up, we were a “Chevrolet” family. The sense of brand loyalty was consciously nurtured by American automobile manufacturers. My father would opine that Ford stood for “Fixed Or Repaired Daily.” Our next door neighbor owned a Mercury (a Ford product). We were certain there was something questionable about them. The love of family obviously transcends the love of sport (for most). Nevertheless, even the love of family does not belong in a category with the love of God.
Modern loyalties have been the subject of mass manipulation since the early 20th century when psychological insights began to be applied to modern marketing. It explains why there can be little reasonable discussion among people over things that matter in their lives. Many of the things that matter do so for irrational reasons – this can extend to family as well.
A report on a recent survey offered these observations:
Many Americans think people in the other party are ignorant, spiteful, evil and generally destroying the country, according to a new Axios poll by SurveyMonkey, aired on HBO on Sunday night. 61% of Democrats see Republicans as “racist/bigoted/sexist.” 31% of Republicans say they view Democrats in the same light.
The suspicion runs so deep that a third of all Americans say they’d be disappointed if a close family member married someone whose partisanship didn’t match their own, according to the poll for “Axios on HBO.”
- The percentage saying they’d be at least somewhat bothered by this jumps to 50% among liberal Democrats; it’s 32% among conservative Republicans.
This does not suggest that the differences in political positions are not important, or do not have a moral basis (many do). It suggests, however, that our loyalties are visceral and rooted in deep emotions that cover far more than the issues at hand.
My thoughts, however, are not about our political divide. Rather, they are about what can be discerned in our relationship with God. The visceral (emotional) qualities that are the object of mass manipulation are a very distorted basis for belief in God. These qualities are far more likely to believe in the wrong God than in no God at all. There are two sins that are of equal weight: to forget God and to remember the wrong one.
The Orthodox Fathers consistently root our approach to God in apophaticism – that which we do not know. This is not a judgment on the God whom we do not know, but on ourselves and our delusions. To know God requires that we must first acknowledge that we do not know Him.
Imagine the impact in our public life if everyone were first to acknowledge that likely we are all fools. This is the place where our approach to God rightly begins.
This is not a blithe ignorance that uses itself as an excuse. Instead, it is the profound acknowledgement of our own blindness. That we do not know God is not a statement about God; it is a confession about ourselves. As certain as it is that we do not know God so it is equally certain that we do not know one another. We encounter the energies of foolishness (both from ourselves and others), but fail to see that this foolishness is not the truth of our existence or theirs.
A term that is common in the Fathers is “nepsis,” often translated as “sobriety.” When we are drunk on the disordered energies of the passions, nothing that we see or think is trustworthy. This is why the whole of the spiritual life in Orthodoxy is gathered within the term “hesychia,” or “stillness.”
The classic novel, Lord of the Flies, depicts the innocence of children (boys marooned on an island) that falls into a feral madness, resulting in savage murder. There is a stillness that settles over the novel when adults arrive to save the boys. Sobriety returns along with tears for what has taken place. It is this same stillness and sobriety that rightly accompany the appeal to God, the only adult in the universe. It is our happy state that He is merciful and kind even to the ungrateful and the evil (Lk. 6:35).
We are fools, O Lord, hear our prayer.