Christianity and Islam: What American Christians need to know about Muslims
If you’ve read this blog much, you know that I write a lot about the Bible’s command to love others. While Christian disagree about a lot of things, we all agree (I hope) that our most important obligation to God is to love Him and the people he’s created – this means loving Muslims as well. So it is worth thinking about what it means to “love” other people. And this week, something really hit me about love.
Much of what follows is my summary of a much longer lecture given by Dr. Kim Paffenroth of Iona College. The last story of this post is mine, as are my personal references; other than that, credit Dr. Paffenroth with the brilliant ideas. I’ll take the blame for the stuff you don’t like.
Even most non-Christians know the custom of reading 1 Corinthians 13, traditionally the Bible’s greatest passage on love, at weddings: the “love” chapter and the greatest celebration of love that we have. Yet the reading does not quite fit. Take a look at the “heart” of this chapter (1 Corinthians 13:4-7):
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Of course we should behave like this toward everyone, certainly toward our spouses. But if the love described in these verses summarizes the extent of one’s love to husband or wife, the marriage is not going to be any better than a 7 or 8 out of 10. (Yes, I know that 7 is a big improvement for a lot of marriages. But let’s shoot high.)
Good marriages need continual adjustments from both partners. When you’re single, you can do as you like. But when you’re married, even minor decisions can affect your partner. If I prefer eating dinner at 6, and my wife likes 7:30, then at least one of us should learn to enjoy a different time.
Many of us understand that there are different kinds of love. Dr. Paffenroth suggests that the worst kind of love is something we are born with: perfect love for self, without any love for anyone or anything else. The best kind of love is something we try to achieve as Christians: perfect love for God, with no focus on self. A big difference between these two is that, from a Christian point of view, a human who achieves perfect love for God (if that were possible) will also end up loving everything else in God’s creation. This is the idea behind Matthew 22:36-40: If we develop perfect love for God and our neighbor, then we will have done all that we need to do.
(By the way, Muslim “theology” reaches this same conclusion about love for God – something I hope to post on eventually).
What does it mean to “love” God? How does one “love” someone who exists outside of the realm of the five senses?
It’s not hard to understand. We “love” God by changing ourselves in order to become what He wants us to be. That’s the idea behind praying, reading the Bible, being part of a church, and so on: through these things we learn the way we should act and think. And as we learn, we try to change ourselves so that our actions and decisions please God.
Part of the beauty of the command to “love God” is that our love for God has nothing to do with God’s love for us! God’s love is unconditional: we get salvation from sin just by asking sincerely. But then it’s our turn to show love, and we love God by doing what we need to do to change ourselves. We don’t change to earn God’s love; we change to become the people God calls us to be.
My brother and his wife adopted a baby girl after being together more than a decade. In the first few years of her life, they changed tremendously: she was in their minds virtually every waking moment. Schedules, furnishings, food choices, career choices, and all sorts of other things were adjusted for the needs and wants of an infant. They did not change to earn their daughter’s love; instead, their love for their daughter caused them to change. Good parental love is not limited to feelings, or even to actions. The best parents change themselves for the benefit of their children.
As I said before, if we love God perfectly, we will love everyone He created as well. Yes, human beings are not always quick to see the connection between loving God and loving people. So to make things clearer, Jesus adds a second commandment that is “like” the first: “love your neighbor as yourself.” Do people change for the benefit of themselves? Of course! Therefore, loving our neighbor means that we must be willing to change for the benefit of others!
And who is our neighbor? Great question! The clarification is in Luke 10:25-37, the “Parable of the Good Samaritan.” (For more, see this post). We must love everyone; therefore, we must change for everyone.
As with all teachings, we need to keep a sense of proportion: we should not change to accommodate inappropriate values, or try to change more than is realistically possible. But the command to love means that we are required to change: not just once, but continually.
I’ll talk about applications with respect to Muslims in a future post. But here’s a true story told years ago by Raleigh Washington, the Executive Director of Promise Keepers. When he was pastor of a Chicago inner city church, Dr. Washington put a lot energy into helping members of different races and cultures learn to truly love each other: not just to feel good, but to practice genuine love.
Some months after he’d been there a while, the church had a potluck lunch. Two African American ladies in their early 20’s (I’ll call them Betty and Juanita) took a helping of a mysterious dish brought by “Sarah,” an older woman from India. Betty then picked up the tabasco sauce, sprinkled some over all her food, then handed the bottle to Juanita, who put on some of her own.
Sarah was watching, feeling unhappy. But she had developed a strong enough relationship with her sisters at the church to summon the courage to approach Betty and Juanita.
“Guys, where I come from, we are very, very serious when we prepare food for others. I put a lot of time and effort into making sure that all of the ingredients and seasonings are exactly right. I would have thrown it all away and started over, rather than serve something that didn’t come out perfect. So I felt a sad when you added sauce without even tasting it first.”
Betty said, “We didn’t mean to make you feel bad. We always put hot sauce on everything!”
Some weeks later there was another potluck, and Sarah brought a different Indian specialty, exquisitely prepared. Betty and Juanita took a helping, then Betty grabbed the tabasco – and thought for a second, then sprinkled it on everything except Sarah’s dish. She gave the sauce to Juanita, who did the same. Juanita then put the bottle back on the table.
“I love you” means “I will change for you.”
Sarah walked over with a warm, genuine smile, picked up the bottle, and handed it to Betty.
“Put on as much as you like!”
“I will change for you”: the highest form of love.