1. The Command
In its simplest, broadest form, you can sum up our calling as Christians with the two-fold command: love God and love your neighbor. This is good. I have no qualms with these commands. But there is a problem. The problem is similar to a problem that I’ve seen in some well-intentioned friends of mine: they have a big goal for their life, whether it is a specific career or a specific vision of what they want their life to be. But the problem is this: they can’t figure out for the life of them how to get there from here, how to get where they want to be from where they are. The problem with the love command, I think, is a little bit like this. Who among us, hearing this command, thinks it’s a bad idea? Nobody! But the devil is in the details, so to speak. So, given that I assume we all want to love God and love our neighbor better, how do we get there from here? It’s okay to think big (“I want to love people!”); but what does that look like in our day-to-day lives? Love has to take a concrete form, and to do that, I would suggest, we must train ourselves to think little.
2. Think little: The virtue of love acts in concrete ways; or, Christianity is boring
What is a virtue? Thomas Aquinas says that a virtue is “a good habit consonant with our nature.” A habit is something we initially have to choose to do but, the more we do it, the more it becomes second nature, our reflexive response to situations in life. The fruits of the Spirit, including love, are virtues, habits of living that we are called to develop in our life, based on the Spirit’s work and empowerment. A virtue is not just a good habit, but one “consonant with our nature.” The birds of the air and beasts of the field instinctively act in a way consonant with their nature. Humans alone are capable of choosing to act in a way that is “against our nature,” in a way that produces disharmony and disorder. So, when we talk about developing the virtues, we are talking about the conscious discipline of living in line with the way God created us to be: in communion with him and with the rest of his creation, including other human beings.
When we think about the virtue of love, it is crucial to note that this virtue manifests itself in the concrete, little details that make up everyday life. Consider the instruction God gives to Israel in the Torah. “Love” of God and neighbor is the broad umbrella of this instruction. But what does love look like in specific circumstances? One brief example will have to suffice.
Deuteronomy 22:1-4, 22:8: If you see your brother's ox or sheep straying, do not ignore it but be sure to take it back to him. 2 If the brother does not live near you or if you do not know who he is, take it home with you and keep it until he comes looking for it. Then give it back to him. 3 Do the same if you find your brother's donkey or his cloak or anything he loses. Do not ignore it. If you see your brother's donkey or his ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it. Help him get it to its feet. When you build a new house, make a parapet around your roof so that you may not bring the guilt of bloodshed on your house if someone falls from the roof.
This stuff is wonderfully boring! It says, “God cares about the little things.” God cares about building codes, and the basic rules for lost and found. Elsewhere, we see that God is concerned about the schedule of wage payments, good treatment of animals and neighbors, about care for those with physical needs, about fairness in judgments, about gossiping, and the list goes on. The New Testament echoes this: 1 John 3:13-18. Love will show itself by providing food for those who need it, not just praying for them.
The point is that, as the British poet William Blake says, “He who would do good to another must do it in minute particulars.” This sounds easy, but it isn’t. The Russian novelist Dostoevsky has written: “One can love one’s neighbors in the abstract, or even at a distance, but at close quarters it’s almost impossible.” It is impossible not simply because people are often difficult to love, but because it requires another virtue: courage.
3. The Christian life therefore requires courage to think little, be boring, and persevere in love.
Americans are in love with celebrity, heroes, and spectacle. This includes the culture of American Christianity. Superstar preachers and a Christianity based on the emotion generated by the latest and trendiest songs is nothing new; it’s deep in the DNA of the American Christianity. But, what we need, I submit, is a generation of anti-heroes. People who see the Gospel as something to be lived out in little ways. People who are committed to the flourishing and shalom of their neighborhoods, their cities, their schools, their local churches, their spouses (if called to marriage), their kids, the land that by God’s grace brings forth their nourishment. This takes courage.
Why? Because both Christian and non-Christian culture alike encourage you to see this as boring. Countless movies and books in our age begin with the premise of the marriage or the person who is “stuck in a rut.” In other words, they have developed certain habits over time, rituals of life, that need to be broken. Now, it may be the case that some habits need to be broken, precisely because they are vices and not virtues. But “being in a rut” is not itself a problem if that rut is a virtuous one.
My life, for example, is largely stuck in a rut. It is not that exciting nor does it consist of grandiose acts. Here are some of the exciting things I get to do every day: Get up when I’m still tired. Fix my lunch at home. Drive to Kuyper. Check my email. Schedule meetings. Teach a class. Try to read something interesting. Eat lunch. Talk to various folks around Kuyper. Drive home. Put away the dishes in the dishwasher. Load the dishwasher. Vacuum. Play with Eliana. Read some books to Eliana and rock her to sleep. Rub my wife Sarah’s neck and shoulders. Chat with Sarah about our days as we try to stay awake. Go to sleep and do it all over again.
“I’ve just gotten in the habit of helping out in my youth group, week after week, year after year. I do my homework, I hang out with friends, I care for my family, I gather for corporate worship on Sundays and in chapel. I’m in a rut.” “I’ve just gotten in the habit of loading the dishwasher and picking up the house while my wife puts the baby to bed. We’re in a rut.” I would say: praise God—that is the pattern of love, fidelity, and care woven into the fabric of your life. Get into a kingdom rut and live there for the next five to six decades of your life. American sensationalism and faulty views of Christianity might say: there is something more! You’re missing your best life now, filled with excitement and pizzazz!
Wendell Berry, insightful as usual, says, “It may, in some ways, be easier to be Samson than to be a good husband or wife day after day for fifty years.” Berry is exactly right. To be a hero like Samson, you need a brief hit of courage through the adrenal gland. To be a good spouse, a good Christian, a good anti-hero requires that courage seep into your bones, pump through your veins, and animate your very soul. It is the courage to think little, to commit to the daily habits that make you “boring for Jesus.” The problem with Christianity today is not that there are too few Christians willing to be extraordinary for Jesus; it is that there are too few Christians willing to be ordinary for Jesus. Being ordinary for Jesus means that we are committed to the day-in, day-out tasks, rituals, and habits that add up to a lifetime of living in a kingdom rut, a kingdom that comes like leaven, slowing working through the whole bread.
4. Here again I credit Mr. Berry: Virtues are linked with virtuosity.
What is virtuosity? Virtuosity is a technical skill or fluency exhibited by an artist who knows their craft. For example, we often speak of a fine musician as a “virtuoso.” Why? In part because any craft, any art, any calling, requires time, effort, and repetition to become a master at it.
You are all called to become virtuosos in the vocation God has for you. For example, when we say that someone is a good pastor, a good social worker, a good youth worker, a good worship leader, a good educator, a good business person, a good writer, a good coach, what do we mean? We mean that someone has paid attention to the little details that comprise their big calling so that they can effectively love those they are called to serve.
When I was 14, I wanted to drive. That was my big goal. My dad agreed to let me drive his Chevy Luv, a stick shift, and the ugliest pickup known to humanity. It was yellow with orange and brown stripes down the side. I didn’t care; I just wanted to drive. But there’s a problem: you can’t just drive. You have to master at least 20 different skills at once. Buckle in, adjust your mirrors, clutch in, start, ease up on clutch, down on accelerator, listen to the engine, shift, check your mirrors, turn signal, shift down, turn just right, watch for other cars, watch for traffic lights, watch for stop signs, watch your speed limit, yield when turning left on green, stop but turn right on red, right lane except when passing, try to maintain speed without slowing down or speeding up, watch out for farm implements moving at various speeds, etc. You get the picture. When we say that someone is a good driver, we mean they have mastered the hundreds of little things that a driver has to do. That it has become a habit, a second nature, to just get in and drive. Now, sometimes I get home after work and think, I didn’t consciously choose to do any of those things that I once had to think very hard about every second I was driving.
Similarly, to fulfill your calling, you have to learn how to hundreds of things well and put those into practice. Here is where I up the ante: how do you learn to do those hundreds of things well? You do it in large part by listening to class lectures, by reading textbooks, by participating in class discussions, by writing papers, by journaling, by giving presentations, by doing internships and field ed, by working on group projects, by taking exams, by getting up at 6:30 so you can drive here for your Bib Interp class at 8 in the morning (or if you live in the dorms, you roll out of bed at 7:57 and sprint in). So you can say, “I just want to love people.” Good—then be sure you are out of bed and in class on time. This is how you get to the grand goal of loving others.
This is why everything is important: learning the in’s and out’s of English grammar, conjugating Greek verbs, understanding the practice of policy-writing for social work, knowing the broad contours of world and American history, understanding the history of worship in the Christian church, reading a novel that challenges some of your basic assumptions about life, writing a paper on the book of Leviticus, taking a bog walk. Every reading, every quiz, every exam, every paper, every group discussion, every presentation is an opportunity to prepare yourself to love well or to fail to love, because love is not a feeling. You can really want to love someone while simultaneously doing them great harm because you have not attended to the skill and craft of ministry.
For example, how do you minister to someone in the midst of tragedy? You combine your work from Relational Ministry, the problem of evil section in Intro to Philosophy, your discussion of providence in Doctrine, and Job in Wisdom Lit in that single moment. Your attention to detail and hard work in those courses may be the difference between uttering words of healing and comfort (or perhaps no words at all) or a bumbling and confused response at someone’s most vulnerable point in life. Little things matter. Little things add up to big things. As Jesus said, “Whoever is faithful with very little can be trusted with much. Whoever is dishonest with little will be dishonest with much.”
Note what I am not saying: I am not saying that your love for others and God directly corresponds to your GPA. But note what I am saying: your love for others and God can be measured by your faithfulness in little things because those little things are God’s method of using you to be a channel of blessing to Christ’s church and world. Your love for God and others is not measured simply by what goes on in praise chapel, but your faithfulness to God in the classroom. The problem with Israel’s worship was not that they didn’t mean it in the moment; they did. The problem was that they thought they could participate in the fancy, showy, big things, but let the little things go, like putting walls on their roofs or watching out for the neighbor’s animals.
Fittingly, I want to close with a quote from Wendell Berry: “To use knowledge and tools in a particular place with good long-term results is not heroic. It is not a grand action visible for a long distance or a long time. It is a small action, but more complex and difficult, more skillful and responsible, more whole and enduring, than most grand actions. It comes of a willingness to devote oneself to work that perhaps only the eye of Heaven will see in its full intricacy and excellence. Perhaps the real work, like real prayer and real charity, must be done in secret.”
As we stand at the beginning of another school year, I exhort you to love God and love others by being strong and courageous enough to think little.