“‘And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” Jesus – from Mark 12:30-31
Love and Goal-Setting
Often, when Christians speak about setting goals or forming habits, only a few things qualify. “I will work out more.” “I will eat better.” “I will read the Bible through in a year.” “I will pray more.” But what about love? Can we make it a habit/goal to love God more and by extension love our neighbor more? And how might we accomplish this?
To the first, I can already hear the critics – “You can’t set a goal of love. Love is just something you feel, something you do. You can’t manufacture love. If you have to set a goal for it, it isn’t really love.” Well, if we define love as an overwhelming feeling that suddenly comes on us that we can’t control, as our modern movies and pop-songs do, then “yes”, we can’t goal-set or habit-form for love. It should be noted, however, that if this is the working definition of love – it naturally follows that love can just as quickly and unexpectedly leave you or be moved off of the object on which it is placed. Not a very secure, enduring, long-suffering kind of love. Not really the kind of love anyone wants.
God’s view of love seems quite different. Jesus speaks of us showing we love Him by keeping His commandments (John 14:15). The Scripture teaches that if we discipline ourselves, learn to control our tongues, avoid foolishness, and live in quiet and peace, that we are expressing a kind of love toward our neighbor. Paul speaks about loving our brother or sister in the faith by self-denial, even if the thing allowed is not “wicked” so to speak. So, is there a sense in which we can set some tangible goals and form some observable habits that would actually promote both love of God and neighbor? I think so.
Maybe Not What You Expect
Now, we could move into all kinds of things here. Social issues; moral issues; you know, the usual “love God and neighbor” conversation. Five ways to love unruly kids; six ways to love a spouse; ten ways to love that guy you don’t really like talking to but know you should…the list could go on. I want to start with something quite different. I would like to suggest that we form the habit of reading as a way to develop love for God and our neighbor.
Many of you will be shouting just now – AMEN! Let’s be about reading the Bible. I agree that Bible reading is right and proper – but that is not usually the needed habit of conscientious Christians. No, I am speaking of the habit of reading in general. Intentionally setting out to challenge your mind with literature that doesn’t normally fit your interests, comforts, and personal perspectives. Books that cover the gamut of fiction, history, poetry, biography, religion, philosophy, science, etc. As a disclaimer, some you will argue that many people around the world and throughout time have been perfectly capable of developing a love for God and neighbor and acting on that love without reading. “What about people who are illiterate?” “What about poor people with no access to written material?” I will write plainly – this is not a “have to” issue. It is a suggestion. And, I would like to point out that if you are reading this right now, neither of those previous points relates to you. You (1) are not illiterate and (2) have enough resources to access the Internet, and therefore a myriad of books – FOR FREE – just by typing in a search on your browser.
Why do I think people (Christian people in particular) should form a habit of expansive reading and set goals to that end as a means of loving God and neighbor? Here are a few thoughts:
- The habit of reading causes us to slow down. In our fast paced world, one of the greatest disciplines lost among Christians is the discipline of quiet and contemplation. To stop and read well – especially things that challenge the mind, we must have time and quiet. Simply committing ourselves to 15 minutes of this sort of reading each day will create an environment of calm that we would not have had otherwise.
- The habit of reading causes us to be observant. Sadly, most of us don’t really pay attention to the world around us anymore. We seldom see things as they are. Our imaginations have shrunk. Diverse and conscientious reading forces us to pay attention. Once we re-learn attentiveness, we are able to apply that skill both to our lives toward the Divine and toward our neighbor. It is hard to love either if we are unable to notice them.
- The habit of reading causes us to cultivate more deeply our worldview. Do you believe God to be the Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth? Have you challenged your mind as to what the heavens and the earth are really like? Have you consider the diversity of perspectives on the greatness of the creation – from all kinds of thinkers? You believe the creed/confession/whatever, but have you asked the hard questions as to why you are sure it is so? Reading can help us ask questions that are worth answering.
- The habit of reading causes us to be better communicators and listeners. Reading is actually a form of listening. You are being quiet and someone else is speaking to you. We have predominantly lost the art of listening in our culture. When we learn to read attentively, we are in essence learning to listen attentively. By extension, reading is also a form of speaking. As I mentioned, in your quiet the author is speaking to you. Therefore, attentive reading also makes you a more attentive communicator. You not only learn to listen well, you also learn to speak well.
- The habit of reading causes us to be better informed. You have a greater ability to engage in social matters if you know something about the society and its issues. You engage politics better if you know the history, culture, and current political circumstances of a culture. Reading is the greatest aid to accomplishing all of these.
- The habit of reading causes us to develop a type of perseverance. For Christians, we have been called to be people who endure. Not meaning to place any undue guilt, but how often have you said of yourself, or heard someone say – “I started out reading that, but never quite got through it.”? Developing a true habit of reading also develops perseverance, which is a wonderful quality for anyone, but an essential one for Christians.
How could a person begin to build a habit of reading that would, if done properly, cultivate love for God and neighbor? By setting a goal. Now, goal-setting is often frowned upon by Christians. “Leave room for the Holy Spirit.” If you know me well enough, I am all about the powerful work the Spirit has in our lives. Yet, even God has made a plan of maturity for believers. We have the Word, prayer, sacraments, fellowship, gifts, corporate and private worship, etc. We are called to encourage, hold each other into account, support one another, etc. So, if there is a set of things given as grace-gifts to us to mature in Christ, how, when, and in what way are we to use these things? Just willy-nilly? Not at all! In 1 Corinthians 14:40, Paul calls for everything to be done properly and orderly in the church, which is a good general principle for our lives as well. In other words, we need structure and a plan.
To get started with the habit of reading, you need a plan. It should have the following characteristics.
- It should be realistic. What is your present life circumstance like? How much do you work or take care of kids? What sort of time do you really have to set aside to read? Ten minutes or an hour? What could reading replace? Be honest about where you really are before you start.
- It should be thoughtful and systematic. What are your interests? What things should you know but you don’t? What people do you find thoughtful and engaging, and what do they read? What sort of things do you avoid simply because you “don’t like them” (say poetry or history) and should you set out to correct that aversion? You should take a little time and think through your strengths, weaknesses, gaps, etc. and make a plan related to that.
- It should be an actual plan. Whether you are going to tackle something small (I want to read this one book) or something enormous (I want to read Barth’s Church Dogmatics), you need a plan. Do you know why people often don’t stick to exercise or eating routines – they don’t have a plan! They just show up to the gym, wander around and move some stuff. They just show up to the store and buy whatever “feels right”. Before you know it, they are off the routine. If you really want to develop a habit of reading, you need a plan. What days will you read? For how long or how many pages? Will you take days off? I am personally going through three different reading plans right now and each one of those really is a plan – there are days I read certain things and days I don’t. There are times of day I read certain things. If you want to develop a habit, you need to have an actual plan.
- It needs to be accountable to someone else. Developing the habit of reading (or any habit for that matter) always works better with accountability. Going to read through the Bible this year? Follow a plan with someone else, and meet to discuss your readings. Have a classic piece of literature or a biography you want to tackle? Get a buddy to go through it with you. After all, we are developing this habit for love of God and neighbor. What better way to do that than to do your reading with a neighbor.
I would encourage you to take the time to love God with your mind, and by extension love your neighbor as yourself. I would also encourage you to consider doing this by making intentional reading a habit in your life.