In On Christian Doctrine, Augustine wrote, “So anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbor, has not yet succeeded in understanding them” ([Oxford University Press, 1997], 27).
For Augustine, the goal of biblical interpretation is the ongoing conversion of the Bible’s readers into persons who love God and others. Most of us likely desire this transformation. We want to be perfected in love. We intend to live fully as the people who God created us to be.
We also recognize that being filled with love is central to the work of the Holy Spirit. In Rom 5:5, Paul writes, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” In Gal 5:22–23, Paul lists the fruits of the Spirit as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Arguably love is the principal fruit, and the others are facets of love.
Augustine’s model seems simple. But it is not easy to implement. At least, it hasn’t been easy for me. If it were easy, we would not witness the ongoing failures of many Christ-followers to uphold the character of Jesus. Likewise, we would not see the struggles of the church especially in the formerly Christian West to reach emerging generations with the gospel. Too many people equate Christians with hate and exclusion rather than love and inclusion.
Yet the Bible describes a world in which God has created a holy people for himself for the sake of the world. How is it that sometimes Scripture appears ineffective in creating a deep transformation that allows the church consistently to be known by love?
From my personal experience as well as my engagement with students, pastors, and spiritual leaders, I believe a principal obstacle to achieving Augustine’s vision is our inability to move past our biases and blind spots. We may read Scripture, but I wonder if we allow it to read us. Are we really open to the work God desires to do deep within?
Most of us would instinctively say, “Yes.” But the true mark of openness to Scripture is how we respond to those parts of the Bible that question our way of life rather than someone else’s. What might we be missing simply because our eyes and ears are trained to see and hear only certain truths and to pass over others?
Let’s go back to Augustine. He advocated a beautiful intention for our engagement with Scripture: growth in love for God and neighbor. But there’s a catch. To grow in love for God and neighbor we must be willing to face the parts of ourselves that don’t align with this intention. It’s easy to see this lack in others, but it’s painful to discover it inside ourselves.
To grow in love for God and neighbor we must explore its opposite. The opposite of loving God is not hating God. It’s indifference or apathy. Any cursory reading of the Bible will awaken us to the difficulties God’s people had in remaining faithful. By indifference, I don’t mean that we don’t care about our relationship with God. It’s more subtle. We have a space in our hearts that belongs fully to God, but there are plenty of rooms inside that belong to competing ideas. But anything that competes for our allegiance with God is a form of idolatry. So, to grow in love for Jesus we need to be willing to allow God through the Spirit to probe our hearts with Scripture to show us areas where we do not truly love God.
The same is true for growth in love for our neighbor. The opposite of loving neighbor is not hatred; it’s a lack of concern for others. Most Christians don’t openly desire evil for others. More often it is a subtle turning of our heads or closing our eyes to injustice.
Loving our neighbor involves a desire to do right for them. It’s a commitment to justice. It’s easy to love those who love us. But what of those who don’t? Jesus tangibly extended love even to those who crucified him. What more powerful demonstration is there than Jesus’s words on the cross: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Moreover, Jesus always seemed to have the ability to see those in need around him. Scripture wants to stretch us by helping us to develop eyes to see the invisible other in our lives. Are we willing to be challenged anew by the question that Jesus asked in the parable of the Good Samaritan: “Which … was a neighbor to the man?” (Luke 10:36).
To allow Scripture to do its work we must hear the positive descriptions of love for God and neighbor in the texts we read. But we must also consent to allow the Spirit to reveal to us areas where we don’t truly love God and neighbor. Then we must find the courage to pray the ancient prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”; and realign with the values of Jesus and his kingdom.
Are you ready to get started?
[This essay is adapted from the introduction to my book Astonished by the Word: Reading Scripture for Deep Transformation (Invite Press, 2023); used with permission.]