Choices Driven by Love

Professor Jeffrey gave the message below in Chapel on October 3, 2018.

11/26/18

“And Joshua said to all the people, ‘Thus says the Lord God of Israel:
… I have given you a land for which you did not labor, and cities which
you did not build, and you dwell in them;  you eat of the vineyards and
olive groves which you did not plant… Now therefore, fear the Lord,
serve Him in sincerity and in truth, and put away the gods which your
fathers served on the other side of the River and in Egypt. Serve the Lord!
And if it seems evil to you to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves this day
whom you will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were
on the other side of the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose
land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
Joshua 24:2, 12-15

Every choice you have made today has been driven by love. In fact, everything you have done, period, has been driven by love. Now, that’s a significant and not necessarily obvious claim. Let me try to provide some evidence for it for a moment. Let’s consider some really basic choices you probably made today. You chose, upon hearing your alarm, to get up (eventually, perhaps with a few bashes of the snooze button in there) and make your way here. Now, that may have been motivated by a love of learning and a sheer joy at the prospect of being here for this beautiful Wednesday at Cambridge. I hope for some of you it was. For others, it may have been motivated by a love of self and a desire for self-preservation from your parents or other authorities. For me and my fellow faculty members, it might have been a desire for a fat paycheck, or it might have been a genuine love of both our students and our subjects. I’ll let you judge which of those is more likely. But in each case, the choice to get up, get ready, and come to this place where we are gathered together was motivated by some form of love.
What about the choice to, say, brush your teeth? For most of you, hopefully, that barely feels like a conscious choice, but it nonetheless is one, and it too is motivated by love. Perhaps it was motivated by love of your friends, and a desire not to knock them over with pungent morning breath. Perhaps it was, again, motivated by self-love, perhaps a desire to increase your quality of life through better health and hygiene.

But, Professor Jeffrey, I hear you say, surely not all choices are motivated by love; for example, aren’t some choices motivated by fear? The tooth-brushing, for example. Maybe I brush my teeth purely out of the fear that someone will smell my revolting breath and judge me for it. But that kind of fear is also a matter of love. We fear the judgment of others precisely because we love ourselves, in the same way that a father fears for the safety of a child in direct proportion to his love for that child (which, by the way, is why your parents sometimes seem to take seemingly little things that don’t seem dangerous to you so incredibly seriously).

What about actions that are just habitual, though? Can we really even say that brushing your teeth is a choice? Well, when it comes right down to it, a habit is just the form a choice takes once it is fully grown. You may have heard that part of the old adage: “sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; etc.” You still have, if you examine yourself, underlying motivations for the choices which you made in forming that habit; and those motivations, I suspect you will find once again, can be defined in terms of love.

Now, it’s worth stopping here to clarify that when I say “love,” I don’t mean anything to do with feelings–warm, fuzzy, or otherwise. While emotional feelings often accompany love, they are not synonymous with it. This is, by the way, incredibly good news. This is especially good news for you, because I suspect that very few of your parents feel warm and fuzzy feelings about you 24/7. There was a time that they looked down into your crib, touched your soft fuzzy baby hair, and felt overwhelmed at the sheer wonder that was your existence, but those days have for the most part passed. You’ve all grown up and gotten irritating. But that doesn’t mean they love you any less. Incidentally, it also doesn’t mean that they don’t still have those fuzzy feelings on occasion–they just mostly happen when you’re asleep or not in the room. The point, though, is that their love for you does not consist in feelings they have for or about you, and thank God for that. Rather, their love for you consists in their recognition of your value, and their desire for your good in light of that value.

Let’s return to the idea that love is the primary motivator for all our choices and actions. Dante Alighieri–yes, I’m a literature professor, so I’m allowed to quote a medieval poet in a sermon–Dante Alighieri puts it this way in the Purgatorio , the second book of the Divine Comedy and one I hope that all of you will someday read.

Love is the seedbed in which all virtuous deeds must grow,
with every act that warrants punishment.

Love, Dante claims, is the seedbed–the birthplace, the foundation–of all of our good deeds, and all of our bad ones too. Once again, everything we do is motivated by love. Nor is Dante alone in this. Medieval theologians right back to St. Augustine broadly recognized this principle by defining even the seven deadly sins as different failures or perversions of love–whether loving something one ought not to love (as with vainglory, envy, and wrath), loving God too little (as
with sloth), or loving even good things too much or too little (as with avarice, gluttony, and lust). That definition of sloth, or acedia, is particularly useful here; a lack of love leads to a lack of action, which is why we tend to think of sloth as laziness, even though that’s actually a symptom of the sin rather than the sin itself.

All this has several significant implications, but for the sake of this homily and maybe getting you to 3rd period on time, let’s consider just one.

If in fact all of our choices are driven by love, then examining our choices should tell us a great deal about what we truly love. It is easy to say that we love something, but the way we show love is through action, not through words. To put it another way, if a husband were to say to his wife every morning “I love you, sweetheart” but proceed to regularly have affairs with other women, his wife might quite reasonably begin to suspect that his claims of love were not entirely trustworthy.

If you find that image troubling/funny, take a moment to remember that God describes his relationship with Israel in exactly the same terms–an unfaithful marriage. The book of Hosea is particularly significant here, but there are some painfully blunt sections in Isaiah as well. Israel is described as being like a girl found beaten on the road, near death, whom God takes in, nurses to health, clothes in beautiful garments and covers in precious jewelry, and in the end marries; but she abandons him, forgets everything he did for her, and tramples their wedding vows in the mud in the most horrific way possible. In the midst of all of this, the Israelites, God says, are still willing to pay him lip-service happily enough. Isaiah 29:13: “These people draw near with their mouths and honor Me with their lips, but have removed their hearts far from Me.” Are those convicting words for any of us? God is not fooled by the words “I love you, Lord” spoken sweetly from the mouth of a liar.

Once again, then, to claim love with words is cheap. Important! But cheap. To demonstrate love through action is costly, and therefore meaningful. What we do, the choices we make, is the truest test of the contents of our hearts.

So then, what choices do we make, what actions do we take, how do we spend our time, especially when no one is looking? And why do we make the choices that we do, whether publicly or privately? What truly motivates us? That is where we will find the real answer to the question “What do we love.” And if we are brave enough to take a hard look in the mirror, and honest enough to ourselves, then I suspect that many of us will find that we are in the service of countless idols and false gods, much as the Israelites confronted by Joshua in the passage with which I began this homily.

The idea that idolatry isn’t just about worshiping stone statues is hardly a new concept for any of you, of course. But it’s still worth reminding ourselves that anything to which we assign worth and value in and of itself and out of relation to God becomes precisely that–an idol.

Let me say that again. ANYTHING to which we assign worth and value in and of itself and out of relation to God becomes an idol.

St. Augustine explains this idea at length, and C.S. Lewis does too, but I think an image may be most helpful here. Imagine a proposal. Moonlight, roses, a young man going down on one knee and holding out a carefully chosen, beautiful ring. If the young woman who receives that ring spends the next five minutes looking at the ring, trying to calculate how many carats the stone is, turning it in the light, and otherwise completely ignoring the actual giver of that ring in order to instead focus all her attention on the ring itself, wouldn’t we start to feel a bit uncomfortable about whether her love for the young man was genuine, regardless of her answer to the question? Her total focus on the ring itself, rather than on the ring as GIFT from a GIVER, makes it clear that her priorities are completely out of order.

And this is precisely the position we are in. The whole world, with every good and beautiful thing in it, is a gift extended to us, the Bride of Christ being wooed by her Bridegroom. Food, prosperity, sex, friendship, romance, parenthood, sunrise, sunset, the smell of freshly mown grass, the feeling in the pit of your stomach when you drive over a hill too fast or start down a rollercoaster. Beautiful and splendid things. And far too often we grasp these gifts with greedy hands and dance away with them, not even acknowledging the One who gives them to us. And every time we do, we pervert and twist the gift. Removed from its context, the diamond ring becomes not a symbol of love but just a cold piece of metal and transparent rock. And that is where idolatry leaves us; a world which is empty and lifeless, the gods we serve no longer the vibrant and living God of Creation who cooked fish for the disciples on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, but silent stones.

What are our idols? What are our “gods from the other side of the River,” our “gods of Egypt”?

Ultimately, only you can know what your personal idols are. But if you’ll allow me, I want to point towards one that I think is particularly dangerous, particularly compelling, in the context you find yourselves in here at The Cambridge School of Dallas.

Many of you, perhaps all of you, put in hard work and long hours to get the best grade that you can. Why? I suspect that many of you hope that by doing such hard work, you will get into a good college, which will enable you to get a good job, which will enable you to make a “comfortable” living and retire at a reasonable age. What love, then, is all your hard work truly an expression of? Is it uncomfortable if I suggest there is a real danger that it boils down to a love of money? Wealth? Perhaps more vaguely put as just “success”? In the end, isn’t that what Jesus calls Mammon, one of the oldest idols of all?

Some of you, I hope, do precisely the same hard work and long hours, but with a very different motivation: to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and to honor Him by training the gifts He has given you to their fullest extent so that you can then use those gifts in a way which brings glory to Him in the world.

I suggest to you that if you follow the first path, you will find it in the end to be a lifeless and cold one. Idols are in the end always unfulfilling. The second path, by contrast, may sound more demanding, more difficult, but in the end offers life, freedom, and rest for the soul weary of carrying its own weight. Students of Cambridge, I challenge you as Joshua once challenged the Israelites: Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve. As for me and my house–with stumbling feet and heavily reliant upon the Grace of God–we will serve the Lord.