In On Christian Doctrine, Augustine writes, “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.”
Augustine understood the goal of biblical interpretation to be transformation in love. Most of us likely agree with Augustine’s idea, but the deeper question is this: Do I embody this goal? Or even more honestly: What are the hindrances in my life that prevent me from truly embodying love for God and neighbor in daily life? What obstacles prevent God from using Scripture to deepen my ability to model and express love?
Scripture can be easily hijacked by ideologies of the right or the left. It can be weaponized against the “other” in our communities. It can be intellectualized so that we privilege beautiful ideas about God in our minds more than integrating its clear teaching into robust Christian living.
As we reimagine mission in our day and recapture Methodism’s wholistic vision of discipleship for the world, I want to explore briefly how to apply anew Augustine’s hermeneutic of love for God and neighbor. I will suggest that the greatest hindrances to growth in love for God and neighbor are our personal blindspots, wounds, and unrepentant parts of ourselves. Or to be explicitly biblical, our struggle is with idolatry, syncretism and injustice. The remedy for these challenges is the work of the Holy Spirit, but there is a corresponding response required by us. The process of opening our deepest levels of self to God’s ongoing work of sanctification is what I mean by the term “Idolatherapy.”
Idolatherapy and Holiness of Heart and Life
As Wesleyan readers of Scripture, I want to draw a connection between Augustine’s baseline interpretive strategy and what John Wesley described as the “Grand Depositum” of the people called Methodists, i.e., the doctrine of Christian perfection or entire sanctification. Wesley’s keen optimism of the transformational power of God’s grace needs a fresh hearing today.
Here are a couple of short passages from Wesley’s A Plain Account of Christian Perfection. Notice how his description echoes Augustine’s theme of love for reading Scripture:
“By perfection I mean the humble, gentle, patient love of God and our neighbour, ruling our tempers, words, and actions.” (Plain Account, 13.1)
“Now, let this perfection appear in its native form, and who can speak one word against it? Will any dare to speak against loving the Lord our God with all our heart, and our neighbour as ourselves? against a renewal of heart, not only in part, but in the whole image of God? Who is he that will open his mouth against being cleansed from all pollution both of flesh and spirit; or against having all the mind that was in Christ, and walking in all things as Christ walked? What man, who calls himself a Christian, has the hardiness to object to the devoting, not a part, but all our soul, body, and substance to God? What serious man would oppose the giving to God all our heart, and the having one design ruling all our tempers?” (12.28)
Although Wesley seems perplexed that any might object to this deeper work of God, most of us have noticed that the inner and outer life described often seems far from our daily Christian experience. Arguably it is the lack of visible love and charity among Christians that often is the hindrance to the embodiment of the Gospel before the watching world.
Hindrances and Blindspots to the Love of God, Neighbor, and Self
To allow the Holy Spirit to work in our lives through our reading of Scripture involves the necessity of embracing a posture of curiosity and surrender. If we already believe we know the meaning of a text, we will likely be blind to its message for us today. If we read a passage and immediately think of all of the people who need to ponder its meaning but we separate ourselves from “those” people, we will likely not have the requisite eyes to discover fresh insights. If we only listen to the parts that affirm us in our present understanding of the Gospel (no matter how robust it may be), we likely have limited our capacity to hear the cadence of God’s oracles inviting us to renewal and ongoing conversion to God’s call on our lives. If we categorically reject parts of Scripture that are challenging or offensive to our present mode of living, we may miss a lesson or insight that we need in our day.
Idolatherapy asks us to confront our unconverted parts. Of course none of us is opposed consciously to loving God and neighbor, right? But if it were so easy and obvious, wouldn’t the state of the church and its mission in the world be radically different from what it is today?
To ponder potential blocks and blindspots it is critical to recognize what the opposites of love for God and neighbor are as a means to growth in the real thing. I’m drawing on ideas from both depth psychology (especially trauma-informed shadow work and internal family systems) as well as the contemplative via negativa. We gain clarity sometimes more clearly by subtraction than from addition.
How did Michelangelo create his masterpiece David out of a block of marble? He chipped away every bit of stone that wasn’t David. How do we grow in love for God and neighbor? In part, we allow God to reveal all of the parts of ourselves that aren’t aligned with love and surrender them.
How do we discover these pockets of resistance within ourselves? It’s by heeding the ancient dictum: know thyself. We need to muster the courage to be willing to face the truth about ourselves no matter how beautiful or painful it may be.
We may fool ourselves in the common response to the question: What is the opposite of love for God? Many of us instinctively will response with the answer: “hate.” This answer however actually blinds us to the issue. Most persons of faith don’t hate God. But not hating God does not equate to loving God. The true opposite of love for God is indifference.
The biblical/theological equivalent of indifference is idolatry and syncretism. In the Old Testament, Israel never stopped worshipping Yahweh. Instead, they worshipped Yahweh alongside the array of gods and goddesses treasured by their neighbors. But in the biblical understanding, syncretism is the same as rejecting Yahweh because it devalues the transcendent nature of God who is unique and incomparable to any other part of creation.
Part of the reason our reading of Scripture fails to transform us in the areas that our lives do not align with it is that we are functional polytheists. We may confess Jesus is Lord, but if we are honest, Jesus is merely a lord among many lords and masters in our lives.
The question then is this: what have we explicitly and implicitly elevated to the same authority level in our lives as our commitment to king Jesus? In our day, it’s often political ideology; desires for certainty, affluence, security; racial/ethnic/gender/theological tribalism to name some obvious examples. The true danger of indifference is that we make God in our image rather than allowing God to resurrect and recreate God’s image in us. The work of sanctifying grace involves elevating King Jesus above all others. It’s living out the full implication of the Shema: “The LORD is our God, the LORD is my one and only.” All other gods and goddess must find their rightful place in subservience and faithful obedience to the only being truly worthy of the title God.
The opposite of loving neighbor is likewise much more subtle than hating others. It’s always easy to point at blatant examples of hatred and outright injustice than it is to explore our role in systems or even in the ways that we turn away from other in need or just as insidiously treat others as pet projects and mere objects of mission. Learning to love our neighbor is more about removing the boundaries that falsely separate us from other souls that God loves just as much as he loves us.
Let us not forget that the second commandment is “Love your neighbor as yourself.” There is also the problem of self love. It likewise is full of the minefields of idolatry. We may understand intellectually that we are made in God’s image and that our truest identity is as God’s beloved, but how many of us struggle to truly accept the fact that we are unconditionally accepted by the God who loves us. Self love has its false versions that substitute narcissism, co-dependency, shame, false-guilt, and fear for the true freedom that God offers us as God’s children. Among religiously minded folks, these false substitutes can easily masquerade as sacrificial love when in fact the sacrifice is really the sacrifice of our true identity in Christ for roles that grant us external validation of the reality that we are already accepted, forgiven, healed in Jesus Christ.
Contemplative Spiritual Practices and Idolatherapy
One of the key means of grace that needs to be rediscovered in our day is the importance of contemplative spiritual practices. The twenty-first century reality for most of us is one of distraction and incessant stimulation. Silence and solitude are the antidotes to modern life and simultaneously help us to open up to God’s grace and love. In silence, God will reveal the very blocks and obstacles in our souls that hinder the deep growth in love that God desires for us.
Let me offer two simple one line prayers that break up the ground of our hearts and prepare us for reading Scripture:
The Roman Catholic spiritual director Macrina Wiederkehr offered this beautiful prayer: “God, help me believe the truth about myself no matter how beautiful it is.”
Wiederkehr’s prayer pairs well with the ancient Jesus Prayer: Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.
To go even deeper into the work of idolatherapy requires a renewed embrace of silent meditative prayer. My preferred method is centering prayer, but there are alternative modalities that lead us into contemplation where God works deeply within us.
The power of the practice of silent meditative prayer is its time tested ability to cut through our egoic defenses to confront us with the truth about ourselves, our motivations, our desires, and our mission. Silence does this by reminding us of our true identity in God rather than in the false self that clings to our roles, accomplishments, thoughts, and projects.
In silence, God will make us keenly aware of the idols that remain masters of parts of us. These idols generally show up as manifestations of the eight evil thoughts that Evagrius Ponticus first identified: gluttony, greed, lust, anger, sloth, sadness, pride and vainglory. These eight thoughts are disordered desires that arise within us and pull us away from love for God, neighbor, and self. These desires are the actual blocks that hinder our ability to read Scripture for the deep sanctifying work that God desires to do in us so that God can bless others through our surrender loving service.
Questions for Deepening Your Reading of Scripture
Interested in applying idolatherapy to your work with the Bible? I suggest spending some time in silent meditation and then opening up Scripture. Remember the goal of reading is the embodiment of love for God and neighbor.
Here are some questions to help you in your work:
How does this text challenge my/our present understanding of love for God?
What hinders me/us from loving God?
How do I/we need to realign our lives to honor Jesus as Lord with our whole heart?
How does this text envision love for others?
Who is the other? How does this text call me/us to expand our understanding of neighbor?
What are the blocks to embodying love for others?
How do I/we need to change in order to live out the love for neighbor taught in this text?
If you have questions, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
For a deeper dive, check out my latest book Astonished by the Word: Reading Scripture for Deep Transformation https://amzn.to/455moMU