I'm a good Southern Boy. The thought of hating my mama makes me cringe. I can't imagine hating mama so that I can love Jesus. But that's what Jesus clearly says has to happen. How can we understand this command? We can reach for two extremes. First, Jesus means exactly what he says. You have to hate your family so that you can love him. You can love him or your family. Not both. Either/or. So, choose. Second, Jesus is just being hyperbolic. He's exaggerating for affect. He doesn't really mean “hate your mama and daddy.” He's trying to get you to understand how important it is to love him. These extremes are both wrong insofar as they misunderstand the fundamental point Jesus is making. God is love. We live, move, have our being in God. So, we live, move, and exist in divine love. We cannot be Christ's disciples if we do not acknowledge that loving God first makes it possible for us to love others next. The first lesson of being a disciple is this: love in the proper order; love according to the nature of what is. God first; everything created next. This is the foundation upon which we do the work of growing in holiness.
Loving God first has eternal effects. We love our family, friends, and neighbors. We love our enemies. Those who persecute us. Those who sin against us. Those who sin against themselves. We love in apparently ridiculous ways and in dangerous circumstances b/c not doing so places us outside the Love Who is God Himself. We call that sin. If we live, move, and exist in God Who is Love and then reject that love by failing to love, we are in effect ceasing to live, ceasing to move, and ceasing to be who we are. If we should die in this state of unloving rejection, we remain unloving and rejecting for eternity. We call that hell. God loves us still, of course, but we cannot know and receive His love as love. Instead, we experience His love for us as a punishment, a torment, an eternal loss. We receive His love as fear, anger, loathing, and rejection. These perverted perceptions keep us in an eternal state of near-demonic fury. Having chosen to live outside His love while we lived, we can do nothing but persist outside His love in death. Therefore, we are given these years of life to perfect the good habit of loving others in Divine Love.
Loving God first also has real world effects. We love our family, friends, and neighbors. We love our enemies. Those who persecute us. Those who sin against us. Those who sin against themselves. We love in apparently ridiculous ways and in dangerous circumstances b/c not doing so places us outside the Love Who is God Himself. Jesus commands us to love him first b/c he knows what can happen when we love a sinner but rebuke the sinner's sin. The person we love can become the sin we hate. Talk to a recovering alcoholic. He/she will tell you that they became alcoholism. When you confront them with their disease, you are talking to the disease not the person. Talk to a committed adulterer, a serial liar, anyone who's living persistently, knowingly in mortal sin w/o contrition and you aren't talking to the sinner but the sin. Their reaction to you will likely be explosive. Anger, venom, accusations of hatred, maybe even violence. Think of pro-abortion activists and how they react to pro-life prayer groups. The temptation to fight violence with violence is tremendous. Thus, Christ commands us to love him first, foundationally, so that our love is never conditioned on the sin of the sinner but on his sacrifice on the Cross for sinners, including you and me.
That's the Cross you and I are to carry. The Cross of loving the sinner while hating the sin. And yes, the sinner here includes you and me and our sins. Our love for the sinner can never self-righteous or damning or judgmental. You and I have no authority to find anyone permanently guilty of sin. We can see the sinner sin, and we can say that the sin is sin. But we cannot declare a sinner guilty of sin and set his/her sentence for eternity. Only the sinner can declare his/her guilt. Only the sinner can set an eternal sentence, choosing life or death. So long as there is life, there is the possibility of repentance. And so, we love ridiculously, dangerously, extravagantly. We love God first, last, and always. We love as an example, a model. We love as a goal, an end. And so long as we love as God loves us, we abide in His commands, showing mercy, forgiving, and standing apart from the world all the while infecting the world with His creating and re-creating love.