This is the concluding post in a series on theology of calling. Calling in the religious sense is pretty inseparable from following the Spirit, as I see it, which can also be expressed as following Jesus:
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23 NIV). Now, it’s not my intention to be divisive (haha), but what if there is something in calling that in comparison to following Jesus is greater still? It could only be the greatest commandment(s): Love God; love others. There is more poetic value in saying that love transcends and is greater than following the Holy Spirit, whereas in reality (the ideal reality/ideality), following the Spirit is the expression of love.
Maybe Jesus puts loving God as the greatest commandment before loving people as the first realistically encompasses or leads to the second, whereas loving people may not necessarily lead us to loving God, although it could. However, a certain idea around the second commandment that is important in its original designation can actually point away from God and others when too much emphasis is put onto it: I think it was C S Lewis who said so, although I cannot find the reference, that to love others you need to love yourself. He points out that the reference for loving others in the commandment is the individual’s self. If you hate yourself then how can you possibly love your neighbour as yourself? So at the core of Christian ethics, we find a model for self care, even so that it is necessary for fulfillment of the second greatest commandment (or the first, which encompasses the second). The problem is that this is also symptomatic of an extreme in Christianity where you can use your theology to serve yourself, an individualistic model of following Jesus.
* * *
I apologise for any circumlocutory handling of the material here but let’s see if it works. Jesus goes further than just asking his followers to take up their cross and follow him. He gives an explanation for why this is important that gives us an idea of the nature of denying ourselves, taking up our crosses and following Christ: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it” (Luke 9:24 NIV). I am indebted to Peter Rollins for the following interpretation of this verse. We often read this as: If you want save your earthly life, you will lose it. Yet if lose your earthly life for Jesus, there will be heavenly life. Yet Jesus here makes no distinction between earthly life and heavenly life; they are both referred to as life, indicated by the pronoun ‘it’, because if you lose your life, you will save it. This leaves no room for denying yourself and taking up your cross to gain eternal life. If it does then you are among those who want to save their life, therefore losing it. The central point of following Jesus is Jesus, through denying yourself, etc. This is further indicated by Paul’s famous declaration: “To live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21 NIV), because living means to follow Christ and dying means to be with him. So to follow Christ means just that, to follow Christ.¹
The idea of calling, though, can be even less about Jesus, even less about eternal life, and more about our present needs and desires. No longer is Christ the centrepoint who will give you everything you need to follow him if you make that decision (Matthew 6:33; cf Psalm 37:4), but the needs of ourselves become primary so that calling is about what we want. A good example is in the Gandhi movie (in which the incident I am about to detail seems to be a representation of something mentioned in his autobiography) where Gandhi is talking to his wife about cleaning the latrine. She is offended by his asking her to do so because it is the work of the untouchables, whereas she is the wife of Gandhi, both of them members of a higher caste and involved in lawyer work. Why should the wife of a lawyer clean toilets when there are other important things she could be doing? Similarly, why should I play guitar in church if I’m called to be on the prayer team? (I will try to make these examples universal and not apply to any people I know so sorry if they do!). Why should I take the job with the troubled youths when my gifts are more in line with architectural design? Because the focus of calling is not our own desires and gifts, but whom we are following and working among. So you may not be very good at guitar, or you may not even enjoy it that much, but what if God is calling you to be a part of it for that time? You may be an amazing architect, but what if to follow Jesus means applying for that job with the troubled youth? And of course I need to pose these questions to myself also, considering the number of decisions I have made consulting my own needs before the Kingdom. To follow your calling means not to follow your needs and desires but to follow Jesus wherever he goes, as these will be met through that, even though that is not the goal.
* * *
Now I return to the second greatest commandment. The problem with having yourself as the measure for loving others is that if there are times when you do not love yourself then your measure for loving others is reduced. Not that self-care is unimportant. But maybe the type of self we should measure by is not so much the real self but the ideal self. This is reflected in a similar verse, where Jesus cites the Golden Rule, “Do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12 NIV). The self is not the real self (do to others what they do to you) but the ideal self, an ideal representation of how you would like to be treated. So in the same way, when Jesus asks us to love [our] neighbour as [our]sel[ves], why can it not be the ideal self, love your neigbour as you would love yourself? I cannot provide any evidence that the ideal self is implied in the second greatest commandment but I can only point to the Golden Rule, and I cannot say that this supersedes the second greatest commandment either, nor can I even say that there is no difference between the two. All I can say is that the reading of the Golden Rule should remind us of the real focus of the commandments, which is God and others, through love. The individual self is just a measuring stick.
* * *
¹Of course there is also room in Christianity for following Christ for eternal life. This is why Jesus came (eg. John 10:10) and Paul also endorses this (eg. Romans 2:7). But there is also the is prophetic value in calling God’s people back to the center of things, even if it is somewhat beyond us. The main point I am making here is not so much whether you want to be with Christ or go to heaven, but whether your wordly priorities are more important to you than following Christ.