Sermon notes 10-25-20          The Benefit of the Doubt       Pastor David King

(Matthew 22:34-46)  But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”  (ESV)

Some time ago I read an article written by a woman named Tina Fox in a magazine called Ministry Matters.  The title of the article was “Being ‘benefit of the doubt’ people.”  Mrs. Fox wrote in the article about some memorable advice she and her husband received at a marriage seminar.  This is the advice: When your spouse behaves in a way that seems questionable, “think of the most generous explanation (you can imagine) for your spouse’s behavior, and believe it.”  Mrs. Fox said of that advice that it was a beautiful thought, but hard to do – which I think makes it much like the commandment of Jesus that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Mrs. Fox went on to say in her article that the advice she received at the marriage seminar was applicable to other relationships as well.  In other words, it is a good practice to think of the most generous explanation for anyone’s behavior, and believe it.  I believe Mrs. Fox has hit on the essence of what it means to obey this commandment of Jesus to love our neighbors as ourselves: ascribe the highest motives we can imagine for our neighbors’ behavior and believe it; in other words, give them the benefit of the doubt.  It is indeed a beautiful thought … but very hard to do.

The benefit of the doubt is something we all like to have granted to us.  We want other people to always assume that our questionable behaviors and motives and intentions are good … but we are not always so quick to grant the benefit of the doubt to others.  It kind of depends on whether or not we like them, doesn’t it?  We tend to give the benefit of the doubt to people we like, but not so much to people we don’t like.

This week we are still in the 22nd chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, where once again the Pharisees, who most definitely do not like Jesus, are grilling him, hoping with their questions to trip him up and either get him in trouble with the Roman authorities or turn the crowds against him.  In our reading this morning, an expert in the Jewish law asks Jesus the question of the day.  This lawyer, one of the Pharisees, asks Jesus, “Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus answers by quoting Deut. 6:5: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”  And then Jesus says, “This is the great and first commandment.”  His response leaves no room for debate by the Pharisees.

But Jesus doesn’t stop with just that one command.  He says, there is another like it.  Quoting from Leviticus, Jesus says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Jesus is saying to the Pharisees, in effect, ‘Everything in your writings hinges on these two commandments.  I know that you know you are supposed to love God—but what you fail to realize, Pharisees, is that you cannot love God without loving those whom God loves.’

We are not told how the Pharisees felt about the response of Jesus.  We are told just a couple of verses later that from that day forward, they dared not ask him any more questions.  But what I would like for us to consider together this morning is our response to these commands that are, according to Jesus, the greatest commandments.  What does it mean for us to love God, and what does it mean for us to love our neighbor as ourselves?

Although we are very familiar with these two greatest commandments, I know that many of us feel like we often fail at keeping them.  I think we tend to get tripped up on these two greatest commandments by making them more complicated than they need to be.  We make them complicated primarily because we confuse feelings with actions.  We Christians get discouraged by these commands because we don’t always feel the way we think we are supposed to feel: toward God, toward our neighbors, or toward ourselves.

First, let’s be honest and admit that we don’t always feel like we love God.  Maybe we can’t even say we often feel like we love God   Secondly, we certainly don’t often have feelings of love toward our neighbors who, after all, are not very lovable.  And finally, what makes this command even more of a problem for us is that it says we are supposed to love our neighbors like we love ourselves… but many of us don’t often feel like we love ourselves.  So what are we supposed to do with these commandments when they so often go against our feelings?

One of my all-time favorite authors is C.S. Lewis.  In his classic book Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis addresses at length the Christian understanding of what it means to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  And so, as we look at what these greatest commandments mean for us, I will be reading several quotes from Mere Christianity.[1]

I want to start with what Lewis writes about the second great commandment, love your neighbor as yourself.   We have probably all wondered what Jesus means by saying we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.  How in the world can we possibly love our neighbor, when we don’t feel that we love ourselves?  Here’s how C.S. Lewis addresses that question.

He writes, Now that I come to think of it, I have not exactly got a feeling of fondness or affection for myself, and I do not even always enjoy my own society.  So apparently, (if we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves), ‘Love your neighbor’ does not mean ‘feel fond of him’ or ‘find him attractive.’[2]

Lewis acknowledges that many of us might say we have difficulty loving our neighbor because our neighbor is not nice.  But Lewis argues that loving our neighbor as we love ourselves does not mean that we have to think of either our neighbor, or ourselves, as nice.   In fact, Lewis says,

In my most clear-sighted moments not only do I not think myself a nice man, but I know that I am a very nasty one.  I can look at some of the things I have done with horror and loathing.  So apparently I am allowed to loathe and hate some of the things my enemies do.  Now that I come to think of it, I remember Christian teachers telling me long ago that I must hate a bad man’s actions, but not hate the bad man: or, as they would say, hate the sin but not the sinner.  For a long time I used to think this a silly, straw-splitting distinction: how could you hate what a man did and not hate the man?   But years later it occurred to me that there was one man to whom I had been doing this all my life—namely myself.  However much I might dislike my own cowardice or conceit or greed, I went on loving myself. There had never been the slightest difficulty about it.  In fact the very reason why I hated th[os]e things was that I loved the man.  Just because I loved myself, I was sorry to find that I was the sort of man who did those things.[3]

Lewis goes on to describe how we can know if we are loving our neighbors as ourselves. The real test is this, he says.  Suppose one reads a story (in the paper) of filthy atrocities (committed by an enemy).  Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite as bad as it was made out.  Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite as bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies as bad as possible?[4]

So, we should ask ourselves, friends, what is revealed when we apply this test to our neighbors?  Do you want to see your neighbors as favorably as possible, giving them the benefit of the doubt that they have good intentions, or do you actually delight in thinking as badly of them as you can, and secretly hope that they will give you more reasons to do so?

Brothers and sisters, we all know that, like C.S. Lewis, we have things that we despise in ourselves, yet don’t we always seek to portray ourselves in a favorable light and wish better of ourselves?  We are all very good at rationalizing and making excuses for our mistakes and our poor behavior.   It’s natural for us to portray ourselves as favorably as possible; that merely reflects the fact that we love ourselves.  And if we love our neighbors, we will do the same for them. We will give them the benefit of the doubt and ascribe the highest motives to their behavior.  We will not take pleasure in seeing our neighbors in the worst possible way.  We will seek instead to portray our neighbors in a favorable light, and we will always wish better of them than their actions might indicate—even if we don’t like them.

This is where I want to come back to the difference between feelings and actions.  C.S. Lewis emphasizes that we need not be overly concerned about whether we like someone or not. We are called to love our neighbors—whether we like them or not.  Lewis explains that love, in the Christian sense, is not an emotion or a feeling.  “Love,” he writes, is a state not of the feeling but of the will….  Christian love… for our neighbors is quite a different thing from liking or affection.  We ‘like’ or are ‘fond of’ some people, and not of others.  It is important to understand that this natural ‘liking’ is neither a sin or a virtue, any more than your likes and dislikes in food are a sin or a virtue.  It is just a fact.  But of course what we do about it is either sinful or virtuous.[5]

Lewis acknowledges that liking someone does make it easier to be loving toward them, so we should make an effort to “like” people as much as we can[6]… but we are not commanded to “like” our neighbors.   We are commanded to act toward them with love.

Here’s how C. S. Lewis puts it:

The rule for all of us is perfectly simple.  Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbour; act as if you did.  As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets.  When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.  If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more.  If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less….  Whenever we do good to another self, just because it is a self, made (like us) by God, and desiring its own happiness as we desire ours, we shall have learned to love it a little more or, at least, to dislike it less.[7]

So in other words, what Lewis is saying is that when we act in loving ways toward our neighbors, we will actually come to love them.

Now, so far we have considered loving ourselves and loving our neighbors … but what about the command to love God?   Brothers and sisters, it is common for Christians to question their love for God.  C.S. Lewis says people are often worried about this command to love God because they cannot find any such feelings in themselves.   “What are they to do,” he asks?  “The answer,” he writes, “is the same as before.  Act as if you did.  Do not sit trying to manufacture feelings.  Ask yourself, ‘If I were sure that I loved God, what would I do?’  When you have found the answer, go and do it.[8]

I want to close with the best part of all.  While we might have doubts about our love for God, we need never doubt God’s love for us.  Here is one last quote from C.S. Lewis:

Nobody can always have devout feelings: and even if we could, feelings are not what God principally cares about.  Christian Love, either towards God or towards man, is an affair of the will.  If we are trying to do God’s will, we are obeying the commandment (to love).  (God) will give us feelings of love if he pleases.  We cannot create them for ourselves, and we must not demand them as a right.  But the great thing to remember is that, though our feelings come and go, (God’s) love for us does not.  (God’s love) is not wearied by our sins, or our indifference; and therefore, it is quite relentless in its determination that we shall be cured of those sins, at whatever cost to us, at whatever cost to Him.[9]

So friends, take comfort in knowing that in trying to love God and neighbor, you are obeying the commandment to love, even when you don’t have feelings of love.  And here is the really good news: our God never grows weary of loving us, in spite of our sins and our indifference.

Jesus said, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.   

We cannot love God without loving those whom God loves.  So for the love of God, let’s give each other the benefit of the doubt.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

1 Lewis, C.S., Mere Christianity. Original copyright 1943, Macmillan, Inc. (Renewed 1980.)  Touchstone; Simon    and Schuster. Inc., 1996, New York, NY.

[2] Ibid. 105.

[3] Ibid. 105, 106.

[4] Ibid. 106.

[5] Ibid. 115, 116.

[6] Ibid. 116.

[7] Ibid. 116, 117.

[8] Ibid. 117.

[9] Ibid. 117, 118.