By Tim Sledge
You don’t have to love someone if you don’t want to.
If your response is, “Everybody knows that,” you’ve probably never been religious.
I lived 50 years of my life committed to my Christian faith. The number one commandment—made clear in words attributed to Jesus—is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. I now see this as an impossible goal, but it’s what I tried to do. Over those years, I expressed my love for God by attempting to follow the ethical guidelines of my faith, by studying to learn more and more about God, and by faithfully attending church.
My love of God was in response to what I believed was his love for me. I saw him as my creator, my loving heavenly father. And, he sent his only son—who was both separate from him and the same as him—to die for my sins.
My sense of a call to ministry at the age of 16 was a response to the call of a loving God, and it was a commitment to spend my life sharing God’s love with other people.
For decades, I worshiped God, I served God, and I prayed to God—and the basis for all of it was showing my love for the God who loved me first.
Christians are commanded not to worship idols—human-made sculptures that represent a deity—and it was easy to preach about the foolishness of primitive religions in which people pray to a silent statue made of stone. In the end, for me, relating to the God of my faith wasn’t much different from talking to a stone god. How can you be in a loving relationship with an invisible, silent being?
When I was a believer, participating in religious services with other Christians, and in my case, leading such services, did generate a sense that something was there, something we could all feel. A congregation of devoted believers singing heartfelt songs of faith made what we all believed seem more real, more present, and more palpable. I remember one song often sung as a solo in church, and it repeated—over and over the words: “My God is real. My God is real.” We didn’t need songs that said, “My spouse is real” or “My car is real.” But we did need a song that said, “My God is real,” because none of us could see or hear God in any normal way. We needed to get together and stir ourselves up with song and sermon to stoke the fire of our faith.
The Christian faith teaches children and adults to love someone they can’t see whether they want to love him or not. And if you don’t love the invisible God, you’re in trouble. It’s crazy thinking: “Love God as he loves you, or you will be punished!” When I left my faith, one of the ways in which I felt a sense of relief was no longer needing to pretend to be in a loving relationship with a God who is silent, invisible, and threatens punishment if you don't love him back.
But what about the second most important commandment according to Jesus? What about loving other people?
Upon leaving faith I realized that neither I nor anyone else is capable of loving everyone, and I realized for the first time that I have the freedom to choose who I will love. A light bulb came on: I don't have to love someone if I don't want to.
Today, I can’t visualize any kind of meaningful life that is devoid of loving relationships, but I don’t want to overuse and cheapen the concept of loving others. I have come to believe that love for others is likely to happen more naturally when we focus on the things that create and energize good relationships.
Here's my replacement for a command to love other people: Practice kindness that includes respect, empathy, patience, and forgiveness. Speak the truth with sensitivity. Find the strength to keep your commitments. Don't let fear scare you away from close relationships. Seek humility. Practice gratitude. Be generous. And let love happen naturally.
I love the idea of love happening not as the result of an imperative, but rather as the natural consequence of who we are and the natural outcome of the values we practice.
This is a liberating concept: You don’t have to love someone if you don’t want to. My old religious self gives me a jab when I write those words, but I’m going to ignore the jab and stick with the concept: You don’t have to love someone if you don’t want to. Instead, just remember to be kind to everyone as much as humanly possible and let love happen naturally.
Adapted from Tim Sledge's new book How to Live a Meaningful Life: Focusing on Things that Matter also available in eBook format. Copyright © 2019 by Tim Sledge. All Rights Reserved. Used by permission.
Tim Sledge, a former Southern Baptist minister, is also the author of Goodbye Jesus: An Evangelical Preacher’s Journey Beyond Faith and Four Disturbing Questions with One Simple Answer: Breaking the Spell of Christian Belief.
You can follow Tim Sledge on Twitter: @Goodbye_Jesus.