A common stumbling block to the Christian faith for non-believers or new believers is the idea that allegiance to God should come before everyone and everything else. A particularly controversial verse that encapsulates this idea is Matthew 10:37. It states, “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” Speaking as someone who did not grow up in the church, this idea was initially very jarring to me as I imagine it is to many others. After all, why should I have more loyalty to a being I’ve never even seen than to the parents who raised me and love me dearly? It is especially difficult to comprehend in the American culture where faith is often seen as what someone chooses to believe rather than a doctrine of objective truth; on the surface, it seems somewhat silly to say that loyalty to God is more important than loyalty to family.
Part of the reason for this idea is we think of God as we think of fictional gods, like Zeus. That is to say, we think of God as a being that is only “maybe” much more powerful than us and has rules for us to follow, but we do not think of Him as one that is innately more intelligent or more righteous than we are. So with that mindset, loyalty to God above everyone else can feel equivalent to having loyalty to a human tyrant simply because he has the power to make you suffer if you refuse.
Some of the thoughts of someone with this perspective are “I know my parents. I’ve seen the great things they have done for me and I continuously see them provide love and support for me. God supposedly created everything and put me here; but why does that obligate me to put Him before all the people I love? Just because he said so? That’s ridiculous because that’s what people in charge say when they don’t have a sensible reason for why you ought to do what they say”. These are all thoughts that I had when I first encountered this idea.
Something most of us can understand, believer or not, is the idea that our highest obligation is to do what is right in any given situation (whatever we believe that to be). We can quickly imagine a situation where love for our friends and family members can conflict with doing the right thing, especially if one has bought into our culture’s warped perception of love. For example, if your brother murdered someone, the right thing to do would be to turn him into the police so he can face justice. However, in facing justice, your brother would suffer and thus if love for said brother is your highest priority, you would likely do everything possible to help him get away with it. Even though we might understand why someone would try to protect their brother, most of us would say that he ought to do the right thing and turn his brother into the police. So after some thought, it becomes obvious that there is something we should love more than our family and friends. That something is doing the right thing, also known as righteousness.
Now often, if not most of the time, loving righteousness and loving our friends and family go hand in hand. On the occasions when the two ideas conflict, like the murder example, it’s easy to see that our love for righteousness should come first. Now, where does God come into this? The answer is found in many books of the Bible, but is made particularly clear in Psalm 116:5 which tells us, “The Lord is gracious and righteous.” This is one of many verses that convey the idea that God is equivalent to righteousness. That is to say, righteousness is an intrinsic property of God the same way that water is intrinsically wet. God and righteousness cannot be separated any more than water can be made unwet and still rightly be called water. To love God is to be righteous and vice-versa. Once we realize that God is equivalent with righteousness and not simply an abnormally powerful human-like being, as fictional gods are, then the idea that we ought to love God more than everyone else begins to make sense.