Do you love your country? That’s a question I’ve been asking myself lately. And it’s not at all an easy question to answer.
It’s kind of like asking, Do you love your family? Most of us will instinctively want to answer yes to that question. But as soon as you stop to think about it, it becomes clear that further clarification is needed. What does love your family mean?
Are we talking about our nuclear family? This question alone is often fraught with complexity. Do we mean family members (people), and if so, do we mean we love every member to some extent, or we love every member the same? Or are we including loving the family’s values and systems and traditions?
Or are we talking about our extended family? And if so, how extended? Do we mean extended family members we personally know, or the wider family clan? How far back in our genealogical history are we expected to love our family?
As soon as we begin to query what it means to love our family, we see that most people’s answer is likely to be more or less different, based on their family experience and what they mean by love.
How Do You Love the United States?
So, getting back to the original question, do you love your country? I imagine most of us Americans will want to answer yes to that question. But none of us will want to answer an unqualified yes. Because it all depends on what love the United States means.
Does it mean we love the abstract ideals and values and concrete declarations of how we will and won’t try to live out these ideals and values together articulated in our founding documents and constitution? All of them? Does it mean we love the various institutional branches of government and various institutional branches of those branches that exist to interpret, protect, and enforce our constitutional declarations? Does it mean we love all the states? What about the territories?
Or does it mean we love the people of the U.S.? If so, how far does that extend? Are we talking everyone residing in the U.S., or only citizens? Does it mean we love every citizen of every ethnic and socioeconomic background and every religious or nonreligious belief? What about citizens who use legitimate social and governmental means to advance beliefs and values we find objectionable or destructive? What about deviant citizens? Do we mean we love past generations of U.S. citizens? Do we mean we love this country’s history?
As soon as we begin to query what it means to love our country, we see that most people’s answers are likely to be more or less different, based on their experiences as Americans and what they mean by love.
The reality is, there is a lot to love and not love about the United States. A nation, like a family, is an institution. And it is no simple thing to love an institution.
The Bible Makes It Devastatingly Simple
Now, for the Christian, the Bible brings a great deal of clarity to our question, because it leaves no room for doubt about the kind of love that matters most to God:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself. (Luke 10:27)
Jesus called these “the great and first commandment[s]” (Matthew 22:37–39). The greatest love — the love without which we are nothing and gain nothing (1 Corinthians 13:2–3) — is love directed towards persons (divine or mortal) in the present that we personally know, or should know, or meet in the serendipitous course of life. Of course, there are biblical, necessary ways we are to love people we have never met, like Paul’s general love of his Jewish “kinsmen” expressed in Romans 9 and the Macedonians’ love of suffering Christians in Palestine described in 2 Corinthians 8. But the love of God in us is most evident by the way we love the brother we see (1 John 3:17), the neighbor we see (Luke 10:33–34).
What this means regarding our question is that, for the Christian, any love for our country that does not flow from an ultimate love for the triune God, and express itself to our various and diverse “neighbors” in real, concrete ways that our neighbors actually experience, is defective, deficient, secondary love at best. And it might not be love at all.
This, of course, does not address all the ambiguities that arise in discerning what it specifically means for each of us to live out a supreme love for God and our various neighbors. God was intentionally ambiguous on this, because it is in wrestling with such ambiguity that our secret, sinful motives and lack of love get exposed and we are called in different ways to step out in faith. Such ambiguity turns out to be a great mercy to us, because through it, God is pursuing our freedom from sin we don’t see (John 8:34–36) and teaching us how to live the kind of loving life that pleases him (Hebrews 11:6).
But the great commandments do bring a devastating simplicity to the complexities of loving a country (or a family, or a church). As John Piper beautifully says it, “Love is the overflow of joy in God that meets the needs of others” (Desiring God, 141). This is what these two supreme commandments look like on the ground when a Christian truly loves his country.
Your Nation Is Your Neighbor
In Jesus’s terms, we will only love our nation in the way that matters most to God to the degree that we love our neighbor out of the overflow of our love for, our treasuring, our delight in God. Like the Good Samaritan, which Jesus used as one illustration of what he meant by neighbor-love, we will seek to meet the sometimes inconvenient, costly needs of our neighbors — our ethnically and religiously diverse neighbors — in pursuing their good (Luke 10:30–37). Because real love requires deeds, not just words (1 John 3:18).
But real love also requires words of ultimate truth (Ephesians 4:15). Because truly treasuring God produces a desire for others to share that treasure. And no one ever receives that treasure unless someone shares about him (Romans 10:14).
So I’m asking myself, Do I love the United States? And the place I’m looking for the most important answer to that question is this: How am I loving my neighbors? The abstract and ambiguous quickly become quite concrete and clear. Because when I give an account to Jesus for how I stewarded my most important civic duty, I expect he will want to know if I primarily loved my nation in the form of my neighbor.