The Weightiest Question

Michael Metzger

What do you love?
Neil Postman says students enter school as question marks and graduate as periods. This means America’s 1.3 million graduating college seniors are lightweights when it comes to raising the weightiest question as they look for work. They’re not alone. Human resource directors also overlook it. Engaged couples rarely resolve this question before marrying. It’s not often asked when joining a church or forming a business partnership. Few parents raise this question of consequence and help their kids resolve it.

Yet the early church did. St. Augustine raised it in response to a letter from a young protégé and Roman citizen named Lawrence. While the empire was collapsing all around him, Lawrence didn’t want his faith to also cave in. Augustine wrote back a letter that wove together the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.1 At the close, Augustine concluded: “For when there is a question as to whether a man is good, one does not ask what he believes, or what he hopes, but what he loves.”2 This was the weightiest question – what do you love?

For the next three centuries, this letter served as a catechism for membership in the church. The central quest was the proper ordering of our loves. How do we arrange the things we care about, desire, want, and long for? Augustine understood that when we know the ordering of someone’s loves, we implicitly know what they believe and hope.

This vision for ordering our loves has deep roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Human beings are first called to love God.3 Second, we are to love our neighbor.4 Then we are called to arrange our loves for good food, conversation, the outdoors, our work, affluence, good wine (that God made to gladden our hearts), leisure, sex, sports, sports cars (I hope!), entertainment, the environment, good literature and movies. As C. S. Lewis put it, we’re to wrestle with “the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it.”5 It is inherently good and proper to long for and enjoy fame, success and recognition, closing the deal, shopping at the mall, being a consumer and protecting our kids.

Yet we’re not to love these things too much or too little. Idolatry is when we love something too much (deifying God’s creation). Ignorance (disdaining God’s creation) loves too little. I know people of faith who pooh-pooh the “material” world, as if the “spiritual” world is superior. It’s a false dichotomy. J. R. R. Tolkien once noted that his friend C. S. Lewis could put away three pints before noon. “There is no good trying to be more spiritual than God,” wrote Lewis. “God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why he uses material things like bread and wine to put new life in us. We may think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not: He invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it.”6

The Apostle Paul said we’re to love all things in their proper order “for everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected.”7 Properly loving all things means that we’re to wrestle with loving work and loving weekends – not “balancing our lives.” Lewis understood that balance is a myth. It’s a standstill state of equilibrium that renders us “half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition.”8 God wants full-breasted followers who grapple with loving recognition and humility, affluence and generosity, loving good food and fasting. The weightiest question keeps these in tension, and proper tension fosters proper retention.

Human beings can process unconsciously perhaps 14 million bits of information per second, according to John Gray of the London School of Economics.9 The bandwidth of what we’re aware of, however, is around 18 bits. What we most love brings to the surface and orders what matters, not what we claim to believe. Augustine’s question has ordered my wife Kathy’s and my prayer life – for us and our three kids: to love the things God loves in the order in which he loves them. If we come close to properly arranging our loves, what we believe and hope will follow suit.

Graduating college seniors should not be asking How much would you pay me? The weightiest question is What’s most important here? Human resource directors ought to ask What matters the most to you? Engaged couples ought not to ask Do you love me?… but What is the order of the things that you love? The church ought to be asking What do we love? and not simply What do we believe? Doctrinal dexterity wedded to disordered loves has caused some of the worst schisms in the church. When we love the things God loves in the order in which he loves them, we tend to end up in a better place according to St. Augustine: “My love is my weight; wherever I go my love is what brings me there.”10

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1 The three virtues are found in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church (c.f. I Corinthians 13)
2 St. Augustine, The Enchiridion §117
3 Deuteronomy 6:5
4 Leviticus 19:18
5 This is taken from C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, (New York: Simon & Schuster [First Touchstone Edition], 1996), pp.28-29
6 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001 [1952], p.64
7 I Timothy 4:3-5
8 C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Address, revised and expanded edition (New York: Macmillan, 1980), p.1, 2
9 John Gray, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, (London: Grant Books, 2002), p.66
10 St. Augustine, Confessions 13.9

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