Following Jesus Isn't Primarily About Beliefs or Actions

The following is part of "My Jesus Project," a year-long quest to better understand what it means to follow the life, teaching and example of Jesus in prayer, study and action. To read more, or to join the conversation, visit the website.

I'm intrigued by the fact that, in spite of my explanation that this project is more about delving into who we are and what we do than about what we think or believe, many people are eager to distill the "Jesus journey" down to making a specific set of claims for beliefs, end of story.

Of course, there's another (more recent, in some ways) camp, especially since the emergence of the Social Gospel movement in the '60s, followed by the "Missional Church," which has emphasized right action or behavior. And there are fierce debates between the two about which is more important.

But I'm starting to wonder if neither is entirely right.

Right thought or belief is generally called "orthodoxy," while right action is called "orthopraxy." And sometimes we seem to assume that these are the only things to focus on, or even that one is somehow superior to the other.

In studying the teachings and words of Jesus, however, I'm coming to embrace the sense that "orthopathy," or right-heartedness, is a critical third leg of the proverbial stool. Furthermore, I have the growing sense that this right-heartedness actually helps lead us to the path we're seeking for the other two.

Consider the Greatest Commandment, which Jesus claims is foundational to all other laws and commandments. He's not saying that the Ten Commandments are irrelevant or that the 600-plus Jewish laws should be cast aside. Far from it, in fact. By focusing on loving God with all we are, loving all our neighbors ("all" really does mean all) and even loving ourselves in kind, everything else falls into its proper place.

He doesn't say that the Greatest Commandment is to claim a certain set of beliefs, get baptized or go to a certain church.

He doesn't say that the virtues of action to which we are called in the Beatitudes are paramount.

But at the same time, he's not diminishing or undermining these. Rather, he's helping bring them into greater fullness (perfection) by focusing first and foremost on loving. Not just love as a claim or feeling but as a verb, a worldview, a lens through which we understand all of creation. When we are driven by such all-encompassing, consuming, perfect and sacrificial love, the beliefs and actions fall into place.

In this way, the teachings of Jesus dovetail elegantly with the teachings of the Buddha: right hearts lead to right minds, and right minds lead to right actions.

Perhaps we focus on orthodoxy and orthopraxy more because, in many ways, they're easier to measure. Also important is that they are easier to wield over others, in assessing whether or not they are worthy of salvation, inclusion, or (fill in the blank). But the act of living into perfect love is terrifying, partly because it is perpetually unfinished business. Also, it is radically subversive, because the rule of love (rather than the rule of law) cannot be used to consolidate and exert power over one another.

Whereas our application of the old laws -- or orthodoxy or orthopraxy -- can be used to control or conform, love inherently releases and liberates. And in the best ways possible, it subverts the very systems of power we have built to contain, control and even marginalize those without power and privilege.

I know that for some this is a significant shift in understanding what is at the heart of following Jesus. It is shockingly simple but never, ever easy. It is accessible by all yet controlled by none.

It is the way, the truth, the life. And it is so much bigger than any church, denomination or religion. To me, that is good news; that is gospel.