05/14/2011 05:08 pm ET | Updated Jul 14, 2011

When Loyalty to Family Conflicts with Loyalty to God

What does loyalty to God entail? This vexing virtue is essential to every relationship we have that matters -- it is the bond that holds together love, friendship, family, community and faith. But because we have so many loyalties, they are always coming into conflict with one another. It's bad enough having to choose whether, as E.M. Forster put it, to betray one's country or one's friend. But how much worse if one of the loyalties in conflict is one's fidelity to God. Can we ever be willing to choose a human loyalty over that owed to God?

Medieval monk Thomas of Kempis and Mahatma Gandhi came from very different faiths and lived in very different times. But both argued that friendship was a threat to the relationship we have with God. The problem is loyalty. If you have good friends, you have obligations to them, and those obligations may entail standing with them even if they are in the wrong. (Mark Twain called this the true office of friendship, because after all, anyone can stand with you when you're in the right.) But supporting a wrong can obviously put us at odds with God. If your only friend is Jesus, says Thomas of Kempis, you won't be put in that jam: "The trust you place in men is a total loss," he writes, but by contrast, God's love "is loyal and lasts." Gandhi renounced friendship and its entanglements this way: "I am of the opinion that all exclusive intimacies are to be avoided," he wrote in his autobiography. "He who would be friends with God must remain alone."

Goodness knows there are many who have, contrary to Thomas of Kempis' advice, put their trust in men and suffered for it. Abandoned by King Henry VIII, whom he had worked for so faithfully, Cardinal Wolsey famously said, "Had I but served my God as diligently as I have served my king, He would not have given me over in my grey hairs."

And yet, as attractive a moral strategy as it may be to always put God first, does loyalty to God really mean casting aside every other commitment we have? George Orwell thought that is a monumental moral cop-out. He recognized that though it is "unquestionably true" that "through loyalty to a friend one can be led into wrongdoing," running that risk is the price of love and friendship, without which life would be pretty thin gruel. "The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty," Orwell wrote, criticizing Gandhi's renunciation of friendship. We have to be prepared, he argued "to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one's love upon other human individuals."

There's also reason to be wary of those who claim that loyalty to God trumps all other considerations. Thinking that our everyday human loyalties have no weight can be a very slippery slope. Anwar al-Awlaki -- the American-born Muslim preacher who gave guidance and encouragement to Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan -- calls for American Muslims to attack America saying their only proper loyalty is to their religion: "How can you have loyalty to a government that is leading the war against Islam and Muslims?"

And of course cult leaders take this to the nth degree, demanding that all ties to old families and friends be cut so that the only loyalty one recognizes is to the god-like religious charlatan leading the cult.

St. Paul, by contrast, believed that the loyalties we have to friends and family were essential to building our ability to love God. Tutoring his disciple Timothy in the basics of the apostle business, he argued that those who didn't have human loyalties to hearth and home would be incapable of commitment to God: "if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel."

I think Paul was on the right path. Even though our human loyalties may risk coming into conflict with commitment to God, the day-to-day practice of fidelity that comes from being true to family, friends and all those we love is essential to knowing how to bring that same fidelity into our relationship with God.

We may well find ourselves caught in conflicts of loyalty -- family vs. friends vs. country vs. God -- but unless we're ready to cut ourselves off from life and do the hermit routine, we have to be prepared to deal with those conflicts, navigate our way through them. And declaring up-front that loyalty to God is the only commitment worth keeping may not be the best way to do it.