“If you love me, you will keep my commandments … the one who has my commandments and keeps them is the one who loves me”
—Jesus, as quoted in John’s Gospel
Do these words strike you as good news or bad news?
To some of us, they sound like bad news. Based on our personal history or temperament, it sounds like the bad old days of legalism, perfectionism and never-being-good-enough-ism, the world of endless shoulds, ought-tos and have-tos. How can there be any real, meaningful connection between love and commandments? Love should be spontaneous, “natural,” creative and free—the very opposite, in spirit and content, from commandments. If the Good News of Jesus is really good news, John must have misheard, misunderstood, or mis-recorded Jesus! Right?
Maybe not. Let’s start with what it means to love someone. Our general sense today is that love primarily involves taking a posture of positive affirmation, encouragement and support towards someone. This is a fine place to start, but we quickly recognize that it isn’t adequate: what if the person I love is doing things that are harmful to herself or to others? Wouldn’t love speak up, or even speak against, such behaviors, even while respecting the other person’s freedom to decide?
So to love someone means to desire the best for that person, and to do what is mine to do to further their journey towards what is best. And love involves a willingness on my part to even sacrifice myself in some way for the highest good of another. Love says, “What’s best for you, even at my expense.”
To love someone does not mean that we always know what is best for them! Love is never coercive; it never seeks to browbeat or manipulate another person into doing what I think is best for them. To love someone therefore is connected with some sense of what is good for them, what will bring them peace, life, joy, purpose, gratitude, healthy relationships and all the other qualities that make life good and worth living.
And love is realistic: people who love well recognize that all of us (including themselves) don’t always or consistently desire or seek what is best. We are all capable of great selfishness: we are self-centered, self-seeking, self-protective, self-referential, and so on. While we may aspire to be and do what is good, we’re not always very good at it! The “good” that I regularly pursue for myself often isn’t very good at all, because it is so enmeshed in my basic selfishness. So my understanding of “what’s good (or right) for me” is not necessarily all that reliable. And people who truly love me will want me to see that, and may be willing to take some relational risks to help me to see it.
Loving someone is tougher than I thought. Just as the basic instincts of the one I love may not be in her best interests, so my own basic instincts may not be in my best interests, or that of the one I love.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Jesus’ consistent starting point in talking about a life lived in love is himself—he places himself as the central reference point for a life of love. This strikes us as incredibly arrogant and oppressive, deluded, or “that’s fine for you, but not for me.”
But the Good News says this: God is love—love is God’s essential being and nature, it’s who God always is and how God always acts. Jesus is God personally present in human form; Jesus is love incarnate, love with skin on. So if we want to live in love, towards God and others, Jesus is the center and the circumference of that particular circle. It is a spacious and welcoming circle, but it has a center and it has a circumference.
What is best for someone you love (and for yourself)? To know God’s never-failing, unchanging love. This is why, when asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus said it had two parts, two poles, two basic movements: love God and love your neighbor. If you don’t love God, you won’t ever really know how to best love your neighbor, because God is love.
And love has its ways, its core orientations and basic practices. For example, love is patient, it is kind, it isn’t rude or self-seeking. Love doesn’t envy or boast. Love doesn’t hold grudges or keep records of offenses. In other words, love, real love, actually has its commandments. Love says, “To be and behave like Me, to be one who lives in love, looks like this and this … but not like that or that.”
So does love really boil down to a long list of have-tos, shoulds, and ought-tos after all? Not at all.
If our basic motivation is anxiety, guilt, fear of failure or punishment, or mere duty, we’re not really living in love. Jesus isn’t telling us to first keep all the rules and then maybe, someday, if we’re good enough for long enough, we’ll graduate into love. He’s saying instead, start by being loved, by receiving God’s inexhaustible love for you in Christ. We need to first have our hearts fully captured by God’s completely gratuitous love for us so that we are released from the prison of do-and-do-and-do. We start by being loved, and thereby learn the doings of love.
And Jesus never asks us to do anything all on our own, all by ourselves. “Hope does not disappoint us,” the apostle Paul wrote, “because God has poured his love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, whom he has given to us.” An early Christ follower named John put it like this: “We love because he first loved us.”
Being loved, we can learn to love. Learning to love entails practicing love’s ways, loves commandments. The good news is that you get to become a person who lives in love by trusting, following, believing in, Jesus. It’s that simple, and that challenging!