The Law of Love
“Law” and “love” are words that evoke quite different images and feelings. “Law” makes one think of obedience and submission, and that, these days, those concepts are not very popular at all. That is quite different with “love”. Here you think of a relationship which is voluntary at base, and of intimacy, and for these things our hearts are very receptive. When it comes to talking about faith we would also rather talk about personal relationship and unconditional love than about the law of God. Yet “law” and “love” belong together. If we no longer experience it like this, then something has gone wrong. Do you desire an intimate relationship with God, then you cannot exclude his law.
Why would you obey God’s law?
What motivates you to keep his commandments? We can often give an immediate answer: we keep the commandments out of thankfulness. But is this what we radiate outwardly? Or are we known as the people belonging to that strict faith who are never allowed to do anything? Is there not also a little bit of fear involved? Yes, we are preserved through grace, but now we have to do all sorts of things and are not allowed a lot of other things, because otherwise we may still lose God’s favour. The eldest son in the parable (Luke 15) was obedient to his father, even though secretly he would rather have celebrated in the style of his brother. What motivated him was not love, but a sense of duty and fear. The relation with his father was more a case of if-you-do-something-I’ll-do-something-in-return, similar to an employer — employee, than of an intimate love relationship between a child and his father.
We keep God’s commandments to earn his favour, or not to lose it. That is the religious answer. Naturally you are not excited by the law and you have problems joining the words “law” and “love” to each other.
It is only when you have been touched by God’s grace and unconditional love that the law gains its rightful place. You can be assured that the youngest son, the day after the feast, enthusiastically went to work for his father!
Why should you obey God’s law? Whoever has been touched by grace says: because I have experienced his love and wish to respond. Obedience to the commandments leads to a strong love relationship. So said Jesus: “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him” (John 14:21).
A love relationship works like this
Allow me to illustrate the above by using the example of a love relationship between two people. When you fall in love with someone and you want to show the other your love, how do you go about it? You need to discover what the other enjoys, what the “law” of the other is, and then you need to do it. Perhaps you do not enjoy hiking at all, but if the other really loves it, then you put your own preferences aside and go and do it. By giving yourself in this way, the relationship flourishes. It is the same in your relationship with God. You show your love by doing what he wants.
But a good relationship comes from both sides does it not? Is it not very one-sided if we always have to do what God wants? I hope you realise that the relationship with God is not one-sided. More than that: it started because he loved us. He knew that we longed for unconditional love and eternal happiness. And even though he had to sacrifice everything, his love for us was and is so great that he wanted to give himself totally to us, despite us not having earned or deserved anything. God’s law, that is what he wants. The more we go for that, the more we will grow in the love relationship with him. If we approach the law in this way it will have consequences. I want to mention four.
No rules, but relationship.
Sinning is not just the transgression of a rule, it is the violation of a relationship. Each commandment refers back to the first: you shall have no other gods before me. If you steal or do not share your belongings, you reveal that you do not believe that you have everything in him. Honouring the Sabbath reveals that you have rest in your life, because the work that he did forms the centre of your life, etc. God wants to liberate you from idols so that he with his love can be everything to you. That is why he has given his law, and that is why he has given his Spirit to write the law in your heart.
No self-will, but obedience
Just because living according to God’s law is a question of love, a radical and total obedience is asked for. And the distinction of obedience is that you do not do it only when it suits you, but also when you have to put your own will aside. That is exactly the moment that the relationship comes into its own right. If you only listen to God whenever it is convenient, you are eventually left with a god that looks precisely the same as you do and is always in agreement with you. But with a god like that you cannot have a love relation. That is only possible if you serve a God that may confront and correct you.
When God asked Abraham to offer his son, Abraham indicated that God was allowed to ask anything of him. And this is how he came so very close to the heart of God, who later did what Abraham was not eventually asked to do: he offered his only son.
Jesus asks us to deny ourselves, to lose our lives and to follow him through forgiving seventy times seven, to allow others to share in our riches, to be the least, to sacrifice etc. It is precisely through walking the road by following him in obedience that we come ever closer to him.
More intention rather than achievement
But is it not terribly discouraging to emphasise the relational and radical nature of the commandments? That depends. As long as we keep thinking that we need to earn Gods appreciation and love, we would prefer bite-sized rules rather than radical commandments. But as soon as we realise that God loves us totally and unconditionally, and that the commandments teach us to more and more experience and reflect that love, then things become completely different. Then we rejoice in the radical nature of his commandments, and we know at the same time that he does not hold our failings against us.
A father who receives a painting from his four year old daughter sees it for what it is worth, a child’s work, far from perfect, but he cries out enthusiastically: “What a beautiful painting, did you make it especially for me?!” Just so is God’s reaction when we come before him with the imperfect and clumsy painting of our Christian lives.
Orthopraxy more than orthodoxy
Attention to a radical Christian life in following Christ, attention to God’s law in other words, is more relevant than ever. Our younger people and the people all around us are no longer convinced by abstract truths and elaborate stories. They also want to see that it is truly real to us and changes our lives. Orthodoxy (the pure doctrine) is mistrusted if there is no orthopraxy (pure lifestyle) to match it. Without the picture of a truly Christian lifestyle the Bible talk will have little meaning.
And actually that is a very Biblical thought. “Hereby shall people see that you are my disciples” says Jesus. And then he mentions love as the most important point of recognition, which at the same time is the summary of the law. Whoever has experienced God’s love and lives through the Spirit, shall begin to resemble him more and more. And the congregation is not called the “body of Christ” for nothing. Whoever wants to see Jesus must look to his congregation. That is where you see love, righteousness, peace, compassion for the people and for the creation. That is where you see his law in action, it decrees the atmosphere, it is where he is King.
“Law” and “love” difficult to combine? Have we bypassed the law because we live out of grace? That would naturally be too absurd for words. The summary of the law is love, and it is precisely this love that never perishes, because God is love.