“You must love the Lord your God”

How can love be commanded?

One Sunday morning I was reading and praying over the Gospel where the Lord is asked about the greatest commandment. He answered, “You must love the Lord your God....And the second resembles it, you must love your neighbour....” I was struck in a new way by the paradox of someone commanding love. If anything goes against our modern sensibilities, surely this does. Certainly love, the free gift of my heart, cannot be commanded. But, as in all other difficult and often mysterious sayings of Jesus, my faith presumption is that he is right and I don’t understand. I try to remember that I am to be conformed to the Gospel and not the Gospel conformed to my way of thinking. So I asked the Lord to instruct me especially about these words.

I was led to pray very slowly and meditatively the magnificent 119th Psalm, which is all about the commandments of the Lord as life giving. I found myself being led to take each phrase into my heart, relishing its meaning, and making its sentiments my own. How beautiful they are:

Wasting no time, I hurry to your commandments. I stretch out my hands to your beloved commandments. I meditate on your statutes. Teach me good sense and knowledge for I rely on your commandments. Your commandments epitomise faithfulness. I have noticed limitations to all perfection, but your commandment has no limit at all. I open my mouth, panting eagerly for your commandments. Though distress and anguish grip me, your commandments are my delight.

It is quite obvious that the author of this psalm, and the myriads of people who have prayed it down through the centuries – including Jesus himself  - saw God’s commandments as life-giving and as a sure guide on their paths of life.

The challenge of the Master

But maybe this was just an Old Testament notion. Maybe people back then had a different notion of God and his love for them. They were more ‘primitive’ so they needed harsh commands. But no. Jesus himself often used the strong word “commandment”. He talks of the “commandments of God” (Mt.15:13), about the “first and greatest commandment” (Mk.12:30), And throughout his last discourse the word commandment is frequently on his lips: “This is the commandment I have been given by my Father” (Jn.10:18); “No, what I had to speak was commanded by the Father who sent me” (49); “If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love” (15:10). Jesus could speak like this because he knew the secret of the Father’s commands: “And I know that his commands mean eternal life” (12;50).

We find it difficult to put “command” and “love” together because we have lost not only our sense of what love is, but of what it is to be a creature. Because we cannot conceive of taking commands from any human authority  (although people most certainly do so in business and politics), we cannot conceive of taking them from God. We instinctively see commands as threats to our freedom. But there are some parallels, even in our human experience, which can show us how commands can be life giving and not threats or impositions to our exalted freedom.

You are on a passenger ship going across the Atlantic. A terrible storm arises. Orders start booming out over the loudspeakers: “ All passengers put on their life-jackets.  All passengers will proceed immediately to the lifeboats. We are abandoning ship.”

In this situation of extreme danger, and because we trust that the captain knows what he is doing, we follow explicitly his every command. We eagerly wait for the next instruction. We see his commands at this time as his duty and as our salvation, and we are grateful that he is giving such clear and forthright commands in this dangerous situation. This is a time for commands.

We do not expect- or wish to hear, coming over the loudspeakers something like this: “Attention everyone, that is, if you wish to pay attention. Anyone who would like to - remember this is a request and not a command – but anyone who would like to may proceed to the lifeboats and abandon ship. This is not a command but an invitation. Everyone should feel perfectly free to abandon ship or not. Thank you for your attention.”

The urgency and authority of Love

Upon hearing such an announcement people would be very confused. They wouldn’t know if the situation were really serious or not. They might argue  “It doesn’t sound very serious. We may be all right if we stay on board. I think I’ll stay and finish this chess game.”

No. If the boat is really sinking, the captain has a grave responsibility to make it clear that they must abandon ship. The boat is really going down. They do not have an option. If they don’t abandon ship, they will certainly drown.

Another example (of many that could be given). You are driving near a nuclear test site. You come across a sign: “No Trespassing. Radioactive area.” It’s a command you welcome. In fact, if it were not there you would probably sue the government for criminal negligence for not warning you of the danger.

The “freedom” we have to stay on board ship, or to drive through a radioactive area, is not really freedom; in fact, it should not be called freedom. It is license, stupidity: an ability to will our own destruction.

The laws of our physical and spiritual natures are much closer to these kinds of commands than they are to invitations. We are “free” to eat or not to eat, but if we stop eating, we will die. We have a choice about what to eat, but not about eating itself. We are “free” to breathe or not to breathe, but we are not free to stop breathing. If we do so, we shall die.

The laws of our spiritual natures work in the same way, though they are less obvious, and there is much more disagreement about them. We cannot truly be alive without faith and love. These are the laws of our spiritual survival as children of God. They are not arbitrary, we are “free” not to believe in God, not to love him, but if we do not believe and love, we shall die.

Love: a life or death choice

Our situation is very similar to – but even much more precarious than – that of a sinking ship. Chesterton said, “according to Christianity, we were indeed the survivors of a wreck, the crew of a golden ship that had gone down before the beginning of the world.” Jesus, as our Lord and God, as our Captain, knows completely the dangerous situation we are in. He commands us to love, to abandon the ship of our sins and selfishness. Otherwise we shall be engulfed in the waves.

As our most responsible Leader and Saviour, he knows our eternal destiny is at stake. He gives us clear commands on the deck of the sinking ship. It’s only because we do not realise the precariousness of our condition, and because we do not trust God, that we see his commands as threats to our freedom, as encroachments on our free choice.

Jesus commands us to love because he knows that if we do not love we will die. To love is to abandon the ship of our own confusion and false freedom. If we trusted  him, and realised our own ignorance and need, we too would see his commands as he saw them, “knowing that (they) mean eternal life for us.”

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