Commanding Us to Love

By Andrew McGowan

“Love one another as I have loved you.” [pause]

So how is that going for you?

Commanding someone to love is one of the strangest aspects of the Christian message. We know it is important; but love is for human beings not a matter of following orders, but the mysterious gift that comes with romantic love, or the deep tie given with parent and child relationships, or else the product of time, acquaintance and respect — but whether born or made, love does not come on demand.

Our experiences of being forced to love, of loving because it was demanded or required, tend to fall either into bitterness and resentment or, less dramatically, just into unremitting but soulless “niceness.” And if you have ever been the object of such duty-laden “love,” you will know it is sad beyond words.

Yet both the First Letter of John and the Gospel of John, these two writings from a community associated with that disciple whom Jesus loved, present us today with such exhortations to obligatory love: the writer of the epistle not only tells us to love one another, but says this is a “commandment we have from him,” that “those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also”; while in the Gospel, Jesus himself famously says “this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

And there is a second problem here, beyond the fact of command — it has to do with what love really is, and whom we must love.

Love of God — which surely we tend to think is the highest and perhaps the hardest to get right — is not presented as much of a problem. Loving people is harder; as the elder John says in the epistle,  “Those who say ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”

The logic is clear and uncomfortable. Even a person who has what seems to be a pious, warm and strong relationship with God may be able to do so precisely because God is unseen, and hence available for us to imagine just as suits us. Instead, John says, it is loving people that is the test of whether we really love God.

That well-known theologian Charles Schulz addressed this problem in an edition of the Peanuts comic strip, wherein Linus van Pelt decides to become a doctor but has to address the problem raised by his sister Lucy, that a doctor must love (hu)mankind. “I love (hu)mankind,” Linus protests, “it’s people I can’t stand.”

So at this point, depending on your feelings this morning about the human race, the other members of the congregation, your family, or the nation, you may be bemused or disheartened. Love, we are told, apparently starts not with the highest ideals or imaginings, but with the immediate and concrete in all its ambiguity; and yes, it is compulsory.

The answer to these problems lies not within ourselves and our own limited capacities to love; it is not about trying harder. Rather, it lies outside ourselves, in discerning the reality of the world itself, and God’s infinite capacity to love. For the elder John also tells us that “God is love,” and that “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us.” The possibility of love is not the spiritual equivalent of making a huge effort to achieve something difficult; it is realizing for the first time something that has always been true, and accepting that it is easy.

Our own notions of love as something we make or achieve are rendered wonderfully ineffectual by the realization that love is something beyond and bigger than ourselves, even the deepest reality that there is; that we love, not by herculean effort to produce love or conquer indifference by sheer will, but through the quite different activity of acceptance, of giving in to the possibility that love is actually the reason we are here, the mystery that underlies all our existence.

Saint Augustine of Hippo once said, speaking to God, “give what you command, command what you will” (Conf. 10.29.40); or more colloquially, “tell me to do anything, if you give me what you’re asking for.” Love is not actually possible without the one who is love. This is why love is, paradoxically, “commanded” — because it is given, in the very command.

Augustine also preached on this same text we have read from the First Letter of John once, and made a remarkable statement which subsequently got him into a lot of trouble — “love God and do what you want” (Tractates on the Letter of John 7.8). He then of course spends the rest of the sermon trying to prevent the obvious possibilities of misunderstanding! The point of course was that if we really love God — not just our ideas of God — and if God’s love lives in us, we will do what true love truly wants; not the indulgence of passing desire, but true love of one another, respect, justice, and compassion.

This brings us back however to the second part of the problem, the question of loving each other in particular and not just in the abstract. Our good intentions to love often falter at the reality of love in its particularity. But it is also a particular person and a particular love who is the solution: “In this is love,” the elder John says, “not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son…”

The love of God is not just an idea or a moral principle to be considered — it is a person, Jesus Christ. Jesus’ life tells us what love actually is, and does not suggest that love is easy at all, quite the contrary. As Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe put it, “if you don’t love, you’re dead — and if you do they’ll kill you.”[1]

Yet our capacity to obey the impossible command to love comes from the one who raises the dead to life.

From day to day our own broken lives may only show fragments of this divine love that has made us and remade us as Christ’s body. We show the reality of his resurrection to the extent that we love one another. We fail, of course; but the one who commanded us to love gives what he commands.

The Rev. Andrew McGowan is dean and president of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University.

[1] Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 22.


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