Whether you’re navigating a romantic relationship, dealing with the ins and outs of friendship and family, or looking to understand the gospel, there’s a lot to be said about love. Add into that the jumble of definitions and explanations coming from all directions, and it becomes this giant, confusing concept that can leave you overwhelmed or desensitized to the whole thing.
To add to that confusion, as followers of Christ we not only seek to live in love, we have also been commanded to love each other.
As a student, a leader in my fellowship, a coworker, a friend, this mandate for love is not generally something at the forefront of my mind, and when it is, it often comes from a place of guilt and obligation. The truth is, amidst the tasks and roles I hold in my life, I start to lose sight of the intentionality of God. Loving people becomes just another rule to follow and I find myself without a personal desire to do it or an understanding of what it really means.
Sure, loving people is important, and as Christians, of course we love God and hope to be seen as a loving person, but why does God command our love for others?
In John 15, as Jesus is teaching his disciples, he uses the familiar picture of a garden as a model for the kind of love he wants from us, casting us as the branches, himself as the vine, and God the Father as the gardener. He tells us to remain in him and his love, and just as nourishment flows from a vine to its branches, it is love that allows us to bear fruit. And, it is only the love of the Father that brings a life of purpose and joy.
See, Jesus isn’t just issuing commands here. He begins by addressing the why.
Why is it so important that we love others?
Going back to that image of a vine, a branch’s sole purpose is to bear fruit. In fact, this purpose is so important that Jesus says the gardener will cut off the branches that don’t bear fruit and prune those that do in order to produce even more fruit.
If we want to live then as we are created to, it follows that we must understand what it means to bear fruit. Jesus says that in loving others, we show ourselves to be his disciples. If we live our lives in a way that reflects Jesus’ love, we get to point to and invite the people around us into the source of our love, bringing further glory and praise to God.
Out of that glory, Jesus also says that we get to participate in the joy of the fruit that we bear. As we ourselves are a work brought to fruition by our Maker, we get to experience the joy of seeing the effects of a life lived in love. We get to rejoice as the love God pours out through us brings peace, healing, justice, and goodness into the world around us. It’s a joy that is not just for a moment but rather one that Jesus says is made complete.
Now, if we are to love others, to bring glory to God and live in his joy, how do we actually do it?
What exactly does Jesus command us to do?
Along with his command, Jesus lays out a very clear how-to guide that is right on the line of super simple and extremely challenging.
My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:12-13 NIV)
In these verses Jesus gives us a pretty straightforward context for understanding how he wants us to love. The way we love others should directly mirror the love we have received.
However, as we consider the ways God has loved each of us deeply, and Jesus laying down his life for us, how could we ever hope to uphold this command?
I think we find our hope in the model of Jesus, the human being and Son of God who knew exactly what it meant to live out this command in our world. He wasn’t speaking these commands to a mass of unknown people; he was speaking to his disciples and friends, whom he lived with for three years. Even as they squabbled and aggravated each other, he—fully knowing them and their shortcomings—didn’t condemn them but rather provided a tangible example of what he was inviting them, and us, into.
In fact, throughout the Bible we see Jesus himself calling out to, obeying, and relying on his Father, serving as a picture of what it looks like to love others greatly in the context of day to day living alongside others. Jesus’ model of obedience to the command to love is an assurance that we cannot do it on our own but rather must live dependent on the abundant love of our Father in order to live fully into the love that brings purpose and joy.
So what does this mean for me?
As a student leader it means finding ways to care for the people in my leadership teams, even in the midst of stress and conflict. As a friend it means sacrificing my precious free time to be present in someone else’s life. As a coworker it means serving others well. At times, it means withdrawing from all the things I have to get done in order to pray and receive the peace of the Father. And ultimately, it means always staying rooted in the life of Jesus as the true image of love.
Love is always going to be a big confusing concept, and even with our best attempts to follow the command to love each other we just don’t seem to live up to it. The good news is that we were never meant to try and love fully on our own. (We can’t!)
But, by taking the time to consider what it means to be commanded to love, we can start to carry out this command, not as a burden but as a fulfillment of our very purpose and joy. In doing so we can continue to follow Jesus’ example, and out of the love we have received, we can love each other in such a way that points to his goodness and love.
Image by twentyonehundred productions team member Laura Li-Barbour.
In college, I spent countless hours studying: polishing essays, working through complex derivations, learning new vocabulary. In the busyness, I was often drawn back to the greatest commandment: “Honor the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” I wondered especially about honoring God with my mind.
In Galatians, love is the first fruit of the Spirit listed. Perhaps that’s because love is what enables us to develop the other fruits of the Spirit in our lives, paving the way for what God wants to do in our hearts.