The Different States of Love – and the Best One

The Different States of Love – and the Best One July 18, 2017

Mary and Martha AertsenJohn 15:17-27 

“These things I command you, that you love one another” (verse 17).

“And you also will bear witness, because you have been with Me from the beginning” (verse 27).

Though Jesus says so many things to His disciples between these verses, as I was praying over this passage, these two verses converged to form a teaching on love, obedience, and union with God.

It’s always wise to consider the context of every passage, and so when Jesus says “These things” I command you, that you love one another,” we should know what are “these things”?  He’s just been teaching about love and keeping His commandments and about loving one another.  It may sound like nothing more than a tautology: “I command you to love another that you may love one another,” but there is much more to it.

When Jesus says “these things,” He also means verse 16, in which He says, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit.”  And so between all of these verses, all of chapter 15, I see a complete teaching on love, obedience, and union with God.

In the first place, let’s be clear: it’s God who chose us and not we Him.  However, once He’s chosen us and He has united Himself with us, we’re enabled by His love to love Him in return, and so when He commands us we are now enabled to obey.  But we must never forget the source of our coming to God: it is God and His love, and nothing else, until we have been united to Him by love and also made into His love.

But how is it that we may obtain more of this love and therefore obey Him and bear fruit?  We could almost start anywhere this morning, as long as we understand all of the things necessary for this love, because they are all so intimately connected that they are all united into one integrated, harmonious whole.  What we need to love is the love of God, the Holy Spirit, obedience, a desire for God, and prayer.

God tells us that if we love Him, we will keep His commandments, and so it is.  But it’s possible to keep His commandments, at least some of them, without truly loving Him.  What I mean is that we sometimes still secretly believe (or act as if we believe) that if we just try to keep His commandments that this will equal love.  But what if we keep the commandments begrudgingly?  What if in not stealing or not committing adultery we do these because we think we must do them to be good people or because we’re simply afraid of the consequences?  This may not be equal to the love that God wants.

And yet I find that one of the most important ways of loving God is, indeed, to try to keep His commandments.  But I must make sure that I never try to do this on my own power or think that I can do it myself.  Even when my obedience is less than perfect, in degree or speed or intention, obedience is still a crucial aspect of how I learn to love.

I find that it’s possible to exist in different states of love.  So often, recently, the Lord has been showing me that the spiritual life is not one giant On/Off switch but is a life of degrees.  It’s possible to be blind or to have sight, but it’s also possible and quite common that we “see men walking like trees.”  My imperfect obedience, and yet obedience, may start with an intellectual thought that I should obey, even though my whole heart not is not in it.  I may have talked myself into obeying, once I saw the opportunity, and yet not really wanted to do it.  Some may think that this still imperfect obedience is unacceptable to God and is therefore worthless.  But most of my head and most of my hands and a part of heart obeying God is much better than a “pious” disobedience in which I say if I can’t give my whole heart or obey for the completely right reasons then it’s not worth obeying at all.

If we waited for perfection in our love and obedience before we loved God then we would never love Him.  I have witnessed this before in overscrupulous Christians (who are vastly outnumbered by underscrupulous Christians today) who, because of sin, will not take the Holy Communion, the most important place where Christ offers Himself and His forgiveness to us.  Don’t deprive yourself of God’s mercy, which is, to say, His love!

I believe that by practicing obedience, even in all of its human imperfection, we learn to love.  Objectively speaking (that is, getting out of ourselves and our own selfishness), we know that God’s way is always the best.  We can’t always see this as humans, but we know it in our hearts.  We also know that our simple acts of obedience bring us closer to and unite us with our Lord.

When obeying, a wonderful thing happens: obedience begets obedience and love begets love.  Obedience is closely related to humility, and humility to love, and so in obeying, even imperfectly, we are brought closer to God.  In obeying, even imperfectly, we are performing an act of submission and teaching ourselves about who God really is.  This submission is also very close to prayer, the one thing necessary to complete our love and obedience.  For in prayer, we acknowledge ourselves to be sinners.  In prayer, we acknowledge ourselves to be imperfect and incapable of fully obeying.  And in prayer, we turn to the One who has chosen us and who is Himself Love.

But there is a better way of loving than starting with obedience and working toward love, and that is starting with love and working toward obedience.  It’s true that if we keep the Lord’s commandments, then we will love Him, but what He really said is the inverse: “If you love me you will keep my commandments.”  What if we started with love, a strong desire to be with Him and imitate Him and adore Him and worship Him and be blessed by Him?

We need an affective, emotional love of the Lord that translates into obedience.  We need to desire to sit at His feet like a Mary so that we can’t help but obey with our hands like a Martha.  And yet we have put so much emphasis on our emotional love of Jesus that we mistake it for true love.  Therefore, we’ve all seen the ridiculous figure of the Christian who claims to be in love with God and waves his hands and gushes over Him but then refuses to make the hard, loving, choices to obey Him in his life.  We’ve all seen the emotional person who confuses her emotions with the work of the Spirit and judges everything by her emotional state, leading to the ludicrous conclusion that if it doesn’t feel good and I don’t feel joyful in doing it and it isn’t a free, spontaneous action then it isn’t of the Spirit.  I would counsel such people to drop by Jesus in Gethsemane and see what He tells them.

The ultimate goal is not just a love that labors to love in obedience or desires or feels the Lord but a love that is so like His love that it is spontaneous and free and natural to us.  How much more blessed to have a love that is so instinctual to us that we don’t have to convince ourselves to obey and we don’t have to wait for an ecstatic state to obey.  In this, I think our relationship with God is like a marriage.  You may have noticed that married couples who have lived a long life of love don’t often have their hands all over each other in public.  In fact, such couples who seem to be so much in love are often the next couple to break up because the flame of infatuation burns brightly but briefly, and if that is the measure of love then we will keep bouncing from relationship to relationship.

Mature, loving couples often spend their days in each other’s presence and nothing spectacular happens and not many decisions are agonized over, and yet there is a serving in love.  Instead, there is a harmonious being together that is a harbinger of heaven: blessed is the man who has experienced such a marriage!

It’s this kind of love that I most want to seek in my relationship with my Lord.  But how can I obtain it?  I need the Holy Spirit, because He is the one who proceeds from the Father and is sent by the Son to teach us His love.  He is the Helper in Love.  But how do I access Him?  First, by praying that the Lord will send Him, because I cannot get Him for myself.  Second, by obeying at every opportunity, even when I don’t feel like it and my whole heart isn’t in it.

If we learn to love God through every means He offers to us, then we will bear witness of Him and bear fruit.  It’s not as if we have to force the issue.  It shouldn’t be like a woman laboring to push the child out of her womb.  What does Jesus say?  “You also will bear witness because you have been with me” (verse 27).

When we seek to be united to the Lord in love, when we draw near to Him, then He draws near to us and gives us Himself, which is His Love.  It is this being with the Lord that is the essence of love.  Place yourself in His presence, and you will love.  Draw near to Him, and you will obey.  If we truly came to worship at His feet in the Spirit and in truth every day and every moment, then our witness in the world would no longer be a random collection of occasional acts of love.  Instead, we would bear witness to Him because we have been with Him.

Prayer:  With all my heart,
I Love Thee, O My God
With all my soul,
I Love Thee, O My God
With all my mind,
I Love Thee, O My God
With all my strength,
I Love Thee, O My God
Above all possessions and honors,
I Love Thee, O My God
Above all pleasures and enjoyments,
I Love Thee, O My God
More than myself, and everything belonging to me,
I Love Thee, O My God
More than all my relatives and friends,
I Love Thee, O My God
More than all men and angels,
I Love Thee, O My God
Above all created things in heaven or on earth,
I Love Thee, O My God
Only for Thyself,
I Love Thee, O My God
Because Thou art the sovereign Good,
I Love Thee, O My God
Because Thou art infinitely worthy of being loved,
I Love Thee, O My God
Because Thou art infinitely perfect,
I Love Thee, O My God
Even hadst Thou not promised me heaven,
I Love Thee, O My God
Even hadst Thou not menaced me with hell,
I Love Thee, O My God
Even shouldst Thou try me by want and misfortune,
I Love Thee, O My God
In wealth and in poverty,
I Love Thee, O My God
In prosperity and in adversity,
I Love Thee, O My God
In health and in sickness,
I Love Thee, O My God
In life and in death,
I Love Thee, O My God
In time and in eternity,
I Love Thee, O My God
In union with that love wherewith all the saints and all the angels love Thee in heaven,
I Love Thee, O My God
In union with that love wherewith the Blessed Virgin Mary loveth Thee,
I Love Thee, O My God
In union with that infinite love wherewith Thou lovest Thyself eternally,
I Love Thee, O My God.

My God, Who dost possess in incomprehensible abundance all that is perfect and worthy of love, annihilate in me all guilty, sensual, and undue love for creatures.  Kindle in my heart the pure fire of Thy love, so that I may love nothing but Thee or in Thee, until being so entirely consumed by holy love of Thee, I may go to love Thee eternally with the elect in heaven, the country of pure love.  Amen.

(adapted from a prayer by Pope Pius VI)

Point for Meditation: 

  1. What is keeping me from spending time in the Lord’s presence?
  2. How much of your daily actions are motivated out of love for God?

Resolution:  I resolve to draw near to God in one specific way today, especially through a special time of prayer.  


Christ with Mary and Martha – in U.S. Public Domain

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