A frequent subject of my prayers is to thank God for the love of my amazing wife. Because I have her love, I feel blessed and honored beyond measure. I could argue that most everything good in my life flows from the fact that I know without a doubt that I am loved by her. That’s because love is inherently inspiring, motivating, and empowering. If you know me well enough, you can probably guess where I’m going with this.
The reason she knows how to love as well as she does is that God is love, and whoever loves is born of God. Someone famous once said that. So in the middle of expressing my gratitude to God one night, my thoughts wandered down a neat little road. If she learned how to love from God, who is the definition of love, then as the recipient of her love, what if I could learn something about how God wants to be loved? What if I could also learn something about how God does not want to be loved?
Does that sound like a stretch? It’s not, once we realize that we were made by God in his own image, and that our relationship with him is frequently compared to a marriage in scripture. Israel is often depicted metaphorically as God’s bride, as are the called out of Jesus Christ.
So as my mind meandered along this path, I started thinking about love versus legalism in the context of marriage. What if my wife was a legalist when it came to our marriage? What if her goal in life was to try to “follow my commands,” and she nervously wondered if she had succeeded or angered me? What if she refused to do anything for me that I didn’t specifically ask for? Besides feeling like a tyrant, I wouldn’t feel nearly as loved as I do right now. I would also feel like her actions were a little empty and lifeless.
I can’t imagine a marriage like that, where neither partner will do anything for the other unless it has been clearly asked. One may even have good intentions and simply not want to anger the other by doing something he or she might not like. This may even be couched in terms of “playing it safe,” because after all, if we’re not one hundred percent sure that our spouse told us to do something, it may be “safer” not to try to express our love in that way. But in spite of what may be defended as good intentions, this describes an essentially lifeless, if not a loveless, marriage. We wouldn’t want our marriages to be like that, so what makes us think God wants our relationship with him to be like that?
Similarly, I can’t imagine a relationship like that with my kids, who are constantly making me things and doing things of their own accord to express their love for me. Just the other day, my kids all conspired to name the day “Dad Appreciation Day” (D.A.D.). I came home from an early men’s breakfast to see posters hung all over the house with artwork and notes of appreciation from them. As Cecil Hook illustrated so well in the Chapter 15 of Freedom in Christ, just think how I could have crushed my kids if I had been angry at them for doing something to honor me that I didn’t specifically ask for! Instead, I was thrilled that they desired to show me their love in that way, and I believe God is too when our actions are overflowing with love toward him.
In fact, by limiting ourselves to merely obeying the commands of God, and no more, we’re really turning love on its head. What really makes expressions of love most gratifying is when they come without being demanded or even specified, out of the pure desire to make another person happy. How many times have husbands heard their wives say “It doesn’t mean as much if I had to ask you to do it?”
I’m certain that if this is true with us humans, it’s true of God’s nature as well. He wants loving service from the heart, without having to specify every individual act of service in advance. Service like this is difficult for us humans to quantify in terms of “obedience.” Every attempt to do so will result in a stifled relationship with our Creator.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount makes this point abundantly clear. His primary message to the Pharisees was that God wants service from the heart, not simply outward performance of rituals or “commands.” He would rather have no service at all than the kind of lukewarm service that is driven by command-keeping.
For some reason, we have an easier time grasping what true love is in a marriage and between parents and children, but have difficulty applying what we know to our relationship with God. We don’t want a legalistic, lifeless relationship with our spouse or children. Why do we so often insist on one with God?