An obvious, but easily missed truth about loving others is that it is a command from God. What did Jesus say we are doing when we keep his commandments?
He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him. (Joh 14:21)
Love obeys, for love wishes to please. When we are told by God to love someone and we do so in obedience to him, it is ultimately an act of love for God. We do not love our neighbour solely because of our neighbor. We love our neighbor firstly because we love our God, and our God told us to love our neighbor. Our love for our neighbor is not finally or ultimately based in our neighbor. Our love of neighbor is based in the will of our God.
Our love for our neighbor is not an ultimate one. We love our neighbor not because our neighbor is our source of ultimate dependence or ultimate delight. We may express need-love to a neighbor (particularly a spouse, a parent, a friend, or an authority), but that need-love is not ultimate. We may express gift-love to a neighbor (particularly a child, a lover, or an enemy), but that gift-love is not ultimate. All ordinate love of neighbor begins and ends with the desire to please God. Ultimate love is for God alone. God alone is to be loved for himself. This doesn’t mean we are not truly loving our neighbor when we love him for God’s sake. In fact, our neighborly love is purer and probably stronger than ever before. It is simply that our love does not terminate on our neighbor.
This is an incredibly freeing thought. If we must find something in our neighbor to love before we can love him, we might never do so. However, if we love him because we want to please our God, we are able to love the person in spite of who he may be. Here we get to completely sidestep the things which attract or repel us from our spouses, our children, our parents, our brothers or sisters in Christ, our colleagues, our near or even incidental acquaintances, or our enemies. We love in obedience to God, to please Him.
Communion in Submission
We can enjoy God’s beauty in the act of submission. When we choose to obey God’s command to love others, we are directly seeking to bring pleasure to God. Most often this choice will occur to us when the neighbor in question is difficult to love, when the image of God in him seems more distorted than reflected, or even when our own selfishness is ascendant, and causing strife. These are moments of conviction, and if we will confess our pride, and consecrate ourselves and our neighbors, we will find conformity to the Christ who loved people for the love of his Father.
“Who committed no sin, Nor was deceit found in His mouth”; who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; (1Pe 2:22-23)
Did Steven not have communion with Christ at the very moment he prayed for those stoning him? Did Christ not enjoy the Father’s beauty when praying for his murderers while on the cross? Have not countless Christians found extraordinary grace during persecution, as they chose to commune with God in submissive love for enemy?
Most of us will not have to do this in such heroic moments of duress. We will be called to commune with God when the rather mundane neighbor before us is not immediately lovable to us. When our spouse is not immediately lovable, husbands are commanded to love them (Eph 5:25). When our brother or sister in Christ does not love us, we are commanded to love them. Indeed, when our neighbor has become our enemy, all reasons within our neighbor for loving our neighbor have disappeared. The only remaining motive will be to commune with God, and love our enemy for God’s sake. As Jesus put it, “For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (Mat 5:46) Ordinate love is not reciprocal benevolence; it is choosing to beautify our neighbor in spite of himself, for the love of God’s glory.
This is exactly what gives us grace to love the unlovely. This is what empowers us to love those who in the moment are not enjoyable, or are even harming us. Perhaps Christ is alluding to a special kind of communion when he speaks of the likeness we will have with the Father when we love those who hate us, purely in submission to him
that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Mat 5:45)
If the first discipline of pubic worship is a discipline of recognition, this is a discipline of submission. We choose to please God and not ourselves, finding pleasure in the will of God over self-assertion, vengeance, indifference, coldness or conflict.