“The love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” Those commands are that we love the Lord our God with all our hearts, souls, strength, and minds. And also, we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. They aren’t so hard. This is easy stuff, the things God wants us to do. It’s not difficult.
Oh yes it is says blogger and Denver pastor Jodie-Renee Adams who writes for a blog called “the hardest question.” In her reading of 1st John 5, she calls “time-out.” On this business of commands not being burdensome she says, “Not to quibble with the best friend of the Messiah, [John], but I’ve never found it easy to do either of those things [love the Lord with all my heart or love my neighbor as myself].[i] Fpr her, the hardest question is how do I know a child of God? How do I know if I am child of God and how do I recognize someone else as a child of God? She goes on to wonder if the determining factor is love - ongoing relational love that costs in a big way. Are we only truly living life as God’s children when we love sacrificially?
The tension here is inescapable. We want to read God’s word and believe it is completely true and trust that it speaks directly into our lives. I think it does in 1st John 5. But as we talk about the connection of love and obedience and we realize that it is impossible to be obedient on our own – our obedience to God is directly tied to the way we interact with people around us – and we have to admit that this can get complicated and messy.
Love is seen in our obedience. The primary commands Jesus gave were to love God and love neighbor. Problem #1 - our sins keep us from loving God much of the time. Problem #2 - Sin in general – our own and our neighbors’ make it horribly hard to love those neighbors. Problem #3 – there are forces of spiritual darkness that will strive to lead us as far away from loving relationships as possible.
Yet, First John not only says that love and obedience go together but also that Jesus’ commands are not burdensome. Maybe another word is in order. We’re talking about relational love here. Is relational love costly?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who was executed in a Nazi prison camp for plotting to assassinate Hitler, wrote many books. His most famous is called The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer reflects on the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus said the following.
“I say to you, do not resist an evil doer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matthew 5:39).
“If anyone … [takes] your coat, give your cloak as well” (v.40).
“If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile” (v.41).
“I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (v.44).
These commands – expressions of radical, sacrificial neighbor love – are burdensome, not easy. Bonheoffer got it right when he said it costs to be Jesus’ disciple. There is no room for a cheap grace. Jesus’ kingdom is not a place where I say the right words or pray the right prayer and thus assure myself of heaven, but live in such a way that it is obvious that Jesus has no influence over me in this life. We follow a Savior who commands that we love the unlovable and take up our crosses and die to self. Whatever First John 5:3 means, we cannot accept that the commands of Jesus are not burdensome.
Yet, Christian Philosopher and popular author Dallas Willard says we most definitely can and must embrace these commands and when we do, things in life actually lighten up. Willard grants that Bonheoffer wrote a masterful attack on cheap grace.[ii] He agrees with much of what Bonhoeffer said. However, Willard goes on to say that if discipleship is costly, the cost of non-discipleship is even greater. “Nondiscipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated throughout by love, faith that sees everything in light of God’s overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging of circumstances, power to do what is right and withstand the forces of evil.”[iii] The one who chooses to not follow Jesus and obey his commands goes without all these good things and misses out on the abundant life Jesus promised.
Where Dietrich Bonheoffer turns to Matthew 5, the Sermon on the Mount to show how much Jesus demands, Dallas Willard turns to Matthew 11 to show how light life is when we meet the demands of the master. Jesus said, “Come to me all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (11:28-30).
Back and forth it goes. Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount– “be perfect as my father in heaven is perfect.” First John, God’s commands are not burdensome. Dietrich Bonheoffer – we must yield ourselves to costly, sacrificial discipleship. Dallas Willard – when we obey God we discover an easy yoke and a light burden. Contemporary blogger Jodie-Renee Adams – if the yoke is easy and the burden light, why is loving my neighbor so gosh-darned difficult? First John – “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commands” (5:2).
How? How do we live as children of God? How do we love the children of God? Who are they? If we’re not sure who they are, should we love everybody just we won’t overlook the children of God? The answer to that question is yes. Love everyone and especially those we don’t to love.
Last week, I finished up by challenging each of us to identify those who we find it most difficult to love. I finished saying,
Who do you find it impossible to love? Your next door neighbor? Homosexuals? Arch conservatives? Who can you simply not love because the enmity and hate is too deep? Muslims? Terrorists? Communists? The father who abused you? The one who broke up with you just before the wedding? The child who did become the person you thought he should? Democrats? Republicans? Drug addicts? Convicted child molesters?
As we pray, in your mind, see in your mind the person you find it impossible to love. Ask God to show you how you will actively love that person this week.
Consider the ways Jesus actively loved people.
He was with his disciples, probably on a bit of a vacation up North, away from the crowd away from the predominantly Jewish areas, when a Syrophoenician woman came. She was a gentile and Jesus told her he came for the Jews, but she persisted. She expressed certainty that he could help her and seeing her faith, he healed her daughter of demon possession. On this occasion did not want to be bothered. But he let himself be bothered because he was full God’s compassion. He healed the gentile woman’s daughter as if she were a daughter of God because that’s exactly what she was. Jesus listened. The woman appealed to him in faith, and he listened. See Mark 7:24-30.
A stop in another non-Jewish region, Samaria, brought him into contact with a woman who had been turned out by five husbands and was now living under the roof of a man who wouldn’t even grant her a marriage. Jesus, a Jewish man, listened to the heart of this Samaritan woman. He considered her. She wasn’t just a rejected, lonely woman. She had ideas about moral propriety. She had ideas about ecclesiology and theology. Jesus listened to her, and to her, Jesus revealed the gospel truth and it is in spirit and in truth that we worship God whether we are in Samaria, Judea or somewhere else. To this broken, cast-out woman, Jesus stopped. He considered worthy of his time. See John 4.
At the end of Mark chapter 10, Jesus is leading the disciples and the crowds in a determined march to Jerusalem. All in the procession knew Passover was upon them and they would spend it in the city of David. Only Jesus knew the festivities would include him hanging on a cross. Yet, as they walked along, Jesus stopped to listen to the voice of Bartimaeus, a blind beggar. “Son of David, have mercy on me.” The crowd told the pathetic man in rags to shut up and get out of the way. And there wasn’t a thing poor Bartimaeus could do about it. Completely powerless, all he had was a voice, and when he was told to quiet down, he shouted louder. Jesus called him. Not only did he call him, but Jesus peered into Bartimaeus’ soul. On his way to die for the sins of humanity, Jesus made time to stop and listen. Jesus commended the blind man’s faith and restored his sight. The one cast aside and treated as dirt was now a sighted man and a new disciple, and Mark tells us he joined the procession. See Mark 10:46-52.
In these and other accounts, Jesus shows us how to live out what is taught in 1st John 5. He noticed people – blind men, begging women. He stopped. Even when going somewhere important, he stopped to help others because people matter in God’s scheme of things. He considered others. Think about someone you might know who it appears doesn’t have much to offer the world. Jesus disagrees. He considers everyone. He notices, stops, considers, and listens. How do we love everybody? We look around us, notice, stop, consider, and listen.
I agree with Jodi-Renee Adams. It is hard to love God and love neighbor. Sin makes it hard. But I also see Dallas Willard’s point that when we do what Jesus says, we discover that life is beautiful and good, and loving people with the love of Jesus feels wonderful and invigorating. To obey his commands and love the children of God makes our lives better, and why shouldn’t it? He promises that we will have an abundant life in which his joy is made complete.
To love, we do what Jesus did and do what he said. Stop. Notice. Consider. Listen. Spend time. Go the extra mile. Receive the pain of the wounded soul and return love for pain, beauty for ashes, grace for injury, and gladness for mourning and grief.
What does it cost? Everything that is in us. To truly love as Jesus loves costs us everything.
What do we gain? First John 5:4-5: “Whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.”
May we embrace costly discipleship. May we live under the easy yoke and the difficult but unburdensome commands of Jesus. May we go out and conquer the world by loving the children of God.
[ii] Willard (1988), The Spirit of the Disciplines, HarperSanFrancisco, p.262.
[iii] Ibid, p.263.