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If You Love Me . . .

To love God, we must keep his commandments. But let's not be simplistic about this.

If you love me . . .

There are variations on the phrase. If you really loved me. If you love me at all. Imagine the phrase on the lips of the exasperated parent. The frustrated spouse. Perhaps with further variations, we might hear it from other authority figures or close relations. And in most of those scenarios, the conditional statement has a ring of desperation coming from human need, even manipulation. The relationship, whatever it is, comes to bear on a particular question of action or nonaction. Do this, don’t do that, so you will demonstrate the truth of your love.

In this human context, it is not surprising that people may hear some kind of conditionality or need in the Lord’s words: “If you love me, keep my commandments.” Is Jesus just like the angry mom trying to goad her child into action? Or does he somehow need our love and our obedience? Neither of these is a very happy possibility.

To understand our Lord’s words, we have to understand who he is. He is no mere human prophet expressing human neediness. Nor is he merely some quasi-divine authority who can control us only through manipulation. He is the eternal divine Son, consubstantial with the Father. His words are truth.

In any human relationship, the absolute equation of obedience and love would be idolatrous. But this is no ordinary human relationship. Jesus can claim that our obedience to him is love because he is God, because in his nature there is no distinction between eternal law and eternal love. It is always tempting in our finite thinking to imagine God’s justice as different from his mercy, or his law as different from his love. But Christian theology has always understood that God’s transcendence—his utter distinction from all created being—requires his simplicity. God has no parts; he is not a composition. The divine attributes are not, like for us, external descriptions that adhere to our character; for God, the divine attributes simply are the divine nature itself.

So to seek some kind of relationship with God’s mercy and love apart from his justice is a kind of delusional escape from relationship with the true God as he has revealed himself. Jesus says it quite directly by implication: not keeping the commandments entails a refusal of the gifts of the Spirit; it means not only that we do not truly love God, but that we do not even really know God, because the revelation of the Son and of his Father is possible only to those who abide in his love.

Does this mean that God’s love for us is conditional? No. It may seem that way. But again, we’re not dealing with human relationships. We’re talking about God. God doesn’t change. God’s goodwill to us in creation and redemption is absolute and unconditional. He didn’t say, in Genesis, “Let us create man in our own image if only he will love us and keep our commandments.” Nor did the divine Son offer his life in atonement for the sins of the world out of some kind of conditionality, where his gift would be withdrawn if we didn’t check all the boxes.

But God’s unconditional love for us in Jesus Christ doesn’t mean that our love for him can be defined however we want. We have to love him for who he is, not who we want him to be.  When we allow ourselves to be corrupted by sin, we turn our eyes away from God and toward ourselves. That just isn’t love, even if we want it to be. If I tell my wife that I love her but go about life acting as though she didn’t exist, or destroying her work, that claim means nothing. Again, God is much greater than any human relationship. But God’s gifts to us, in Jesus and in the Spirit, take hold, so to speak, only when we are open and able to receive them.

“Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts,” St. Peter tells us (1 Pet. 3:15). Or, in another translation, “in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord.” But the apostle then immediately speaks to us about good behavior, which is the outward expression of this devotion. It’s not that Christ isn’t Lord if he is not sanctified in us. But we are, as St. Paul says in Ephesians (2:9), “his workmanship.” Peter’s classic line about being prepared to explain “the hope that is in you” is important not as the commission for professional apologists, but as the vocation of all Christians. If you love Jesus, you will act accordingly, and you will have no problem speaking about this love. The integral relationship between love and obedience is the most visible way that we display the truth of the gospel to the world.

And what is the content of that obedience? Jesus affirms that the whole of divine law is summarized by the two commandments to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and to love our neighbor as our self. Holy Church also gives us a set of precepts that are not themselves the universal law, but which authoritatively express the particular way that this law is lived out in the Church. These are the reminders of our duty to observe Sundays and holy days, to observe the Church’s days of fasting and abstinence, to give to the material needs of the Church, and to receive Holy Communion and the sacrament of penance at least once a year. These are all serious obligations for Catholics, not merely some pious ideal for heroic saints and cloistered contemplatives. Put in another way, they outline some of the most obvious ways that our external behavior expresses the truth of what is within.

Does this mean that our witness is doomed if we’re not perfect? Certainly not. What does St. Peter say again? “Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you.” Hope is the expectation and longing for something that is not yet attained. I think one implication here is that apologetics and explanation wouldn’t be necessary in the same way if we were all just perfect all the time. But we’re not; we are sinners in need of grace. So a pretty big part of Christian integrity is the recognition of this fact — which is why, if we can turn back to the precepts of the Church, we are required to make our confession at least once a year. True love of God is obedience. But our love and our obedience are, in this life, on a long pilgrimage toward perfection.

Where might Jesus be calling us to grow in love and obedience? What parts of life do we need to unite more fully with our supernatural vocation? May the Lord give us both the wisdom to know what we ought to do and the strength to do it.

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