Can God Command Us to Love and Require It?
Note: this page is in support of both the love definition and the command definition pages in the Character of God and the Gospel Glossary.
Let’s look at the idea of a commandment to love.
“And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.” (Mark 12:29-30)
“Thou shalt love.” Is that command even possible? Love, the emotion, cannot be commanded. Love as an action, a behavior, can. One can be commanded to carry out an act that is loving and willingly obey it. However, love as an emotional response; it is not something we can even will in ourselves because it comes only as a reaction to what we see in another person.
“There cannot be a duty to love, but there might be a duty to do the sorts of things to and for a person that one would do without a sense of duty if one were to love.” (https://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/2016/03/can-love-be-commanded.html)
We are told to keep the most important commandment – to hear and pay attention to God’s word.
“And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord:” (Mark 12:29)
If we will do that – hear and do – actually follow His directions to hear (which means to listen) the result will be:
“And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.” (Mark 12:30)
At the end of that verse, Mark repeats that “this is the first commandment” referring back to the command to hear (verse 29).
Digging a little deeper into the Greek verb tenses here is informative. The “thou shalt love” is in the future indicative (rather than the imperative). The verses are stating both the cause (hear and follow God) and the result (you will come to love Him.)
|The result:||“Thou shalt love”||(Indicative)|
Love comes as an emotional response to lovely qualities we see in another. So there must be some beholding of those qualities to initiate that love (with the exception of a parent for their new-born child).
A look at the meaning of the Hebrew word for “love” (ahab אהבH157) through ancient Hebrew culture can help. “Jeff Benner gives this:
“Translation: Love Definition: To provide and protect that which is given as a privilege. An intimacy of action and emotion. Strong affection for another arising from personal ties.
We do not choose our parents or siblings, but are instead given to us as a gift from above, a privileged gift. Even in the ancient Hebrew culture ones wife was chosen [by parents for the young person]. It is our responsibility to provide and protect that privileged gift. In our modern Western culture love is an abstract thought of emotion, how one feels toward another but the Hebrew meaning goes much deeper. As a verb this word means “to provide and protect what is given as a privilege” as well as “to have an intimacy of action and emotion”. We are told to love Elohiym and our neighbors, not in an emotional sense, but in the sense of our actions.”
(Jeff Benner, Ancient Hebrew Dictionary, p13)
So love – the emotion – is not commanded but love as an action is. The emotion will follow, as Jeff Benner says, “arising from personal ties.” It is our connection to God, mainly through study of His word so that we can get to truly know Him, that will result in the feeling of love for Him within us.
“In that I command thee this day to love the LORD thy God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commandments and his statutes and his judgments, that thou mayest live and multiply: and the LORD thy God shall bless thee in the land whither thou goest to possess it.” (Deut 30:16)
The “command” to love is not “love me or else.” That would be inconsistent with a God of love Who honors free will. Rather, that command, as with all others, is for the purpose of blessing us as indicated by these and other verses:
“O that there were such an heart in them, that they would fear me, and keep all my commandments always, that it might be well with them, and with their children for ever!” (Deut 5:29)
“That thou mightest fear the LORD thy God, to keep all his statutes and his commandments, which I command thee, thou, and thy son, and thy son’s son, all the days of thy life; and that thy days may be prolonged.” (Deut 6:2)
“And the LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as it is at this day.” (Deut 6:24)
“I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live: ” (Deut 30:19)
Other examples include Deuteronomy 5:33; 6:3, 18. God’s commands are not so that God can get obedience but so that people may be blessed. They are for us not for Him.
The Action of Love
While you can’t command the emotion, you can command the action. Here is an interesting way to think of love not being something that can be commanded:
“One way around the difficulty is by reinterpreting what is meant by ‘love.’ While I cannot will myself to love you, I can will to act benevolently toward you. And while it makes no sense to command love, it does make sense to command benevolent behavior. ‘You ought to love her’ makes no sense; but ‘You ought to act as if you love her’ does make sense. There cannot be a duty to love, but there might be a duty to do the sorts of things to and for a person that one would do without a sense of duty if one were to love.”
Jesus commanded love as in copying His example:
“A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.” (John 13:34)
The love spoken of in this verse is not the emotion but actions that can be seen:
“By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” (John 13:35)
“Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.” (Gal 6:2)
“Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” (1 John 3:16)
More than Suggestions?
Have you ever heard someone say:
“They are the Ten Commandments, not the Ten Suggestions”?
When said, it is usually with an emphasis on the “not” as if to say God demands obedience and if you do not obey He will make you pay. Why is it said that way? Because people tend to view God as an authoritarian more concerned for His own honor than He is for our good.
That is the misconception of God’s character this website has as a goal to dispel. In fact, I would say that the Ten Commandments are closer to suggestions (meant for our blessing) than they are to commands (in the way they are often thought of).
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