Obey me, says Jesus. "Love each other as I have loved you." The outcome, he says, is that his joy will become our joy. Joy is the essence of life as God intended it to be, the climax of his relationship with his people. All of God's goodness has in it the quality of undiminished joy. Joy is his nature, and when we are joyless we may be sure we have rejected him, ignored him, or misunderstood him in some measure, great or small. Surely hell is the consequence of the final consummate rejection of God's love, and therefore of joy!
God commands us to love, because he knows what all of us sooner or later discover, that love is the parent of joy. Love is our deepest need, and when that need is met, the result is joy. But only the loved can be loving. How wise the proverb that says "the earth trembles under...an unloved woman when she gets a husband." How suggestive are these wise words of our human demands for love and the intolerable burden we place on one another when our need for love is not fulfilled. The history of humanity bears eloquent witness to our exploitation of one another in the vain attempt to coerce love, to use one another to satisfy our own deep need and know the joy for which we were created.
If love cannot be coerced, is Jesus then playing some cruel trick on us when he commands us to love one another? God knows we have tried to be loving. Sometimes it even seemed easy--like falling in love, for instance, or the sweet mutuality of friendship, or nurturing a child, or sympathizing with someone's distresses. There was joy in those moments. But always it was a bittersweet joy that saw sadness and rebuff or rebuke as an enemy and a despoiler of our joy. Thus, when the object of love becomes unlovable or spurns our attentions, joy is displaced by despair. Or when the friendship or family tie becomes possessive or burdensome, our joy is smothered. Love that cannot endure hardness and rejection produces ephemeral joy. Small joys flourish and die with small loves.
In the small successes and large failures of human loves, we may flounder and rebel, become callous and bitter. There is, however, an alternative which we may choose. Often the desire to pursue the alternative is born of disillusionment and discontent with the futile attempt to fill the vacuum in our lives with loves and joys too small, too transient, to meet our need. It is doubtful that we will ever come to terms with either the emptiness of our small loves or the reality of the great love until we choose to renounce the lesser for the supreme.
But when we look to the superlative love to which Jesus enjoins us, we must quickly realize that such love is impossible for us to perform. Our best efforts produce only small loves and therefore small joys, mere shadows of the tough-yet-tender, godly love that is suited to every dimension of our humanity. Jesus calls us to love and joy so rich and rewarding, so constant and consuming, that by its light shadows vanish, imitations are readily appraised, and we can live with life as it really is. But such love is beyond our poor human powers. Jesus Christ is the only one who can call us to genuine love, because he has preceded his command with all we need to meet that demand: himself!
Jesus Christ offers to love us with unconditional, unremitting love. Because he is love, he does not need our love to complete himself, so the love he offers us is complete and irrevocable. His love does not need to be sustained by our faithfulness; therefore, it remains intact in the face of our failure. He does not love us because we are lovable, but because he is good.
God loves us so much that he will not allow us to have our own way (living without regard for others), without warning us of the consequences. He made it clear from the beginning that we could not live joyfully with ourselves or with one another apart from him. We cannot find the way without his Word to guide us. He came in person and lived it for us all to see. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus interpreted for us the Law and the Prophets of the Old Testament, so we could make no mistake about what is needed to live together in harmony and joy.
Because God so loved this rebel humanity, he died the death, the ultimate death, that represents all of our accumulated sin, washing away the incredible insult to his goodness and justice. Now he offers us the forgiveness for which we could never pay, the only way we can ever be without blame before him against whom we have sinned, from whom we have gone astray into barrenness, futility, and joylessness. Luke records Jesus' parable of the lost sheep which the loving shepherd sought and found, calling in his friends and neighbors to rejoice that the one sheep--insignificant to us among ninety-nine-- was found. This, Jesus says, pictures the joy in heaven over one repentant sinner.
God's love will not compromise with the evil that destroys us and blights our joy. His love heals and redeems us, and brings to fruition all the beauty and joy God meant for our humanity. His love so envelops us that we may squarely face reality, with its mixture of sadness and joys, learning to live redemptively with either or both.
The apostle Paul describes the ultimate in human love: "Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man--though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die." Then he goes on to contrast God's superlative love: "But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners (while we were enemies) Christ died for us" (Romans. 5:7,8 RSV). Again and again we are reminded that God has freely endowed us with his great love so that we, being infinitely loved, may be free to share that same quality of love with others, without regard for what we may receive in return. Unless or until our own need is supplied through Christ's loving sacrifice, and we are accepted and forgiven and loved, we can only relate to others in terms of our need. Such relationships are at best capable of only small and threatened love, yielding small and tentative joy.
The place to begin, then, is to bring to God our emptiness and inadequacy, and the stockpile of resentment and anger we have accumulated in our demands for love and joy. There in the Father's house we will be accepted as sons and heirs We will find the full price has been paid for our sin, our lovelessness against God and humanity. And our hearts will sing with the joy of being loved as only God can love us.
Thus loved, we are free to make a deliberate and voluntary choice to love both God and our fellows. Since love's obedience cannot be coerced we may choose to love only because we are loved by God. Our response is motivated by his love. Or as 1 John 3:16 (RSV) states: "By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren." (Incidentally, although chapter and verse designations are obviously uninspired, 1 John 3:16 is an interesting parallel, or corollary to John 3:16!)
How do we know he loves us? Because in the person of his Son he laid down his life for us, when we were yet his enemies, to free us from our bondage to self-centeredness. He gave himself to free us from the arrogant flaunting of others' rights that blights our relationships, disrupts God's created world (we call it ecological imbalance), and makes obsolete the joy God intended for us all. To live in joy is to live in growing acknowledgment of that great love. Having freely received it, we may freely give to others, sharing together the gigantic joy produced by the superlative love.
We will need to come again and again to the Source--not because God's love fails, but because we fail his love. With crass ingratitude, we regress and lay our demands for love on those who cannot love, who in fact cannot relate to our lovelessness. Bit by bit, step by step, he will free us to love the unlovely, to love our enemies and to love our friends with self-abandonment. Joy will increase as we learn to come to him for the superlative love that produces gigantic joy.