choose to love

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This article is the result of studying day 1 of the week 21 lesson in Deuteronomy (page 91) of Come, Follow Me. In these chapters God directly commands us to love Him. Can we simply choose to love someone by choice?

What are we looking at?

One of the big questions here is whether one can be commanded to love someone, and then have that person be able to do it. Isn’t love something we “fall into” or “fall out of”? For those who speak English as their first language, there is only one main definition of love, and it usually includes passion or erotic feelings. If you count slang terms, there is “luv”, the highly informal version of love we have for our pet or our favorite food. But the four letter version of the word is usually tossed around with connotations of physical appeal and an obligation of arousal attached to its use.

We all know that this isn’t the only kind of love, but society has used love in such a restricted way for so many decades that it is difficult for the rising generations to see love in any light other than as some version of eros, or romantic love.

The older folks know that romantic love, the passionate lustful feelings of love, may fade with time and life experience, but another form of love grows to become more important. Too bad we don’t have a word for it. The more mature form of love is more concerned with caring and comforting our mate than being drawn to their shape or physical beauty. Mature love cares more for the other person’s welfare, their general state of happiness, and their physical comfort. Beauty, sex appeal, muscles or “curves” all begin to fade into the background as one grows into this more mature kind of love. But even this kind of love is not quite what God is referring to when He commands us to love Him, and to love each other.

Scriptural examples

Let’s look at some examples from Deuteronomy and see what it is God appears to be describing when He talks of love (Deuteronomy 6:5-7).

And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.

And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart:

And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.

So not only are we commanded to love God with all our heart, soul, and might, but His words must be kept in our heart and we must teach them to our children. The direct commandment is to teach God’s words to them when we sit in our homes, take walks with them, and when we go to, and rise from, our beds. In other words, God’s words should occupy our thoughts at all times an in all places, and they should be the topic of conversation regularly in our home.

Here is Deuteronomy 8:2-5. God gives Israel a list of some of the ways He tested them and tried them to see if they would be obedient to Him. And by obedient I mean would they obey His commandments.

And thou shalt remember all the way which the Lord thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness, to humble thee, and to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldest keep his commandments, or no.

And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live.

Thy raiment waxed not old upon thee, neither did thy foot swell, these forty years.

Thou shalt also consider in thine heart, that, as a man chasteneth his son, so the Lord thy God chasteneth thee.

Verse 3 is interesting. He says that the purpose of manna was to demonstrate to the children of Israel that you really can live by every word that comes from the mouth of God. He fed them with His promise of sustenance every day for forty years in the form of a food never before seen by anyone. They didn’t eat leavened bread for forty years. This food acted unlike any food ever seen before. It behaved according to God’s commandment for them to gather only a particular amount five days out of the week then gather double that amount on the sixth day, and it didn’t even show up on the seventh day. If, during the first five days of the week, you gathered more than the commanded amount, what food you did gather would spoil, become filled with worms, and would stink. Yet when you gathered double that amount on the sixth day, as commanded, it was fine, so that you had no need to gather any on the seventh day and you could rest from your labors, again as commanded. The very food obeyed God’s commandments.

Israel may have gotten tired of eating just manna, but God had a lesson to teach them in longevity. They needed to see that he could sustain them indefinitely by the power of His word. But it didn’t stop at just their bread. His miracles extended to all their clothing. In forty plus years of wandering from place to place in a hostile desert, their clothing was just as good after two generations (forty years) as the day they left Egypt. And with all that hoofing about in the desert their feet never suffered from swelling, something they would have expected to have happen.

Finally, in these verses, God tells them that He has treated them like a man treats his own child. For the benefit of His children He chastened or corrected them. They needed to know what their Father (their God) expected of them. It was important that they come to learn of His personality, so they might come to expect His reaction in certain situations, so they could come to where they could trust how He would behave, and they could believe Him when He told them something. All these things were ways God was demonstrating to them His love and dedication. There was nothing romantic in this love, but a consistent choice on God’s part to be there and never abandon those He had chosen to love and honor. We know God loves all of His children, but for a number of reasons, those who qualify themselves through covenants get special treatment. 

How did God love Israel?

Here are a series of verses that describe just some of the ways God provided for His often unruly and ungrateful children. I have added underlining in certain verses to highlight the parts I want you to notice.

Deuteronomy 8:18

18 But thou shalt remember the Lord thy God: for it is he that giveth thee power to get wealth, that he may establish his covenant which he sware unto thy fathers, as it is this day.

In Deuteronomy 15:4-15 there are some important lessons to note. I have underlined what God has commanded them, and the reasons for why the commandment is given. He tells Israel that the poor will always be among them, but because of how blessed and prospered He will make them be, because they obey His commandments, they are to be liberal in how they treat the poor.

Save when there shall be no poor among you; for the Lord shall greatly bless thee in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance to possess it:

Only if thou carefully hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe to do all these commandments which I command thee this day.

For the Lord thy God blesseth thee, as he promised thee: and thou shalt lend unto many nations, but thou shalt not borrow; and thou shalt reign over many nations, but they shall not reign over thee.

¶ If there be among you a poor man of one of thy brethren within any of thy gates in thy land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thine heart, nor shut thine hand from thy poor brother:

But thou shalt open thine hand wide unto him, and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need, in that which he wanteth.

Beware that there be not a thought in thy wicked heart, saying, The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand; and thine eye be evil against thy poor brother, and thou givest him nought; and he cry unto the Lord against thee, and it be sin unto thee.

10 Thou shalt surely give him, and thine heart shall not be grieved when thou givest unto him: because that for this thing the Lord thy God shall bless thee in all thy works, and in all that thou puttest thine hand unto.

11 For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land.

12 ¶ And if thy brother, an Hebrew man, or an Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee, and serve thee six years; then in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from thee.

13 And when thou sendest him out free from thee, thou shalt not let him go away empty:

14 Thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy flock, and out of thy floor, and out of thy winepress: of that wherewith the Lord thy God hath blessed thee thou shalt give unto him.

15 And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the Lord thy God redeemed thee: therefore I command thee this thing to day.

Doesn’t this sound like something Jesus would have preached as a sermon? It smacks of “do unto others” and “if ye love me keep my commandments.” These twelve verses also remind us of the sermons Jesus taught in things like the parable of the good Samaritan, the widow’s mite, and others. In all these instances God is commanding Israel to act in loving and generous ways to each other. These are examples of that “different” kind of love, a love that grows through deliberately chosen service.

One last example

Finally, I give you this example of God’s love. I know you have heard this before, because it is taught in multiple places in the Book of Mormon as well. The Lord tells Israel that it is the nature of His covenant with them that living the covenant will bring them life, while breaking the covenant and turning from God will bring them death. It is their choice, but they only have two options on the table, life or death, happiness or misery. Here is Deuteronomy 30:15-20.

15 ¶ See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil;

16 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.

17 But if thine heart turn away, so that thou wilt not hear, but shalt be drawn away, and worship other gods, and serve them;

18 denounce unto you this day, that ye shall surely perish, and that ye shall not prolong your days upon the land, whither thou passest over Jordan to go to possess it.

19 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:

20 That thou mayest love the Lord thy God, and that thou mayest obey his voice, and that thou mayest cleave unto him: for he is thy life, and the length of thy days: that thou mayest dwell in the land which the Lord sware unto thy fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.

In case you don’t remember these options of life and death being offered in the Book of Mormon, refer to these verses. These are just a few of the references that talk about this topic in the Book of Mormon.

Helaman 14:31

31 He hath given unto you that ye might know good from evil, and he hath given unto you that ye might choose life or death; and ye can do good and be restored unto that which is good, or have that which is good restored unto you; or ye can do evil, and have that which is evil restored unto you.

Alma 29:5

Yea, and I know that good and evil have come before all men; he that knoweth not good from evil is blameless; but he that knoweth good and evil, to him it is given according to his desires, whether he desireth good or evil, life or death, joy or remorse of conscience.

3 Nephi 27:33

33 And it came to pass that when Jesus had ended these sayings he said unto his disciples: Enter ye in at the strait gate; for strait is the gate, and narrow is the way that leads to life, and few there be that find it; but wide is the gate, and broad the way which leads to death, and many there be that travel therein, until the night cometh, wherein no man can work.

God’s commandment to love

I hope you haven’t gotten lost to the topic at hand by now. I have been pointing out just some of the commandments God gave Israel that are still in force today. They are to be generous, kind, thoughtful, hard working, looking out for one another, and eager to keep God’s commandments. For this He promises prosperity as a people, the ability to care for the poor that are always among us, and that in the end, our efforts to be godly/holy in our conduct will bring us eternal life. What does all of this have to do with God’s commandment to love Him and to love each other? How are they connected?

God is talking about using a kind of love that many of us have only occasionally seen, but that God expects us to learn. The Greeks have a word for the ultimate expression of love, it is agape (aga·pe). Here are a couple of entries I found on the Internet about agape. Think about what they are saying.

The following quote comes from an article in entitled, What the Bible says about Godly love.

It is important to differentiate between this agape love and the other types of love mentioned in the Bible. Phileo love means “to be a friend to” or “to be fond of” a person or object, indicating “having affection for,” whereas Strong’s Concordance notes that agape “is wider, embracing especially the judgment and the deliberate assent of the will as a matter of principle, duty and propriety” (emphasis ours). Similarly, philadelphia love means “fraternal affection” or “brotherly love.” Agape love, though, is manifested first toward God, because it is a dutiful, submissive, obedient love, one that does what is right regardless of how a person feels about it. In other words, agape love has a moral core rather than an emotional one.

This moral core mentioned in the quote above means that we choose to fear (respect) God above all else in life. We all have an infinite debt owed to Him for sending us His Son to suffer for us and pay for our sins. It is the goodness of God that has paved our way back home to the celestial realm. For us to qualify for that eternal home, we must choose to learn to act in all things as God acts. This means putting God first in our life, emulating the life of His Son, and seeking the guidance of the Spirit in our constant practice of doing good wherever we can in life. This is the highest form of love, to put others’ needs and comforts before our own. It is by obeying God’s commandments to love Him and to love our neighbor as our self that we demonstrate our love for Him. Here is another quote from my Internet search. This next one is from a talk by Elder Russell M. Nelson at a BYU devotional.

Agape, Phileo, and Eros: A Higher Expectation of Love

“The New Testament contains many references to the Lord’s commandments that human beings love one another. Those verses become even more meaningful if considered in the New Testament’s original Greek language. It is a very rich language, having three different words for love, in contrast to the one available to us in the English language. The three Greek words for love apply at different levels of emotion. The term employed for the highest level of love is agape, to describe the kind of love we feel for the Lord or for other highly esteemed individuals. It is a term of great respect and adoration.

The second level of love is expressed by the term phileo, to describe affection felt for a beloved associate or friend. It, too, is a term of great respect, but perhaps less formal.

The third level of love is depicted by the term eros, to describe physical desire and intimacy.”

“ . . . Quoting the Lord: ‘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). Right! The level of love cited in this verse is that of agape: with highest respect.”

—Russell M. Nelson, “A More Excellent Hope,” 8 January 1995

My takeaway from the quotes above is that the love I was raised to know about is an emotion based kind of love, but the love God commands that we learn is not without emotion, but it is not controlled by or governed by emotion. Agape love “has a moral core rather than an emotional one.” Godly love is a choice, not just a feeling.

We all know that we can be very unlovable, yet God still loves us. Israel rebelled over and over again, yet He loved them as a husband loves his bride, even though in His words, she committed adultery when she (Israel) turned from him and went after other gods. He put her away for a while (the scattering of Israel), but with love and tenderness He promised to bring her back and love her more than He did at the first (the gathering of Israel from among the nations of the earth). This is a love that transcends a person’s immediate behavior. It is a love that extends itself unconditionally. That doesn’t mean that righteous judgment isn’t possible with it. Remember that with the covenant God has extended to us comes the possibility for eternal life or the ultimate cursing, eternal death. Which we receive is completely up to us, but our choice doesn’t change God’s love for us.

Godly love is a choice

The love God commands that we learn is something we have to choose to learn. We must learn to serve others, even when it is inconvenient or uncomfortable. Godly love (agape) is the love we demonstrate when we minister to each other by seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit. As we study the scriptures and put the love we experience from God in our own life into practice, we learn to demonstrate that same kind of love to others. This is why God says “If you love me, keep my commandments.”

Godly love requires longevity, as when God gave Israel manna for forty years, because that is what it took to teach them the lesson they needed to learn. There is no time limit to how long we serve and sacrifice for others as we learn godly love. So when we take on a ministering responsibility, it doesn’t matter if the person is difficult to love, repulsive to us, or outright antagonistic to us. If we want to learn godly love we seek the Spirit to soften our heart, and to soften their heart. We seek the Lord’s wisdom to find ways to be kind and genuine with them, no matter how we may feel.

The power in this godly love we are commanded to learn is that we don’t have to rely on feeling warm and fuzzy all over before we can jump in and do something for someone else. Godly love is as much a choice as the accompanying feeling that follows the good we do. Note that in godly love the good feelings, at least at first, follow the good works. Perhaps later on they precede them, but often we must seek our confirmation of the good we do after the fact. Faith in God first, good feelings later.

We need to become like Israel was commanded to be in the verses above. We must learn to be generous to a fault (not an actual fault, that is just an expression of being extremely generous). It is important that we study God’s word, make it a topic of conversation in our home, and a priority in our life. We need to teach our children and others around us of the generosity of God, His love for us, and the blessings that flow from being and doing good. This is all part of our sacramental covenant we renew each Sunday to remember Christ daily.

The promise God makes to us is that as we choose to keep His commandments, blessings will be opened to us that we couldn’t otherwise receive. We will be happier as a people, more prosperous, and the windows of heaven will open and blessings will be poured out upon our heads. Everything in the gospel of Christ points to our choosing to follow the path of godly love. But like all things, we must make that choice with the agency our Father in Heaven has given to us. It must be our choice, commanded or not. But we can’t expect the blessings if we aren’t willing to put in the work to learn to love as God loves. Just remember, it is more about our choices to do and be good than it is about being emotionally moved to be or do good.

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Can We Really Love on Command?