For much of my life I failed to grasp what it means to love God. I know what it means to love my wife and kids. I can even love the stranger in need. But how can I love someone I cannot see? How can I love someone who does not speak to me audibly or even in sign language? How can I feel anything for this silent and invisible God?
I consoled myself with the notion that love is not a feeling at all and really has nothing to do with feelings. I told myself that love is not an emotion, but merely an act of the will. So to love God is to obey him. While this is true, it is only half true.
While love is not merely an emotion, nor is it a cold mechanical transaction in which parties do right by each other for mutual benefit as if they are trading commodities. A relationship with God, including conversion, has too often been likened to a mechanical process. Getting the right combination of coins in the vending machine will deliver the desired result. Reducing a real relationship with God to the working of any checklist, formula, system, or steps deemphasizes the relational nature of faith.
Faith in God, and love for God, is about relationship and not just a set of rules. If we learned anything from the Older Covenant it’s that mere compliance to law cannot save us. Even under Moses what God required was a contrite heart and a humble spirit. He doesn’t just want our compliance, but he wants our love. He doesn’t just want us to do right because we fear him, but because we actually feel something for him. Yes, I used the word “feel.” How can we really love anyone without feeling something for that person?
Real love entails affection. Jesus isn’t just after behavior modification. He wants our affection. Like an affectionate lover, God has wooed us to himself. Like an affectionate parent, he wants our obedience out of love and respect and not compulsion.
Our resurrected Lord asked Peter, “Do you love me?” He asked him three times, the first two times using the Greek word for committed love, which is agape. Each time Peter replied, “You know I love you,” using the Greek word for a close-knit friendship kind of love, which is phileo. By the third time Jesus asked, “Do you love me?” he used Peter’s term phileo (John 21:15-17).
Too many interpreters have thought this to mean that the first two times Jesus asked “Do you love me?” that he was asking for a committed love, but all Peter could bring himself to offer at the moment was friendship. So, it’s argued, that by the third time Jesus condescends to Peter’s level asking, “Are you sure that you can at least do that?”
But Peter wasn’t offering a love inferior to what Jesus wanted. Nor does Jesus condescend to Peter’s level by resorting to the use of phileo. But phileo is what the Lord really wanted all along.
While Jesus wants us to show our love in commitment to his lordship, Peter was willing to let his heart be the motivation. By the third time, Jesus wasn’t coming down to Peter’s level, but asking if Peter was really prepared to deliver on the love he claimed to possess. Yes, God wants our obedience. A disobedient lifestyle means one doesn’t love God regardless of how one claims to feel. But on the other hand, God doesn’t just want our obedience. He wants our affection.