By Alistair Begg
If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well.
The last time you said you loved someone or something, what did you mean?
In our age, we often equate love with a certain emotional experience. People declare “love” based on how they feel. It’s no surprise, then, that the idea of acting lovingly out of a sense of duty sounds strange to our ears. Surely if an action is dutiful, it cannot be done out of love?
The book of James offers quite a different view of the relationship between love and duty. When James wants to summarize the law of God, he does so with the words “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The law, in other words, is fulfilled by love. We must therefore make it a priority to understand what love is and what it is not.
James does not mean that the law is fulfilled when we feel a certain way about our neighbors. Anyone who has read James—or much of the Bible at all, for that matter—knows this cannot be the case. For one thing, the Ten Commandments, which are the heart of the Old Testament law, say very little about how we ought to feel but quite a lot about what we ought to do. The commands against murder, adultery, lying, and stealing are aimed at our actions. And laws like these, says James, can be summarized as “Love your neighbor.” How do we love our neighbor, then? By doing the right thing.
Consider also the significance of James’ phrase “as yourself.” How often do any of us feel really great about ourselves and find ourselves truly and wholly lovely? Rarely, I would guess. And yet, despite how we feel about ourselves, we most likely see to it that we are cared for. Our love for others ought to be in this way as well. The absence of emotional intensity does not excuse us from obedience.
This does not mean that the right response is to be content with a cold heart as long as we are gritting our teeth and doing the right thing. We should want our affections toward others to match our actions, and we ought to pray toward that end. But we should also understand the role our emotions play in our love. Emotions make a great servant but a poor master. They can serve us in doing the right things, but they cannot be our guide for what we should and shouldn’t do. Indeed, sometimes it is only once we have decided to act in love that our feelings catch up. Pray today, then, for your affections to be pleasing to God, and for you to fulfill His royal law as you act in love toward your neighbors by obeying Him.