If ye love me, keep my commandments.
John 14:15 is a verse I first became familiar with because I was asked to memorize it. When I first reflected on its meaning it seemed like nonsense: a commandment to obey commandments seems hardly worth mentioning. Later I came to appreciate it as a succinct expression of why a non-Wesleyan might choose to obey God even if they didn’t believe that choice would qualify them for heaven. More recently, I reflected that its audience was the twelve during the Last Supper and after the departure of Judas Iscariot. That fact made it seem a little odd, for wouldn’t the apostles by this time be about as clearly desirous to obey as most mortals get?
I suspect that even the greatest of mortals will at times face choices they know they ought to make one way—commandments, if you will—but that are more difficult that their own interest in being true to themselves will motivate them to make in that way. I hear the phrase “I know I shouldn’t, but…” applied to eating too much, or not exercising, or the like with what is, to me, astonishing frequency. I doubt any are immune to this thought process.
But one of the versions of this thought I hear is “I can’t; my wife/husband/mother/father would kill me”—spoken not in fear of death but rather in fear of disappointing a loved one who cares more for our doing the right thing than we care ourselves. The ultimate example of someone who cares more for my happiness than do I is God. He loves us more than we love ourselves, cares more earnestly for our eternal welfare than we can even imagine caring. His hurt in seeing us hurt ourselves exceeds that of any parent or spouse.
I suspect that Christ was giving his apostles a parting gift, a key to the power necessary to make it through life well. Our love of God, who loves us beyond measure, can be a more powerful motivator than enlightened self interest, self respect, pride, or any other motivator of which I know. Perhaps what Christ meant was “when the going gets tough, do it for me.”
The closest analogy I can make here is to my experiences talking with suicidal friends. Aside: I’ve had a variety of suicidal friends, some of whom would talk to me and some who wouldn’t. Talking someone out of it is not as easy as saying “I love you;” ’tis one of the most difficult and exhausting experiences I’ve had. But for the sake of analogy… When people are truly near taking their own life, I find that no amount of reasoning with them will make them care about themselves. But each time I’ve been able to say to them with full earnest honesty “I love you, and it would hurt me to see you kill yourself” after a few dozen repetitions (it takes people so distraught some time to believe anyone can love them) they have been able to hold onto that. They have been able to choose life at least in part for me.
I hesitate to state what any writer intended by any text My first and best book club’s motto was “we do not believe in original intent,” a fascinating motto when my own writings were the text discussed. but I offer it as my guess that John 14:15 is not intended as a guilt trip, an excuse for the unloving to violate all other commandments, not a preaching for or against enlightened self interest. Rather, I suspect it is a gift.