My Tuesday morning ladies’ group just finished a study of 1, 2, and 3 John. We used Kelly Minter’s terrific study, What Love Is. When we started, I was skeptical. Have you seen 1, 2, and 3 John? They’re tiny. Gnat-sized. 2 and 3 John barely take up a page together. The only way Kelly was going to be able to fill the 7-week study was to pad it with fluff, or so I thought.
Well, it turns out there’s nothing fluffy about the apostle John. Also the writer of the Gospel of John, he was one of the original 12 disciples. Unlike the others, who were martyred, John lived to old age – long enough to see the spread of Christianity. With this growth came challenges for the early church, and John was right there reminding these early believers that no matter what, they should love God and each other. John brings home some important themes in his brief epistles, but he circles back to one in particular. Like a call to arms, John says one thing over and over: to love God is to obey His commands.
I am propelled by perfectionism and duty. I grew up as a classic “good girl” who tried hard to follow the rules. However, I’ve found that a sense of duty taken too far can result in anxiety and perfectionism. But old habits die hard, so when I read 1 John 2:3, “Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments”, I felt as if I had just been called to the blackboard to do a calculus equation. I knew there was truth somewhere in there but it felt so burdensome that I had no motivation to solve it. It was a familiar dilemma: my “good-girl” side told me I had to work hard to keep God’s commandments or I risked displeasing God if I didn’t instantly obey. Obey what? I didn’t even know. I just figured I was probably blowing it somewhere.
And in verse 5 it got worse: “whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him”. Instead of taking the verse as a whole, I fixated on that word “perfect” and the pressure of it poured into my soul and dropped over me like a black suffocating mask. In that moment my life of faith was a list of do’s and don’ts: keep the word. Obey without question, or I won’t be perfect.
Abiding Comes First
It was time to remind myself of what I do know. One thing I’ve learned, through hard wrestling with God, is that He and I have different definitions of the word “perfect”. I’ve always taken the word literally, as in, the only way to please God is to act flawlessly all the time. Stumbling like I do when I navigate my house in the dark – it’s familiar territory, yet blurred – I read on to 2:24, “Let that abide in you which you heard from the beginning… (and) you will also abide in the Son and in the Father.” According to the notes in my study Bible, the thing that abides in us “from the beginning” is the good news of our salvation through Jesus’ sacrificial death.
Reading that description, I felt my soul relax as I pondered the idea that if I let the truth abide in me – that the gospel of grace has covered me –I can rest in the fact that when God looks at me, He sees Jesus. It’s not about my perfect behavior. It’s never been about my behavior. The verse says that the more I allow this truth to settle in me, the more I abide in Jesus and His Father. It’s a package deal. Abiding in the truth equals abiding in the Trinity – and it’s not dependent on my dutifulness.
The Fruit of Love
If I had any doubts, they were put to rest by what I read in chapter 3 verse 1: “behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God! Nothing is mentioned here about expecting us to be flawless. God treats us as the dearly loved children we are. I began to see that abiding presses us into deeper relationship with God. Being in deeper relationship causes us to love more deeply. And what happens when we love? We want to do what pleases the object of our affections. That’s really just another way of describing obedience.
My problem was that I was trying to put the cart before the horse by focusing on duty and behavior as my mark of love. But obedience is the fruit of love, not the cause of love. That’s why John is able to state over and over again that if we love God, we will obey Him. He’s saying, “now if you’re wondering whether you really love God, here’s how to know.”
Wow. This changes everything. The smothering mask of duty-bound perfectionism drops off and I can see that it’s the Trinity in me who transforms me from the inside out. What a relief that it’s not up to me to change me! My part is to simply let Him do it, while I sink deeper into the fragrant oil of His grace.