It started out great. She liked me and I liked her. We hugged and held hands and spent entire Saturdays together. It was great for about a month or so. But then I said something that triggered a downward spiral.
One day, I mentioned that it had been a hard day, and that I could really use a good hug when we met up. Then I added, “Sorry, I feel a little bit like a needy middle school girl.”
She bristled at the word “needy” and said that it made her uncomfortable. I had only meant it as a joke, but she has had bad experiences with needy guys, and was watchful for any neediness I might have. I reassured her that no, of course I didn’t mean it like that. But we soon discovered that something was lurking beneath my actions.
The further my girlfriend backed away, the more I tried to earn back her affections. I drove 40 minutes to her house whenever she had a rough day. I made her gifts and brought her milkshakes (which I knew she loved). I did all sorts of nice things for her. But if I’m honest, it wasn’t necessarily because I liked her that much. It was because I wanted her to hug and hold me again, I wanted to feel loved again.
Wanting to feel loved isn’t necessarily bad. But I knew something was wrong when I realized that every time I hung out with her, I left angry. I would go out of my way to do nice things for her, but she still wasn’t giving me her affection in return.
Of course my anger made her want to give it even less. She really just wanted to hang out with me and have fun, with no obligations. This eventually broke our relationship, and in our last conversation as a couple I realized what I had been doing. I was trying to earn her love, and I resented her when she didn’t give what I felt I had earned, and it was a big part of what soured the romance.
I’m not sure where my desperate desire to be loved stems from. But I’m guessing most of us have some element of this need and insecurity in our relationships, perhaps even in our relationship with God.
Love First, Then Obey
When we want to feel that God loves us, we often try to behave better so that He’ll love us more, or so that we can earn something from Him. For example, I try to abstain from lust because I think that maybe God would bring me a better wife if I did. But is that really the right reason for “obedience”—doing something for God so He’d do something for me? Is that really love?
As my relationship with my girlfriend fell apart, I remembered that God said in 1 John 4:19, “We love because he first loved us.” We don’t love God so that He will love us. We love Him because He already loves us. I was relieved but also a little convicted. My attempts to obey were basically an effort to earn something from God, instead of simply loving Him.
So how can we show our love for Him? 2 John 1:6 says, “And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands.” Our obedience isn’t how we earn God’s love—it is an outpouring of the love we already feel for God. So God doesn’t merely want us to obey, He wants our love. That’s pretty cool.
Like a parent, God encourages us to good actions because He knows it will bring us a better life. After God lovingly and miraculously delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, He had Moses tell them, “Be sure to keep the commands of the Lord your God and the stipulations and decrees he has given you. Do what is right and good in the Lord’s sight, so that it may go well with you. . .” (Deuteronomy 6:17-18).
God is saying, I want you to obey Me because it will make a very good life for you. We obey God not so we can earn His love, but because we know He loves us, and we trust that He gave us these commandments for a good reason. Obeying God’s commandments doesn’t mean that we will avoid all trouble or persecution, but it helps us avoid the natural consequences that irresponsible actions and sinful living can bring upon us.
In fact, a few verses earlier, we have what Jesus later cites as the greatest commandment, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5). The commandment is simply to love God! But then you may ask, how do I make myself love something?
Hang Out With God
In the verses immediately following, we are given some specific instructions that seem to be placed right after the command in order to help us foster that love in our hearts. We are told to put God’s words before us and around us, and to talk about them always (Deuteronomy 6:6-9).
God just wants us to hang out with Him and enjoy Him! For me, this sometimes means reading the Bible during little breaks, putting verses up around my room, and bringing up what I’m learning in my quiet time when I talk to my friends.
It’s like what my ex-girlfriend wanted. She just wanted someone to be with her, do life with her, and hang out with her. She didn’t want to be obligated to love me just because I was trying to earn it. When we read those verses in Deuteronomy, this sounds like what God wants us to do as well. Just hang out with Him, think about His words, and talk about Him with others. Maybe this is the right way to foster our love for God, and obedience comes naturally because we love Him.
But even in a worldly relationship, we don’t always feel “in love” with someone, yet we still treat them in a loving way. And we should try to do the same for God. So even when we don’t experience the mountain-top love of God at a given moment, or when our heart doesn’t automatically motivate us to stop sinning, we must still try. Because we know that, even during those times we’re not super excited about a relationship, we still love the person—and God—and we don’t want to hurt them.
When I don’t feel that passion, I try my best to wait faithfully until it returns. It also helps when I surround myself with God’s Word and other people who love him. At the end of the day, I trust that God’s love is always waiting for me. Even if I walk away in a moment of weakness, God is always waiting for me to return and again enjoy His love.
My attempts to earn what I want from people will probably be something I struggle with throughout my life. But acknowledging that it is my struggle helps keep me aware of it, so I can intentionally focus on enjoying God’s presence and fostering my love for Him again.