Thou Shall Love

Free will and God

Thou Shall Love
The Denial of Saint Peter, 1660 by Rembrandt

Ted is a deranged man who lives in a cabin in the woods. One day Ted goes to the gas station for a can of soda and, while standing in line, meets the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. Her name is Gwen. Ted is so captivated by Gwen that he kidnaps and drives her to his isolated homestead in the woods. He traps her there but has no intentions of harming her. In fact, he treats her like royalty--buying her nice gifts, cooking her Michelin-quality meals, and even building her a sauna. No man has ever treated Gwen as well as Ted.

There's only one problem: she can't leave. Despite her pleas to be freed, Ted's patient response remains the same; she must love him because they were meant to be together. After weeks of failed attempts to escape, Gwen becomes resigned to her fate as a prisoner in this stranger's world. Then, three months in, something crazy happens; she falls in love with him.

This story is fictional, but the premise isn't. Sometimes hostages develop a bond with their captors that can feel like genuine affection. It's called Stockholm Syndrome. The prisoner thinks they're in love, but as outsiders, we see their delusion.

It's a truth we feel in our bones... that choice and love are inextricable. Even without being taught, we understand real love requires free will.

I grew up attending Sunday school and had read the commandments many times without ever questioning them. Until one day, as I re-read them, they seemed less straightforward than usual.

Jesus said the first and greatest commandment in the Bible is to love God with everything you are and everything you have.1

Wait. What?

I'm commanded by God to love... God?

We know free will is necessary to love, but wouldn't a command override will? If choice is inextricable from love, is it even possible to follow a God who requires you to love him? How can we truly love God back if he tells us we have to?

Isn't commanded love an oxymoron?

It turns out yes, but not in this case. As with nearly everything in the Bible, context is key.

First, a backstory. God's chosen people group throughout the Old Testament2 is called Israel. God repeatedly promises the forefathers of Israel that they will be a great nation and he will bless the world through their descendants. At first, they grow and flourish but eventually become enslaved to the Egyptians. Luckily, God hears their cries of oppression and frees them from slavery. He parts the Red Sea, delivers them out of Egypt, and brings them into the wilderness.3

Now in the wilderness, the Israelites are a newly freed people who have been slaves for so long that they don't know how to be human anymore. God teaches them who they were always supposed to be before they were dehumanized by slavery.

Enter the ten commandments.

Through these laws, God shows his people how to thrive in relationship with himself and each other--his grand design for humanity. These laws were less about control and more about God showing his people how they should live their lives in order to flourish. Moreover, if followed, the laws were supposed to purify the people so they could dwell with a perfect God.

But there was a problem that kept arising. The people couldn't uphold the law. They kept messing up, falling short, and sinning. This was a problem because God desperately wanted to be with his people, but his unchanging moral character was perfect. This perfect God would do anything to reach people except lower his moral standards.

In response to sin, God tells the Israelites to offer animal or grain sacrifices if they broke the law. The animal's blood would atone for their iniquity and put them in right standing with God again, so they could return to his presence.

Now that we have a backstory about Israel, let's return to the question of forced love. Specifically, let's look at the first of the original ten commandments: you shall have no other gods but me.4

When God gives the commandments to the Israelites, it's in the context of a covenant. God is renewing his promise to make Israel a great nation.

In modern terms, a covenant is like a contract. God is making a promise, but he's requiring something in return. The commandments are like the terms of the contract. If the people abide by the terms, he will bless them.

You shall love me alone  was not a public service announcement to the whole world to obey God "or else." It was a specific command directed at a specific group of people at a specific point in time. When God declares the law, he is not talking to the whole world. He is talking to a particular tribe of people called Israel.

But we can't view this as any regular contract. Remember, God is love, and what is the most love-filled contract two people can enter into? Marriage.

What do we call the terms of a marriage contract? Vows.

Mount Sinai, where the commandments are given, is less of a conference room and more of an altar. This is less of a business deal and more of a wedding.

The imagery that the scripture writers use here is astounding. The creator of the universe doesn’t want obsequious subordinates to boss around, he wants autonomous partners to do life with.

When God commands Israel to worship no other gods, he is not a dictator saying to his subjects, “Love me or I will kill you.” He is a bridegroom saying to his bride, “Don't cheat on me.” If this relationship is going to work, you must be devoted to me and me alone.

Later on in the New Testament, what is the repeated metaphor Jesus uses to illustrate his relationship with his people?

Bride and groom. He is the bridegroom. His people are the bride.5

At a wedding, a groom doesn't even need to say to his bride, "promise me you won't have an affair." It's a given that he desires all his bride’s love and devotion, yet God spells it out. He doesn't want to share his peoples' love.

If you keep reading though, the honeymoon phase is over before it begins. The Israelites don't hold up their end of the deal.

They break their vows. They break the covenant. They idolize other gods. They disobey. They cheat. They dishonor. They place other gods before capital-G God.

Their unfaithfulness was not a one-time "I slipped up, it meant nothing, and it'll never happen again" type of event, but unapologetic affair after unapologetic affair.

When a man really loves his wife, how does he react if he catches her cheating? Extreme jealousy. If he were indifferent to the matter, we would question if he ever even loved her.

So it makes sense that God, the bridegroom, is crushed by his bride's infidelity, and his jealous wrath is consuming.6

God is so angry, wounded, and frustrated by his people that he regrets ever creating them.7 Many times, he wants to destroy them.

There's this tension throughout the Bible. God loves his people so much and desperately wants to be with them, but his people are incapable and/or unwilling to love him back via their obedience.

Again, we have a perfect God who cannot dwell with his imperfect people.

How is God going to resolve all this?

The answer comes thousands of years later in the form of a carpenter from Nazareth named Jesus.

Remember how God can't lower his moral standards because his character is unchanging? He couldn't just forgive his people without a cost.

Remember all the bloody sacrifices the Israelites made to atone for their sin. It would never be enough.

Cue Jesus, God's love wrapped in flesh, crucified on a cross.

God unleashes his wrath for his people, not on them, but on himself.

Through Jesus, God makes a new covenant with his people. A sacrifice that isn't sealed with animal blood, but by his own perfect blood.

All so that the perfect God could have a relationship with his imperfect bride.

This is why the Bible is such an amazing picture of grace. Humanity could never keep up her end of the contract, but instead of divorcing his adulterous bride, God dies for her.

In this new covenant, God invites all of humanity into a relationship with him. He asks us to be his bride. You. Me. Us. With all our flaws and unfaithfulness and filth.

He knows no one can perfectly keep his commands which is why his son's blood covered all of humanity's sin.

Remember how he promised to bless the world through the Israelites? Jesus came from Israel. He was a Jew.

So yes, God commanded us to love him. He truly wants us to, but his love for us is not dependent on our obedience to him.

Free will and commanded love were made compatible through amazing grace.

Even when we don't love him, he loves us. Even when we don't keep our end of the deal, he keeps up his.8 Even when we break our vows, he fulfills his.

He says, even if you don't, I do.


I'm just a girl with a Bible, not a theologian. If you have thoughts on this topic I'd love to hear from you, even and especially if I'm wrong.

The opening story is fictional, but it was probably inspired by an episode of Criminal Minds.

  1. Matthew 22:36-40
  2. If you're unfamiliar with the Bible, the Old Testament is the story of the God's chosen tribe, Israel, (and really the story of all of humanity) up until the birth of Jesus. The New Testament starts with the Birth of Jesus.
  3. Exodus 14
  4. Exodus 20:3
  5. Mark 2: 19-20 and Ephesians 5
  6. Ezekiel 16
  7. Genesis 6
  8. Genesis 15