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Understanding love as a law, not a special reward

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Adam Miller at Deseret Book's Questions Worth Exploring

“What if we understood love as a divine commandment and not as a reward?” This is the question Adam Miller, author of Original Grace an Experiment in Restoration Thinking, and other titles, addressed at the third Questions Worth Exploring event. To provide part of an answer, Miller examines the parable of the prodigal son. Looking at the story with this question in mind helps broaden our understanding of love as a divine commandment.

Miller shares how easy it is to identify with both sons in the parable when we look at love as something to be earned rather than as a commandment. The younger son asks for his inheritance and upon receiving it,“thinks he’s gotten the reward he wanted.” Miller shares, “He assumes he has successfully liquidated his father’s love, but in the process, he’s misunderstood what love even is.” Looking at love as a reward, it seems like it can be measured out and spent, in the same way as the younger son in the parable spent away his inheritance. The inevitable feelings from viewing love this way are "shame and hopelessness," Miller explains. “They’re the inescapable shadows cast by every backwards and disobedient attempt to deserve love and be loved.”

The older son in the parable feels that he has earned love through obedience and thus deserves more of his father's love than his younger sibling. “If like the elder son, you try to earn love and imagine that you’ve succeeded, you still won’t find love,” Miller says. “Instead, you will predictably inescapably be filled with anger, bitterness, and judgment.”

In my own experience, I recognize how I’ve looked at love in what Miller calls a "backwards" way. I often, mistakenly, think that the more I do for others, or the more I give to others, the more love I will receive or deserve. When that love doesn’t come from those I serve, I am inevitably disappointed or upset. But this is me looking through a telescope the wrong way, to use Miller’s metaphor. When I choose to serve because I first love God and others, then I am choosing to love as a commandment. It's flipping my telescopic view around to see with the broader lens God meant for me to use. “When I start looking through the right end of the telescope, then life snaps into focus. My eye becomes single. Shame and fear burn away, and the world is filled with light.” Miller says. “I see that God loves me and regardless of what I think is deserved, regardless of how I’ve failed to love, God is always and forever inviting me again to join Him in obeying this love.” The Missionary Standards for Disciples of Jesus Christ explains it this way, “God loves you. Choose to keep the commandments because you love God. Do not try to make deals with the Lord and expect specific blessings by adjusting what is required of you.”

When I was a full-time missionary, I did my best to follow the rules, but I generally misunderstood love as a commandment, as described by Miller in his address and in the missionary standards guide. There was a time when one of my companions was quite ill, and we had to stay in our apartment for several days. In looking at love backwards, I saw these days as not doing or being enough to be fully loved and supported by God with our missionary work, even though my companion desperately needed the rest. As soon as she showed a small sign of feeling better, I scheduled an appointment for us without asking if she felt well enough to make the trip, feeling that I needed to earn more of God’s love and, in a way, bargaining for divine help with our work. Looking back, with the telescope pointed in the right direction, I see how loving my companion with the understanding of love as a commandment would have helped me see her need to rest and fully recuperate before running out to serve and teach again. I wouldn’t have been afraid of losing God’s love because we weren’t doing a regular week of missionary work, I would have understood God loved us even when we needed to stay home.

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Paige Sommer with her companion in Milan.

Miller points out the father in the story of the prodigal son as an example of how it looks to demonstrate love as a divine commandment. “The father, understanding love’s true nature, never treats love as something people do or don’t deserve. He never treats love as a special reward. Rather, for the father, love is always a law.” The love he has for his sons doesn’t increase or decrease based on their actions though one was obedient and the other spent away his inheritance. The father's love simply, but profoundly, is constant.

Thankfully, my companion forgave me and she is still a dear friend today who I love. Miller shares, “As a prize, love will always look impossibly small and far away. But as a work, love is always magnified, love is always at hand.”

Adam Miller’s complete address, along with the other talks and the Q&A from Questions Worth Exploring session three, will soon be available for download from Deseret Book.

► You may also like: ‘Questions Worth Exploring’: A new speaker series from Deseret Book

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