When Jesus asked Peter thrice, as recorded in John’s gospel, “Do you love me”; Peter replies the third time, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
I used to wonder what he meant by this. Sure, the commentaries may have answers to the ponderous nature of my query, but I wanted to play with it myself a tad longer.
Over the years, I’ve sensed Jesus asking me the same question: “Do you love me?” As I observed my responses, I noticed a trajectory which if I were to distance myself from would be put down as ‘hmm…interesting’ and, which if I were to allow myself to experience, always hurled me into a swirl of conflicting emotions.
“Do you love me?”—Have you been asked that by people in your life? My response has often been nonsensical. From “I do” and “No, I don’t” being the most obvious to “I love you this way but not that way” or “love is a decision, so in that sense, yes” or “love is sacrifice and duty so in that sense, no” … You get the picture?
I began to realise soon enough that I had no idea what I really meant by ‘love’. My love seemed to be too mood dependent, passion dependent, hormone dependent, weather dependent. I doubted if that was the kind of love Jesus was referring to when He queried Peter. Likewise, I began to dread Jesus’ question for I knew little what kind of love response was expected of me.
My startling discoveries about ‘love’ from the Bible were in conjunction with obedience. Take these examples from the Gospel of John, for instance.
If you love me, keep my commands (14:15).
Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching (14.23).
If you obey my commands you will abide in my love just as I have obeyed my father’s commands and abide in his love (15:10).
What did love and obedience have to do with each other? This was a problematic wrestle, and in me was a disconcerting resistance that came from the way I understood the notion of ‘obedience’. To obey would mean to lose all power, all freedom, and be called into a state of being oppressed. I understood ‘obey’ as a responsive act of submission, particularly to a figure of authority, a relationship in which I had no say, and was expected to be passive, bovine, with no heart. Any resistance would be punished.
From this perspective, only the action mattered. With such an understanding of ‘obey’, I was terrified to respond when I asked myself: “Do I love Jesus?” I couldn’t love like that. If only the action mattered, so help me God, I certainly did not love Him.
It took me many years to arrive at an understanding of the relationship between love and obedience. I realised that to obey is to not mindlessly yield, but to pay undivided, intentional attention to Jesus, emanating from love.
What could this intentional, mindful attention to Jesus look like?
A close study of the Scriptures can tell us a lot about it. Perhaps, love means to listen to His words intently, engage with His teachings repetitively for I clearly don’t get them at single go, pursue Him with heart, soul, mind and body; guard and treasure His counsel and His modelling of obedience to his Father. There is much to be explored if we desire to understand such a response to Jesus.
History is a witness to many practices and disciplines that aid human beings in such spiritual exploration. There are a variety of Christian practices and disciplines of meditation, prayer, fasting, solitude, submission, confession, worship, celebration, to name a few, that are said to help focus a burning attention on Jesus, that make us more and more like Him, and dwell less and less on ourselves.
In recent times, studies on neuroplasticity point to powerful implications about the way in which the brain works for our spiritual life. Neuroscience studies indicate that that our brain is changing throughout our lives, this concept is called neuroplasticity or the ability of the brain to change its structure and function in response to every and repeated experience.
“You can’t really talk about spiritual formation without invoking the activity of neuroplasticity,” says Curt Thomson, psychiatrist and author of Anatomy of the Soul. Spiritual disciplines are critical in the journey of spiritual formation. The repetition of any experience makes it easier to do, and harder not to do, again in the future. This might explain the difficulty with starting a new practice, spiritual or otherwise, and why it is even harder to break old ones.
Thus, there may be a case for trusting in the plasticity of the brain to teach ourselves spiritual practices. That’s wonderful, if it works, we can wire our brain into practising obedience (note the irony)!
But can we wire our brain to love?
Here is the thing. The motive that drives our practices and explorations is the key to how fruitful our efforts will be. I suspect neuroplasticity can aid the practice but not shape the intent.
If the intent is to enter and maintain a state of mindfulness and paying attention, via practices like fasting, contemplative silence or meditation, willpower might be sufficient for many. There is no need then for Jesus. But if the motive is to love Jesus, then the practice and mastery of spiritual disciplines is initiated and guided by a burning ‘compulsion’ to love Him by ‘obeying Him’.
Even with such intent and compulsion, can we ‘fail’ in our spiritual efforts? Of course, but it might not hurt us so much because the objective is not the mastery of the discipline itself. (Being excellent in a discipline, however, could have spiritual growth outcomes if pride can be avoided.)
The end of all spiritual efforts, practices and disciplines is to increase in one’s love for Jesus. Attentively. Intentionally. Acts of obedience will then, perhaps, be natural and inevitable, the outflow or expression of love. This love would then flow over to others too, leading to the practice of interpersonal disciplines like community or service.
These days, decades later, when I hear Jesus ask me, “Do you love me” (He has a sneaky sense of humour, I dare say), I say, “You know everything; you know that I love you. You also know I struggle with how to love you. But I am here, where can I go? You alone have the words of eternal life”.
Here is a prayer I often use in my own meditative practice; it is by Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and theologian, from his book Thoughts in Solitude: “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore, will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”