A Simple Way to Pray Every Day
Of all the things Martin Luther is known for, among the foremost is his dedication to prayer. He is famous for commenting, “I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.” He wasn’t exaggerating, either. Many of his friends and students could attest that he would spend several hours on his knees in fervent, daily prayer — often at seemingly inopportune times in the middle of the day.
At one point, Luther’s barber and longtime friend, Peter Beskendorf, asked if he would teach him how to pray. Luther responded by writing Beskendorf a letter which he called, “A Simple Way to Pray.” Luther’s letter is a gourmet buffet for all Christians who hunger for more rich and satisfying prayerfulness.
While I would encourage anyone to enjoy the full buffet, for now I will simply provide the first course: a simple way to pray by using the Lord’s Prayer.
Prone to Wander in Every Age
But why should we go to Luther for help praying in the twenty-first century in the first place? Most of our modern problems with prayer are born of distraction: email alerts, Facebook notifications, constantly revolving media. How can Luther help us with these sorts of problems?
“The problem of our prayerlessness is not simply with our smartphones or schedules, but with our hearts.”
In fact, Luther directly approaches this very obstacle in his letter. Hear how his words resonate with your own difficulties with prayer:
Guard yourself carefully against those false, deluding ideas which tell you, “Wait a little while. I will pray in an hour; first I must attend to this or that.” Such thoughts get you away from prayer into other affairs which so hold your attention and involve you that nothing comes of prayer for that day. . . .
We must be careful not to break the habit of true prayer and imagine other works to be necessary which, after all, are nothing of the kind.
It is strangely encouraging to be reminded that our temptation toward distraction from prayer for the sake of seemingly “more productive” tasks is not unique to the digital age. The problem of our prayerlessness is not simply with our smartphones or schedules. The problem is with our hearts. So, if we really want to grow in our prayer life, we must take aim at something much deeper than surface distractions: our most inward affections and desires.
And this is where the Lord’s Prayer is most helpful.
How to Pray as Jesus Taught Us
First, Luther recommends simply to pray through the prayer once, as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 6:9–13). He then says to go back through the prayer and pray each petition individually:
- Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
- Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
- Give us this day our daily bread,
- And forgive us our debts,
- As we also have forgiven our debtors.
- And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
- For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.
Luther exhorts us to let each petition guide our prayer. So, after praying, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,” we may continue to pray, “Yes, Father, it is our great desire that your name would be feared and revered for who you are: our God, our Creator, the Holy One who, in unthinkable mercy, gave your only begotten Son to save us from your wrath upon our sin.”
We can then move to the next petition, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” and pray, “We know that Jesus is reigning right now with authority over all things, and yet we still experience much brokenness here on earth. Father, bring your kingdom in greater measure today, beginning in my own heart and pouring out to my home, community, city, nation, and to the ends of the earth.”
“Structure and spontaneity in prayer are not at all at odds with one another.”
Eventually, we move through each petition until we’ve reached the “Amen.” We might be inclined to think of the Amen as the simplest, least significant part of the Lord’s Prayer. However, Luther does not dismiss it so quickly. Instead, he exhorts us to make a bold, powerful, and confident “Amen.”
You must always speak the Amen firmly. Never doubt that God in his mercy will surely hear you and say “yes” to your prayers. . . . Do not leave your prayer without thinking, “Very well, God has heard my prayer; this I know as a certainty and a truth.” That is what Amen means.
Three Benefits of Praying the Lord’s Prayer
There are probably dozens of benefits to praying to God as God himself taught us. Here, I will just offer three. Praying the Lord’s Prayer enables us to:
1. Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33).
Personally, I tend toward praying inward-focused prayers that center on my confession, my problems, and my requests. Praying the Lord’s Prayer as Luther recommends helps us to seek a greater awareness of Christ, other people, and God’s broader mission in our prayers.
2. Discipline our wandering minds.
Our minds drift so easily in times of prayer. One moment I’m praying, the next I’m thinking about that email I need to reply to. Utilizing the structure of the Lord’s Prayer helps me to recognize when my mind has wandered and helps me remember where to pick up again.
3. Build a fence so our prayers can run wild inside.
As I mentioned earlier, our lack of prayerfulness is chiefly a heart issue. Some people may push back on this method of prayer, saying that it is too structured and therefore restrains the Spirit’s spontaneous leading. In fact, I have found the opposite to be true.
As someone who has always favored unscripted prayers that express heartfelt longings and desires, I have not found structure and spontaneity to be at all at odds with one another. I am amazed to find that, every time I pray through the Lord’s Prayer as Luther has commended, my prayers have been richer, deeper, and more revealing, and have unlocked affections that are otherwise seldom seen.
Learning to Desire God as God Desires
Why would Jesus command us to “pray like this” (Matthew 6:9)? Jesus did not simply provide some words for disciples who had nothing else to say to God. Rather, the Lord’s Prayer is meant to have a total, shaping effect on our hearts, helping us to see and yearn for the very things that God himself desires — most centrally, to see and experience more of God himself in our hearts and lives.
“The Lord’s Prayer is meant to have a total, shaping effect on our hearts.”
Obviously, there’s no silver bullet for achieving the perfect prayer life, but I have found Luther’s method to be an effective weapon in fighting for a richer prayer life. Personally, I’ve experienced a renewed sense of expectancy in prayer, with more excitement and intentionality, and a deeper love for Jesus and appreciation for the cross-won gift of prayer. Inasmuch as it has benefited me, I commend it to you.
With that, I will end where Luther begins: “I will tell you as best I can what I do personally when I pray. May our dear Lord grant to you and to everybody to do it better than I! Amen.”
Time Alone for God The Ageless Habits of Jesus Christ
Executive Editor, desiringGod.org
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” —Blaise Pascal (1623–1662)
It’s a sweeping claim, but it might just be the kind of overstatement we need today to be awakened from our relentless stream of distractions and diversions. How hauntingly true might it be, that we are unable to sit quietly? Four hundred years after Pascal, life may be as hurried and anxious as it has ever been. The competition for our attention is ruthless. We not only hear one distracting Siren call after another, but an endless cacophony of voices barrages us all at once.
And yet, long before Pascal, Jesus himself modeled for us the very kind of habits and rhythms of life we need in any age. Even as God in human flesh, he prioritized time alone with his Father. Imagine what “good” he might otherwise have done with all those hours. But he chose again and again, in perfect wisdom and love, to give his first and best moments to seeking his Father’s face. And if Jesus, even Jesus, carved out such space in the demands of his human life, shouldn’t we all the more?
“How many of us have the presence of mind, and heart, to discern and prioritize prayer as Jesus did?”
We may have but glimpses of Jesus’s habits and personal spiritual practices in the Gospels, but what we do have is by no accident, and it is not scant. We know exactly what God means for us to know, in just the right detail — and we have far more about Jesus’s personal spiritual rhythms than we do about anyone else in Scripture. And the picture we have of Christ’s habits is not one that is foreign to our world and lives and experience. Rather, we find timeless and transcultural postures that can be replicated, and easily applied, by any follower of Jesus, anywhere in the world, at any time in history.
Retreat and Reenter
For two thousand years, the teachings of Christ have called his people into rhythms of retreating from the world and entering into it.
The healthy Christian life is neither wholly solitary nor wholly communal. We withdraw, like Jesus, to “a desolate place” to commune with God (Mark 1:35), and then return to the bustle of daily tasks and the needs of others. We carve out a season for spiritual respite, in some momentarily sacred space, to feed our souls, enjoying God there in the stillness. Then we enter back in, as light and bread, to a hungry, harassed, and helpless world (Matthew 9:36).
Quiet Times Without a Bible
Before rehearsing Jesus’s patterns in retreating for prayer and then reentering for ministry, we should observe the place of Scripture in his life.
Jesus did not have his own personal material copy of the Bible, like almost all of us do today. He heard what was read aloud in the synagogue, and what his mother sang, and he rehearsed what he had put to memory. And yet throughout his recorded ministry, we see evidence of a man utterly captivated by what is written in the text of Scripture. And like Christ, we will do well to make God’s own words, in the Bible, to be the leading edge of our own seeking to draw near to him.
At the very outset of his public ministry, Jesus retreated to the wilderness, and there, in the culminating temptations before the devil himself, he leaned on what is written (Matthew 4:4, 6–7, 10; Luke 4:4, 8, 10). Then returning from the wilderness, to his hometown of Nazareth, he stood up to read, took the scroll of Isaiah (61:1–2), and announced, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). Jesus identified John the Baptist as “he of whom it is written” (Matthew 11:10; Luke 7:27), and he cleared the temple of moneychangers on the grounds of what is written in Isaiah 56:7 (Matthew 21:13; Mark 11:17; Luke 19:46). He rebuked the proud by quoting Scripture (Mark 7:6; Luke 20:17). At every step of the way to Calvary, over and over again, he knew everything would happen “as it is written” (see especially the Gospel of John, 6:31, 45; 8:17; 10:34; 12:14, 16; 15:25). “The Son of Man goes as it is written of him” (Mark 14:21), he said. “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished” (Luke 18:31).
“Solitude is an opportunity to open up our lives and souls to him for whom we were made.”
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Even though Jesus didn’t have his own Bible to page through in his quiet times, let there be no confusion about the central place of God’s written word in his life. He lived by what was written. What an amazing opportunity we now have today, with Old and New Testaments in paper and ink (and with us, everywhere we go, on our phones), to daily give ourselves to the word of God.
How Often He Withdrew
For Christ, “the wilderness” or “desolate place” often became his momentarily sacred space. He regularly escaped the noise and frenzy of society to be alone with his Father, where he could give him his full attention.
After “his fame spread everywhere” (Mark 1:28), and “the whole city was gathered together at the door” (Mark 1:33), Jesus took a remarkable step. He slipped away the following morning to restore his soul in “secret converse” with his Father:
Rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. (Mark 1:35)
What a ministry opportunity he left behind, some might say. Surely some of us would have skipped or shortened our private disciplines to rush and bless the swelling masses. To be sure, other times would come (as we’ll see) when Jesus would delay his personal habits to meet immediate needs. But how many of us, in such a situation, would have the presence of mind, and heart, to discern and prioritize prayer as Jesus did?
Luke also makes it unmistakable that this pattern of retreat and reentry was part of the ongoing dynamic of Christ’s human life. Jesus “departed and went into a desolate place” (Luke 4:42) — not just once but regularly. “He would withdraw to desolate places and pray” (Luke 5:16).
So also Matthew. After the death of John the Baptist, Jesus “withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself” (Matthew 14:13). But even then, the crowds pursued him. He didn’t despise them (here he puts his desire to retreat on hold) but had compassion on them and healed their sick (Matthew 14:14). Then after feeding them, five thousand strong, he withdrew again to a quiet place. “After he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray” (Matthew 14:23).
Praying, Fasting, Teaching
What was written animated his life, and when he withdrew, he went to speak to his Father in prayer. At times, he went away by himself, to be alone (Matthew 14:23; Mark 6:46–47; John 6:15). “He went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God” (Luke 6:12). His disciples saw him leave to pray, and later return.
He also prayed with others. The disciples saw him model prayer at his baptism (Luke 3:21), and as he laid his hands on the children (Matthew 19:13), and when he drove out demons (Mark 9:29). He prayed with his men, and even when he prayed alone, his men might be nearby: “Now it happened that as he was praying alone, the disciples were with him” (Luke 9:18; also 11:1). He took Peter, John, and James “and went up on the mountain to pray” (Luke 9:28). On the night before he died, he said to Peter, “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail” (Luke 22:32). All of John 17 is his prayer for his disciples, in their hearing. Then they went out from that upper room and saw him pray over and over in the garden (Matthew 26:36, 39, 42, 44). He not only modeled prayer, but instructed them in how to pray. “Pray then like this . . .” (Matthew 6:9–13).
“Christ himself modeled for us the very kind of habits and rhythms of life we need in any age.”
And he not only assumed they would pray (Matthew 21:22; Mark 11:24–25; Luke 11:2) but commanded it (Matthew 24:20; 26:41; Mark 13:18; 14:38; Luke 21:36; 22:40, 46). “Pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). “Pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:28). “Pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest” (Matthew 9:38; Luke 10:2). Pray without show and without posturing (Matthew 6:5–7). He warned against those who “for a pretense make long prayers” (Mark 12:40; Luke 20:47). “He told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1).
And to accompany prayer, he not only modeled fasting (Matthew 4:2), but assumed his men would fast as well (“when you fast,” not if, Matthew 6:16–18), and even promised they would (“then they will fast,” Matthew 9:15; Mark 2:20; Luke 5:35).
Come Away with Me
Jesus didn’t only retreat to be alone with God. He also taught his disciples to do the same (Mark 3:7; Luke 9:10). In Mark 6:31–32, he invites his men to join him, saying, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” Mark explains, “For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves.”
So also, in the Gospel of John, Jesus, as his fame spread, retreated from more populated settings to invest in his men in more desolate, less distracting places (John 11:54). In his timeless Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught all his hearers, including us today, not only to give without show (Matthew 6:3–4), and fast without publicity (Matthew 6:17–18), but also to find our private place to seek our Father’s face: “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:6).
And how today might our Father reward us any better than with more of himself through his Son?
Converse with God in the Quiet
In it all — in receiving his Father’s voice in Scripture, and praying alone (and with company), and at times, when faced with particularly pressing concerns, adding the tool of fasting — Jesus sought communion with his Father. His habits were not demonstrations of will and sheer discipline. His acts of receiving the word, and responding in prayer, were not ends in themselves. In these blessed means, he pursued the end of knowing and enjoying his Father. And so do we today.
We don’t retreat from life’s busyness and bustle as an end in itself. “To sit quietly in a room alone,” in Pascal’s words, is not an achievement but an instrument — an opportunity to open up our lives and souls to him for whom we were made. To know him and enjoy him.
David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is executive editor for desiringGod.org and pastor at Cities Church in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is a husband, father of four, and author of Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines.
If any one says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also. Every one who believes that Jesus is the Christ is a child of God, and every one who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
Suppose you knew that a Christian friend of yours was doing something wrong—at least wrong as far as you could judge by the Scriptures. How would you answer if he said, “I know that it is not what the Bible specifically commands, but I think it is the most loving thing. And since love is the highest ethical norm of Scripture, therefore I think what I am doing is right”?
A False Kind of Ethical Reasoning
This kind of reasoning is very widespread among Christians today—a reasoning, namely, that finds a catch-word in Scripture like “justice” or “mercy” or “love” or “peace” or “kingdom of God,” and then makes that catch-word the criterion of right and wrong without letting the specific commands of Scripture determine the content of the criterion.
In other words a principle that has biblical sanction is lifted out of Scripture and the more detailed contours of that principle which are given in the specific commands of Scripture are ignored while the principle is shaped by someone’s personal agenda.
It is an easy mistake to make because the Bible doesn’t answer every moral question directly. We do have to use principles like justice and love and peace to weigh various alternatives where the situation may be different than anything the Bible addresses.
But it seems to me that what is happening today in all kinds of moral issues is that in the name of certain biblical principles the actual commands and teachings of Scripture are being rejected. In other words principles are being taken over from the Bible but the actual content of those principles is being fleshed out by personal desires and social pressures, not by the specific commands and examples of Scripture.
I will give some examples of what I have in mind later. But we need to see first that our text today speaks directly to this problem. Let’s walk through this text together and let this issue emerge as we see the flow of John’s thought.
The Test of Whether Your Love for God Is Real
The first unit is 4:20–5:1 and the main point of this unit is a familiar one, namely, that the test of whether your love for God is real is whether you love your fellow believer. Verse 20 puts the point negatively and verses 21 and 5:1 put it positively.
You Can’t Love God If You Don’t Love Your Brother
In 4:20 John says, “If any one says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.”
In other words, religious piety that does not produce practical deeds of love is just empty talk—or worse than empty. John would say it is a lie. A person who sings, “I love you, Lord, and I lift my voice to worship you, O my soul rejoice,” and holds bitterness in his heart and shows no love to visitors is a liar. His song is a lie.
The way you treat your visible brother or sister is the proof of whether you really delight in your invisible Father and cherish his promises.
I don’t think John is saying in verse 20 that it is easier to love a brother that you can see than it is to love God whom you cannot see. You might get that impression from the verse (“He who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen”). And that’s why a lot of people stumble over it.
Isn’t he simply saying this: If you really love God—if you really rest and delight in all that God is for you, in all his amazing promises, then you WILL love your brother. You will be so full of hope and joy and freedom that you will love to spread the good things of God to as many people as possible. But, he adds, there is no way to know whether you really love God since he is not around to see. You can’t hug him or bow down in his visible presence or take an order directly from his lips.
There is only one way to know whether your claim to love God is a self-deception or not, namely, in the way you relate to the people you can see (cf. 4:12). If you don’t love your brother whom you can see, then there is open evidence that you can’t be telling the truth when you talk about the invisible workings of your heart toward an invisible God.
So verse 20 says negatively, “If you don’t love your visible brother, then you can’t be loving the invisible God.”
The One Loving God Loves the One Believing in Jesus
In 4:21–5:1 John says the same thing positively. “And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also. Every one who believes that Jesus is the Christ is a child of God, and every one who loves the parent loves the child.”
The literal rendering of 5:1 is, “Every one who is believing that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.” In other words the verse teaches that faith is the result and evidence of being born again, not that being born again is the result of faith. There is a change in tense that the English versions obscure: “Every one who is believing (present tense) . . . has been born of God (perfect tense).” New birth precedes and enables faith. Not vice versa.
Then the second half of the verse says that every one who loves the begetter loves the begotten. Every one who loves God loves those begotten of God. Every one who loves the divine Father also loves the human child.
When you put the two halves of the verse together, the point becomes: Every one who loves God loves those who believe that Jesus is the Christ, since believing in Christ is the mark of having been born of God, and every one who loves the Father loves those to whom he gives new birth.
That is the first unit in this text, 4:20–5:1. And the main point is the familiar one that loving your fellow believers is the test of whether you really love God or not.
The Test of Whether Your Love for People Is Real
The second unit is a brand new thought. It’s found in 5:2–3. It’s the point I referred to at the beginning of the message. “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.”
Up until now in this book of 1 John the question has been: How can we know for sure that we love God or believe God or are born of God. And the answer has always come back that you can know how it is with you and God by whether you love your brothers and sisters on earth. Love to man has been the test of love to God.
But here in 5:2 is a brand new question. It’s so different we are prone to think we must have read it wrong. It seems backward from everything we’ve seen so far. “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God.” Surely he meant to say the reverse, didn’t he: “By this we know that we love God, when we love the children of God”? But that is not what he says. He says that the test of whether we really love people is whether we love God.
Now this seems very circular. On the one hand in 4:20 he says, “If any one says, I love God, and hates his brother, he is a liar.” In other words, love to man is the proof of our love to God. But on the other hand he says in 5:2, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God.” In other words, love to God is the proof of our love to man.
This seems to destroy our assurance on both counts. If loving man provides the assurance that you are really loving God, and loving God provides the assurance that you are really loving man, then where does assurance start? Where can we find a sure foothold to begin with? How can I use my love for God as a test of my love for man when the question asked me in that test is: Do you love man? All I can say is: That’s what I am trying to find out!
Keeping Non-Burdensome Commands
Maybe if we read on there will be a solution. Verses 2–3 say, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.”
Since verse 2 says that love for God is the test of our love for people, John tells us something about the test. He says in verse 3 that love for God means keeping his commandments and not experiencing them as burdensome. “This is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.”
Well, if this is the test to see if we are really loving our brothers and sisters, then it doesn’t sound so circular after all. It would go something like this: “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we keep God’s commandments and don’t experience them as burdensome.” In other words the test of the genuineness of your love to the children of God is whether you let the commandments of God govern your relation to them and whether these commandments are burdensome to you.
Two Halves of This Test
This is really worth thinking about. Let’s take the two halves of this test one at a time.
1. The First Part of the Test
First, we look at the part that says we know that we love the children of God when we keep his commandments. This is John’s answer to the people in our day who take a catch-word from the Bible and then make that catch-word the criterion of right and wrong without letting the specific commands of Scripture determine the content of the criterion.
Defining Love on Our Own Terms not Scripture’s
For example, some folks take the catch-word “love” and say that this is the biblical ideal for human relationships, but then let their own view of what love must be cancel out particular commands and teachings of Scripture. We can mention a few instances.
Many today will argue that the loving thing to say to practicing homosexuals is not that homosexual activity is sin but that promiscuity is sin. Find one partner and be faithful to him. They say it would be unloving to forbid sexual satisfaction to someone who has a homosexual preference. So the biblical norm of love is used against the biblical teaching of Romans 1 that says homosexuality is against God’s created order and will bring judgment upon those who practice it.
John would say that the test of real love toward a homosexual would show itself by keeping the commandments of God and in that way seeking the eternal good of the homosexual. To take a biblical concept like “love” and give that concept your own meaning and then use that meaning to cancel out specific commandments of God does not qualify as love according to 1 John 5:2. He says, you can know you love the homosexual if you obey God’s commandments.
Another example would be church discipline. If a church member is involved in open, persistent, and unrepented sin, what will love dictate? Having plead with an unrepentant person privately and in groups and as a church, do we remove that person from the fellowship according to the commandment of Matthew 18:17? Or do we take the catch-word approach and say, “That would not be the loving thing to do.” According to 1 John 5:2 you can know whether you love someone by whether you let the commandments of God govern your relationship.
Roles for Men and Women in Marriage and Church
Another example would be the issue of whether there are biblically sanctioned differences between roles for men and women in marriage and in the church. Here the catch-words vary. Some take the idea of “equality” from Galatians 3:28. Some take the idea of “personhood” from Genesis 1:27. Some take the idea of “giftedness” from 1 Corinthians 12. And some take the idea of “love.” And the result is usually the same: the meaning given to the catch-word is used to cancel out some of the commandments of God.
When the Scripture says, “The husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body . . . As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands love your wives, as Christ loved the church,”—that is, when the Scripture teaches a role distinction for husbands and wives modeled on the distinction between the roles of Christ and the church, the standard feminist response is: that contradicts equality, or that contradicts personhood, or that contradicts giftedness, or that contradicts love. And therefore we don’t accept it.
And so some of the commandments of God are nullified because the general concept of “equality” or “personhood” or “giftedness” or “love” is not given its content by the most relevant specific biblical teachings, but instead they get their content somewhere else. But 1 John 5:2 would say, “If you want to know whether your ideas about the role relationships between men and women are loving, then measure your ideas by the commandments of God, even if you have to go against social pressure.” God’s commandments will be vindicated in the end.
The Discipline of Children
One other example concerns the discipline of children. I heard a man on the radio last Wednesday advising a young mother on the phone what to do if her two-year-old son said NO when she told him to put his arm in his jacket. The radio authority said, “Don’t reprimand him and insist on obedience. Instead try telling him a story, and when his attention is diverted, slip his arm in the jacket.” Why? This is more loving.
Radio, television, books, magazines, newspapers, cassette tapes, videos—everybody has ideas about how you should love your children. And again and again some principle is used to nullify the commandments of God in Scripture. “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him . . . Discipline your son while there is hope; do not set your heart on his destruction” (Proverbs 13:24; 19:18).
If you want to know whether you are loving your children or not, don’t hold your finger in the winds of contemporary thought. Instead ask, “Am I keeping the commandments of God toward my child?” Not just: “Am I using some biblical catch-phrase that sounds loving?” But: “Do I seek to understand and implement the specific teachings of Scripture with regard to my children?”
Real Love Is Guided by God’s Commandments
Now the point of all these examples is simply to show that in John’s mind you can’t talk about loving man without bringing God into the picture—”By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.” Many things in the world look loving (as Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13:3), but they are not real love unless they are done out of love for God and guided by his commandments.
That’s the first half of the test of whether our love for people is real. Now for . . .
2. The Second Part of the Test
When John says that you can know that you are really loving the children of God when you love God, he means not only that your relationships must be guided by the commandments of God but also that those commandments must not be burdensome. Verse 3, “This is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” The love for God that can test the genuineness of our love for man is an experience of God in our relationships with people that not only causes us to submit to his commandments but also to do it freely rather than begrudgingly. When you have this experience of God—what Elizabeth Elliot calls the “glad surrender”—then you have assurance that your love toward the children of God is real and no mere self-deception.
Turning God’s Commandments from Burden to Joy
So our final consideration should be: How can you get to the point where the commandments of God are not a burden but a joy.
Verses 4 and 5 give the answer. The commandments are not burdensome “because whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”
Overcoming the World Through New Birth and Faith
Verse 4 says that two things overcome the world:
- that which is born of God, and
- our faith.
Recall the relationship between faith and new birth in verse 1: every one who has faith has been born of God. New birth gives rise to faith in the promises of Christ. And this faith overcomes the world. And that takes away the burdensomeness of the commandments of God.
Burdensome Commands of God and the World
How does this work? What is the connection between the burdensomeness of the commandments of God and the world? It seems to be twofold: the commandments of God are burdensome to us on the one hand because the world tempts us to believe that obeying God’s commandments is not as satisfying as disobeying them, and we tend to agree with the world, and on the other hand, there is something in us that loves to agree with the world. Before new birth we are “of the world” (4:5). Anything contrary to the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and pride in possessions is a great burden and folly to unregenerate man.
It’s a burden to be sexually chaste if you believe the message of the world that fornication or adultery really will give you more satisfaction. It’s a burden to be honest on your tax returns if you believe the message of the world that more money would bring you satisfaction. It’s a burden to witness to a colleague if you believe the message of the world that Christians are foolish and getting egg on your face is to be avoided at all costs. It’s a burden to say, “I’m sorry; I was wrong,” if you believe the message of the world that more satisfaction comes from keeping up the front of strength.
God Overcomes the Lies of the World
But if the world could be overcome, then the commandments of God would not be burdensome. They would be the way of joy and peace and satisfaction. What can overcome the temptations of the world? What can unmask the lies of the world?
Answer: God can. And he does it by causing us to be born again so that we can see the infinite superiority of the promises of Christ over the promises of the world. The result is that we trust Christ and by trusting him overcome the temptations of the world.
Faith says to every temptation of the world: NO, BE GONE! I know where true satisfaction is to be found. God has loved me with an infinite love. He promises to work everything together for good for those who love him. He withholds no good thing form those who walk uprightly. Nothing you offer can compare to the joy of his fellowship now and the glory to be revealed hereafter. World, you have lost your power. I have become the glad slave of a Good Master. His yoke is easy and the burden of his commandments is light.
A Closing Invitation
I close with an invitation. For the Lord holds out many good things to you in this text.
If you want to know that your love for others is real and not just self-deception, if you want to have the power to obey the commandments of God, if you want to find a life that is loving and at the same time not burdensome, if you want to overcome the deceptive power of the world, then consider the infinite superiority of the Son of God and put your faith in his forgiveness for your sins and his promises for your future. Whoever has the Son has life!