The Way to Christlike Love
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“The Way to Christlike Love,” Ensign, Dec. 1982, 51

The Way to Christlike Love

Recently, while searching the scriptures for thoughts on how to improve and heal human relationships, I became fascinated by the book of John in the New Testament. According to John’s testimony, Jesus Christ taught that his capacity to love and to redeem the human race depended first on a harmonious relationship with his Father. It was as though this relationship was essential for gaining the capacity to redeem and bless the rest of humanity.

The Lord revealed that his perfected relationship with the Father consisted of two ingredients: love and obedience (see John 17). When combined and harmonized, these appeared to produce an alloy stronger than either ingredient alone. They seemed to be the keys by which Father and Son became perfectly united.

The question struck me: Did the Savior obtain his power to love completely, and thus to redeem us, by virtue of submission to his Father, a submission that was loving and voluntary? Do we likewise gain the capacity to love and participate in the redemptive process as we voluntarily and lovingly submit ourselves to the will of the Savior and our Father? It seems that this is exactly what the Lord taught. Our unity with them is a result of obedience and love; and this oneness with a higher power in turn enables us to love more effectively and become one with each other.

John, the disciple “whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23), recorded this theme in the Lord’s teachings as follows:

“Then answered Jesus and said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, the Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise. For the Father loveth the Son, and sheweth him all things that himself doeth.” (John 5:19–20.)

“I can of mine own self do nothing: as I hear, I judge: and my judgment is just; because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me.” (John 5:30.)

“For I have not spoken of myself; but the Father which sent me, he gave me a commandment, what I should say, and what I should speak. … whatsoever I speak therefore, even as the Father said unto me, so I speak.” (John 12:49–50.)

“But that the world may know that I love the Father; and as the Father gave me commandment, even so I do.” (John 14:31.)

Without such obedience and unity with the Father, the Lord could not have redeemed us. How else could he have had the power to stay with his mission in the face of the awful suffering it entailed? How else, except by suffering for us, could he have come to love us the way he did? (Alma 7:11–12.)

Such behavior is alien to the world’s ways, yet it appears to be at the core of what we must do if we expect to love others as Christ loves us.

The account in Third Nephi 11 provides an illustration of the ideal pattern we need to follow. [3 Ne. 11] First, the Father introduces his Son, in a beautiful and loving way, saying that he has been glorified by the behavior of his son. (3 Ne. 11:7.) Then the Savior introduces himself and, before doing anything else, refers to, acknowledges, and defers to his Father, saying: “I have drunk out of that bitter cup which the Father hath given me.” (3 Ne. 11:11.) By so doing, he gives glory to the Father. But more importantly, he glorified the Father by taking upon himself the sins of the world in which he “suffered the will of the Father in all things from the beginning.” (3 Ne. 11:11.) This form of behavior, this kind of relationship, appears to be the highest that exists. The Lord’s submission was the supreme act of will by an entirely free agent left to his own choice. “Oh, my Father,” he said, “if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.” (Matt. 26:39.)

Similarly, we must be loyal to the Lord and his laws in order to fulfill our missions relative to family, friends, and the Church and world at large. We must resist every temptation to deviate or to gratify our desires when these conflict with aiding and perfecting the lives of those for whom we are responsible. In effect, we are expected to enact a saving role in our own circle of responsibility. However small these circles may be, the challenge is the same: To obey the law and to give ourselves for the sake of those entrusted to our influence.

Nowhere is this more vital than in our family relations. Lately, I have watched with shock as several brethren have left their wives and children to fulfill selfish needs that were supposedly not being met at home; but I have seen other brethren, equally dissatisfied with their situations, recommit themselves to obeying the commandments and to sacrificing their presumed needs for the sake of their dear ones. The contrast in outcomes between these two patterns of action has been dramatic, and it verifies that following the Lord’s example produces great love, unity, and fulfillment.

No one can suffer as much as the Lord did, and no one can give up as much as he did. How then, can any man who believes in him fail to suffer and sacrifice the small amount required to bless those entrusted to him?

The Lord teaches that fulfillment will come, but in a lawful way, and that way begins with submission and sacrifice of self. Otherwise, our capacity to resist and persist is weakened, our suffering loses its meaning, and we cannot develop sufficient empathy and love. If there is a “bitter cup” for us to swallow, then it is vital that we recognize it for what it is—and in filial obedience partake, as the Lord partook, for the sake of a higher goal.

Perhaps this helps us understand why the first commandment comes first. Without fulfilling it first, our capacity to obey the others is limited. Recall that when the lawyer asked the Lord, “Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment.” (Matt. 22:36–38.)

This seems to mean that love of God is prerequisite to our love for one another. John the Beloved tells us that such love involves obedience to God’s laws:

“If ye love me, keep my commandments.” (John 14:15.)

“He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he … shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him.” (John 14:21.)

“If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love.” (John 15:10.)

These verses suggest again the dual meaning in the first commandment—namely, love and deference to divine authority. Accepting these as goals helps us understand the prominence of the first commandment and its relationship to the second commandment: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” (Matt. 22:39.) “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matt. 22:40.)

How, then, do we live these two great laws?

We appreciate, know, and obey the Father through the Son. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6.) Indeed, we cannot live the first commandment except through him, the Son, as explained by John:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. … Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me … : for without me ye can do nothing.” (John 15:1, 4, 5.) This of course reminds us of Christ’s statement that without the Father he can “do nothing.” (John 5:30.)

By imitating the Savior’s example of submission to the Father, we learn perfect obedience to eternal law. This permits us to become one with the Father and the Son and to receive their love and an extension of their power to love in a redeeming and healing manner. Our submission to the divine will is thus an act of faith, coupled with hope that our faith will draw us into contact with divine power. For, in the final analysis, redeeming love is a gift granted us by God through the agency of the Holy Ghost.

Moroni reminds us that our faith and hope are vain unless we are “meek and lowly in heart; and if a man be meek and lowly in heart, and confess by the power of the Holy Ghost that Jesus is the Christ, he must needs have charity.” (Moro. 7:44.)

Just as the healthy dependency of a child produces a stronger, more independent adult; so, also, true submission to the Lord enhances our inner strength and our capacity for outward works of love. Perhaps this is one meaning of two of the Savior’s paradoxical statements: “He that loseth his life for my sake shall find it” (Matt. 10:39) and “He that shall humble himself shall be exalted.” (Matt. 23:12.)

Such an achievement involves not only humility—or “surrender,” as Elder Neal A. Maxwell has referred to it (speech to Association of Mormon Counselors and Psychotherapists, Sept. 1978)—but also self-denial, or self-control, as manifested in resistance to temptation. The Savior exemplified this on the Mount of Temptation early in his ministry. (See Matt. 4:1–11.)

While purity, together with perfect control against temptation, is a magnificent example of obedience, it is but an initial step. The next one is more demanding and more complete because it requires not just self-control but self-sacrifice, as the Lord exemplified it at Gethsemane and on the cross. This demands submergence of self-interest and willingness to accept suffering in behalf of others. His atoning sacrifice was thus a complete giving up of self. Unlike the turning inward required to resist temptation, it involved a turning outward toward others.

Similarly, we cannot help people be healed spiritually unless they are willing to learn to do both of those things—to obey and to suffer via sacrifice.

It is paramount, therefore, that we obediently accept the pain the Father requires of us, as he did of his Son. Often we suffer innocently from a sinful and ignorant humanity, of which we are a part, but this allows us to become like the Son in our capacity to take pain and return love, even when the pain is unjust. Thus, out of dutiful suffering (i.e., suffering in behalf of another that follows from obedience to divine law) emerges love. Love, in turn, involves dedicating one’s self to blessing others, as the Savior so beautifully exemplified throughout his ministry. Such dedication goes beyond sacrifice in that it consists of a constant effort to bless the lives of others. The divine model of relationships therefore embraces at least three great gospel principles: namely, obedience, sacrifice, and dedication of self, each being at a possibly higher order of development and each dependent upon progress in the others.

All of this, though it may seem abstract, has powerful applications to everyday life. One application I find especially crucial as I attempt to use the scriptures to improve and heal human relationships is the conduct of married priesthood brethren in relation to their wives and children.

If a man is obedient to the Lord, loves the Lord, and is loved by him, he gains an enhanced ability to behave toward his wife and family just as Christ behaves toward the Church and the human family. The same principles of obedience, sacrifice, and loving dedication can operate there that were exemplified by Christ in the foregoing descriptions. President Spencer W. Kimball has frequently made this very comparison. The Melchizedek Priesthood manuals in recent years have repeatedly quoted his words on this subject:

“‘A woman need have no fear of being imposed upon or of any dictatorial measures or any improper demands when the husband is self-sacrificing and worthy. Certainly no intelligent woman would hesitate to give submission to her own truly righteous husband in everything. We are sometimes shocked to see the wife take over the leadership, naming the one to pray, the place to be, the thing to do.

“‘Husbands are commanded: “… love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it.” (Eph. 5:25).

“‘Christ loved the church and its people so much that he voluntarily endured persecution for them, suffered humiliating indignities for them, stoically withstood pain and physical abuse for them, and finally gave his precious life for them.

“‘When the husband is ready to treat his household in that manner, not only the wife but all the family will respond to his leadership.’” (1978–79, p. 10.)

“‘Can you find in all the holy scriptures where the Lord Jesus Christ ever failed his church? Can you find any scripture that says he was untrue to his people, to his neighbors, friends, or associates? Was he faithful? Was he true? Is there anything good and worthy that he did not give? …

“‘You need to ask yourself, “Can I love my wife even as Christ also has loved the Church?’” (1979–80, p. 165.)

“‘Can you think of how he [Christ] loved the Church? Its every breath was important to him. Its every growth, its every individual, was precious to him. He gave to those people all his energy, all his power, all his interest. He gave his life—and what more could one give? …

“‘When the husband is ready to treat his household in that manner, not only his wife but also his children will respond to his loving and exemplary leadership. It will be automatic. He won’t need to demand it.’” (“Men of Example,” address to religious educators, 12 Sept. 1975, p. 5; as quoted in Melchizedek Priesthood Personal Study Guide 1980–81, p. 49.)

Elder Bruce R. McConkie has also said, “‘[Husbands] must … love their wives, sacrifice for their well-being and salvation, and guide them in holiness.’” (Ibid.)

Elder L. Tom Perry has told us, “‘Brethren, your first and most responsible role in life and in the eternities is to be a righteous husband.’” (Ibid.)

Elder Mark E. Petersen also has stated: “‘Where the priesthood is properly understood and honored and where its influence abounds, there will be no family quarrels, no disrupted homes, no deception, no infidelity, and no divorce. Rather there will be harmony and joy.’” (São Paulo Area Conference Report, Feb. 1975, p. 45; as quoted in Ibid, 1982, p. 106.)

Are we as priesthood holders not obliged to be lovingly obedient to our leaders, as Christ is obedient to the Father? In so doing are we not complying with the will of the Father and the Son in following their exemplary pattern? Do we not then honor the first commandment and thereby gain power to implement the second commandment with respect to those for whom we have a divine responsibility? If we succeed in sacrificing our lives for our wives and family, is there anything else comparable? What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his wife and his children? It seems that the power is given to us to be part of a redemptive process regarding the family. (See Bruce R. McConkie, Melchizedek Priesthood Personal Study Guide 1980–81, p. 49.) But this role must be one of a servant—a sacrificer—not a ruler in the world’s sense.

Jesus taught this so well following the last supper when he washed the feet of the Apostles:

“He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself. After that he poureth water into a bason, and began to wash the disciples’ feet. … [Then he said,] If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.” (John 13:4–5, 14–15.)

Should we not, then, in like humility serve our wives and families? Do we really understand our role and how our power is to be used?

“He that is ordained of God and sent forth, the same is appointed to be the greatest, notwithstanding he is the least and the servant of all.” (D&C 50:26.)

There is probably no one who exemplifies this principle better than President Kimball. He lives it in deed as well as teaches it in word. He has learned it from the perfect source; and he shows us that the injunctions of D&C 121:41–46 on the use of priesthood power and influence are meant to apply in the family. I praise him for showing us so well how the eternal principles that guide the Savior’s role relative to authority and love apply equally to our conduct in the home.

In recent years, being influenced by President Kimball and the priesthood lessons, I have tried to improve along the lines suggested. While I had always helped at home (including changing diapers), and while I believed the prophets’ counsel that our homes come first, my first priority was not always there. Being ambitious for success, it was my habit often to devote many evenings and Saturdays to professional and church work, not to mention heavy Sunday church commitments. This may not have been so bad years ago when the community fairly well supported our kind of morality; but as the traditional moral structure of society fell away, I came to realize that I was needed at home to support my wife more fully and to provide a stronger anchor against the currents of the world.

Encouraged by a close friend who was making the same commitments, I put my wife and children as first priority. This meant a number of important changes, only one of which I will mention. This was to end virtually all late evening and Saturday professional work and to reduce church duties that disrupted my family. About this time, the Church simplified the programs and reduced outside activities and meetings, which helped greatly. Considerable rescheduling, time management, and eliminating nonessential outside commitments helped me make the change a reality.

One evening, however, under the pressure of important work assignments, I left for the office. Although it was an important evening at home, because the autumn grape harvest was in and grape juice was to be processed and bottled for the winter, my wife was willing for me to go. As I departed, I noticed her alone in the kitchen with no help from the family. It turned out that all of our teenage helpers had left for a Mutual activity.

As I drove toward my BYU office, I asked myself: “What great intellectual achievement will I make tonight that is more important than making grape juice? Even if I do write something fine, will my spending an extra evening on academic work be more important than what is happening at home?” The answer was obvious. I made a U-turn and drove back to the house. When I walked in, my wife said: “What happened? Did you run out of gas?” “No,” I said. “I decided there wasn’t anything down there more important than helping you make grape juice.”

As I rolled up my sleeves and put on an apron, I noticed tears in her eyes. We had a lovely, memorable evening together. Not only did we share work, we visited in depth and shared some tender moments. As our children arrived home, they were all affected by what was happening. One of them jokingly said, “My, aren’t we domestic tonight,” but there was a serious feeling behind it.

I have made some mistakes and have some regrets; but I have no regrets about the decision to recommit myself to wife and family: to put them first in my priorities, to serve them and love them, to sacrifice and give everything that is righteous for them, and to use my priesthood in the redemptive manner that was intended. In this, I try, despite human weaknesses, to obey all of the Lord’s commandments, especially the one reiterated in John 15:12–13.

“This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

This commitment has not resulted in quick or easy perfection. We have had our trials and failures, as so many families do in today’s world. But one thing is happening that is predictable from John’s account of the Savior’s words. My wife and I are becoming more perfectly united.

In the Lord’s great prayer, just prior to the crucifixion, he prayed for such an outcome:

“Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; … even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that … the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.” (John 17:20–23.)

Is this not the ultimate outcome of the Lord’s pattern of obedience to divine authority, love of God, sacrifice of self, and service to those who need us? And is there any more important application of these principles than to our most basic relationships? Building from such a vital core, is it not possible to change the world?

Photography by Eldon K. Linschoten

Gustave Dore