How do we know that we are on the right track in matters of faith? How do we know that we are “good with God?” Some will point to life experiences. If everything is going well for you, and your prayers are being answered, then obviously you must be on the right track. Others will point to spiritual experiences and say that if you can speak in tongues or have experienced some form of miracle then you must be on the right track. Still others will point to religious activity, that if you are keeping up with religious observances and practices, then you must be on the right track.
But how would Jesus answer this question? Thankfully he answered it long before we asked:
34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35 NRSV
Notice that Jesus did not say everyone will know we are his disciples if our lives went smoothly, or if we showed ourselves to be be super-spiritually gifted, or really religious. Rather our love is the evidence we are His followers. John also links love with reassurance that we are on the right track:
18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19 And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 1 John 3:18-19 NRSV
But don’t those who do not follow Jesus also love? My experience is that yes, people who have no interest in following Jesus are capable of being and often are loving people. So does this mean they are on the right track, living lives that please Jesus, and so are “good with God”?
Before we jump to conclusions we will want to remind ourselves of the important role Christianity has played in lifting up an ethic of love in our society. Thanks to the influence of Christianity our society has been “marinating” in an ethic of love. Christianity has added flavour to our nation and many others. So when the Beatles sing “All you need is love,” or when Katy Perry sings “I will love you unconditionally,” there is a Christian ethic shining through. People who have no time for Jesus are nevertheless enjoying a certain flavour he has brought to society.
There are societies which have not had so thorough a permeation of Jesus’ love ethic. You can think of areas rife with militant Islam where a strict interpretation and application of sharia law is seen as more honourable than an ethic of love. We all know where that has led and is leading. Or you can think of where a belief in karma can lead. If you are brought into life as an untouchable, born into a sorry state of affairs, you must deserve it. That’s karma. Jesus teaches grace. Jesus loves us regardless of merit and went to the cross for us. Though Christians can get it wrong, one cannot deny that Christianity has lifted up an ethic of grace and love in some societies in a way that other religions have not in others.
Still, we may be wondering if a person who rejects Jesus as Lord and Saviour is on the right track by living a life of love. Actually, yes, they are on the right track. But they have not got on the train. We cannot love enough to go the distance and bring ourselves into the presence of God. We can devote ourselves to a life of love all we want, but when we refuse God’s love for us, we refuse God’s offer to carry us for the distance. We would rather walk, though the destination is far. Too far.
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Love is powerful evidence that we are on the right track. But being on the right track is not enough. This destination requires getting on the train.
18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19 And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20 whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22 and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 1 John 3:18-23 NRSV emphasis mine