The Paradox of Love and Law

By President Dallin H. Oaks of the First Presidency

Additional Resource

This address was given by President Dallin H. Oaks of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at a devotional at BYU–Idaho October 30, 2018. Read a news release about the event.

                

Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors (see Matthew 22:39) and also to keep the commandments (see John 14:15). Similarly, He commanded us “to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20) and also to “love one another” (John 13:34). Some see a contradiction in these two commandments—to “love one another” but to keep the commandments, which means to follow God’s laws. Those who honor God’s commandments may be seen as not having love for those who do not follow His laws. Conversely, reaching out in love and kindness can at times be seen as condoning choices that are contrary to God’s laws. However, these seemingly contradictory ideals are in fact a paradox. Not only can we follow both directives of the Lord, but in finding an appropriate balance we can live both principles in a deeper, more complete way.

The gospel of Jesus Christ contains many apparent paradoxes. President Henry J. Eyring described a paradox in his September 18 devotional on “Gaining and Strengthening a Testimony.” You remember how he explained that when we feel doubts and are tempted to judge the Church, we should turn a critical eye and find something that needs correcting in ourselves. “If you and I act this way consistently,” he said, “the adversary’s attempts to sow doubts about ourselves or the Church will paradoxically have the reverse effect. His temptations, if we recognize them, can strengthen us.”

I gave a talk on “Love and Law” nine years ago.[1] I repeat here some of the things that I said then, because I believe many in this audience are not familiar with that teaching. How old were you nine years ago? The principle I taught there is that we must try to balance the competing demands of love and law by following the gospel law in our personal lives and simultaneously showing love for those who do not. As I have tried to do this, I have been helped by thinking of the dual obligations of love and law as a two-sided coin: keeping the commandments is one side of the coin and loving others is the other side. We should keep each side in mind and not pursue or teach either side in a way that displaces or ignores the other. As we attempt to apply this balance, we can expect opposition, but the Lord has taught us not to fear it. Through the prophet Isaiah, He declared, “Hearken unto me, ye that know righteousness, the people in whose heart is my law; fear ye not the reproach of men, neither be ye afraid of the revilings” (Isaiah 51:7).

I.

As we search for a balance between love and law, let us begin by studying what our Savior taught about these subjects.

First, love. Obviously, Jesus commanded: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matthew 22:39). In the Sermon on the Mount He gave an unforgettable example of that love—even to love our enemies:

Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.

But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;

That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.

For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? (Matthew 5:43–46).

At the conclusion of His ministry, Jesus reemphasized His teaching about love with this unforgettable description of the kind of love He now commanded: “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you” (John 13:34; emphasis added). That teaching commanded us to love our neighbors of different beliefs and practices as He has loved us. It also included loving the poor, the downtrodden, those who suffer from addiction, prisoners, adversaries, and sinners of all degrees. As a Book of Mormon prophet taught, we must press forward, having “a love of God and of all men” (2 Nephi 31:20; emphasis added). That is the Lord’s way, but as President Nelson said in his recent conference talk, “The Lord’s ways are not, and never will be, man’s ways.”[2]

Second, what about commandments—the law side of the coin? Those who understand God’s plan for His children know that God’s laws apply the same to all of His children and that this is because of His love for them. God’s love is so perfect that He lovingly requires us to obey His commandments because He knows that only through obedience to those laws can we become perfect and qualify for His choicest blessings. For example, the Lord taught in the Sermon on the Mount that “not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). When Jesus began His ministry, His first message was repentance (see Matthew 4:17; Mark 2:17). Later, He taught that the one who would “be called great in the kingdom of heaven” was whosoever would keep the commandments and teach men to do so (Matthew 5:19). And at the end of His ministry, Jesus taught, “He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father” (John 14:21; also verse 5).

From these teachings we know that God’s choicest blessings are contingent upon obedience to God’s laws and commandments. This is affirmed in modern revelation:

There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—

And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated (Doctrine and Covenants 130:20–21).

Finally, those teachings concerned love and law as separate principles, but what is taught about balancing between them? To understand the teachings and examples of our Savior, we must understand the nature of God’s love and the eternal purpose of His laws and commandments. One does not replace or diminish the other, and when we find the right balance between them we understand that there is no paradox in our Creator’s love and law. It is His plan and direction that we too should do both of these.

The Father showers His love and many gifts on all of His children. Earth life is one such gift, bestowed on all who were faithful in the War in Heaven. Another gift is the universal resurrection: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). Many other gifts in mortality are bestowed upon all of God’s children, which demonstrates His love and concern. As Jesus taught, our Heavenly Father “maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45).

Despite Their many gifts that demonstrate divine love, the Father and the Son insist on our keeping Their commandments in our personal lives. The teachings and example of the Son demonstrate how both love and law are expected to be balanced in mortal life. Thus, when we read the Savior’s parable of the prodigal son, we should not fail to note that while the father showed great love for the returning prodigal, it was to the faithful elder son that he said, “Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine” (Luke 15:31; emphasis added). This teaching shows the example and reality of the father’s love but reminds us that the father’s inheritance is for the son who has been consistently faithful. Similarly, even when Jesus exercised loving mercy by not condemning the woman taken in adultery, He nevertheless told her, “Go, and sin no more” (John 8:11). Mercy cannot rob justice (see Alma 42:25) and, as we read in modern revelation, those who obtain mercy are “they who have kept the covenant and observed the commandment” (Doctrine and Covenants 54:6). That revelation mirrors our Savior’s biblical teaching, as clarified in the Prophet Joseph Smith’s inspired translation:

Break not my commandments for to save your lives; for whosoever will save his life in this world, shall lose it in the world to come….

Therefore, forsake the world, and save your souls; for what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? (Joseph Smith Translation, Matthew 16:27, 29 [in the Bible appendix]).

II.

In a moment I will speak about how we can seek an inspired balance between love and law in our personal lives. But first let us consider briefly how the restored Church balances the two-sided coin of love and law.

The Church teaches the commandments of God, and the Church must apply them in its practices, such as baptism requirements, ordinations, and temple recommends. At the same time, the Church must also teach and practice love. General Authorities have taught innumerable sermons on love. Beyond that, one of the deepest manifestations of love is to help someone see and bring their life into harmony with eternal truth, which is the only way to obtain eternal joy.[3]

Other examples of loving practices include the Church’s very generous—but little known or publicized—humanitarian contributions to various people regardless of their religious beliefs.[4] You students in the Church Education System are the recipients of the Church’s generous support of education. The recent change from home teaching to ministering is another result of the Church’s encouragement of loving service. Even when members have chosen to sin and are subject to discipline as the Lord has directed, bishops and stake presidents “[show] forth afterwards an increase of love” (Doctrine and Covenants 121:43) and fellowship to help those who have sinned to repent and receive all the blessings the Lord has in store for them.

III.

We come now to the final and most difficult question: How do we members practice a balance between two great directions: keep the commandments and love even those who don’t? Living with mutual respect for one another’s differences is difficult enough, but loving those who deliberately violate or even mock the commandments and laws of God is a challenge for a lifetime. Difficult though it is, that is what the gospel of Jesus Christ requires.

Those who seek to keep all the commandments of God are almost always a minority among those who don’t. That is the reality that caused Jesus to teach that the kingdom of God is like a leaven (see Matthew 13:33). A leaven—yeast—is hidden away in the larger mass until the whole is leavened, which means raised by its influence. That is our role, and to accomplish this duty, we must not only keep the commandments but also be examples of civility in our own circles of love and beyond. As followers of Christ, we should seek to live peaceably and lovingly with other children of God who do not share our values and do not have the covenant obligations we have assumed. In a democratic government we should seek “fairness for all.” That is how we follow the teaching to be in the world but not of the world. So it was that, at the conclusion of His ministry, Jesus prayed to the Father, “Not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil” (John 17:15).

The balancing I have described is not easy. Experience teaches that when we seek to keep all the commandments in our personal lives, we are sometimes accused of having no love for those who don’t. When we show personal love and support loving causes, we are sometimes misunderstood as implying support for results that contradict our other commitments.

The Savior taught His followers that their numbers and dominions would be small (see 1 Nephi 14:12) and that they would have tribulation and be hated because they were not of the world (see John 17:14). But in that circumstance, He promised blessings. Jesus taught:

Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.

Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you (Matthew 5:10–12; also see Alma 31:38).

In contrast to the blessings promised to those who continually try to balance the dual commandments of love and law, many make the mistake of doing or teaching only one of these at a time. For example, when trying to keep all the commandments, some fall short by continually acting in a way that fails to show love toward those whom they consider to be breaking gospel laws. At the most serious level, some even withhold love and relationships from members of their own families and friends.

To balance our commitments to love and law we must continually show love even as we continually honor and keep the commandments. We must strive to preserve precious relationships and at the same time not compromise our responsibilities to be obedient to and supportive of gospel law. Parents should follow the gospel command to teach their children “to walk uprightly before the Lord” (Doctrine and Covenants 68:28) and also teach them to continue to love those who don’t do this.

How do we draw the line in showing love without seeming to abandon our commitment to the truths we understand about God’s law and the covenants we have made? Surely, we do not follow the extreme of severing family relationships or avoiding all contacts with those whose behavior we disapprove. And just as surely, we should seek to avoid seeming to support or condone behavior that violates the laws of God. Here is an example. I know from letters that some faithful parents struggle where to draw the line in family gatherings where a son or daughter wants to include their cohabitating partner. One parent wrote that they included the couple but declined to host them overnight. I cite that as an illustration of individual balancing, not as a proposed rule.

The best principle is to seek the inspiration of the Lord. As Nephi promised, “The Holy Ghost … will show unto you all things [that] ye should do” (2 Nephi 32:5). There is no part of parental action that is more needful of heavenly guidance or more likely to receive it than the decisions of parents in raising their children and governing their families. That is the work of eternity.

A teaching in the Book of Mormon reminds us to honor the good we should see in all people, even those whose ideas and practices that differ from our own. In the midst of terrible wickedness, the prophet Mormon wrote:

All things which are good cometh of God. …

… Wherefore, every thing which inviteth and enticeth to do good, and to love God, and to serve him, is inspired of God.

Wherefore, take heed … that ye do not judge … that which is good and of God to be of the devil (Moroni 7:12–14).

This teaching reminds us that we should reach out in approval and love to recognize the good in all people.

When we understand the doctrine that explains our relationship to God, we also understand our relationship to one another. All men and women on the earth are the offspring of God—spirit brothers and sisters. What a powerful idea! No wonder God’s Only Begotten Son commanded us to love one another. If only we would do so! What a different world it would be if brotherly and sisterly love and unselfish assistance could transcend all boundaries of nation, creed, and color. Such love would not erase all differences of opinion and action, but it would encourage each of us to focus our opposition on inappropriate actions rather than on actors. By doing so we can follow Jesus Christ’s example of loving all people while also teaching and upholding the commandments of God.

As difficult as it is to live in the turmoil surrounding us, our Savior’s command to love one another as He loves us is both our greatest need and one of our greatest challenges. I pray that we may understand this and seek to live it in all of our relationships and activities, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

 

[1] Dallin H. Oaks, “Love and Law,” Ensign, Nov. 2009, 26–29.

[3] See Russell M. Nelson, “Teach Us Tolerance and Love,” Ensign, May 1994, 71.

[4] “Over the past three decades, the Church and its members have given more than $2 billion in assistance to people in 195 countries and territories.” (D. Todd Christofferson, Church News, Sept. 30, 2018, 6).

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