The celebration of Memorial Day leads us to reflect on the motives of those who have died while serving in the USA’s armed forces. (Note that I refer to those who volunteered). Did the Union soldiers at Gettysburg or the GIs on Omaha Beach die to prove they were personally worthy of their country’s love? No, of course not. If that were true, a selfless choice resulting in their deaths would not have fulfilled that aim.
The truth is that these Americans sacrificed their lives for the sake of what they had already received. They fought and died not in the hope of gaining more for themselves, but as a response of love to the country in which they had already lived. This self-giving love is the greatest transformative force in the world. It is the only power that can motivate a human being to die for a purpose or for another person. It is the love that Jesus has shown us.
Paul writes that “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 NKJV). Though few people would die even “for a righteous man” (v. 7), Jesus bore the judgment of God in our place before we knew him—before we could return his love for us or revere him in any way. He had “greater love” for us, the love of one dying for friends (John 15:13), before we could provide him any dividend on his sacrifice. His death means the work is done and the gift is given.
This fact is revolutionary. Save for the Gospel, no creed in the world’s history has ever reversed the typical demands of religion in this way. Achieving immortality, salvation, or enlightenment (whatever the end of a belief system is) has always involved acting rightly first and receiving the reward later. Never except in the Gospel does a God tell us, “It is finished,” (19:30) before we have followed the Golden Rule, given to charity, had patience with our sick or elderly relatives, and restrained ourselves from speaking in anger or hatred.
We cannot overlook the seriousness of this demand. Rather than give us piecemeal rewards for our good works along the way, God has granted us eternal life up front—all of his “riches in glory” (Philippians 4:19)—and asked us to respond by surrendering our lives and our wills to him. This mighty covenant dwarfs any meager belief that trying to be a “good person” is enough to earn his love. That’s because the Gospel is the only revelation capable of producing true obedience.
Usually we cringe at the word “obedience.” It evokes the dog-like feeling of doing things we don’t want to do because someone else told us to do it. We believe that when we obey, we are enacting someone else’s will rather than our own. But Jesus tells us, “If you love me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15). The joyful realization we have in Christ is that we do what he wants because we love him for all he has done, not because we are feverishly working to earn his favor or dissuade him from wrath. Love of God is the junction where our wills bend to meet his without exhausting our strength in a futile effort to please him. The substance of true, lasting obedience is our love for him and his love given to us.
Anthony Otten has published stories in The Jabberwock Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and Wind. He has been a finalist for the Hargrove Editors' Prize in Fiction. Still: The Journal has published an excerpt from his novel. He lives in Kentucky.
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