I once attended a worship service that was led by a Spanish-speaking pastor for whom English was a second language. When she read Jesus’ teaching about the two great commandments—i.e., to love the Lord with all your heart and to love your neighbor as yourself—she referred to them as the two great commitments.
This is not to fault her; she made a perfectly natural mistake. After all, the spellings of the two words differ by only three letters and I suspect that their pronunciations sound very similar to a non-English-speaking ear. However, the more I thought it about the more I liked it, because it seemed to me that she had voiced an important truth.
For most of us, the word, “commandment,” has negative overtones. A commandment is something that is demanded of me whether I like it or not. I picture a commandment as a big, strong man, standing over me with a club, threatening to beat me if I don’t do what he says and do it now! When someone gives me a command, my natural inclination is to rebel and shout, “NO!” or to run away to where he can’t hurt me.
By contrast, the word, “commitment,” has overtones that are more positive. A commitment is not something imposed on me against my will, but a promise that I freely make. I picture a commitment as a shining star that I have welcomed into my heart. That star keeps my heart warm and alive. It also guides my decisions and actions, and above all, it gives my life meaning. The commitments we make and keep are the only things that make life worth living.
Commandments are imposed, commitments are freely chosen. Commandments demand, commitments guide. Commandments enslave; commitments bring genuine liberty. When we fail, commandments condemn us, but commitments encourage us to get up and try again.
However, God’s commandments have more in common with commitments than you might think. The Ten Commandments begins with a reminder of God’s love: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt out of the house of bondage (Exodus 20:1).” In the New Testament, we are reminded that “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8) Before God ever asks something of us—i.e., commands us—he commits himself to us in love.
In a sense when God commands us to love him and to love others he’s putting an invitation into our hands. He stands before us not with a lightning bolt, but with the open and pierced hands of Jesus, inviting us to enter into a personal relationship with him and with others.
We respond to God’s invitation by making a commitment, a commitment that will bring us meaning, freedom and joy. Given his great love for us, that’s a commitment I’m willing to make. How about you?