“To Be Loved by Perfect Love: John’s Special Message of the Savior,” Ensign, July 1976, 54
It has always filled me with longing to read about the unique relationship between the apostle John and Jesus Christ. John refers to himself as the disciple “whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23), and Jesus himself addresses John as “my beloved” (D&C 7:1). I have always been taught that Jesus loves all of us, but somehow such a universal love has seemed generalized and almost impersonal to me. Jesus’ love for John was certainly not impersonal. How wonderful it would be to hear the Savior address me as “my beloved”! The story of John and Jesus has given me insight into five principles that help me understand both the humility and the joy that come from feeling the perfect love that our Savior extends to us.
1. The effects of discipleship. Being a disciple did not automatically transform John into a perfect model of Jesus’ teachings, nor will it immediately transform us. Like us, John entered discipleship not only with great love for the Savior but also with mortal shortcomings and a lack of understanding of the Savior’s mission. When some Samaritan villagers refused lodging for Jesus, John became so angry that he and James asked, “Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did?” (Luke 9:54.)
Jesus’ rebuke contains a profound lesson: “Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.” (Luke 9:55–56.) The Savior was, obviously, pointing out that they had allowed themselves to be tempted to anger by Satan and had been influenced toward evil. We can see an added richness of meaning in the Savior’s words as he seems to invite his disciples to examine their own spirits, to see that the quality of their souls should not have allowed such angry reaction. The process of becoming a true disciple of Christ requires a person to come to know, in essence, that his spirit and the Spirit of the Lord are “of the same manner.”
On another occasion James and John requested that they be given the places of honor by Jesus in his glory, one on his right and one on his left. This apparently selfish request could certainly have been motivated by John’s great love for Jesus: he merely wanted to be near his Lord forever. Again Jesus’ reply indicated that John knew not “what manner of spirit” he was:
“Ye know not what ye ask: can ye drink of the cup that I drink of? and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?
“And they said unto him, We can. And Jesus said unto them, Ye shall indeed drink of the cup that I drink of; and with the baptism that I am baptized withal shall ye be baptized:
“But to sit on my right hand and on my left hand is not mine to give; but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared.” (Mark 10:38–40.)
John did not become rebellious at these rebukes. Instead, he learned and changed as he walked beside the Master, sharing in some of the most significant events of this earth’s history. He heard the voice of the Father introduce the transfigured Jesus on the high mountain. He sat beside Jesus at the Last Supper and saw the betrayer pointed out. He was one of the apostles who fell asleep while Jesus suffered solitary agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. When Christ said to Peter, “Couldest not thou watch one hour?” (Mark 14:37), John could have asked himself that same question.
Perhaps John resolved never to disappoint the Lord again. We have indications that he did not desert Jesus during the trial before the high priest and know that he remained during the suffering upon the cross, though no mention is made of other apostles remaining with Jesus. Jesus also chose to trust John with the care of his mother. From the cross he asked John to take Mary as his own mother, and “from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home.” (John 19:27.)
Between the time when John asked for the place of honor at Jesus’ side and the time when he recognized the risen Lord walking on the seashore, he had changed. When he was reunited with his Master, he did not ask Jesus to grant him a wish. But the Lord, recognizing his development, now trusted him enough to offer him anything.
“John, my beloved, what desirest thou? For if you shall ask what you will, it shall be granted unto you.” (D&C 7:1.)
John, faithful to that trust, did not ask for any worldly power, fame, or wealth, or even any heavenly rewards. Changed under the influence of Christ’s perfect love he simply said, “Lord, give unto me power over death, that I may live and bring souls unto thee.” (D&C 7:2.)
The Lord granted his request: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, because thou desirest this thou shalt tarry until I come in my glory, and shalt prophesy before nations, kindreds, tongues and people.” (D&C 7:3.)
One can imagine that John now knew the “manner of spirit” he was. Thus is discipleship a process of growth and refinement that requires humble submission and willingness to change.
2. The vital connection between joy and knowing what “manner of spirit ye are of.” Peter evidently was upset or concerned about John’s request to stay on earth and continue the work. We are not told the details of Peter’s feelings, but we do have Christ’s answer to him. The first part of the answer seems to be a rebuke to Peter: “If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?” (D&C 7:4.) Then the Lord reviews what both Peter and John have asked:
“For he desired of me that he might bring souls unto me, but thou desiredst that thou mightest speedily come unto me in my kingdom.” (D&C 7:4.) Christ then reassures Peter that he does not disapprove of his request, but that John’s desire to continue to serve in the flesh was very pleasing to the Lord. (See D&C 7:5.)
Then Jesus made a statement that has many implications about the nature of man and the purpose of the gospel. He said to Peter and John, “Verily I say unto you, ye shall both have according to your desires, for ye both joy in that which ye have desired.” (D&C 7:8.) Jesus had not granted some of John’s early requests, possibly because John did not know what “manner of spirit” he was and had not realized the eternal consequences of his request. When Jesus did grant John’s wish, it was in part because John knew that he would find joy in the fulfillment of his request. Thus, to know what manner of spirit we are must mean, at least in part, to know what will bring us real joy.
Furthermore, this relationship between Jesus and John illustrates that we often are not aware of our eternal natures; the Savior, since he is aware of our eternal natures, knows better than we what will bring us happiness. A personal relationship with Jesus can help us unmask ourselves to ourselves. Then we will not only have access to the general commandments that apply to us all, but we will also be able to use his light to guide us in our own personal decisions and problems.
3. Although it would be marvelous to be in Jesus’ presence, that alone is not sufficient to make us like him. John the Beloved had the privilege of dwelling with the Savior, walking beside him in journeys, eating with him, talking with him face to face. Sometimes it seems to me that it would be easier to follow him if I could see him, have him close during all the temptations and decisions I face. We read with awe and reverence testimonies of the overpowering nature of his presence.
Three of these occasions are especially dear to me. Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery saw a vision of him in the Kirtland Temple “standing upon the breastwork of the pulpit, before us; and under his feet was a paved work of pure gold, in color like amber. His eyes were as a flame of fire; the hair of his head was white like the pure snow; his countenance shone above the brightness of the sun; and his voice was as the sound of the rushing of great waters.” (D&C 110:2–3.)
The Nephites whom the Lord visited after his crucifixion also recorded the impact of his presence:
“The eye hath never seen, neither hath the ear heard, before, so great and marvelous things as we saw and heard Jesus speak unto the Father;
“And no tongue can speak, neither can there be written by any man, neither can the hearts of men conceive so great and marvelous things as we both saw and heard Jesus speak; and no one can conceive of the joy which filled our souls at the time we heard him pray for us unto the Father.” (3 Ne. 17:16–17.)
An apostle of our own century, Melvin J. Ballard, records an experience he had in a dream:
“As I entered the door, I saw, seated on a raised platform, the most glorious Being my eyes have ever beheld or that I ever conceived existed in all the eternal worlds. As I approached to be introduced, he arose and stepped towards me with extended arms, and he smiled as he softly spoke my name. If I shall live to be a million years old, I shall never forget that smile. He took me into his arms and kissed me, pressed me to his bosom, and blessed me, until the marrow of my bones seemed to melt! When he had finished, I fell at his feet, and, as I bathed them with my tears and kisses, I saw the prints of the nails in the feet of the Redeemer of the world. The feeling that I had in the presence of him who hath all things in his hands, to have his love, his affection, and his blessing was such that if I ever can receive that of which I had but a foretaste, I would give all that I am, all that I ever hope to be, to feel what I then felt!” (Bryant S. Hinckley, Sermons and Missionary Services of Melvin Joseph Ballard, Deseret Book Company, 1949, p. 156.)
These examples intensify our desire to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, but we delude ourselves if we imagine that his presence alone is sufficient to truly bring us to him. Many men and women encountered the force of his personality and experienced his miraculous power when he walked with them on the earth, but still rejected him. He cannot save us against our will. If we would have a relationship of love with him, as John did, we must bring something of ourselves to it. Although John says, “We love him, because he first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:19), that alone is not a sufficient cause. Jesus loves all of us with a perfect love, yet some of us reject him. In order to allow his love to work its miracle for us, we must allow ourselves to feel it; we must let it influence us; we must return it.
4. But how can we, being imperfect, grow to return a perfect love? How can we experience the overwhelming joy of Christ’s love and the incomprehensible joy of offering him our total love? The apostle John himself helps us answer these questions, and this is the fourth lesson of significance to me. For those of us who have been taught the gospel, John’s message is not a surprise. But it might be a disappointment to anyone who desires a magic, easy formula to bring him to Christ. John outlines the fundamental principles of the gospel. He shows that there are no shortcuts directly to Christ; we can reach him only by understanding and obeying the plan that he has given us.
First we must realize who we are and begin to understand our potential. John tells us “we are the sons of God,” and that though “it doth not yet appear what we shall be: … we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.” (1 Jn. 3:2.)
John also explains that Jesus is the Son of God whom “the Father sent … to be the Saviour of the world.” (1 Jn. 4:14.) To be thus related to Jesus is inspiration to me; it helps me understand how he would care for me and value my love for him.
Even though I am a daughter of God, I must not delude myself concerning my present condition. John strongly emphasizes that “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 Jn. 1:8–9.)
Thus we must avail ourselves of the atonement and repent of our sins in order to begin to be worthy of our relationship to the Lord.
For John, as it can be for us, the atonement was a glorious manifestation of the Savior’s love. “Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us.” (1 Jn. 3:16.)
But John also recognized his responsibility to love his fellow beings, and this is a major theme of the epistles. “Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.” (1 Jn. 4:11.)
John emphasized this repeatedly: “And this is his commandment, That we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another.” (1 Jn. 3:23.)
“He that loveth his brother abideth in the light.” (1 Jn. 2:10.)
“Let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth.” (1 Jn. 3:18.)
“If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” (1 Jn. 4:20.)
But how shall we show that we love God and that we love our fellowmen?
“For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments.” (1 Jn. 5:3.)
“By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God, and keep his commandments.” (1 Jn. 5:2.)
Love of God, love of our fellow beings, and keeping the commandments are three interdependent things in the sense that we cannot claim to do one of them without also doing the other two; and when we raise our level of performance in one area, it automatically helps us to do better in the other two.
One verse in particular is a guide to me about how I must have the right attitude about obeying the commandments: “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous.” (1 Jn. 5:3.)
Sometimes it seems grievous to try to live the commandments. But if we really trust that God would not ask us to live any commandment that would not ultimately bring complete joy, would we not then find joy even in the difficult struggle to obey? Thus his commandments, though not easy, would not be grievous. However, it seems that many times we lose sight of the fact that the commandments are guides to lead us to joy. If it grieves me to keep one of God’s commandments, then I am not trusting him.
Thus John emphasizes our literal relationship to Christ, the importance and necessity of the atonement, the importance of showing that we love God and our fellow beings by keeping his commandments, and that our attitude about keeping the commandments must not be grudging or bitter.
5. Love itself is not a perfect guide to joy and happiness but must be refined by testing its directives against the commandments of God. There is no doubt that John loved Christ very much, perhaps all that he was able to love at a given time in his life, yet he still did things that hurt or disappointed the Savior. Love is not enough. Christ told us, “This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you.” (John 15:12.) We must love others as Christ loved, which means that we must know “what manner of spirit [we] are of,” and “what manner of spirit [they] are of,” in order to help each other with wisdom and skill in our mutual quest for life eternal. Many people profess love for others, yet they contribute to leading those people away from their Father in heaven, away from real joy. Love, in our day, is used as a reason or an excuse for many acts that bring deep sorrow. Jesus Christ, the only perfect man, can say, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” (John 14:15.) An imperfect being should say, “If you love me, help me to keep Christ’s commandments,” and “Because I love you, I will do all I can to help you keep Christ’s commandments.”
To love is not enough. To be loved is not enough. But to be loved by perfect love, to be loved by Christ, to establish a personal relationship with him is enough to set us on a path through which we can know “what manner of spirit” we are and grow to the point where we can “have according to our desires” because we “joy in that which we have desired.” “Herein,” promises John, “is our love made perfect.” (1 Jn. 4:17.)