One of the greatest sources of joy in my life is parenting my three young children. It is also one the greatest sources of chaos in my life as well. Yet, I find I can handle the messes, the sleepless nights, and even the 50,000 meals I’ll prepare for them, but what I can’t handle is the bickering. The constant picking. The small arguments over who had what first and who took apart whose Legos and why must brothers be so annoying. (I am seriously thinking about forgoing traditional baby gifts from now on. Instead I’m going to start giving something more eminently suited to parenting—a black and white striped jersey and a whistle.) In the midst of the chaos, I often find myself yelling at the top of my lungs, “Will you all just stop it?!?! Why can you just be KIND to each other?”

Legalistic Love

During one such meltdown, I had an epiphany. Here I was demanding that my children love like God loves without directing them to Him as the source of that love. And yet, the only way my children—those little image bearers themselves—will ever be able to love one another properly is as they encounter and bask in God’s love for them first. In a twisted irony, my call for them to love had morphed into legalism because I had presented it apart from the source of love.

Most of the time we associate legalism with strict adherence to a specific set of rules, but legalism is not simply choosing the letter of the law over the spirit. Legalism is any attempt to model God’s attributes apart from a relationship with Him. Legalism is trying is to be an image bearer without relying on the Image.

When we attempt to “love” apart from God, our love will only be as lasting as the current situation or our own ability to sustain it. This is why forced tolerance, political correctness, and the “just be kind” approach often feel so weak and at times, so artificial. These approaches are artificial because they are not rooted in imago dei relationship. It’s like we’re playing dress-up in our mother’s heels and pearls—clumping down the hallway, mimicking her behavior but never truly embodying it.

Christ Changes How We Love

In order to make us the fully faceted people we were meant to be, Christ must change what and how we love.  He must reshape and reorder our loves to their proper places. And to do that, He must first hold the central place in our affection.

Jesus taught that the greatest commandment is to love God supremely and that the second greatest is to love our neighbor as ourselves. Because God is supreme, we must desire Him and His approval above anything else; we must position Him as the source of our affections and acceptance; and when we do, as His image bearers, we will naturally reflect His perfect love. This is why the Scripture speaks of our new identity in terms of having a “new heart.” When Christ has first place, when we are consumed with His love, we will naturally love like He does.

And yet, unlike some believe, loving God supremely does not mean that we don’t love other things; instead it means that we love other things the way that God intends for them to be loved. This is why the second commandment follows on the heels of the first. You can only love our neighbor properly—you can only love him or her as God does—if you find your source and definition of love from God Himself. In this sense, loving your neighbor actually flows out of loving God and cannot happen in the fullness that God intends apart from Him.

But when we are transformed by intimate daily dependence on the Creator’s love, when He becomes the source, not simply the model, of the love we extend to each other, we will have vast reservoirs of love welling up inside us, overflowing for all. So the way that we come into full personhood, the way that we love as we were intended to love, is not simply to mimic God’s love, but to allow it to transform us from the inside out. And then, only then, will people know we are His disciples. They will know we belong to Him because our identity will be consumed by His; they will know we belong to Him because we will love like He loves.

Hannah Anderson lives in the hauntingly beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. She spends her days working beside her husband in rural ministry, caring for their three young children, and scratching out odd moments to write. In those in-between moments, she contributes to a variety of Christian publications and is the author of Made for More: An Invitation to Live in God’s Image (Moody, 2014). You can connect with her at her blog Sometimes a Light and on Twitter @sometimesalight.

(Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt adapted from Made for More: An Invitation to Live in God’s Image by Hannah Anderson available from Moody, 2014. It appears here with the permission of the author and publisher.)