Owe nothing to anyone—except for your obligation to love one another. If you love your neighbor, you will fulfill the requirements of God’s law. (Romans 13:8)
When I was a little kid, my family would celebrate Christmas Eve with my Dad’s brothers’ families. One Christmas, one of us cousins got an electric train set for a Christmas present. My cousins and I were really excited about putting the train set together and getting to run it, but we couldn’t get near it because my Dad and my uncles were down on their knees assembling the train set in my Auntie’s kitchen and they were the ones who got to run it for the first time. They told us that they were only making sure that everything was going to work alright, but I think that they were just as excited as we were.
One thing that is very important when assembling a train set is to make sure that you put the locomotive at the front of the train. You could put a different car on the front, and it might work for a while but eventually your train will derail. The system was designed for the locomotive to pull the train.
It seems like common sense, but we often make a very similar mistake in life when it comes to law, love and freedom.
Some people put the freedom car at the front of their life train, but their self-guided attempts at freedom only mire them deeper and deeper in the muck of sin. The problem with this setup is that we do not really know how to set ourselves free. We think that freedom means being able to do what I want whenever I want. But the true meaning of freedom is not being in debt to anyone and having the freedom car at the front will cause us to rack up debts that we can never repay.
Some people put the law car at the front of their life train, and this car will work, sort of, for a while. The law car can keep most of your life train on the tracks but eventually our life train will stall because the law car doesn’t have any power. The other problem with the law car is that it doesn’t work to have it ahead of the love car. When we do that, the love car always derails, and the freedom car is not far behind.
In Romans 13:8-14, Paul is telling us that the love car has to go first. It is the locomotive that will keep pulling our life through every deep dark valley and over every high mountain pass in all kinds of weather. When the law car is hooked behind the love locomotive, the train runs straight and true making it possible for the freedom car to follow the law car and keep the rest of the cars in our life running smoothly on the tracks.
But there is still something missing: fuel. The love locomotive runs on God’s love. God the Father loves us so much that he sent his Son, Jesus, into this world to pay the full cost of our forgiveness. Jesus loves us so much that, through his suffering and death on a cross, he pulled us up out of the muck of our sin and put us on a track that leads to life. The Holy Spirit loves us so much that he continually guides, comforts and directs us along that right track.
God’s love enables us to do what would otherwise be impossible: love others selflessly. It is because we know that God always has us safely in his loving care that we are free to forget about ourselves and love others with God’s love. It is because we know that God always forgives us that we are able to turn away from sin and all its encumbrances and live a debt-free life. It is because we know that God’s love for us is always unconditional that we are able to see God’s law as loving boundaries within which we have great contentment and freedom. Our only part is to trust that God really does love us. Through that trust, which is itself a gift from God, we are able to live free on the love train.
Dear Father, Son and Holy Spirit, thank you for loving me. Help me to grow in trusting your love more so that your love leads my life and then spills out my life into the lives of others. Amen.