God has a vision for mankind. He’d like us to have maximum happiness, peace, love, patience, and competent skill—what scripture refers to as blessedness—to share life with Him. Our part is to catch the vision and follow His plan, which Jesus laid out in the Sermon on the Mount and gave his life to secure for us. There, he details how to get rid of anger, ill will, judgment and other habits that poison human nature.
To love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind isn’t a demand; it’s a basic instruction, the first building block for mankind. Like a rock foundation, it supports the weight of everything else so we don’t have to carry all of life on our own backs.
It’s not as if God were stomping His foot, “Me first! Me first!” That’s prima donna faith. And He’s not Dirty Harry. “Better love me first—punk.” The greatest commandment isn’t for God’s sake, it’s for ours. So are the other nine commandments, which Jesus lumped into one: “Love your neighbor as yourself”. God’s motives are good and generous rather than self-serving.
We tend to think of the word “command” in the sense of domination, pressure, or obligation. But it also means bidding, direction, or instruction. That’s how Jesus used it. Thus, it’s not the Ten Demands, it’s really Ten Directions for optimal well-being and life—according to Jesus, anyway.
“If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.” (Mat. 19:17) Jesus and the New Testament apostles didn’t ban them, but rather, renewed and clarified them after Pharisees and experts had long perverted them. We have the same problem today, which turns following Jesus into a tedious chore to meet a divine demand.
The discipleship life-style is easy to understand if we see Jesus’ two commands like flying lessons, musical scales, or the alphabet. A pilot can’t take off until he first learns to taxi. A musician can’t progress until he first learns the basics of scales. A child can’t read or write without learning and practicing his ABCs.
Jesus directs us to follow him the way a kindergarten teacher might say, “If anyone would come after me and learn to read, he must ‘deny’ himself and practice the alphabet every day. Anyone who doesn’t simply can’t learn from me, and isn’t ready yet for whole words.” This is what Jesus means by carrying our crosses and becoming child-like.
Like a child who didn’t learn the alphabet, and consequently crippled his reading/writing skill, so we remain crippled when we try to follow Jesus with misunderstood or contrived motives.