Sometimes I’m surprised by the meaning of words. Even common everyday words can mean something different than our typical usage of them. I’m not talking about slang terms although there’s always a few surprises there as well. Who would have thought that chill means something other than chill? Take the everyday word “ought.” Most of the time we use it as a kind of suggestion. “You ought to change your oil.” I was surprised to discover that “ought” is more powerful than a simple suggestion.
Consider this verse. John said, “We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” (1 John 3:16, NASB95) In my normal everyday usage, “ought” sounds like a pleasant suggestion. “Yep, we ought to love each other. It would be a really nice thing to do.” But that’s not what it means.
While doing a study on this verse I found that “ought” is one step down from a command. It means the obligation to do something. The ancient word in Greek and the predecessors to English for “ought” contain the idea of debt and the obligation to repay the debt. Remember what Paul said, “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.” (Romans 13:8, NASB95)
Another way to put “ought” into its proper setting is to consider it as a call of duty. It’s just not a suggestion to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s our duty, our obligation. Knowing that “ought” to put a different light on this verse.
“But what does it mean to lay our lives down?” asks someone in the same vein as the person that asked Jesus “Who is my neighbor?” The obvious direct meaning is to step in front of danger to protect someone else. If we just leave it there then this verse has very little real life everyday meaning. But John follows 3:16 with 3:17. “But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?” (1 John 3:17, NASB95) So, in John’s mind “laying down our lives” is not just limited to those extraordinary moments of brazen heroism, but to something much more common.
Laying down our lives can mean many things. Giving to meet a need. Listening instead of talking. Helping someone in some way that costs us something. Spending time with someone else that seems fruitless for our personal goals. Extending grace even when the other person is demanding, rude, or just plain wrong. Giving up our place for someone else. Praying for someone else. Loving those we deem to be unlovable. Laying down anything that is ours for the sake of another. That is our obligation, our duty, because Jesus laid down His life for us.
There may be some solace that John limited this obligation to our brothers which, in context, is referring to our brothers and sisters in Christ. But not so fast! After all, “who is my neighbor?” This kind of love starts with those closest and ought to ripple outward. That’s not the “ought” of suggestion but of obligation. We will have more opportunities to lay down our lives for those we are close to in proximity or relationship. But the obligation to lay down our lives as a reflection of Christ extends beyond every border we may devise.
Take time today to consider what this “ought” to mean in your relationships; in your family, at work, in your community of faith, at the marketplace, and in the world. Ask the Holy Spirit to shine His light on new ways to “lay down your life” for the sake of someone else today.