Loving God: The Greatest Command
What is most important to you in life? What is the most important thing you can think of? Jesus Christ taught that loving God is the highest of all priorities, the greatest command in God’s law. According to the Bible, we were made to be connected to God in a love relationship. But what does it mean to love God? How can we love a Being we can’t see?
Loving God means giving him ourselves—our heart, soul, mind, and strength—all that we are. In the next several blog posts, we will be discussing this most important topic.
Jesus answers the most important question
On one occasion a teacher of God’s law heard Jesus debating with the Sadducees and noticed that he had given them a good answer, so he asked Jesus:
“Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-31)
Jesus first quotes Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and identifies it as the greatest command in the Law of Moses. Why is it the most important? Because it summarizes all of the other commands about our relationship with our Creator. In fact, each of the Ten Commandments fall into either loving God or loving our neighbor, and all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments (Matthew 22:37-40). This man then gives Jesus an amazing response:
“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (Mark 12:32-34)
This teacher of the law rightly saw that one could perform all the ceremonies required by the Law of Moses and still not have a love for God. He saw the importance of loving God, and according to Jesus, that showed he was close to entering God’s kingdom. But close still isn’t good enough. What would actually bring him into God’s kingdom? Loving God.
Many Jewish people in Jesus’ time only had a ceremonial relationship with God. They saw their only obligation to God was performing the ceremonies laid out in the Law of Moses. They assumed that their devotion to these ceremonies secured their relationship with him.
Ceremonial and Formulistic Religion
We see the same tendency in many religious people today: relying on a formula or ceremony without true love for God. These people tend to see salvation as a formula: “Say these words, say this prayer, repeat these truths, perform these ceremonies. Then God will accept you, and you will get all his benefits and blessings.” These confessions and ceremonies may have deep meaning, but without a love for God, people who perform them are no closer to him. Simply relying on Christian symbols and creeds without true faith and love for God is spiritually dead religion. By clinging to familiar words and prayers, we can miss the reality of God himself.
In fact, over-reliance on physical ceremonies can be worse than no religion at all. It may deceive us into believing we have true salvation, when what we really have is of no value spiritually. By using only outward religious symbols to express their faith, people are keeping God at a distance. This allows them to divide their lives into separate compartments, so they can be religious when they’re at church and then live a non-religious life the rest of the time. So, their relationship with him is on their terms, not God’s.
Formulistic religion can also be found in the evangelical church. Some think that repeating the “sinner’s prayer” is a fail-safe method of finding salvation. Surely anyone who prays this prayer will enter a secure relationship with God. But just mechanically repeating the words of a prayer will get us no closer to God, if our heart does not desire him. There are many people who have “prayed the prayer” but don’t love God.
God loved us first
The Apostle John wrote a lot about the believer’s relationship with God. He was called “the apostle of love.” In his first letter he declared:
We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:19)
We could never love God if he had not loved us first. His love was the prime mover and force that drew us to himself. He proved his love for us in that while we were lost and in darkness, he sent his Son to save us. We didn’t seek him out first; he sought us and drew us to himself. So our love is a response to the love God has shown us, it is not a righteous act coming from us. This is what faith is—a response of trust in and love for a God we can’t see. Because God cannot be seen, it is impossible to love God without faith.
So, what does loving God consist of? How should we describe it? It is bending our will to God’s, and giving back to him ourselves, which he created for his pleasure. In his book The Problem of Pain C.S. Lewis wrote of giving ourselves to God in surrender:
If the happiness of a creature lies in self surrender, no one can make that surrender but himself…
Human will becomes truly creative and truly our own when it is wholly God’s, and this is one of the many senses in which he that loses his soul shall find it.
What do we give to God?
So as our response to God’s love, we give him ourselves—all that we are.
Some people like to give God things that are already under God’s control. But giving him things that we don’t really control is a passive decision that doesn’t cost us much. God already controls our health, our employment, our marital status, our food and water supplies, our physical environment, and our life—our very existence. If he wanted to, God could change or end any of these, including our lives, at any time. Sometimes we forget that God is the sovereign Creator and Sustainer, and there is nothing in one’s life that God doesn’t already possess and control. He doesn’t need our permission to govern the external parts of our lives.
So, what should we give to God? Those things that we do control: our heart, soul, mind, and strength, as well as our possessions. Let’s look at each of these areas more closely.
Loving God with our Heart
The heart is the desire center of our lives. It encompasses our passions, desires, and affections. What’s in our heart is what we really want. In our earthly lives we really try to understand a product that interests or attracts us, but we will not be interested in understanding something that we don’t really want. We’ll also seek someone whose love we hope to win. In the same way, those who love God will pursue him and want to know about him and to know him personally.
What God wants from us is our heart: a heartfelt love for him. God expects that we respond to him in love. The desires in our hearts will affect our actions, our emotions, and our lives. Our heart is where everything starts. Yet our hearts easily wander from him, and we are easily distracted. That is why it’s so important to protect our heart, and preserve it for God.
Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. (Proverbs 4:23)
A Changed Life
Here is my wife Nancy’s story on loving God:
My early years show how a person can learn about God’s ways and even accept Jesus as Savior, but not love him fully. My heart was divided and my relationship with God was on my terms, not his. I would pick and choose which parts of the Bible I wanted to follow and which I didn’t like. It was a very dangerous place to be, and I had to learn the hard way that God’s ways are so much better than my own. Over about 10 years I had many painful experiences, as I moved farther and farther away from God, and experienced more and more confusion, heartache, and despair.
I remember the exact day in 1979 when in pain I cried out to my heavenly Father for his forgiveness and mercy. I wanted to love God, not just acknowledge him. What a change that day had on my life! From that point on, I lived my life with a desire to love God, follow his commands, and to use the skills and gifts he has given me to serve him. I can say without a doubt that I now have his joy and peace. (Nancy Hungerford Rogers)
Loving God with our soul
We understand the soul to be the non-physical part of us given by the Creator. It’s what makes us who we are, a living being. The soul is the very essence of a person. This includes the heart, the emotions, and the mind, but encompassing all of them.
To love the Lord with all your soul, then, means to live for him and serve him with everything we have available. It means to be willing to give up and devote our life to him and his service, to live to him, and to be willing to die at his command. Entrusting our lives to God, we find our purpose and meaning in him.
Now God, who has made us, knows what we are and that our happiness lies in Him. Yet we will not seek it in Him as long as he leaves us any other resort where it can plausibly be looked for. (C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, Human Pain)
We are made for God
Our souls were created to be connected and rooted in a place that is deeply satisfying. Everyone has the desire to be fulfilled. What will give us ultimate fulfillment is a loving relationship with our Creator. If we choose to base our life in God and his love, then it will have purpose and meaning. If we don’t find our purpose in God, we will center our lives somewhere else.
You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. (Augustine)
Salvation is not a formula or a ceremony. It’s a relationship with God: knowing and loving him for who he is. We were made for God—for a love relationship with him.
Loving God with our Mind
The mind is the mental and intellectual part of us, and the control center of our bodies. But how do we love God with our mind?
First, we are loving God with our minds when we discipline our thoughts and think about things that are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, and virtuous (Philippians 4:8).
Second, loving God is using our mind to serve God in whatever task we have before us: speaking, studying, helping, teaching, writing, or working. Our mind controls our body, so there is a positive connection between the physical and mental parts of us.
Applying our mind to understand God’s Word is an important way of loving God. Scripture was written for our understanding and encouragement. We need to engage our minds in serious inquiry to know God’s attributes: who he is, what he is like, and what pleases him. Exposing ourselves to God’s words every day renews our minds.
Finally, loving God with our mind is studying and researching the marvelous works of God to understand the world he created. Science is not anti-God. We should never be afraid to explore God’s creation, as it declares his glory and sovereignty.
Loving God with our Strength
To love God with our strength is to love him with our actions, using the strength of our bodies, emotions, and will. This means directing our bodies to do the things that please God and abstaining from those actions that displease him. It also means using our mouths to speak of him and worship him, using our ears and eyes to take in all we need to understand and do his will. Serving God requires the use of our bodies and our physical strength. We use our feet and hands to go and accomplish things that advance his kingdom.
Therefore I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. (Romans 12:1)
God has given us volition, or free will, to have control over our bodies. Giving our bodies to God is a very tangible form of worship and service. When we give him our physical body, we are also giving him our will to control our bodies. We are offering ourselves to him for his use.
As we work to accomplish the goals of God’s kingdom, it can be strenuous and time-consuming. It can take up our physical strength and even cause pain to our bodies and minds. But our bodies were made for God’s purposes and glory. If we love him, we are happy to be used by him in this way.
Loving God with our possessions
Everything we own comes from the hand of God. Although God can take away our possessions at any time, we still have control over them to some degree. So, it’s natural that we give back to him all that we own, for his use. Investing our earthly wealth for God’s kingdom will pay eternal dividends. But things that we keep for evil uses, that can’t be used for his purposes, will trap us and compromise our love for God. It’s important we see that our possessions can capture our hearts and keep us from fully loving God. That is why Jesus said:
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Luke 16:13)
We will look at the subject of possessions more closely in another post.
The Future Glory Awaiting those who Love God
Those that are in a love relationship with God have assurance that they are in God’s eternal plan; they have a sure hope. The Apostle Paul wrote:
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)
While there is difficulty in life, those who love God are also guaranteed ultimate victory over life’s troubles, and have a secure and glorious future with the Creator. Paul goes on to say in Romans 8:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. (Romans 8:35, 37)
May this be our prayer to God today and every day:
Lord, today I give you all of me: my heart, my soul, my mind, and my strength. Because of your great love for me, help me to love you with all that I am and all I own.
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