What is the most important thing you can do with your life? What is the one action that matters above all others? What could you give yourself to that would never fade in significance and never be exhausted in purpose? If all the commandments of God could be instilled into one, what would it be?
The answer to these questions is appealing because we like to keep things simple. Trying to do too many things too often with too much effort is a formula for failure. And, sadly, that is how most Christians live their lives. How do I combine worship, service, spiritual disciplines, Bible study, using my spiritual gifts, evangelizing, raising godly children, sinning less, stewarding, praying, spending time with God, journaling, doing social justice stuff, fasting, giving, and studying into a program that will rocket me to spiritual heights?
Or, we grab hold of a specific minor idea or devote ourselves to one activity that we assume will be the “end all” to our desire to please and honor God only to discover that the idea or activity is an insignificant contributor to knowing God. We then find ourselves frustrated, confused, and weary, wondering if relating to God is worth all the effort.
Let me assure you that God is worth the effort. But let me also remind you that there is one way to relate to God that must be the top priority of your life or everything else will not make sense. It is simple to recognize in a moment but involves a life-time of training to attain.
For all seekers of God, the calling is the same.
‘And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these. (Deuteronomy 6.4-7, Matthew 22.37-40, Mark 12.30-31; Luke 10.27)
- The means by which we are to love may vary from scripture passage to scripture passage yet they include the essential elements of our being. Conclusion: we are to love God with every part of our being and in every relationship.
- Repeated from OT to NT, to Israel and the Church, in every Gospel except John, and in ancient times to present, this commandment is indeed the greatest of all commands. Seeking to live it needs to be the highest priority of our Christian life.
- The use of the word “all” indicates entirety or completeness. The challenge and joy of Christians is learning to more fully be people who love God with everything we are and in everything we do.
- Only God is love. Apart from abiding in the God who is love – where love is perfectly lived in the Trinity – we will fail in following this command. Our desire and ability to love is given hope in our union with Jesus Christ.
Only God loves with that love of which the gospels speak. And only in the divine incarnation, in the unification of God and man, i.e., in Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Son of man, is the love of God himself – or, better yet, God himself who is love – manifested and granted to human beings….The newness of Christianity lies not in the commandment to love, but in the fact that it has become possible to fulfil the commandment. In union with Christ we receive his love and can love with it and know it. (Alexander Schmemann, The Eucharist, p. 136)
When we have reached love, we have reached God and our way has ended. (Isaac the Syrian)
Training ourselves to love God more fully with every part of our being needs to be our highest priority. Yet, since we do not have the human ability necessary for this kind of love, our priority is really learning to live in union with Christ and his love. This means that we focus on learning to “abide in Christ.” Thus, in participative union with Christ, we now have the source of love flowing within us. As Jesus teaches:
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me…He who abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing…abide in my love (John 15.4, 5, 9).
Interestingly, the command to love God with our whole being does not touch upon the intellect or brain as a faculty by which to love God.
Some might argue that the intellect is included in the term “mind.” They may be correct. However, the intellect is not to be equated with the mind and, conversely, only finds its true place within the mind. Thus, the priority in learning to love would be to train the mind over the intellect while seeking to abide in Christ from the heart.
According to ancient Christian teaching, the mind resides within the heart. But these faculties have been broken apart as a result of the Fall and now stand in great need of healing in order to bring them into beautiful harmony again. Healing can begin when we understand how significant the heart is in our relationship with God and how the heart functions in the relationship. Fr. Meletios Webber helps enlighten us to the heart contrasted with the intellect:
…the heart is quiet rather than noisy, intuitive rather than deductive, lives entirely in the present, and is, at every moment, accepting of the reality God gives in that moment. Moreover, the heart does not seek to distance or dominate anything or anyone by labeling. Rather, it begins with an awareness of its relationship with the rest of creation (and everything and everyone in it), accepting rather than rejecting, finding similarity rather than alienation and likeness rather than difference. It knows no fear, experiences no desire, and never finds the need to defend or justify itself. It is patient and undemanding. Little wonder, then, that the [intellect] always impatient and very demanding, manages to dominate [the heart] so thoroughly.
Further, one might guess that the heart is capable of constant awareness of God, and we can see that awareness, albeit in a weakened state, whenever we quiet the [intellect] long enough to hear the silence. The heart functions at an altogether more profound level than the [intellect], achieving states of awareness and experience far removed from the tyranny of [reasoning] or the vanity of emotion.
The heart experiences the Kingdom of heaven, although at this time in the fallen state, in shadow rather than in light. Within the Kingdom there is no time, simply eternity – or more plainly, only “now.” Within the Kingdom, identity is treasured, not difference. The very atmosphere of the Kingdom is love and life and peace, and these have no opposites: they are absolute. They are the love of God, eternal life, and the peace of God which is beyond understanding.
The language of the heart is silence – not a bleak, empty silence, but a profound and meaningful silence that ceaselessly sings the glory of God.
While present in all human beings, the heart lies hidden and barely functions in most people most of the time. (Bread & Water, Wine & Oil, p. 25)
Also interestingly, the command does not touch upon the emotions or feelings as a faculty by which to love God. Again, some might argue that by its very nature, love includes emotion. They may be right. Yet, for this kind of love to be manifested, emotion is not the same as love. Emotion finds its proper expression within love not as an entity in and of itself. In other words, Jesus is not necessarily commanding us to have greater feelings for God, though this idea is usually the way Jesus’ words are interpreted by most modern evangelical Christians.
This all makes sense when we understand that emotions belong to the intellect not the heart. Emotions are usually a reaction to thoughts. You can create fear within yourself by merely thinking about having an auto accident, picturing your house burning down, or imagining someone stealing your identity. Insurance companies capitalize on this kind of fear for sales.
Emotions have their place and add color to our lives. Yet, like everything within us, they need healing. We also need to be consciously aware of their ability to lead us astray and to be aware of our own tendency to rely on them too much.
As I’ve already mentioned, to love God is a call to union with Him much more than a call to deepen our feelings for Him.
I know this is somewhat an argument from silence, but without these two emphases much understanding of how to love God is dismantled. Today, most of the effort to “grow” Christians is centered on 1) information – getting more information about God, the Bible, relationships, theology, etc., or 2) emotions – managing (increasing, navigating) emotions in worship, relationships, or struggles. Yet, it is impossible to truly love God relying on any level of information or feelings. We might have information about and feelings towards God, but is that really love? Is our union with God based on ideas and feelings? Hardly.
Jesus seems to be teaching us that to really love God involves every essential part of our being – heart, mind, soul, and strength (body) – and that this must be our #1 priority.
Historically, this was the only way to live as a Christian – integratively, synergistically, and holistically. Over centuries, however, the emphasis was placed on the intellect – a scholarly approach – where comprehension, information, and instruction became the end goal of Christian living. For example today, the Sunday worship service becomes a music and lecture event where emotion and information reigns verses a communing and internal-sensual encounter with God which actually occurs.
Training Ourselves to Love God
So, how can we love God with all our being? What we need are holistic experiences which include all these components at once; practices which include heart, mind, soul, and body in one package.
These practices are somewhat common among modern Christians. But pay close attention to my description of each. They are not the usual understanding of each practice. My goal here is to push your understanding past the superficial to the see these practices as means to make you a different person, one who loves God with your whole being.
Fundamentally, there are three essential practices which help us love God with our whole being:
Prayer – To lovingly BE with someone in full communion is to be fully present to them with our whole being. This is prayer. This means removing internal and external distractions for the purpose of giving full attention to the Trinity. This involves entering our “closet,” closing the door, and waiting in silence as we participate in the life of God. Ongoing communion with God engages our heart, mind, soul, body and relationships evidencing our love for God.
Fasting – To love someone is to cherish them with purposeful self-control, intentional exclusivity, joyful struggle, and requisite pain. Resolute restraint produces a single-mindedness necessary in true love. For example, remaining faithful to our spouse demands that we resist all temptations towards infidelity. Thus abstaining (saying, “No!”), out of ardent love of God, affects and shapes every aspect of our being, stressing (in a good way) and strengthening our relationship with God. Fasting incorporates our heart, mind, soul, body and relationships showing our love for God.
Almsgiving – To love someone is to give ourselves freely, sacrificially, and faithfully until love becomes who we are. Loving God by expressing charity to others, whether poor or rich, is Jesus’ way of healing our greed and wickedness, washing ourselves inside and out (Luke 11.41). How we relate (giving or ignoring) to the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, and imprisoned indicates our true nature (sheep or goat) while demonstrating our love for God and marking our eternal destiny (Matthew 25.31-46). Genuine almsgiving involves our heart, mind, soul, body, and relationships revealing our love for God.
Repentance/Confession – To love God authentically, we must be aware of what hinders our love. Self-awareness is necessary in order to love God with our whole being. Once aware of our sin, faults, and movements away from God, we run back to Him, like the prodigal, acknowledging our waywardness. With all our heart, mind, soul, and body we humbly fall before Him in repentance, confessing our obstinance and carelessness. Love flourishes in the joyful tears of compunction.
Forgiveness – To love God means we cannot hold onto hostility nor bitterness towards Him or those He loves. We forgive others as He has forgiven us. Actually, we learn how to love as we learn how to forgive. The two go hand-in-hand. Forgiveness begins within and then works outwardly as we relate to the one(s) we are forgiving.
Worship – To love God means to honor, praise, and bow before Him. This is not simply done in our heads or with our emotions. Engaging our heart, mind and soul is challenging enough. Yet, many of us experience little bodily activity in our typical “worship service” as well. Bowing, kneeling, crossing ourselves, hand movements, or any kind of movement would be out of place. It’s tough to lovingly worship apart from the body being involved. Think about how people are often honored – lighting a candle, kissing a picture or cheek, standing, bowing at the waist, or being silent. No wonder we have a hard time loving God in our worship. We’ve limited ourselves (or been limited by mistaken ideas) to only a few, ineffective expressions of love.
Physical training – To love means to battle, to fight against all that would seek to destroy that love and to do everything possible to protect it. We may want comfort and peace but Jesus has come bringing fire and division (Luke 12. 49-53). The kingdom is to be taken by violence/force (Matthew 11.12). To become like God and His love, we must train ourselves (1 Timothy 4.7-10) including “disciplining the body bringing it into subjection,” as St. Paul puts it (1 Corinthians 9.27). To love God means to train ourselves to defeat our passions and appetites for anything that is not God or of God. Training the body is a primary means of training the heart, soul, and spirit. A transformational powerhouse is developed when all these elements are integratively trained towards loving God.
Hospitality – To love God means to welcome the stranger as He does. Christ has given His life for the alienated, the broken, the sinner. We are to love in the same way (John 13.34) opening our heart and home to those we do not know. Like the Samaritan who cares for the outcast and downtrodden (Luke 15:25-37), our eyes need to be open compassionately to those in need who are in front of us as we journey through our day; whomever God places in our path.
Spiritual friendships/relationships – To love God means you have a network of people who help you do just that – love God. Do your friends help make you a better Christian or do they hold you back? Do you have a few personal relationships that challenge you to become more like Christ? Do you regularly have conversations with someone who makes you hunger to know God more.
Spiritual direction – To love God means you’re unpretentious and self-aware enough to submit yourself to someone dedicated and able to help guide you to love God even more. This person cares for you, shepherding your heart, mind, soul, body, and relationships to places you are unable to go on your own. He or she is the iron that sharpens your inner person, the consultant for your interior design, the confessor for your hidden faults. We are all blind to the worst and harmful within our nature. We need an assistant who helps navigate our way into and through the dark places. Only then will these elements begin to find restoration to wholeness and holiness.
Recognize the priority of loving God with your whole being.
Determine to train yourself for an interior transformation towards loving God.
Choose one of the “doable” practices above and start doing it regularly.
Pay attention to what’s happening inside you and to how you are relating to others. Are you seeing changes?
Caution: Do not share what you are doing with others or try to get others to do what you are doing. Let the transformation speak for itself.
Loving God with your whole being and relationships is a life-long journey. Don’t be discouraged with slow progress or be impatient with yourself.
Learn to enjoy the journey towards loving God more capably with all that you are.
Leave your comments below. How will you love God more deeply?