In the rock opera Jesus Christ: Superstar, Mary Magdalene sings a song saying, “I don’t know how to love him.” You see, Christ had saved Mary from prostitution and demon possession. And now she wanted to live to please Jesus, to offer Him her lifelong devotion. But how could she express her love? In her earlier years she had easily known how to please men. But Jesus was different. What did He want from her? How could she serve Him?
Isn’t Mary like most of us? Here we are saved and wanting to be devoted to God, but not knowing how. We are so deeply grateful for all He has done for us, but we don’t know how to respond.
Good news! In Mark 12:28-34 Jesus teaches us how to please God. He tells us how we can best serve Him. He says, “You shall love the Lord your God.”
In calling us to love, Jesus is quoting from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. These verses are called the “shema” or “the first word” in Jewish law. This commandment to love God was and still is the first text every Jewish child memorizes. It’s importance was of such merit that scrolls bearing the command were bound to the wrist and forehead of faithful Jews so they’d not forget it.
“You shall love the Lord your God.” That is what God wants from us. Love— the most intimate and warm, creative and committed of human acts— this is God’s desire of us.
In inviting our affections God provides us in Scripture with a really memorable picture of our love relationship. Often God refers to himself in Christ as the groom and people of faith and love as His bride (the book of Hosea, Revelation 19:7-9, Matthew 25:1-13). So, our relationship with God is a relationship of love— an intimate, romantic, enduring oneness akin to marriage.
It is interesting that the Greek word in the text for “love” is “agape,” the most exalted form of love a person can offer.
God could have asked us for “eros” love. “Eros” is the Greek word from which we get the English notion, “erotic.” This is sexual love, a love that develops between two people who find in one another’s flesh a pleasing relationship. But God is not asking for this.
Another form of love God could have requested of us is “philia” or friendship. This love develops between two people who enjoy a meeting of the minds, common values, goals, and hobbies. But again, God is not asking for this.
The word is “agape.” “You shall agape the Lord your God…” And agape love means unconditional love.
You see much of our human love is conditional. We may love someone because they meet our emotional and physical needs for intimacy. Or we may love someone if they are nice to us. But when the conditions on which our love like this is propped are withdrawn, then so is our love.
The trouble with “I love you because…” and “I’ll love you if…” is that it doesn’t last very long. For when one of the partners fails to met the other’s expectations then and there love ends.
Agape love, however, places no stipulations. It simply says, “I love you, period! And nothing you can do or not do can ever change my love!”
It is true that one may love God because He has been good to you, given you a job, a house, a car, a family, etc. But unconditional love for God will continue even when these things are not ours.
You will recall the book of Job in the Old Testament. It is the story of a rich and healthy family man who lost his children, his possessions and even his health. But he did not lose his love for God. Sitting atop the rubble of his life Job worshiped. “Naked I came into the world. Naked I’ll go. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord!” You see, Job did not love God just “because” He was good to him, nor did he set conditions: If you make me healthy and wealthy, I’ll love you!” Job loved God, period! And circumstances could not alter that.
Yet Job’s wife was quite a different story. She loved God because He was good to her. He had given her a husband, a family, wealth, and health. But when all that was gone, so was her love for God. She told her husband, “Curse God and die!”
Agape. Unconditional love. This is what God asks of us. “You shall love the Lord your God.”
Interestingly, John 3:16 says that God’s love for us is agape. “For God so loved (agape!) the world that he gave…” God, you see, is asking us to love Him as He already loves us.
All that! Now this! What practical expression does our love for God take?
We have already seen that God made us in His own image. And part of what that means is that we are tripartite creatures. We have a spirit, a physical body, and a soul (emotion, will, and intellect). And all of this is what God is calling us to love Him with!
Just look at the text, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And with all your strength.” Here, Jesus is appealing to us to love Him unconditionally with our entire tripartite being.
Let’s break the verse apart now and look at each piece in turn.
First of all, the text tells us to love God with all our emotion. Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart.” Many people of the church today strongly feel, however, that emotion has no place in the faith. “We don’t want shouting and weeping and enthusiasm in our church,” they say. They are afraid of emotionalism.
Yet the picture we get of Christ in the New Testament has its dimensions of emotion. Jesus wept when He learned of John the Baptizer’s death. At a wedding party the Lord made more wine for merrymakers. He cried over hard-hearted Jerusalem. He shed tears in the Garden of Gethsemane. He breathed fire at corruption in the temple. And part of the picture of the early disciples is emotion as well. Consider Peter, the big fisherman. He is impulsive, blustering. He is ready to make an enthusiastic endorsement of Christ on the mountaintop. Later he denies Christ and weeps bitter tears. Days later, while fishing in a boat, Christ calls to him from the seashore. And Peter’s heart leaps within him for joy! He dives into the water and is the first to reach Christ’s side. Emotion? Yes, it had its place in the lives of Jesus and Peter. And it has a definite place in the life of every faithful Christian.
Emotion enriches our faith. It doesn’t cheapen it. Which of you would want an emotionless marriage? You find those expressions of joy, of grief, of affection and enthusiasm very meaningful, don’t you? They do not weaken your love! They strengthen it, don’t they? And emotion can do the same for your Christian life.
A member of a small, informal country church was visiting in a large and formal city church. The pastor was preaching a beautiful salvation sermon and the visitor shouted, “Amen!” The congregation became disturbed. The ushers moved in on the visitor. One sat on either side of him. The preacher continued and again the guest shouted, “Hallelujah!” And he raised his hands. The chief usher whispered, “Sir, you’ll have to behave yourself or leave.” The man answered, “I can’t help it, sir. I’ve got religion.” The usher quickly answered back, “Well, you didn’t get it here, so keep quiet.” Traditionally some churches have been cold and formal. If you show emotion you’re breaking the rules. Influential church reformer John Calvin himself had a strong disdain for emotionalism. (John Calvin also had kidney stones. If you’ve ever had one, you’ll know it’s hard to get excited about anything but death.) Yet Jesus said, “Love God with all your heart.” And we would be unfaithful not to give God an expression of love from our heart. Whether it’s tears, joyous music, hand clapping, or at times a loud shout, “Praise the Lord!” Such pleases our Jesus.
The classical composer, Joseph Haydn, was once criticized for the gaiety of his church music. To his critics he replied, “I cannot help it. I give forth what is in me. When I think of the Divine Being, my heart is so full of joy
that the notes fly off as from a spindle. And as I have a cheerful heart, He will pardon me if I serve Him cheerfully.”
Yes, emotion has its place in the love of God. But emotion alone is not enough. Jesus gives us a second way to love God. He said, “Love God with all your mind.”
A noted surgeon said that the first time he looked upon a human brain he felt as if he were inside a magnificent cathedral. He stood in reverential silence in the presence of what he beheld. Here was the center of the person’s intelligence. Here, indeed, was the place where an individual became aware of God. Here was a place from which worship could be directed to Christ!
Consider the apostle Paul for a moment. Think on this scholar’s intellect. Examine the work of his brain, the deep, piercing theological insight he achieved. What a strong mind! And what a service of love he rendered to the Lord! Why, much of the New Testament is the work of his own mind. Books like Romans, Galatians, and Corinthians are ours because Paul loved God with his brain.
Today, the Christian church is struggling with a mood of anti-intellectualism. Some people say the mind is of little importance in loving God. Scholarship is belittled. Seminaries are considered dens of liberalism. The mind is seen as hostile to the faith.
Yet God gave us minds as surely as He gave us our emotions. And Jesus told us to use our brains. He said, “Seek, ask, and knock.”
Great rewards can come from loving God enough to study. When we give our minds to inquiry we learn more and thereby grow. If you have questions about prayer, love God enough to give your mind to the study of the Bible, books on prayer, serious meditation and practice. You’ll be more mature because of it.
Did you know that this generation in which we live can know more about God and Jesus Christ than perhaps any generation that has ever lived? It is true! We profit by more books, hymns, theology, ministries, and leisure time to study than any generation that has ever lived. If we sit in ignorance it is only because we have not done our homework. The books are there. The understanding can be yours. All you have to do is love God with your mind enough to study. I like the way an old teacher once put it. He said, “A man should not be afraid to read a book, for in doing so there will be more of him to love God.”
Yes, our minds are for the love of God. As the apostle Paul said, we should “Study to show ourselves approved unto God, workmen that need not be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (II Timothy 2:15).
“Love of the Will”
So, we can love God with our emotion and our intellect. But is there yet another expression our love for God can take? Yes, there is. In the text, Jesus says, “Love God with all your soul.” This means that we can love God with all our will.
For instance, there is a lady who is getting a trifle overweight. She remembers that her body is the temple of the Lord and she knows that over-eating and lack of exercise can ruin her appearance and, perhaps, her health. She wants to be at her best for God as far as physical appearance is concerned. So she goes on a diet. It takes great efforts of the will to push herself away from the table. It takes will power to resist those between meal indulgences. And it takes real effort to exercise regularly.
I know myself how important the will can be in loving and serving God. As a pastor I by and large have no day by day boss except God. This means I don’t really have to be at the study at a certain time every day. When I wake up in the morning sometimes my emotion tells me that I’ve been working too hard lately. “You deserve a break today,” it says. “Go ahead and sleep late.” Next my intellect talks to me, helping me to rationalize, saying, “Yes, sleep late. You can’t get any work done when you are tired. Sleep late and get up later. You’ll be able to work quickly when you’re fresh.” Finally there is a third voice
that speaks to me. It is my will. It grabs me and with a shake says, “Now, see here! There’s work to be done. You get out of that bed and get going!” So I get out and shower and eat a good breakfast and go to the study and get a lot of work done.
The power of the will is vitally important in the Christian life. Without will power we’d all be at the mercy of our emotions and intellects. We’d become mental rationalizers and emotional jelly fish. The will is the backbone of the Christian faith. It is the will turned to God in love that gives us courage and discipline to will and to do.
The apostle Matthew seemed to have a lot of loving will power for God. He above all other New Testament gospel writers is the most legalistic and stern. He is the one who stresses discipline and obedience above all else. And a firm will turned to God in love is endorsed by St. Paul as well. He is talking about willful discipline when he writes, “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things…I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:25, 27).
Not All Alike!
So you want to know how to love God? Jesus has told us. Love Him with the emotion, the mind, and the will that you have. Now you will be careful to observe that all of us are unique blends of emotion, will, and intellect. Some have a strong dose of will power and lack in emotion and mental capabilities. Others are very emotionally prone people. God made them this way. It is nothing for which to be ashamed. And others are evenly balanced between the three. The beautiful thing about the Christian faith is that it does not stereotype us. We are not cookie-cut out of the same mold. No two Christians are ever alike. You see, each one of us is peculiar in his blend of emotion, will and intellect. When we turn our lives to the love of God, each one of us comes out unique.
Harry Emerson Fosdick used to say, “If we could get religion like a Methodist, be sure of it like a Baptist, preach it like a Presbyterian, and enjoy it like an African Methodist Episcopalian, then we’d really have something!” How true it is! If we could learn, as Jesus asks in the text, to love God with all our “strength,” to turn all our lives to the love of God, and not just parts of it, we would really have something. If we could just learn to love Him fully with our unique blend of emotion, will and intellect, we’d show the world we really mean business.
But wait a minute! We’re not through with this text just yet. There is a fourth way to love God. Jesus said, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” And as if to remove all doubt, Christ told the parable of the good Samaritan which explains who our neighbor is (Luke 10:25-37). He is anyone, regardless of color, creed, or economic standing who needs our help. “You shall love”… there’s that word “agape” again… “you shall love your neighbor” without qualification. Not “I’ll love you if…” or “because,” but “period.”
Last winter in Birmingham, Alabama, a woman was walking down the main street. She was shopping for Christmas presents when she saw a small boy about seven years old. He was poorly clothed, barefooted, and standing over a heater vent in the sidewalk trying to keep warm. He had a bundle of newspapers under his arm and was trying to sell them to the pedestrians. The woman went up to him and said, “Son, where are your shoes and socks?”
“Lady,” he said, “I ain’t got none.”
She took him to a department store up the street and bought him a thick pair of socks and a heavy pair of shoes. The young lad skipped happily out of the store without so much as a thank-you, when suddenly he returned to ask, “Lady, are you God?”
“No, son,” she said, “I’m not God. But I am one of his children.”
The little fellow turned to leave, saying, “Well, I knowed you must be some kin to him.”
It is true that love for people is a mark of our relationship with God.
The Bible makes it clear that our love for the creator is measured also
in our love for His creation which includes people, yourself, and the environment. (More about love for self, people, and creation in other chapters.) 1 John 4:20-21 teaches “If anyone says ‘I love God,’ and he hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this is the commandment we have from Him, that he who loves God should love his brother also.” That’s powerful, isn’t it? It really does not beat around the bush to say love for God must also express itself in love for people.
Let us make an experiment, OK? Let us test ourselves to see how much we love God. Think of the person you love least. Now, that is how much you love God! If you want to measure the gasoline in your car, you look at the gas gauge. If you want to measure the temperature you look at the thermometer. And if you want to measure your love for God you look at the person you love least. And that is an indication of how you love God. John the apostle said it correctly when he said, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar.”
Power to Love
Right about now you are probably saying, “I can’t love like that! Agape love! Emotional. Willful. Intellectual. For the creator with all my strength. And for all of His creation? No sir, I don’t have that much love!”
I agree with you. I can’t love like that either, at least not in my own strength. But in the power of God I can love! In Romans 5:5 Paul wrote, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.”
My daughter once showed me a sticker from her grade school collection. It was a gray butterfly, one of the most plain-looking of her entire holdings.
“Touch it, Daddy,” she said.
So I did. And the butterfly became a lovely iridescent rainbow of colors. Something about the ink reacted to the heat of one’s fingers and unleashed hidden beauty. And this is something like what happens to us when the power of God touches us.
We’ve got he emotion, the will and the intellect. But it’s all a dull, loveless gray. Yet when we choose to respond to God’s love for us, to allow Jesus to touch us and fill us with His Holy Spirit, then supernatural love is unleashed in our lives. And a unique, multi-colored emotional, willful and intellectual love for God and His creation is expressed in our lifestyle.
This is what the apostle John meant when he said, “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). This is what the apostle Paul meant when he wrote “The fruit of the spirit is love” (Galatians 5:22). Love, you see, isn’t something we generate within ourselves. It comes from God’s initiative in our lives. The Lord is the source of love. And when we are rightly related to Jesus by repentance and faithfulness we ourselves are hooked up to the source of unending agape love.
You know, friend, people come to pastors in great numbers, people who are concerned about their Christian experience. Some complain they are bored. Some have difficult questions to deal with. Others are crying out in loneliness. How about you? Are you troubled with your Christian experience? Is something missing? Do you feel like life is not all it could be? Why not try loving God completely? Love Him with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind. And love your neighbor as yourself. Do that and see if you aren’t satisfied. After all, Jesus said this is the greatest commandment. And to obey it will bring the greatest life!
Lord, fill my life and teach me to Love like Jesus. Amen!