“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:36-40)

Perhaps the reason people prefer to focus on loving our neighbor is because it's usually easier to do. It's more tangible than loving an invisible God. But it's loving God that is top priority, according to Jesus. How can we love God with all our heart, soul and mind?

How do you love an invisible deity—who has everything? What can we give to Him or do for Him that He could ever have any need for? And what if we don't have strong emotions going on?

If you are a believer, the chances are that you have experienced or encountered God in some way that affects the emotions, but most of us don't live in a cloud of perpetual ecstasy. Our day-to-day walk with God can sometimes feel quite empty and dry, and prayer can feel as if we're talking to the wall. What then? Do we still love Him? How do we know?

How are we defining love?

It's probably a good idea to hammer down what we're talking about here. But it's not actually so easy. “When we're talking about love”, one rabbi submitted, “we don't really know what we're talking about”. It's deep. Like trying to discuss what a soul is. But I do think we can know what love is because God is love, and we can reflect on how He loves us in order to see what true love looks like. Also, we can think about how we know when we're truly loved by other people. Discovering the meaning of love is not a hopeless endeavor. I'm going to break down how I think human beings express true love for one another, and then think about how it reflects on our love for God.

Respecting their autonomy

One of the first things that needs to be in place for us to truly love someone is to respect that they are separate from us, and free from our control. God has shown us great love in giving us freewill. Loving someone means we recognize they have their own mind, their own feelings, their own desires. We all too easily love our fantasy version of someone, rather than who they actually are. When we superimpose our own ideals onto the one we say we love, we assume they think and feel the same way as us. But that's not really loving them—that's loving ourselves! In the same way, many people mistakenly imagine God always thinks the same as them. This is essentially the opposite of having a healthy fear of the Lord. It's creating an idol of our own opinions. God is not an extension of us, He is not “the universe” or an impersonal force: God has His own thoughts, plans, desires, and emotions which He has revealed to us in His word. He will think however He pleases and do whatever He likes without waiting for our approval. We need to love others for who they truly are, not who we want them to be, and this also applies to God. Moreover, God’s autonomy means He has agency to love. If God is just an extension of us and our opinions, there’s no real love available any more than there is from an imaginary friend. But He is a separate person and loves us freely and greatly. Accepting God's autonomy and sovereignty is a cornerstone of loving Him and experiencing His love.

Entering their world, getting on board with their passions and plans

When a father spends time doing crafts with his young daughter, he has entered into her world. He puts his own interests to one side for a time to join in hers. He gets alongside her to see what she sees and join her in her endeavors. In a similar manner, God in His infinite love stoops to enter into our world, and bends His ear listen to us and our issues. It's mind-boggling to think of God doing that for us, but we can also love Him right back by seeking His agenda, and focusing at what He is interested in, instead of staying stuck in our own world. We can get alongside God in the matters of His heart even if they're not naturally at the top of or priority list. Over time, we can learn to make these matters more important to us in our own lives. We cheer, champion and support God in His actions on the earth. We join Him in our willing cooperation and agreement. To do that, however, we need to know what they are. Which brings me to my next point.

Listening to them, wanting to know them

Listening is one of the best ways to express love for someone. We embrace who they are, and we make ourselves ready to care about what they want to express. By listening we learn more about who they are, what is on their heart, and their perspective. We get to know them. We can listen to God by pouring over every word He has given us in the Bible, instead of skipping only to our favorite bits. We can make the decision to pay careful attention to what He has to say in all its fulness, and without censorship or rejection. We can also approach prayer times with the openness to dialogue instead of a monologue or shopping list. Can you imagine a human relationship where communication was so one-sided! To love someone, and to love God, is to be interested in what they have to say. Make your times in God's word about Him and his heart, being ready to put Him first. And as Jesus explained using the parable of the house built on sand, it's not enough to hear the word of God: we have to do it!

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15)

Believing them

This is a big one. You may know someone who believed in you, and the difference it made. You may also have had the hard experience on not being believed. Believing someone's words shows value for the person, and faith in who they are. Yet many people approach the Bible as if it was just a self-help book with top tips for living your best life. They misunderstand what is written because they think it's all about them! The central character in the Bible is God, and the main theme is His amazing redemptive plan for the world. We are loved, adopted, and even paid for by blood, but the story is God's story, and He means what He says. We can love God by believing His words instead of ignoring them as irrelevant to our lives, or twisting them until they suit us. We can always pursue God for explanations and wisdom when bewildered by the Bible, but if God has given us His word, try believing Him! Even if you don't understand. This is an expression of love.

“We can hold a correct view of truth only by daring to believe everything God has said about Himself.” —A. W. Tozer

Dealing with disagreement

In any loving relationship there will be areas of disagreement. Communication is key. Love doesn't give up, but seeks to engage—even when you don't see eye to eye with someone. Humans disagree all the time, but shouldn't we be in alignment with God? I'd venture to suggest that if you never find yourself at odds with God, you might want to review the first point! There are Bible passages that can leave us reeling and baffled. Sometimes it's hard to know what to do with the chasm between our ideas about what's right and just… and those of God's. However, just as in human relationships, there are ways of building those bridges. We see God doing this with Abraham in Genesis 18. Abraham was horrified at the thought of God destroying Sodom:

Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Genesis 18:25)

Critically, Abraham took his complaint to God instead of turning away from Him. As they had the conversation, which seems to be a negotiation, God and Abraham go back and forth trying to find a compromise until they agree: God will not destroy the city if he could find ten righteous people in it. In the end, God doesn't actually change His plan of action, but by their interaction Abraham was able to come into alignment with God. If we are willing to seek God, He can help us narrow the gap between our way of thinking and His own. Sometimes it takes a long time to find common ground, and sometimes we need to just trust. But unlike many human conflicts, when we disagree with God He's never going to be the one in the wrong!

Sacrificial love

Sacrifice might be the purest expression of love. Most parents know a lot about that. In a loving relationship, especially at the beginning bit with all the butterflies, nothing is too much trouble for our beloved. Time, money, convenience are all gladly sacrificed on the altar of true love. The highest expression of love was optimized on the cross. Indeed, Jesus said,

Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

This is how deeply we have been loved. And we can also respond by loving God sacrificially. In moments of worship we can willingly surrender ourselves to God and offer our lives to Him for His service. He has first loved us, and by His Spirit given us the capacity to love Him. We might choose to leave behind comforts we enjoyed that are displeasing to God, or rise earlier than normal just to spend quality time with Him.

“The measure of our love is the measure of our willingness to be inconvenienced.” —Elisabeth Elliot

Love no matter what

Loving others unconditionally is not easy. Will we love God through thick and thin with Job-style “even though He slay me” type trust? It's natural for us to praise God with a heart full of love when things are going well, but as the Accuser noted, it's much harder to do when life is full of pain. Wedding vows often include the promise to remain committed to the covenant for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health… Choosing to follow God through times of adversity, through times of dryness, or when God is not behaving the way we think He should, shows real love. But the reward for persevering in our love for God cannot be imagined. No eye has seen and no ear has heard what He is preparing for us. He is our pearl of great price and we are His. He is worth giving up all we have—our comforts, our convenience, and even our very lives, as He has done for us. This is how we love Him.

Set me as a seal upon your heart,
    as a seal upon your arm,
for love is strong as death,
    jealousy is fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
    the very flame of the Lord.
Many waters cannot quench love,
    neither can floods drown it.
If a man offered for love
    all the wealth of his house,
    he would be utterly despised.
(Song of Solomon 8:6-7)

Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

Show the world you are One for Israel!

Order your 2024 ONE FOR ISRAEL

Prayer calendar