How To Love God

Jesus said, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets." (Matthew 22:37-40)

God has unequivocally told us what is the most important thing he wants us to do in our lives. Clearly, nothing should be higher on our to do list every day than to love God with every fiber of our being. Now since this instruction from the Lord is no secret to his followers, shouldn't we expect that every Christian would be able to easily articulate exactly how one goes about obeying God's number one commandment?

And yet when you ask the average Christian, "How do you love God?" most don't seem to have a ready answer. And even fewer have an answer that comes from the scriptures. So, what does the Bible say-- how does a person love God?

Consider these words of Jesus: If you love me, you will keep my commandments.1  Well that seems simple enough; you love God by keeping his commandments.  Okay then, what are the commandments of Jesus?  When he was questioned by his contemporaries as to which of the Old Testament commandments were the most important, he chose two that summarized the Ten Commandments.  To these, he added one more, which he called a new commandment.2  So, Jesus gave us three commandments:

1) Love God with all you heart, soul, and mind

2) Love your neighbor as yourself

3) Love one another as he loved you

If we want to love God, we need to keep his commandments, which are all about loving God and people.  Now, in order to go any further, it seems necessary to first establish what it means to love.  In seeking to understand the meaning of love, we can't do any better than what is given to us in 1 Corinthians 13.  

Study this text and you will find that love is described by two words: kindness and patience.  These are like two sides of a coin: the active and reactive expressions of love.  Kindness, then, is to humbly and graciously do good things for someone else. Patience, on the other hand, is to humbly and graciously endure the bad things someone else does to you.

To keep Jesus' number two commandment, we need to show to everyone else in our lives the same kind of kindness and patience that we show to ourselves.  We regularly do good things for ourselves; in fact the apostle Paul declares: "No one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it."3  And when we blow it, we may get mad at ourselves, but we soon forget about it and move on.  

We need to emphasize this point, since many have distorted it: love your neighbor as yourself is not a command to love yourself.  Search the scriptures and you will find that whenever God tells us to do something as something else is done, it is always compared to something that already is, not to something that ought to be.  We already naturally love ourselves.  We may be upset by stupid things we do, but we quickly get over it and always give ourselves another chance.  We may not like the way we look, but, as someone has said: "If we really hated ourselves, we would be happy that we are ugly!"  If we are not satisfied with the unchangeable parts of the body we live in, our problem is probably with learning to accept ourselves the way God has made us.

And just who are our neighbors?  Jesus was asked this very same question, and he answered with the story of the Good Samaritan.  Our neighbor is whoever God has brought near to us.  That includes everyone from your spouse and other family members, to your co-workers, your classmates, the people on your street, the people you shop with, the members of your athletic team, and, of course, the person who you find beaten up alongside the road.

So, to love God, we need to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. 

To keep the third commandment of Jesus -- his new commandment -- we need to show a special kind of love to other Christians.  The context of this commandment makes it clear that it concerns how the followers of Jesus treat each other.  There should be a deeper degree of love that Christians show to each other.  In fact, Jesus said that it was this elevated level of love that we show to each other that gives evidence to the world that we are disciples of Christ.  

How could we love Christians any more deeply than to love them as we love ourselves?  Well, we love them as Jesus loved us.  Jesus loved us with a sacrificial loved that caused him to go from heaven to earth, to go from ruler of all to servant of all, and to go from the giver of life to the recipient of death.  He humbled himself from ruler of heaven and earth all the way to a hated criminal executed on a cross.  This is the standard of love by which Christians are to love each other.

To love God, we need to love fellow Christians like Christ loved us.

We began with the question: How do we love God.  We noted that Jesus said that if we loved him we would keep his commandments.  We've looked at two of Jesus' three commandments and have concluded that we love God by loving our neighbor as ourselves, and by loving our fellow Christians as Christ loved us.  

But what about that first commandment of Jesus; how do we keep it?  If we combine the words of Jesus it sounds like this: if you love me, you will keep my number one commandment, which is to love God.  So, if we love God, we will keep his commandment to love God?  We need to dig a little deeper into this!

In the context of this statement of Jesus (If you love me you will keep my commandments), Jesus is instructing his disciples about his deity.  In the same chapter, Thomas says, "Show us the Father," and Jesus answers, "If you've seen me, you've seen the Father."  So when he tells his disciples that if they love him they will love God, he's not only teaching them how to show that they love him, but also that he is equal with God the Father.

We acknowledge that the scriptures are replete with this teaching: we show our love for God by loving others.  Here are a few examples:

    • The king will answer and say to them, "Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to me." (Matthew 25:40)
    • If someone says, "I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. (1 John 4:20)
    • For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." (Galatians 5:14)

So, we cannot speak of loving God without also speaking of loving others.  But while they are inseparable, are they also identical?  If they were identical, there would be no need for Jesus to identify two great commandments.  So, how can we show our love to God directly and personally?  Can we use our same definition for love with God as we use for love shown to our fellow man?  Can we love God by humbly and graciously showing kindness and patience?  Let's try it on for size.

Many people think that they show their love for God by keeping a set of rules.  The religious leaders of Jesus' time thought this, but Jesus set them straight: 

Then it happened that as Jesus was reclining at the table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were dining with Jesus and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why is your teacher eating with the tax collectors and sinners?" But when Jesus heard this, he said, "It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means: 'I desire compassion and not sacrifice,' for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners." (Matthew 9:10-13)

Jesus took issue with the religious leaders many time concerning this matter.  Loving God is not a matter of developing your own list of rules and keeping them diligently.  In fact, rules will stifle a love relationship: a marriage is in trouble when it is reduced to simply identifying and practicing rules and rituals.  Keeping rules is not the same as loving; not with man or God.  

Love requires a dynamic relationship; rules are static.  Rules don't require listening to the other person, only religiously adhering to items on a list.  The story of Jesus' visit to the home of Mary and Martha provides an excellent illustration of this distinction.4  Mary sat at the feet of Jesus and listened to him.  Martha slavishly prepared a meal for Jesus.

But, if Martha had taken the time to listen to Jesus she would have discovered that he really wasn't interested in a meal at that time.  What he wanted to do was to sit and talk with two of his followers.  Martha got upset with Mary and Jesus, because Mary wasn't keeping the rules, and Jesus wasn't enforcing them!

If we think that keeping rules, like going to church and reading our Bible, are the way to show love to God, we are sadly mistaken.  We cannot have a love relationship with God if a list of rules are between us and him.  

Now, if we sit at the feet of Jesus, as Mary did, he will teach us many important things.  And we may write these things down as a list of things that he has told us to do.  But always be careful to never allow the list to come between you and God.  It an easy thing to do: the list can take the place of your conversation with God.  You can love and follow the list more than you love and follow God.  

Keep the list dynamic, and always talk to God about it.  Life situations change.  Relationships change.  You change.  Your understanding of God changes.  Your ability to hear the voice of God changes.  Your ability to understand and accurately interpret the scriptures changes.  Your knowledge of God, his will, and his ways, is incomplete.  

When your relationship with God becomes static, it dies.  Keep your relationship with God vibrant and dynamic by never allowing any list of rules or practices, no matter how good you think they are, to take the place of conversing with God.  Even with teachings of scripture that seem entirely objective (do not lie, do not steal, do not commit adultery, etc.), it's still essential to talk with God about them from time to time.  You may not have thought about this, but he has more insight to give you on that which seems most obvious to you.

So, if diligently keeping a set of rules is not the way to show our wholehearted love directly to God, how do we do it?  How can we humbly and graciously show kindness and patience to God?  Surely God doesn't need anything from us, so what can we give to him?  

The scriptures teach us that there are, actually, two things that we can give to God.  We can actually contribute two things to God that will show him that we love him!

    • We can enhance the reputation of God
    • We can add to the joy of God

Satan has been lying about God since the Garden of Eden.  We have the opportunity and the privilege of knowing and representing God to the world.  Scriptures call us the ambassadors of God.  If you were an ambassador of your country to another country, you would make sure that you are accurately representing the leadership of your country in every way possible.  

For us to accurately represent God to our world requires that we remain in constant communication with him.  We need to regularly ask him for his evaluation of the job we're doing.  We need to seek his counsel with every important decision we face.  Representing God to our world requires that we be in constant, intimate communion with him.  

When we do what pleases God, we bring joy to his heart.  The scriptures teach us that some things we do grieve the Spirit of God, while other things we do cause all of heaven to rejoice.  Surely we ought to do everything we possibly can to bring God joy rather than sorrow.  After all, the scriptures teach us that God created us for his pleasure.  We will be most fulfilled when we are realizing the purpose for our existence: bringing pleasure to the heart of God.

We who are parents can relate to this.  We decide to have children because we are convinced that being parents will bring us greater joy than remaining childless.  If our children were able to comprehend why we chose to bring them into the world, and do whatever they could to bring us the greatest pleasure, how wonderful would that be?  But actually, our pleasure as parents is greatest when our children discover why God created them, and seek to live their lives to bring him pleasure.

So, in order to love God as directly and as personally as possible, we need to simply spend all our time with him.  How do we love God?  Place him at the center of our lives.  Everything we think, feel, and do, must be referred to him.  We talk with him about everything, conversing and communing with him on every subject, keeping him central to every detail of our lives.

Obviously we must regularly go to the scriptures, since in them we have the very words of God recorded for us.  The author of the scriptures, the Spirit of God, lives within us and explains to us what they mean, and then teaches us how to specifically apply them in every circumstance and relationship we are facing.  We go to the scriptures regularly, not out of duty, but because we echo the sentiment of the psalmist when he declared:

O how I love your law! 

It is my meditation all the day. (Psalm 119:97)

What conclusions do we draw from this study?  Loving God is clearly the most important thing we can do every day.  We show our love for God by keeping his commandments.  The most important commandments are to love God, love our neighbors, and love fellow Christians.  We cannot love God without loving our neighbors and our fellow Christians.  We cannot love God without developing and maintaining an intimate and unbroken communion with him.  None of us have arrived here yet, but we need to be working wholeheartedly toward these ends.

As the apostle Paul approached the end of his life, he spoke of the longing he had to be with God.  This was not because he wanted to escape the pains and troubles of this life, but rather because he was so deeply in love with God that he couldn't wait to see him face to face.  He said it this way:

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:7-8)

1 John 14:15

2 John 13:34-35

3 Ephesians 5:29

4 Luke 10:38-42

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