The greatest commandment, according to Jesus, is to love God (see Deuteronomy 6 and Luke 11). Assuming we’re straight on the whole “who is God?” issue, I think it could be helpful to consider what love is and how we can actually direct this toward the God of the universe. I also can’t help but wonder if love is something that we are capable of doing in degrees (think: dimmer switch) or if it’s more binary (conventional light switch)…? You see, when it comes to loving God, maybe the issue is not a matter of loving him “better” (dimmer switch all the way up), but rather, a matter of loving him more consistently and pervasively.
I think we’re all aware of the fact that the New Testament was originally written in Greek and the Greek language has more than one word for love. The one Greek word used most commonly to refer to our love for God and neighbor is agapaō and it has a host of meanings. For instance, Thayer’s lexicon says that when used in reference to a master (I’m guessing we’re all OK with the idea of God as our master…), agapaō “involves the idea of affectionate reverence, prompt obedience, grateful recognition of benefits received.” I’d like to suggest that these three phrases are on some level, interconnected.
“affectionate reverence” is not the same as plain old “reverence.” It suggests a personal dimension, that there’s been some sort of interaction that makes this reverence more than simply the acknowledgement of superiority. This is more than an imposed reverence, but an emotional desire to honor someone. Curious stuff. Emotional affection isn’t something I typically associate with the notion of revering someone.
“prompt obedience” is not what we 21st century Americans normally associate with love, at least not consciously. The “affectionate” idea mentioned above is very much linked to common understandings of love – maybe it is the understanding of “love.” But suggesting that love is defined by our willingness to obey is almost certainly not what we think of when we think of “love.” Oh, and toss in the idea that this obedience is “prompt” and it feels more like military school than love.
“grateful recognition of benefits received” is the most easily recognizable notion, as much of our love is grounded in the sense that our lives are better because of the object of our love. Heck, this is even how we’ve come to say we love pizza – our lives are better because pizza is in it. On the more serious side, this reminds me of the famous text in 1 John 4.19, “We love because he first loved us.” There is a reciprocal dimension to love.
Maybe we can put these parts together and come up with a workable, basic understanding of how we can be faithful to the “greatest commandment.” (“love” is a subject that cannot be exhausted!) I think it must start with God, just like John’s epistle says. The grace that God puts on us to actually recognize his beneficence must not be glossed-over! Just being able to recognize that God’s presence and activity in our lives is a benefit means we’re walking in the deepest sort of grace. This mysterious awareness should make us the most grateful – hence not complaining – people on the planet. Oh and I say “mysterious” because I’m still trying to understand why some humans get this and others don’t. (Yes, I know that Calvin claimed to understand it, but this just creates new world problems.)
So I’m thinking that “grateful recognition of benefit” might be the very thing that leads to “affectionate reverence.” King David had this sort of response when YHWH made a covenant with him: “Then King David went in and sat before the Lord, and said, ‘Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far?’” (2 Samuel 7.18) In other words, the goodness of God should not only stir our affections, but it should awaken a deep and broad sense of submission born of humility. For all of his outrageous failures, David was still described as a man “after God’s heart” and this sort of genuine humility almost certainly is why. When God’s blessings become too “common” or his commands become too “imposing” it’s because we’ve tragically lost that Davidic sensibility… “Who am I?”
Gratitude and reverence make “prompt obedience” inevitable. Jesus has loved us first. He has shown us what love looks like. Again John’s epistle helps us, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” (1 John 3.16) Love as embodied by Jesus takes action for the good of others to one’s own hurt. His sacrifice was an act of love, but also one of obedience, for the Apostle Paul described Jesus as “obedient to the point of death.” (Philippians 2.8) This is where I need to point out that there is a certain synonymy between love and obedience. In other words, Jesus’ death was not love and obedience, as if those are two separate realities. It was love…period. And obedience to God is the expression of love. Jesus said it best: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14.15)
My concern here is that we need to consider the very real possibility that a failure to obey promptly, while claiming to love God, is untenable. At the same time, our willingness to obey God’s commands quickly and joyfully can be – depending on the condition of our heart – the very way we love God “well.” I love reading the stories of Abraham and noting how many times the texts tell us that he rose early the next day to do what God had told him to do. He loved God well.
It is true, we don’t necessarily love God…
- just because we attend church services // Hebrews 10.25
- just because we read the Bible // Acts 17.11
- just because we pray // 1 Timothy 2.1-2
- just because we fast // Matthew 6.16-18
- just because we give generous offerings // 2 Corinthians 9.6-11
- just because we sing/clap/shout/dance/kneel in praise // Psalms
- just because we feed the hungry or clothe the naked // Matthew 25.31-46
But if we love God, how can we flatly refuse to do these things? I added those references, ironically, not because they tell us these respective acts don’t matter, but that they do! From another angle, Paul makes it abundantly clear in his opening lines of his most famous passage (1 Corinthians 13) that if he did all sorts of truly wonderful things – from prophesying to caring for the poor – but didn’t have love, it’s all for naught. Was this meant as a dismissal of those good works? No! Good works alone are not love of God, but how can we divorce doing good from the idea of loving God or insist on doing them on our own terms? In what areas of our lives is God not allowed to “be God”? God is ONE. He is undivided and refuses to be subject to our preferences.
We don’t actually love God simply because we claim it is so. It’s much more nuanced than that. Our marriages serve as helpful metaphors for this call to love God. Doing good things for our spouses is not necessarily a revelation of our love for them (I can take out the trash and pick up my dirty laundry in the most manipulative of ways!), but at the same time, our spouses would have a hard time believing we love them if we regularly refused to do what they ask of us. We love our spouses by the actions we take that come from hearts that are truly smitten by how much better our lives are with them in it! I can just imagine a wife saying, “Don’t call me your wife if you don’t come home at night after work.” Or a husband saying, “Don’t call me your husband if you won’t sleep in the same bed with me.” This maybe what Jesus was getting at when he said, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6.46)