[Bible quotations used are from the NIV, except where otherwise noted.]
Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law? Jesus answered, “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind (understanding). This is the first and greatest commandment.” — Matthew 22:36-38
Let’s stop right there. The first and greatest commandment is to love God. How many religious people can honestly say they love God? It seems to me that religion or religious behavior is often used in place of love, because what we lack in dedication and commitment to loving God, we try to make up for in how others see us. When others see us, they don’t know whether we are just ‘acting’ or if our actions are the expression of our love for God. But God does. “The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7b)
The first and greatest commandment has three parts: love the LORD your God with
• all your heart
• all your soul, and
• all your mind (understanding)
Some may feel this is hyperbole, that it just means to really, really love God. When it comes to understanding the meaning of love in this Scripture, many hold to a very simple model, dependent upon their own experiences. Even though the word we translate from the Greek as love (agape) differentiates our love of God from other kinds of love (such as brotherly or erotic), the three expressions of love in this first and greatest commandment challenge our grasp of pure, godly love.
The first part of this commandment is the easiest to understand. Loving with our heart is our most natural way of loving. Most of us pretty much get that part. Next, I presume that many believers don’t separate the soul from the heart when they think of love. The song, ‘Heart And Soul’ comes to mind: “Heart and soul, I fell in love with you heart and soul …”. But in the Bible, these words have a deeper meaning. “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12, ESV). Notice that the thoughts and intentions of the heart are listed separately from soul and spirit.
So, when we consider the idea of loving the LORD God with all one’s soul, we begin to see a much broader, deeper, bigger meaning for love. If the heart represents the very core of one’s being, and the soul represents the totality of one’s life, then the love of God should permeate every aspect of one’s existence. That’s a really big concept to try to wrap your brain around.
This brings us back to the hyperbole conclusion, that if we can’t figure out the difference between heart and soul, we should just really, really love God as best as we can. And I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that. Deuteronomy 6:5 says, “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” It doesn’t say anything about the mind or understanding. But Jesus did. And because Christians celebrate his new covenant, perhaps we should look into this matter of loving the LORD our God with our minds, too.
How we think establishes our attitudes and perceptions. Our thinking patterns define how we see ourselves and the world. If our thoughts aren’t turned toward God, it puts a barrier between us and his designs for us, and makes it difficult for him to direct our Christian walk. I want to say impossible, but nothing is impossible with God (Matthew 19:26; Mark 19:27). Most of our thinking is either task-oriented or self-satisfying: what to wear, what to buy, scheduling, planning, problem-solving, etc. I don’t think that’s quite what the LORD had in mind when he said to love him with one’s mind. The kind of thinking God had in mind when he gave us this commandment is to think about him, his revelations to us (Scripture) and how we relate to him. This kind of thinking is called meditation. And yet there are many who don’t even know what meditation is.
Meditation in the Biblical sense is nothing like the practice of mystical or eastern religions. There is no posture to assume, no mantra to chant, no lighting of candles or incense, no trance-like states. Frankly, that may be why more Christians don’t spend time meditating. They are afraid of becoming cultic. But meditation in the Biblical sense is nothing more than thinking, and if you are thinking about Scripture, it’s hard to go wrong. If you have a thought you are unsure of, ask a pastor, or someone who is grounded in the Word. Your questions will bring answers which will help you think about the LORD and love him with your mind.
My dictionary uses words like reflect, ponder and contemplate to define meditate. Meditation simply means to think something through; ask your own questions; turn it over and around in your mind, just as you would turn an object you were examining in your hands. Anybody can do this. You don’t have to be a genius. You just have to be willing to take the time to focus your thoughts on God. Psalm 119 provides a model for training our minds to think about Scripture. The following verses specifically reference meditation:
15 I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways.
23 your servant will meditate on your decrees
27 Let me understand the teaching of your precepts; then I will meditate on your
48 I lift up my hands to your commands, which I love, and I meditate on your decrees.
78 … I will meditate on your precepts.
97 Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long.
99 I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statutes.
148 My eyes stay open through the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your
Psalm 119:48 is particularly poignant. The psalmist not only loved God, he even loved God’s commands. He had come to understand that God loves us and uses Scripture to draw us to him and mold us to be like him. We love because God first loved us (1 John 4:19). Again, this kind of love goes way beyond the natural kinds of love (Greek: eros, philia & storge).
This brings us to John. He said some interesting things about love. In John 14:15 he recorded Jesus as saying, “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” (See also 14:23; 14:24; and 15:10). Later, in 1 John 5:3, he wrote, “This is love for God: to obey his commands.” It must be reiterated that the love John wrote about, the love Jesus spoke of, is not a sappy feeling. It’s not romantic or idealistic. It’s very real. It has everything to do with a decision we make to obey God; a choice, an act of will, an ongoing commitment and relationship we have with him.
This most certainly is not the same as scrupulously obeying religious requirements. Remember the legalist Pharisees. Jesus said our righteousness would have to surpass theirs in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 5:20). But the LORD is our righteousness (Jeremiah 23:6; 33:16) and God is love (1 John 4:8). Don’t feel guilty because you aren’t perfect. Focus on him, not yourself. If God’s law (Torah) is written in your heart, then obedience to God’s commands isn’t a matter of following rules or conventions. It’s about being led by the Spirit of God. He leads (commands), and we follow (obey). The more you meditate on the Word, the clearer this becomes.
Fix these words of mine in your hearts and mind. — Deuteronomy 11:18
… you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. — 2 Corinthians 3:3, ESV
Being a Christian isn’t just being religious, adhering to lists that say, “Thou shall” or “Thou shalt not”. We should never be on ‘automatic’, doing practiced routines without thought. Our actions should not be limited to formal outward behaviors, but personal and individual expressions of our love for God. That doesn’t mean we have to be super-human. God doesn’t expect us to do anything he didn’t create us to do. We all can’t be heroes or leaders or someone everyone notices. But we all can obey the LORD. We all can love the LORD. We all can think about the LORD.
If you are confused about how to love God with all your heart, your soul and your mind, try thinking more. If the idea of loving God with all your heart and soul seems idealistic, daunting or beyond your grasp, just pick up your Bible, read it, and then meditate on what you’ve read. Make a habit of it and God will use that time to speak to you as only he can. Sometimes it will put a question in your mind that only you need to ask and only you need to answer. A question like that might open you to a meaningful conversation with another believer, or steer you into a particular Bible study or cause you to seek the LORD in prayer for insight that only he can give. It all starts by thinking about God.
You can learn to love God more just by thinking about him more. And no matter how rebellious we’ve been, whenever we turn back to him and start loving him and obeying his Spirit, he’s always ready to spend time with us. Taking time to think about the things of God and meditate on his Word is always a choice we can make. Every day we spend a lot of time thinking. We think about the work we have to do. We think about our friends and loved ones. We think about ourselves, how we look, the food we eat, the cars we drive, the clothes we wear. We think about our favorite teams and celebrities, songs, games and activities. We think about our likes and dislikes, our hopes and dreams, and even our fears and dreads. We all choose what we think about, whether we are aware of our choices or not. If you wish to love God more, just consider your choices.