John Elliott Lein

Writer, Artist, Designer and Theology Nerd

Love People to Love God

LoveJ. Elliott LeinComment

(Part 3 of my meditation on the Love commandments. Read one and two.)

Jesus summarized all of his religious community's teachings about God in two commandments:

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. 

And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

   — Matthew 22:37-40 (NRSV)

What does it mean to love God with everything you are?

How do we love God? What does loving God mean? How does our language around love in other contexts apply to a transcendent non-human being that we do not experience in the kind of direct ways in which we experience fellow humans, animals or even other physical aspects of our world?

I've been thinking a lot about what we mean when we use the word "God". It's one of those words that I inherited from my background in church, one that is hardly ever discussed directly but is referenced directly or indirectly in almost all contexts.

Evangelical Christianity often uses the phrase "personal relationship" when talking about what Jesus offers us with God. This was a powerful, revolutionary concept in the ancient world which saw deities as impersonal powers to be either feared or manipulated. Yet, what does that phrase "personal relationship" mean when we apply it to God?

For the purposes of this post, all I mean to say is that by definition God is not an entity that we physically touch, hear from, or see in human terms. Despite the mental image that I developed as a child, God is not a bearded old man sitting on a mountain somewhere (maybe I confused him with Zeus?).

Ways that are not love

One way I used to think about the command to "love God" was that it was about compelling an abstract emotional response on command or through emotion-targeting experiences (for example, a music concert). 

Another way of articulating "love God" seems to redefine "love" as "obey". This is very easy to understand (though sometimes still not as clear as some might think), but it's a different concept entirely. To obey God, to do God's will, is an action not a relationship. Love surely has something to do with relationship, and it is separate from what we might do for another out of respect or love. Obedience may flow out of love, but it is not the same as love. Love exists outside of any action or circumstance.

So, how do we love this transcendent (yet also affirmed to be equally immanent in the world) being in the way that Jesus calls us to, as the greatest and first commandment?

Re-reading the words

Once again, I'm drawn to re-examine the words that I've heard but seldom considered for so many years.

I personally affirm the importance and significance of the first commandment to love God, yet I'm left with wondering "how?". Surely Jesus didn't intend to leave us with something so vague and unknowable. What if we look at it again with the assumption that there is an answer embedded in the text above?

The first commandment is followed by the second commandment. Together (not separately) they sum up all of the "Law and the Prophets". If the first commandment seems hard to understand on its own, maybe we can use the second to interpret it.

The second commandment (which is "like unto" the first) is "Love your neighbor as yourself." My conclusion is that maybe this gives us the answer to our question about the first. That the way we love God is through loving those around us, which comes from us first loving ourselves (recognizing that we are truly worthy of love).

Loving God

So, what do you think? Is God's call to love others our way to loving him? And is the route to truly loving others centered in accepting our own status as fully loved creations?