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The Heart of Love
Obeying God's Two Great Commandments
By Ted Rivera
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2013 Ted Rivera
All rights reserved.
LOVE for GOD
Take a moment and think about the most glorious wedding you have ever attended. It may have been your own wedding or the wedding of a friend or loved one; it may have taken place near your home or in a far-off place. But for a moment, allow your mind to wander back to that event. There may have been flowers and music; the bride and groom may have been bedecked in spectacular array. In some cultures, perhaps a horse-drawn carriage or expensive limousine transported the happy couple after the ceremony. Maybe the sun was shining. On that most perfect day, love was surely in the air. But add to this one other thought: Is a marriage the same thing as a wedding? Hardly! There are dirty dishes, and poopy diapers, and even arguments over things that ultimately are of little or no consequence.
The word love has been watered down in our day. Happily, the Bible removes any mystery about the real meaning of this term and helps us soberly understand what love for God looks like. Jesus said plainly, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (John 14:15 ESV). By doing what God wants, we demonstrate our love to him—not "with words or speech but with actions and in truth" (1 John 3:18).
In the gospel of Luke, Jesus paints a picture of what it is that a disciple will look like. It is a picture that serves as an excellent starting point, but also a terrific warning. If we're being honest with ourselves and with one another, at many points we may well be tempted to turn back. A disciple is ultimately a humble follower, someone who wants God's will to be done on earth in the same way it is done in heaven. And Jesus set this terrific test before us, to help us determine if we are on the right path: "If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26–27). In this short passage, we learn three potent truths.
THREE POTENT TRUTHS
1. Love for God Trumps Every Human Relationship
It is certainly the case that, throughout Scripture, we are told to love our families. The apostle Paul goes so far as to state: "Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever" (1 Tim 5:8). But by comparison to our love for God, the love we should have for even our own families should be a distant second place.
Some struggle with this notion, but it's not hard to understand. Ultimately, we will all be better sons and daughters, better husbands and wives, and better children and friends if we love God supremely, above all other competitors. All of our decisions will ultimately most benefit our loved ones when we seek to glorify God as our chief and highest end.
2. Love for God Trumps My Own Life
Jesus here teaches us that we must love him more than we love ourselves. Once again, he points out that—by comparison to the love we have for God—we should hate ourselves! In an age when self-esteem is universally proclaimed as an essential human pursuit, this may well appear to us to be a particularly peculiar notion. But if we understand better who God is and consider his goodness, his glories, and his work among us, it is almost as if self-regard disappears. The man or woman who catches a clear sight of God will lose the self-obsession so common in our day.
In a little book written many years ago entitled The Self Life and the Christ Life, A. B. Simpson offered this compelling perspective: "We are to yield ourselves unto God as those who have already died and are alive from the dead, recognizing the cross as behind us; and for this very reason presenting ourselves to God, to be used for His ser vice and glory."
3. Love for God Will Result in Suffering
What sane person would choose suffering? Let's begin with this urgent observation: a willingness to suffer is not an option. Jesus says here that if we are unwilling to carry our cross, we cannot be his disciple. The cross is no mere ornament, no fashion statement; it was a place to die. In our day, carrying a cross would be the equivalent of traveling with one's personal electric chair or lethal injection kit: people died gruesome deaths on Roman crosses.
I am sure we have all heard tens of thousands of commercials and seen tens of thousands of billboards aimed at selling us ever new ways to be more comfortable. Can you imagine, for example, a car commercial that said: "Get in! Our seats are painful!" But Jesus is no salesman. He promises that if we would be his disciples, our common, daily, and serious expectation is a future of suffering. He was our chief example in this, who "for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart" (Heb 12:2b–3).
In this light, if we are being honest with ourselves and understand rightly the kind of love we are considering, we may very well want to turn back now. Sadly, many who call themselves Christians in our day will not meet the criteria represented by these three potent truths. Jesus warned his hearers, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven" (Matt 7:21). But if in fact we want to express a genuine love for God, it is important that—as Jesus asserted—we count the cost. Are you still sure that you want to love God as Jesus directed?
THE FIRST AND GREATEST COMMANDMENT
As we have seen, Jesus taught us that the first and greatest commandment is, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" (Matt 22:37). It's interesting to note that in the gospel of Mark, this statement of Jesus appears with slightly different wording. In Mark 12:30 we read, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength." Is this a discrepancy? Is this addition of the idea of strength important?
The most important thing to note here may instead be the intensity of this commandment, more so than the fact that heart, mind, soul, and strength are specifically mentioned. I think the paraphrase known as The Message gets the spirit of this statement right: "Love the Lord God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy." We are really being taught here to love God with absolutely everything we have, with absolutely everything that we are. And this is no minor matter: it's the first and greatest commandment! The most important word in this commandment may be the little word "all." There must be no part of who we are that we are not willing to lay before God on the altar. In the same way that Abraham was willing to slay Isaac in obedience to the command of God, we must go one step further: we must be willing to slay even our own wants and desires, our self-interest, and our self-regard.
Here, then, is our starting point. We can begin by posing this question: "What does it mean to love God with everything I am?" It's also worth taking a moment to ask, "Is this even something I want?" It's one thing to be open to the idea of living our lives in a manner that will most please God. It's quite another thing to actually seek to do it, all the time, to the highest degree possible. But notice that what I want as a Christian is of secondary importance. This is, after all, a commandment and not a suggestion.
As such, I'm going to ask you to do something that you might not want to do at this particular moment. You are a busy person. You've somehow found time to read a book—I commend you! But now, I'm nevertheless going to ask you to pause for a moment and pray about this. You should ask God to show you your own heart. As I've sought to pray while writing, you should now ask him to show you your own heart and teach you how you might live out this commandment day to day.
It might be prudent for you to open your Bible to Matthew 22:37 or Mark 12:30 and pray over this first great commandment in the larger context of the passage where these texts appear. In the pages that follow, a few of the implications of this first great commandment will be presented. But an even better starting point will be for you to get on your knees—physically or metaphorically—and ask God to give you a heart that hungers for him, a mind keen to serve him, a desire to serve him with everything you are, so that you might above all things desire to be sold out to him, holding him first in your heart.
In the following pages, we will consider some of the primary ways in which we are called to love God: in worship, in our communion and baptism, in our private and corporate Bible study, in prayer, and in our giving. There are, of course, many other ways by which our love to God can and must be expressed. That said, as we reflect on the command to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, we should not be surprised to see these elements appear. This is a starting point for us as we seek to unpack this first and greatest of all the commandments of God.
Excerpted from The Heart of Love by Ted Rivera. Copyright © 2013 Ted Rivera. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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