When I put up a picture in my home, I normally look at it from time to time and enjoy it for about six weeks, and after that it becomes so familiar that I don’t see it any more.
It can be that way with the commandments to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We may hear them repeated so often that we go to sleep on them. We may think of love in the conventional sense and assume that we understand what Jesus meant. Sometimes the gospel of love is reduced to the gospel of nice.
Another reason that we might go for years without thinking about the meaning of the love commandments or working to put them into practice is that they set forth Mount Everest ideals, and we can become overwhelmed, even depressed or angry, and give up trying. A divine ideal is helpful as long as we remember that we grow only gradually, and that God’s will for us is not to climb Mount Everest, but to do what we can at Boston Mills and Brandywine here in Ohio.
But if we seek to grow in love sincerely and persistently, there is more to the story. God’s grace enables us to love wholeheartedly. Grace does not catapult us into Paradise perfection, but it does enable us to love in a soul-satisfying way. We will not fulfill the ideal completely in this life, but we do not feel inadequate or guilty, because the experience of loving wholeheartedly now is so wonderful. The next thing to recognize about loving God is that we love him largely because he first loves us. It is natural to love people when we see that they love us. So in order to love God, it helps to first receive the divine affection. To do this more fully, we can do three things. First get to know God personally. Take what we know about him intellectually and then use that knowledge to enhance our experience of knowing God as a parent and friend. Jesus revealed God as our Father, and if that concept has positive connotations for you, feel free to transplant your intellectual knowing about God into the garden of the Father-child relationship.
Second, count your blessings, both blessings that you have that not everyone else has, and also blessings that God sends to everyone. For example, the spirit has been poured out upon every person. That spirit is a portion of God that lives within each one of us. Believe wholeheartedly that God loves you with an infinite love.
Third, open yourself to receive God’s love and cease resisting. Sometimes we don’t allow love in because of low self-respect. We foolishly feel that if we let God get close, he’ll see everything about us, not like us, and our relationship will be no fun at all. We may feel bad about ourselves because of something unbeautiful in our body or mind or something we have done or a bad habit that we are struggling with. But we are more than body and mind, more than our misdeeds, and more than a bad habit. If we open up and receive it, God’s love reveals to us who we truly are.
Now we’re ready to explore what it means to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.
What does it mean to love God with all our heart? What is the heart? My answer is that the heart is where our priorities are. I’m not talking about the priorities that we want to have or think we have, but the goals and values that we are actually motivated to pursue.
When we love God, we have a new best friend. We share our inner life with him. We do things together.
So how shall we enjoy material pleasures? How shall we conduct the life of the mind? How shall we act in our personal relationships and participate in groups? We have our desires about what we want to do and how we want to do things; but when we truly love God and begin to live with him and get to know him, we realize that he has a will for this world and for us individually. And we come to the place where we desire above all to do his will. We want his spirit to rule our heart.
So when we sense some tension between our desires and his will, if we feel a shadow in our heart, we have the privilege of recognizing that honestly, praying for wisdom to guide us in reorganizing our priorities, and worshiping God for the eventual triumph that we shall enjoy as we persevere in the quest to love him with all our heart.
Once we truly fall in love with God’s new and better way, the priorities of the old self change. Increasingly, we pursue secondary values only insofar as we feel them to be in alignment with our love for God and his farseeing purposes.
What is it to love God with all our soul? What is the soul? Imagine that you are visiting a group of people who are pursuing a spiritual path, and that the leader, a woman who looks very wise and very spiritual, invites you to sit quietly, close your eyes for a few minutes, and center yourself. She says that in centering you move from living mainly in the mind to living mainly in the soul. You relax and let go, so that you are not caught up in the immediate concerns, the passing thoughts and emotions of the mind. You spend a few minutes that way, taking time to allow yourself to abide in and as your true and deeper self. When she brings you back into the here and now of the group, you feel refreshed. Now you are truly ready to listen to the speaker of the day—in this case me.
As I see it, the soul is deeper than the mind. It is, in fact, the true self. The mind is conscious of its thoughts and feelings, but our moral self-consciousness in in the soul. When we make an excellent moral decision, the spirit blesses us and the soul feels great. The mind thinks, but the soul discerns truth. The mind can think too much, but when we are centered in the soul we are less thinking and more realizing. We can pray intelligently and deliberately in the mind, but when prayer arises spontaneously from the depths, that is the prayer of the soul.
When we follow a spiritual path, that soul, or deeper self, grows; and we contribute to that growth by the decisions we make, the attitudes we express, and the character we develop in cooperation with God. We can see ourselves this way: I am a soul, and I have a body and a mind; and the spirit of God dwells within me.
As we follow the divine way, the struggles of the soul are transformed. The soul moves from being lost, to seeking, to being found. From being hurt through the healing process to radiant. From torn through reconciled to unified. And from rebellious through obedient to wholehearted.
To love God with all the soul means taking soul time with God, and developing our feeling for divine truth, beauty, and goodness.
What does it mean to love God with all our mind? The mind is where we make choices. So naturally we want to develop our mind’s powers to understand and interact with the full spectrum of reality—material, intellectual, and spiritual. With the mind we can perceive things, establish facts, explore causes and effects, find courage, pursue curiosity and adventure, interact socially, experience spiritual reality, and integrate all these into wisdom. We don’t have to be a genius or have a lot of education, but we do need to use the intelligence that we have.
To learn to love God with all our mind, we sharpen our powers of intuition, of insight, into material, intellectual, and spiritual reality. In this way we develop our understanding of God and the creation. Then we live normally and naturally. We trust that our present understanding of God’s will is enough to work with. It is God’s business to let us know when we are getting off track. It is our business to be sensitive to these messages and to respond to them by intelligently and cheerfully making the changes that are needed. If we love God with all our mind, then whenever we are thinking, we are—consciously or unconsciously—seeking to discover his will or carrying it out.
To love God with all our strength involves will-power and determination, so that our good decisions have the force and constancy that they need to shape our character. And there is moral strength, the power of righteousness. Loving with strength also involves activating our physical energies, the powers of the body, as we come in contact with material reality. Service has to get real. We develop and conserve our strength by taking care of our health, with good nutrition, rest, and exercise, and by clean habits generally.
How do we translate all this into loving the neighbor? Who is the neighbor? The neighbor is the other person—any other person. If we share the inner life with God, we are naturally led to do his will, and that means that we are becoming like God. God is love. And he loves everyone. So to love the neighbor as ourselves is to identify with God’s love for each person with whom we interact. How do we do that?
We get to know the other person. The ideal is to have an intelligent and wise affection for each of our fellow human beings. We approach that ideal gradually. Each day or each week we can learn to know and love one more person. We listen empathetically, seeking to understand the other. We love others as we want people to love us. We ask God to help us, and we find that he actually gives us the heart to love. The heart of love desires to do good to others.
Godly love is based on a realistic and compassionate understanding of the facts of the person whose life situation and choices and motivation we are getting to know. Even divine love has its severe disciplines. But if we embrace these disciplines, they lead us into green pastures and beside still waters. They restore our soul. Love comes with long-term strength as well as long-term gentleness.
Sometimes I am angry and want support, but what I need are sensitive questions about what I feel and what I truly need. Sometimes I want gratification, but need a tactful warning. Sometimes I use conversation as an escape, when I need help in bravely facing the consequences of my action. The person who loves me well may be gentle with my feelings, but the good friend has the strength to tell me what I need to hear and can receive.
And so we grow to serve one another intelligently and wisely, in love and mercy, with gentleness and strength. We mobilize the energies of mind, soul, and body on the task at hand. In this fullness, we give to others the love that we receive from God.
Image credit: Thorvaldsen Christus https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christus_(statue)