There is a profound truth that every Christian must face: the Bible is an inexhaustible treasure. Talk to a pastor who has spent a lifetime reading, studying and explaining the Bible and he will tell you, I’m sure, that the more he comes to understand, the more he realizes he does not understand. I have heard John Piper compare this to climbing a mountain. As he scales a sheer cliff and comes to the top of a great mountain, he looks to the distance and sees that beyond it lie more mountains still. And so he begins to scale the next mountain and sees beyond that more, bigger, taller, grander mountains. And so it will continue into eternity as we gaze towards the eternal, infinite God.
A week ago I posted a review of Alexander Strauch’s Love or Die (click here to read it) and in that review said “I can think of few books I’ve read recently that have had so immediate an impact on me and have given me so much to think about. I trust, that with God’s help, the implications of this book will be with me always.” In the back of the book Strauch provides a list of “50 Key Texts on Love.” In my devotions I have been going through those texts a few at a time, seeking to understand the contexts in which they were given, to understand what God means by them, and to understand how I can apply them to my life.
To this point I’ve looked at key texts in the Old Testament and in the gospels. I haven’t encountered any texts that are new to me; I have read them all before and have memorized or studied many in the past. But I continue to learn from the Bible’s inexhaustible store of treasure. Just this morning I came to Matthew 22:34-40.
But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
This is one of those foundational texts and one I have undoubtedly read or heard hundreds, if not thousands, of times. Jesus quoted two Old Testament passages, both of which would have been familiar to his hearers and to Matthew’s readers. One of them was recited by pious Jews twice daily and was written on their doorposts and phylacteries. He chose these two out of the 600+ laws the Pharisees had deduced from the Scriptures. Love God first and best and love your neighbor as yourself. This is the heart of the Christian faith.
This morning I began to think about that phrase, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and wondered, “why love?” Why is it that the greatest commandment is not to obey or fear or follow? Why are we commanded to love? And here I had to pause and ask myself whether I love God first or whether my love is secondary to obedience or submission or to something else. I wonder if that command, in the Challies Standard Bible, reads, “You shall obey the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Is love as central to my faith as it ought to be?
I suppose it is possible that I am drawing something of a false distinction here. We do not need to go too much further in the Bible to find that love and obedience are inextricably connected. John 14:15 says clearly, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” But I do not take this to say that love and obedience are one and the same. Rather, I take it to mean that obedience is proof of love. Obedience proves love to God but is not the sum of love to God. Do I love God? I can look to the Scripture to see if I am obeying him. If I obey God, I can take it as proof of my love. But isn’t my day-by-day love to be composed of more than obedience? Isn’t “how do I know I love God?” different from “how do I love God?”
I began to think of how Jesus loved his Father and came up with at least a few ways (and I’m sure this is but a drop in the proverbial bucket). I wanted to see how people may have answered this question: “How did Jesus love his Father?” And here is what I thought of: He loved his Father by defending him. When the Pharisees showed their appalling ignorance of the character of God, Jesus would step in to defend God. He loved his Father by communing with him. Jesus constantly escaped from the crowds so he could spend time alone with God. He communed with him in prayer and undoubtedly in meditating upon the Scriptures. He loved his Father by loving his Father’s people (see, for example, John 17:12). He loved his Father by obeying him. He loved his Father by doing his Father’s will. He loved his Father by making his Father’s glory his first priority and by making much of him. And I’m sure this list could continue.
And I got little further. I began to look to my own life to see if I am primarily obedient to God or if I primarily love God. I can’t help but feel that, if I am motivated primarily by obedience, then I am missing out on something important. Does this mean that I read the Bible every morning just to obey God? Or do I read the Bible in order to spend time with God and enjoy some moments of communion with him? Do I love his people because I want to ensure I am following his edicts, or do I love his people because he loves his people and I want to be like him? Is there a purity in love that is missing from obedience?
I’m going to turn to you for your thoughts and see if you can bring some clarity here (though by this time I may have so muddied the water that you are completely and utterly confused). Am I making a false distinction, or is there really a difference between “how do I know I love God?” and “how do I love God?” And if so, answer what should be a simple question: how is the Christian to love God?