In the gospels we get a couple of versions of a rabbinical discussion about what the greatest commandment is. In Luke, Jesus asks the questions and confirms the answer. In Matthew, it’s Jesus himself who provides the two-for-the-price-of-one answer: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest commandment. And the second is like it: love your neighbor as yourself.”
A couple of observations to make right at the start: we followers of Christ tend to react to everything Jesus does by saying, “Oh, that Jesus… he’s so smart!” I can sense my Jewish friends rolling their eyes. After all, the “loving God” commandment is part of the Shema, the ritual prayer said each day. This is an answer that any observant Jewish child should be able to come up with (though I’ll admit that the “loving your neighbor” addition is a nice touch). The Luke version launches directly into the parable of the Good Samaritan as an elaboration on the follow-up question about who your “neighbor” is, and my experience in church is that we get a lot more attention to the Good Samaritan story than we get to the first part of that discussion, about loving God.
This emphasis on loving other people makes intuitive sense to me, since “loving your neighbor” is a human-to-human act. We can imagine what this looks like pretty easily, although it’s difficult to do. It’s much more difficult to picture what it would look like to love an invisible, all-powerful, all-knowing god. That’s so different from our human experience of loving family and partners. And yet we frequently skip past that “love God” commandment as if it’s obvious how to do that. When’s the last time you heard a sermon on how to love God? We are told that we should, but how? And yet it’s clear from both Old and New Testaments that this is Job One for those in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
The standard Christian explanation is that we love God because God first loved us. The more elaborated version goes something like this: God exists, and God loves us. As an act of love, a part of God came to earth and took on human form (Jesus). Although Jesus lived a sinless life, he gave himself as a sacrifice so that we might be reconciled to God. Jesus loved us so much that he died on the cross to take our sins upon himself.
As I’ve said before in this blog, this is not the simplest scenario to understand theologically. You have to recognize that your own sins were significant enough to require such a sacrifice, which is difficult for those who look at their life and think that their actions are not that immoral, comparatively speaking. You have to accept that the shedding of blood was the only way that omnipotent God could figure out how to atone for those sins. I can connect those theological dots, and I do so in a way that makes this theology emotionally and spiritually resonant for me, but if I step back outside of my Christian comfort zone, I recognize that this is thorny, complicated stuff.
It’s also a weird way to justify the commandment to love God. First of all, who loves because they are commanded to do so? Who has that kind of control over their heart? And who loves someone just because they give us something that we didn’t ask for and didn’t necessarily know we needed? This makes God sound like some sort of divorcee parent or stepparent trying to buy a child’s love. That typically doesn’t go so well.
I’m phrasing this blog post pretty aggressively so that those who are used to this kind of easy Christian gloss on “loving God” can see that it’s not so easy. Loving God is unlike any other kind of loving relationship. We spend very little time talking about how to do that, and I think we do so at our peril. If we spend too much time discussing our “beliefs” and not enough time establishing a living bond of love with God, then it’s all too easy for those beliefs to fall apart in spiritually challenging circumstances. If “loving God” is not a regular part of your life, if it remains an abstraction, then you remain spiritually vulnerable. Beliefs don’t sustain us, but love can if that love is real. Loving God is the primary call of following Christ; it also can be one of the most foreign aspects of religious experience.
So how does one learn to love God? I’ve been emphasizing the many ways that loving God is different from loving anyone else on earth, but there are some similarities. When you love someone, you want to share what’s going on in your life with them. When good things happen, you want to pick up the phone and tell them the news. During rough patches, it’s helpful to complain or bitch or get angry in unattractive ways that only a loved one can accept. The goal is to get into that kind of relationship with God, not an obligation to pray but a desire to share your thoughts and feelings about your daily experiences. That takes time and repetition, developing the habit of telling God the kinds of things you’d tell an intimate partner when you come home.
Little by little you build God into the structure of your everyday life. Eventually it can become just as unthinkable to withhold your anger and joy from God as it would be to keep information from your human life partner. Although the idea of a “relationship” with God is so overused that it’s hard to hear it with new ears, “relationship” is probably the best word. Relations are built through a thousand little interactions. Such intimate relations are resilient because they are emotionally real. They are not built on “belief” (that language feels entirely wrong — I never think about whether I “believe” in my wife). These shared experiences become part of who you are.
So my advice is to get into the habit of telling God what’s going on in your life, just as you do with a life partner. Like any habit, this takes some conscious effort up front. I suggest that this activity dovetails nicely with my previous suggestion about gratitude. As I said about gratitude, this takes fairly minimal “belief.” You can call this “prayer” if you like, or simply “talking.” (You can get awfully hung up on whether you’re doing “prayer” the right way) Such talk builds intimacy (though it’s admittedly weird to think about intimacy with an inanimate being). Although we don’t talk in much detail about how to love God, it’s Job One for a reason: loving God is life-sustaining.