Jesus told us “The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment” (Mark. 12:29-30).
Even though this commandment forms the basis of all other commands and is most important for us to remember and obey, it can also be easy to overlook. It sounds so simple: “Love God, check. Yup. I’m good.” But Jesus went into more detail than just “love God.” He started out by reminding us Yahweh is echad. He is united, preeminent, and the only one worthy of the title Lord.
With that reminder in place, Jesus goes on to quote an Old Testament passage telling us how to love God. The way we should love our Lord isn’t left up to our imagination or emotions. We’re told what we’re supposed to do.
With All Your Heart
As today, most people in Jesus’s day didn’t just think of the heart as a muscle pumping blood. It was seen as the “seat of emotions” and the core of your “inner man” (labab, H3824). In Greek, kardia metaphorically referred to the “center of all physical and spiritual life” and the “fountain and seat of thoughts, passions, desires, appetites, affections, purposes, endeavors (G2588, Thayer). That’s the first way we’re supposed to love God — with all our emotions, thoughts, and yearnings that come from the very core parts of who you are inside.
God has always been concerned with the state of the human heart. In Genesis, He brought a flood on the world after seeing that “that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” This state of man made the Lord “sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart” (Gen. 6:5-6). Our creator is hurt to the very core of His being when the center of our thoughts and passions turns away from Him.
In contrast, the Lord seeks people “after His own heart,” like King David (1 Sam. 13:14; Acts 13:22). We’re blessed that we have an abundance of writings by the man after God’s own heart. If you want to learn about applying this first point in how to love the Lord your God, the psalms are a great place to start.
I will praise You, O Lord, with my whole heart; I will tell of all Your marvelous works. (Psalm 9:1)
When You said, “Seek My face,” my heart said to You, “Your face, Lord, I will seek.” (Psalm 27:8)
Teach me Your way, O Lord; I will walk in Your truth; unite my heart to fear Your name. I will praise You, O Lord my God, with all my heart, and I will glorify Your name forevermore. (Psalm 86:11-12)
With All Your Soul
The “soul” in scripture isn’t what we typically think of when we hear that word in English. It’s not a separate or immortal part of us. It’s referring to the vital life force inside living beings. In Hebrew, naphesh references “a breathing creature” (H5315, Strong). It can also mean the desires, emotions, and passions. The Greek psuche (G5590) is much the same — the breath of life animating people or animals. It can also mean the soul as “the seat of the feelings, desires, affections, aversions” (Thayer). In essence, we’re being told to love God with everything that makes us alive.
Loving with all our souls isn’t a phrase used again in the New Testament. But in the Old Testament we’re told repeatedly to love and serve the Lord with all our hearts and souls (Deut. 6:5; 10:12; 11:13; Josh. 22:5). This is made possible by God’s work to change our hearts (Deut. 30:6). We can’t worship God with our whole lives until we have His spirit in us.
As many of you know, I believe the Song of Songs has much to teach us about the relationship between the Lord and His people (i.e. it’s a literal celebration of romantic love pointing to the “great mystery” of Jesus and the church). In that Song, the woman repeatedly calls her lover “him whom my soul loves” (Song. 1:7; 3:1-4, KJV). That’s how we should feel about Jesus. He should be our “soul mate.”
With All Your Might
In the Hebrew passage Jesus quotes, the third instruction is to love the Lord with all your might — me’od (H3966). Me’od is typically used as an adverb meaning “exceedingly.” When used in a more substantive sense, it means abundant might, force, and “muchness.” It’s an intense word that carries the sense of going above and beyond.
In Matthew’s account, me’od is translated by the Greek word dianoia (mind, G1271). Mark’s account pairs dianoia with ischus (strength, G2479), which I think gives a more accurate translation. The Greek word conveying understanding, thought, and feeling works together with the word for ability, force, and strength to round-out an instruction for total commitment to God.
S. Dean McBride observed that the three Hebrew words used (labab/heart, naphesh/soul, and me’od/muchness) “were chosen to reinforce the absolute singularity of personal devotion to God.” That’s what’s going on in the New Testament as well. Jesus is telling us the most important thing we can do as Christians is to devote all we are to God.
So the scribe said to Him, “Well said, Teacher. You have spoken the truth, for there is one God, and there is no other but He. And to love Him with all the heart, with all the understanding, with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is more than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Now when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, He said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (Mark 12:32-34)
Loving God requires complete commitment. You can’t follow Him with half a heart, part of your soul, and only a portion of your muchness. He wants all of you. The closer we get to total devotion, the closer we get to the kingdom. Our eternal life is tied to knowing the only true God and Jesus Christ, whom He has sent (John 17:3). There’s no better way to do that than to learn how to love the God who is love as He has loved us.