The title of this post is a spiritual conundrum submitted by a reader named Sheena.
It’s a great question!
It is also a question with many answers.
And according to Jesus Christ, it is the most important commandment in the entire Bible:
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:34–40. See also Mark 12:28–34; Luke 10:25–28.)
It’s not so hard to figure out how to love our neighbor as we love ourselves (though it’s a lot harder to actually do it). But how do we love God? And how do we love God with all our heart, soul, and mind?
To adapt the famous line from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 43, “How do I love Thee? Let me count the ways.”
Here are just a few of the many ways we can love God with our whole heart:
- By keeping God’s commandments
- By caring for the people God has made
- By feeling joy in the things God feels joy in
- By putting God first in our life
- By giving our life to God
- By opening our heart to God’s love
Let’s look a little more closely at each one.
But first, it might help if we have some idea of what this love thing is.
What is love?
We talk about love all the time. We sing songs about love. We write novels about love. We crank out movies and TV programs about love. We make jokes about love. We’re happy when we find love, and heartbroken when we lose it.
But do we know what love is?
When we stop to think about it, love is a hard thing to pin down. What the heck is love, anyway? A feeling? An attraction? A passion?
If we try to think it out, all of these common ideas about love seem fleeting and insubstantial.
And yet, we are driven by love. Our whole life revolves around love. Love is what gives our life meaning.
For love to be that important, it must be more than some wispy feeling.
In fact, love is the basic substance of God. This means that love is what both we and the entire universe come from. Love is not just some feeling. Love is at the core of our existence. Love is our very life.
Here’s how the apostle John put it:
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. . . . And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. (1 John 4:7–8, 16)
Notice that John says not only that God loves us, but that God is love. In other words, love is both a power of God reaching out to us and the substance of God.
Since the universe comes from God, this means that everything in the universe comes from the substance and power of God’s love.
Yeah, but what is love?
Okay, I admit, that’s kind of abstract. But it’s important to realize that love is not just a pleasant add-on to our life. It is the reality, substance, and power of our life. In a very real way, love is our life. It’s that basic to who and what we are.
When we talk about loving God and loving our neighbor, we’re talking about something that is basic to our existence as human beings.
Whole libraries would not be enough to say in detail exactly what love is. But we don’t have that much time right now. So let’s just take a quick look at a few of the things love is.
Love is an attractive, unifying force
Yes, love is beautiful, and all that.
But what I mean is that love is a force attracts two beings to one another, and brings them together.
In the physical universe, gravity is an all-pervasive force that attracts bodies of any mass toward one another according to how massive they are, and how close they are to one another.
In the spiritual universe—which includes the human mind and human community—love works in exactly the same way. It is an all-pervasive force that attracts us toward one another depending on how much of it we have, and how close we are to one another.
In plain language, the more we love someone or something, the closer we want to be to that person or thing. Love draws us toward one another, and joins us together.
Love is both loving others and being loved by them in return
Of course, there is such a thing as one-way love. We may love someone who does not love us.
However, love in the fullest sense is mutual. It includes not only loving someone else, but also being loved by them as well. That is the only way love can truly unite us with one another.
Love is wanting to give what is ours to others
If we love someone, we want them to have the good things that we have.
Yes, this does include wanting to give them physical objects such as gifts and money. Especially if we see that someone we love is hurting and in need, we want to help them out by giving them what they need. (However, it may be wise to use some discretion in considering what will truly be most beneficial to them.)
But even more than that, it means that we want to give them our care and affection, our understanding and wisdom, our humor, our happiness, our contentment.
Love is feeling the joy of someone else as joy within ourselves
And yet, what gives others joy is not always the same as what gives us joy. In an even finer sense, love is a sense of happiness and joy in the other person’s joy, even if it isn’t something we would enjoy on our own.
We’re all different. We each feel joy in our own unique way. Real love does not expect others to be happy because they’re just like us and want the same things we do. Real love seeks an understanding of what truly makes the other person happy and what gives them joy, and feeling joy within ourselves when they experience their own unique joys.
In other words, real love values the differences and uniqueness of the other person, and wants the other person to be happy in their own best self.
To read how Emanuel Swedenborg put these things, see Divine Love and Wisdom #47.
That’s enough for now on the nature of love. Let’s move on to some of the ways we can love God with our whole heart.
1. We can love God by keeping God’s commandments
This one comes straight from the Bible.
If you love me, you will keep my commandments. (John 14:15)
Think about it.
As a child, if you loved your parents you would want to do what they asked you to do—even if it wasn’t exactly what you wanted to do at that point.
If you love another person and they ask you to do something, you feel a certain joy and satisfaction in doing it for them even if in itself it isn’t the most pleasant of tasks.
In the very same way, if we love God we will want to do what God asks us to do.
Yes, I know. It says keep God’s commandments. But realistically, we don’t have to do what God commands us to do. We can decide not to. So if we think of it as God asking us to do this and not to do that, then it’s really the same as someone we love asking us to do something, or asking us not to do something that they don’t like.
It’s true that sometimes—perhaps often—what God is commanding us to do is exactly what we don’t want to do, and what God is commanding us not to do is precisely what we do want to do.
Love isn’t always easy.
But if we truly want to love God with our whole heart, we will set our mind and our heart on doing what God wants us to do, and not doing what God doesn’t want us to do, as we understand it.
2. We can love God by caring for the people God has made
This one also comes from the Bible.
As part of the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus said:
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”
And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it for one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it for me.” (Matthew 25:34–40)
You see, God loves every single one of the people that God has created. God feels joy when even the least, most broken down of us feels some small bit of happiness, contentment, and love.
Every time we do something for one of God’s creatures—not only human, but also animal, plant, and even inanimate rocks and soil—we are doing it for God, and giving God joy.
In a very real way, every small act of service, kindness, thoughtfulness, and caring that we do for someone else is an act of loving God.
That’s why Jesus said that the second greatest commandment is like the first. When we love our neighbor as we love ourselves, we are also loving God with our whole heart, soul, and mind.
3. We can love God by feeling joy in the things God feels joy in
Okay, let’s admit it. Some of the things we feel joy in are not the sort of thing God feels joy in.
For example, it’s natural for us humans to feel pleasure when someone who has hurt us feels pain. We want to get back at them for what they did to us. We want them to feel the pain they have caused us to feel.
But that’s not the sort of thing God feels joy in.
When Jesus was on the cross, as he looked down at those who were causing him such great pain, what did he say? Did he curse them and wish a miserable death upon them?
Not at all. He said:
Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. (Luke 23:34)
Earlier, Jesus had taught the people:
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:43–45)
And in the book of Ezekiel, God says to those who are flouting his laws and breaking his commandments:
I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Repent, then, and live! (Ezekiel 18:32)
God takes no pleasure in the pain or the death of those who have made themselves into God’s enemies by doing all sorts of evil and destructive things. Rather, God’s desire is always for them to turn away from their evil and destructive ways so that they can experience true joy and happiness.
If we wish to love God with our whole heart, instead of wishing pain and death on those who have hurt us, we will wish and hope that they will realize and regret the wrongs they have done so that they can turn from them and begin to experience a life of happiness and joy.
This is just one example of how loving God is feeling joy in the things God feels joy in. As we learn more and more about what God is like and what gives God joy, we can learn to feel joy in the same things God feels joy in. The more we do this, the more we will be loving God with our whole heart.
4. We can love God by putting God first in our life
Jesus said that loving the Lord our God is the first and greatest commandment. We are commanded to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. But we are commanded to love God with our whole heart, soul, and mind.
Another way of saying this is that we are to love God more than we love anyone or anything else—including both our neighbor and ourselves.
- We are to love God more than we love our best friend.
- We are to love God more than we love our parents.
- We are to love God more than we love our children.
- We are to love God more than we love our husband or wife.
How do we do this?
By putting God first in our life.
By putting God’s will before the will of anyone else, and even before our own will.
If we wish to love God with our whole heart, we must give God first priority in everything we do.
- If your best friend asks you to do something that you know is contrary to God’s will, you must follow God, not your best friend.
- If your parents are holding you back or leading you toward something you know is not what God wants for you, God’s plan for your life must take precedence.
- If your children are acting in selfish, greedy, and destructive ways, you must resist the urge to excuse and justify their bad behavior, and instead hold them to the same moral and spiritual standards that God would hold them to.
- If you face a choice between your wife’s or husband’s will and God’s will, even then, God’s will must come first.
Of course, these things do depend on how well we understand God’s will. If our idea of what God wants is mistaken, it will result in wrong choices and wrong actions. Along with our dedication to putting God’s will first, we must also devote ourselves to continually learning more about what God’s will is. The more our understanding of God grows, the more effective we will be in putting God first in our life.
5. We can love God by giving our life to God
In order to love God with our whole heart, we must give our whole heart and our whole life to God.
This doesn’t mean we can’t love anyone else. Just the opposite. God loves all people. The more we love God, the more we will truly love our friends, our family, our coworkers, and everyone else we encounter.
But more specifically, giving our life to God means searching for the reason God created us, and devoting our lives to it.
Each one of us is a unique creation of God. We were born of unique parents, we grew up in unique circumstances, and we have a unique character as a result. This means that each one of us is able to do something that no one else can do quite as well as we can. It may be a great thing or it may be a humble thing, but it is our thing to do with our life. It is what God put us here to do.
Though it may be a lot of hard work to discover and do what we are put here to do, it will not be something that’s impossible for us to do. The reason it’s our thing to do is that we are uniquely gifted and qualified for it. We have the specific personality, skills, and experiences that we need in order to do it—and any that we don’t yet have, we can go out and get.
By giving our life to God, we are also devoting our life to being uniquely ourselves in the best way possible.
6. We can love God by opening our heart to God’s love
God is not just some impersonal force pervading the universe.
God is human.
Yes, for us, being human generally involves having arms, legs, eyes, ears, internal organs, and so on. But even more than that, being human means having self-awareness, love, compassion, ideas, understanding, motives, freedom, responsibility, and all of the other mental and emotional characteristics that make us truly human.
God is a uniquely infinite human being, from which our more limited humanity and our particular uniqueness comes. (For more on this, see “Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ? What about that Holy Spirit?”)
This means many things.
One thing it means is we can have a personal relationship with God.
For Christians, this means having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, who is God’s presence with us.
If God is love, then having a personal relationship with God and loving God with our whole heart also means opening up our whole heart to receive God’s love.
Yes, God does love you, no matter who you are, and no matter what you have done. (If you’re not so sure about that, see the article, “If You Think You’re Going to Hell, Please Read This First.”)
Opening your mind, and especially your heart, to receive God’s love is one of the most personal ways of loving God with your whole heart. God loves you and wants to have a personal relationship with you.
How will this happen? It’s not something that can really be explained in words. It’s something you just have to experience for yourself. And it’s different for each person. If you need some help, I encourage you to read the Gospels, paying special attention to all the places that talk about God’s love. The three letters of John in the New Testament also offer some beautiful thoughts about God’s love.
If you can begin to feel that God truly is a personal, loving, and wise being, and that God truly does care about you and your life, it will be easier to open your heart to receive God’s love as it flows into your life.
When you feel God’s love in your heart, you will also feel a love for God that goes deeper than anything else in this life. That’s because we are created from God’s love, and God’s love is our true home.
When you feel God’s love in your heart, it will also fill you with more love for those around you than you have ever felt before. That’s because God’s love is a love that wants the best for every single person, and sees the best in everyone and everything.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind
These are a few of my thoughts about how to love God with your whole heart.
But it’s a list of only six different ways.
If we were to take a cue from Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and try to count all the ways we can love God, we would soon find that they are countless.
God is infinite. There is no end to the ways God loves us. And there are at least as many different ways for us to love God as there are different people on this earth.
What are some of the ways you have found to love God with your whole heart?
This article is a response to a spiritual conundrum submitted by a reader.
For further reading:
- Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ? What about that Holy Spirit?
- How does Jesus Appear to Us? Can We See God Face to Face?
- How Do I Love My Neighbor?
- Viktor Frankl on Meaning through Relationship: It’s All About Love and Understanding
- Antoinette Tuff and the Averted School Shooting: God’s Love in Action