Part 2 of 3 in the series “The Best of My Love”
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”
In this series, the Best of My Love, we are talking about the mystery and the power of love: how we might receive love from God, how we can love God back, and how that dynamic love engine drives us to love those around us.
Last week we touched on the depths and heights of God’s love for us – that God’s love is the ultimate Valentine; that His love both accepts us as we are and expects us to become new. I hope you caught a glimpse of just how impossibly deeply God loves you, and more than that, just how different the love of God is from the love of man. Where our love is reluctant, Holy Love, God’s love, has no limits. When our love just can’t go on any more, Holy Love is inexhaustible. While human love is prone to wander, Holy Love remains faithful. Where we find ourselves able to love only partially, Holy love is complete. While we love with reasonable hesitation, Holy Love is unreasonably bold. In short, human love is always incomplete, always withheld to a degree, always falls short; but God’s Holy Love for us is always all-in. It does not matter whether you doubt it or not, God’s love for you will chase you farther than anyone ever could.
When we talk about holy love, which is love from a biblical standpoint, we will not study long before we run into one word that reveals a crucial aspect of God’s love – “ALL.” That tiny but powerful word, “all”, appears three times in today’s verse.
“Love the Lord your God with ALL your heart and with ALL your soul and with ALL your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6.5)
And the more we think about what it meant for God to exist in love so profoundly that creation spilled over from love, and that God loved the world so much that He would sacrifice his only Son to be with us, we get a sense that God’s love, holy love, is consumed with “all-ness” -- that it is all or nothing, it is zero sum. It cares not whether we are the most depraved sinner or the most depraved saint. God loves ALL of us, as we ALL are, who we ALL are, without limit, escape clause, or condition. Holy love is the force majeure that ALL human love derives from and tries, unsuccessfully, to emulate. Human love is partial. Holy love is complete.
And so when we consider what it means to love God, it is no surprise that the greatest command in all of scripture is given in such holy terms: “ALL” heart, “ALL” soul, “ALL” strength. Love that is holy could ask for nothing less than ALL.
Next week, we will talk about how holy love should inform our relationships with one another, and how “ALL-ness” is the standard we must strive to achieve as we work to reform our relationships with our neighbors. It will be difficult to confront the “small-ness” of our love for one another in the light of the “all-ness” of God’s love for us. But that is next week.
This week we need to consider what it means for us to love God, drawing from the holy love that He showers upon us. So here we go.
Let’s have a closer look at Deuteronomy 6:5. Most of our devout Hebrew brothers and sisters know Deuteronomy 6:4-9 by heart. If you have had the honor of visiting the home of a Hebrew friend, you will likely see a small box with Hebrew lettering attached to the doorpost. It’s called a mezuzah, which means “doorpost”, and it serves as a reminder of this passage. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”
Now traditionally, the first part of that recitation is called the “Shema”, and the second part, the “with all your heart” portion, is called the “V’ahavta”.
Now, the v’ahavta is important for Hebrews, but it is doubly important for Christians, because not only is it a central theme of our Old Testament, but it is the centerpiece of the New Testament. Jesus said the first and greatest command is the v’ahavta, and that all the law and the prophets hang on this one commandment. That sounds pretty important to me!
With that understanding, let’s unpack it, and try to get closer to understanding what it means to love God: all heart, all soul, and all strength.
In the Hebrew, the three words for heart, soul, and strength are telling and complex. The word for heart is “levav”, the word for soul is “nephesh”, and the word for strength is “me’od”. Let’s have a closer look at these three words so that we might better understand how to reciprocate God’s love with our “ALL-ness”.
First, the word for “heart” – “levav”.
It is easy to hear a heartbeat in that word. I remember the first ultrasound with each of my children when we heard their hearts beating for the first time. That sound over the ultrasound speaker was glorious and joyful: “Levav, levav, levav.”
In Hebrew thought, the word heart means very much the same thing as it means today. It has to do with the innermost part of our being. And that is the first point of the v’ahavta: we must love God at the very core of our being; at the deepest, innermost part of us.
When the v’ahavta and Jesus say we are to love God with “all our levav”, they mean that nothing is to be withheld, no part is to remain unwed, no portion kept in reserve.
We know what it is to do things half-heartedly. This is not to be the case with our love for God. It is one thing to invite Jesus in as a guest, but quite a different thing to give Him the keys to the house. You know how it is with guests. When guests are coming over, we identify the rooms we have to clean in order to not embarrass ourselves. But then there are the rooms that are off limits to guests, where they’ll never go, and that’s where we throw all the stuff that we cleaned from the other part of the house. “They’ll never go in there,” we think.
But this passage says that we are to give God access to every room in our hearts. With “all” our hearts”. In other words, our hearts have four chambers, and loving God with “all” our hearts means holding nothing back, giving Him access to all of them.
This is not easy, but true love demands all our hearts. As the psalmist says:
“Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.”
Are we ready to surrender all of our hearts to Him?
Now we come to a harder word:
“nephesh” which is translated tentatively in English as “soul”.
Nephesh is a very peculiar word. In the ancient texts, it most often describes living things, from people to animals that have a life force at work within them. It is not used to describe plants, interestingly.
In modern English, “soul” sometimes means something like “spirit.” We think of a soul as departing a body at death, sort of like a ghost. But in the Bible, the word “nephesh” means much, much more than a ghost.
It can mean “spirit,” yes. But it also means “life, person, being,” and often even “body.” Nephesh usually seems to imply both personality – intellectual sentience – as well as physical existence. If the Hebrew “levav” (“heart”) refers to our inmost self, then the Hebrew “nephesh” (“soul”) refers to everything else: our “outer” being.
To put it another way, if loving God with all our heart means surrendering WHO WE ARE to His purposes, loving God with all our soul means surrendering WHAT WE DO - the life we live - to Him.
And that makes sense – we begin to see a natural progression in the commandment to love God in a way that flows from the inside out. First with all our hearts (our inmost being) and next with all our soul (our outward being, or our lives).
I think what the Lord is getting at here in the v’ahavta is that it is not enough to simply love God inwardly and privately, but that we must also live lives that love Him too. Now, that does not mean that we stand on the street corners for everyone to hear our self-righteous prayers. What it does mean is that our outward, daily lives are in sync with – in harmony with – the inward truth of God’s love.
At a very minimum, this means that our conduct is not overtly given to presumptuous sins. We don’t go around lying, cheating and killing. But at a more mature level, loving God with all our “nephesh” – with all our “soul” – with all our life – with all our energy – means that we go out of our way to do what is right and good. That it is never an inconvenience to do the virtuous thing, to take the harder road because it is the right thing to do. To take a loss in the world’s eyes that is actually a victory in heaven’s sight.
So, to recap:
To love God with all our heart, or “levav” means to love God thoroughly, to the very core of our being, with no part of our inward lives held back from Him.
To love God with all our soul, or “nephesh”, is to love God with the way we live our lives, and conduct our day to day business, always.
Now, finally, we come to what may be the most difficult word of the three to translate, we are to love God with all our strength – or “me’od”.
Again, English is too precise to capture the breadth of the meaning of the Hebrew word “me’od,” which literally means “very” or “exceedingly.”
Sarah was “me’od” beautiful, which means she was “very” or “exceedingly” beautiful. Abraham was “me’od” (exceedingly) rich with cattle and sheep. Joshua was commanded to be strong and “me’od” (very) courageous.
Given thopse examples it’s easy to see why translators had a hard time with translating Deuteronomy 6:5 – “You shall love the Lord your God with all your …very? exceedingly?”
As difficult as it may be to find a perfect english translation, the word “me’od” clearly carries a distinct sense of “muchness,” or “abundance”. “Me’od” could very fittingly be translated to mean “wealth,” which is exactly how it was sometimes translated in ancient Aramaic and Greek versions of the old testament. At any rate, the English word “strength” is woefully inadequate to translate the word “me’od” – it might be more fitting to say, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your abundance,” or, “You shall love the Lord your God with all you have.”
Again, that seems to fit the natural progression of the passage: we love first with our hearts – our inmost being, then with our souls – our outward conduct and the way we live our lives, and finally, with all our abundance – all of the things we have accumulated.
I don’t need to tell you how blessed we are as a church by the generosity of individuals who have given of their abundance to the work that God is doing here. From the cookies and bread that are broken in fellowship time, to the books that are shared in the lending library, to the use of a work truck to haul food each week, to the time given in preparation for leading excellent studies … our existence here in this community is a direct result of the generosity of others who have loved God out of their abundance. One of the things I am most proud of in this fellowship is the fact that every one of our needs has been met, even though we ceased receiving an offering during public worship years ago. In fact, our giving has gone up since then. Why? Because people are giving out their abundance out of a very sincere love for God, and not out of pressure to put something in an offering bag. As we often say, God doesn’t need your money, he wants your life. Here we are learning to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and true to His word, God takes care of all the rest.
All because you – whether you are here this morning or watching from elsewhere – have made a commitment to love God with all of your abundance, your “me’od”, your strength.
So there you have it. We are to love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our strength. With all that we are within, with all that we do, and with all that we have.
May we never forget, however, the operative word here is “ALL” – we are called to love God not halfheartedly, but with everything we are, everything we do, and everything we have.
That’s the first. And that’s the best. And on it hangs all the rest. I’m going to invite the worship team back up here as we pray.