What It Means to Love God

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“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37).

“Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:8).

There is a seemingly paradoxical relationship in these two statements. Love God who is love. We are told by John that love comes from God, and those who love know God and those who do not love do not know God. But how can we offer love back to the very source of our love? We take a drink from a mountain spring to refresh ourselves, not to pour it back into the stream. The spring does not need the water we have taken, because it has a source we cannot see or add to. But still the command is to love God.

So if this is our command, we have to examine how we can fulfill this command, not as a regulation to be met as a condition of salvation, but as a response to the incredible grace that has been poured out on us. Our response has to flow from that place, because as John points out, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16). We also know from the Old Testament that sacrifices offered out of obligation were rejected and that what God longed for from His people was their hearts — broken and contrite before Him, hearts that loved. The question we have to answer then is what does it mean to love a God from whom we learn what love is?

In striving to answer this question, we are going to look at how the psalmist responds to God, as well as the life of Jesus and His teaching. There are three intertwined answers to this question: seek God, proclaim His story, and serve those in need.

When I started dating my wife, I wanted to spend every minute with her. I thought about the things she said to me. I reread the texts she sent me. Every time something happened to me, I thought about how I would tell her the story later. Our relationship with God takes on these qualities at the beginning of our entering in to His love, and at times, we return to that place.

But what about the times when we are feeling dry or downtrodden? In Revelation, John exhorts the church of Ephesus to return to their first love. This is the love that seeks God passionately and in every circumstance. When David was running away from Saul and hiding in a cave (seemingly contrary to the promises of God), it feels like David would have every right to be angry with God, but he cries out to God. He pleads with God in Psalm 57, “Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me, for in you I take refuge. I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed.” His love of God draws him into relationship, he seeks out God, and he calls on God to speak to him.

In the ministry of Jesus, we see a similar response. Again and again, Jesus draws away from the crowd to pray and, in the most painful moment before Judas’ betrayal in the gospels, Jesus goes to the Garden of Gethsemane to speak with the Father about what was about to happen. The love that God has shown us should call us to seek Him out, to call out to Him, and to pursue relationship with Him.

Relationship produces stories. We tell each other stories, whether it’s college friends reminiscing, husband and wife telling each other about their day, or a pair of 5-year-old best friends sharing in the most outlandish, fantastical tall tale. We narrate our relationship with each other through the stories we tell.

Our relationship with God is like this. We tell Him about our days, confess our sins to Him, and ask for our deepest longings. But the love of God calls us one step further. We are called to remember the things God has done. Often we see the psalmist stuck in some kind of trouble, surrounded by enemies, or hiding in a cave, and he calls out to God. He tells God where he is and what his circumstance is, and he cries out for salvation. And then there is a turn somewhere in the middle of the Psalm, and the writer suddenly begins to proclaim the might of His God and remember all of the incredible things that God had done in the story of Israel. Psalm 77 is a great picture of this: the proclamation is not born out of a sudden salvation from the writer’s current predicament, but out of long relationship with God. The psalmist knows the stories and the “great deeds of the Lord.” The love that comes from God should draw us into His story. We should strive to know God’s story and learn to speak it in our lives.

The word gospel means “good news.” The gospels of Jesus are works of love by people whose lives had been changed completely by relationship with Jesus. In the teaching of Jesus, we also see His intimate knowledge of the scriptures and how He articulates the kingdom of God. Our love of God should call us to learn everything we can about God and to tell each other the story of God in our lives.

Up until know, we have mostly dealt with thought and heart exercises. We seek God, we learn His story, and we speak it to each other. But here we learn the most from Jesus about what it means to love God. Because Jesus spoke to huge crowds, debated with Pharisees, and taught His disciples, but it was His actions that most revealed His love. He ate meals with the most marginalized members of society. He healed people who were untouchable, and He had compassion on the heartbroken. When his friend Lazarus died, knowing that He could raise him from the dead, He still cried at the pain that Mary experienced in the death of her brother. We have been given the most compassionate, powerful love, and it should call us to action. It should call us to care for those around us. In fact, the most condemning detail that spoke to Israel’s wayward heart was their failure to care for the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner. God has poured out His love on us through Jesus’ sacrifice, and this is how we can offer His love back to Him, by pouring it out on His creation. How are you proclaiming the story of God, the gospel of Jesus, to the world? How are you caring for the poor and needy in your community? How is your community serving the widow and the orphan? How are you welcoming the foreigner? These are not separate questions. They are intimately linked. One follows the other. Seeking and pursuing God produces stories of Him and inspires the service of those in need. This is how we love God who is love.

Mark Crawford is the assistant editor of Light + Life Magazine. He resides in Tucson, Arizona.