Dear Father John, I feel confused. I want to keep growing in my love for God. I want to learn to love him “with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength,” just as he commands us to do. But I don’t know what that means. Can you help me?
I will try, but it will take more than one post to do so.
First of all, allow yourself to feel true interior joy, and even relief, at the simple fact that your desire to love God more fully is so fresh, intense, and real. That desire is the most precious gift that God can give to a human heart, because friendship with Jesus Christ – the substance of our love for God – is the only path to the lasting fulfillment that every person yearns for. God is already hard at work in your soul if you are feeling that desire so intensely. You can be sure of that. You can rejoice in that. You can smile at that. In fact, you are experiencing something that Our Lady also experienced, as the Preface of the Mass for Advent puts it: “…the Virgin Mother longed for him with love beyond all telling.” Your longing to love God more fully is in itself a movement of a very deep love for him, one that gives him immense pleasure.
What’s on the Lord’s Mind?
Now, what exactly was Jesus trying to tell us when he commanded us: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind…” (Luke 10:27)? This, according to our Lord, is the first and greatest commandment, which overflows into the second most important commandment, “you shall… love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).
We have two possible interpretations for this verse. First, Jesus may have simply been using many terms to say one thing: love God totally! Second, Jesus may have been consciously referring to the different powers of the soul when he lists those four modes of love for God: heart, being (or soul), strength, and mind. The two interpretations are not mutually exclusive. To love God totally means to love him with every fiber of one’s being. It means integrating every sector of one’s life into a true friendship with Jesus Christ.
Divide and Conquer?
The self-help industry tends to divide up the art of living. It promotes “five ways to become happy,” and “seven tricks to get ahead,” and “ten secrets to success.” This is not necessarily a bad thing. Lists like these often contain excellent advice. And in the face of the complexity of real life, they provide clarity, order, and understanding. In fact, the Ten Commandments themselves follow a similar structure.
Yet, in the Christian tradition, the Ten Commandments have always been seen as guidelines that point out the bare minimum requirements for staying on the path to happiness. The essence of happiness can never consist in fulfilling a list of do’s and don’ts. Jesus knows this. And so, without erasing the lists, he brings us to a deeper level, to a more unified vision. Love is the essence of happiness: loving God totally, with all the powers of human nature, and expressing that love through concrete decisions in daily life, through treating others (God’s children, created in God’s image and likeness) with the same concern and pro-activity that marks every person’s spontaneous attitude towards themselves.
Four Arenas of Spiritual Growth
Yet, Jesus chooses to express this total love for God by referring to four separate arenas, so to speak, in which that love can be developed and grown and shown. This was no mistake. The four terms Jesus uses were also used in the Old Testament; they formed part of God’s original revelation to Israel (Deuteronomy 6:5). Jesus reiterates them. And so, surely they mean something. To penetrate this meaning will open up new possibilities in any Christian’s life, because it will show concrete ways to channel the deep desire of every Christian heart to love God more fully.
I would like to take some time to examine each of the four arenas of love. And I will do that in the next post. For now, I want to leave you with Pope Benedict XVI’s own description of the totality of a mature Christian’s love for God. He offers it in the context of describing the implications of our faith in Jesus, and his expression seems to brim over with joy, energy, and optimism, which is how all of us should approach the great adventure of growing in God’s love:
Faith in the Lord is not something that affects only our minds, the realm of intellectual knowledge; rather, it is a change involving the whole of our existence: our feelings, heart, mind, will, body, emotions and human relationships. With faith, everything changes in us and for us, and it reveals clearly our future destiny, the truth of our vocation in history, the meaning of our lives, the joy of being pilgrims en route to our heavenly homeland.
(Pope Benedict XVI, Wednesday Audience, 17 October 2012)
In our next post on this topic, we will discuss the first arena of love that Jesus points out which is the “heart”.