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?
In our first post answering this question, we explored the general meaning of the Greatest Commandment. Now we are ready to look at its different parts. The first arena of love that Jesus points out is the “heart.” In all three New Testament versions of this Greatest Commandment, heart is always first on the list.
What Is “the Heart”?
The Sacred Scriptures use this term more than a thousand times, but never to refer simply to the biological organ. The term always has a fuller, more complete and more spiritual cache. With so many appearances, the word can’t help but take on a variety of connotations, yet the core meaning always remains the same. The heart refers to the deepest center of the person, the irreplaceable and irreducible “I” of the unique human individual. All the other powers of human nature flow from and depend on the heart. A person can say, “my feelings, my decisions, my hopes, my desires, my thoughts….” But all of those possessions belong to someone: the heart is the biblical term that encompassed the very identity of the possessor.
The Catechism explores the rich and evocative meaning of this term in its discussion of prayer, and the mysterious origin of prayer. It is worth quoting the entire paragraph:
According to Scripture, it is the heart that prays… The heart is the dwelling-place where I am, where I live; according to the Semitic or Biblical expression, the heart is the place “to which I withdraw.” The heart is our hidden center, beyond the grasp of our reason and of others; only the Spirit of God can fathom the human heart and know it fully. The heart is the place of decision, deeper than our psychic drives. It is the place of truth, where we choose life or death. It is the place of encounter, because as image of God we live in relation: it is the place of covenant (CCC 2562-2563).
This is the heart. Jesus commands his followers to love him, in the first place, with all their heart. What does this mean?
The Treasure Hunt
Jesus gives us a revealing clue in another one of his discourses, when he says, “For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be” (Matthew 6:21). A treasure is what we value most, what we desire most, what we set our sights on attaining or maintaining. To love God with all our heart, therefore, means to make God – communion with him, friendship with him – into the overarching goal of our lives. It means making our relationship with God the true north of our lives; our every decision, every desire, every hope and dream, every interpersonal interaction is evaluated, lived, and developed in light of that fundamental, orienting relationship. Anything that may damage my relationship with God must be cut away or re-dimensioned, especially sin and sinful habits. Whereas anything that harmonizes with or may enhance my relationship with God is welcomed and integrated more and more fully into my life.
A football team has one overarching goal: to win the championship. All the decisions made by the coaches and players are made with that in mind. All the activities they engage in, all the sacrifices they make, all the intermediate objectives and challenges, are seen and dealt with in light of that goal. That goal is the ultimate source of the entire team’s dynamism, effort, and yearnings. St. Paul draws a parallel between this kind of all-encompassing, athletic treasure hunt, and a Christian’s hunt for greater and greater intimacy with Christ here on earth, and definitive, total communion forever in heaven:
Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
What Do You Want?
Loving God with all our heart means wanting, above everything else, to grow continually in our communion with him, our friendship with him. In a heart that is loving God fully, every other desire is subordinated to and harmonized with that overarching desire, and so every experience, circumstance, and activity serves to bring us into a deeper knowledge of closeness to God. This is why Jesus was able to assure us, “Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8).
In the end, we get what we want. If we truly want God, if our heart is set on pursuing God, on seeking him, on living in a deeper and deeper communion with him, God will not deny us that treasure (which is called heaven) – after all, that’s what he created us for (“Seek, and you will find,” he promised in Matthew 7:7). But if we persistently prefer to seek our fulfillment in something else, in some idol, whether it be other relationships, achievements, or pleasures, leaving communion with God as a secondary concern, or as no concern at all, God will honor our choice. In that case, the purpose for which we were created – living in communion with God – will be everlastingly frustrated, and this is called hell.
C.S. Lewis put it simply and eloquently in his masterpiece, The Great Divorce, referring to Our Lord’s own promise: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Mathew 7:7-8):
There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.
A Christ-Centered Fundamental Orientation
Now we are ready to give a specific answer to the question, what does it mean to love God with all our heart? Loving God with all one’s heart simply means making God – an increasing communion with him, an ever-deepening friendship with him – the highest priority and guiding principle of one’s life. It is love seen as the fundamental desire, the fundamental orientation of one’s life.
When Jesus began his public ministry with a call to conversion, this is what he was getting at. By announcing that “the kingdom of God is at hand,” he was pointing out that in him, God-become-man, full communion with God was now truly possible. God has made himself one of us, so that we can enter into a real friendship with him. Jesus is Emmanuel, God-with-us. Before Jesus, God was close to his people, but it was a closeness always mediated by something: by creation, by his revelation and his commandments, by his prophets.
In Jesus, who is truly God and truly Man, God’s closeness has taken a definitive turn, and we can love God with all our heart truly, through a fully human relationship with the eternal God, through knowing and following the Son. All it takes is a leaving behind of any idols, any fundamental desire that can’t be subordinated to or harmonized with the desire to live in communion with God: “Repent, and believe in the gospel!” (Mark 1:15).
Loving God will all our heart means giving a Christ-centered fundamental orientation to our lives. The other three arenas of our love for God – soul, strength, and mind – show us how to follow that orientation in every sector of our daily activity.
 (Lewis, C. S. (2009-05-28). The Great Divorce (Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis) (p. 75). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition.)