Can I Really Love God with All My Strength?
Dear Father John, Jesus said we were supposed to love God with all our strength. It’s hard to do anything with all my strength, especially as I get older. Is it really possible to love God with all my strength?
MANY POSTMODERN ideologies and theories of human behavior tend to either over- or underemphasize the power of human freedom. These have seeped into popular culture at every level, and in some cases they have even affected how we understand the gospel itself.
A Dangerous Disconnect
Behaviorist and immanentist schools of thought tend to blame all of our behaviors and choices on influences beyond our control. According to them, subconscious or unconscious complexes and urges or circumstantial and social pressures exercise so much influence on a person’s decisions that moral responsibility disappears. Some secularist and relativistic schools of thought, on the other hand, see the human mind as all-powerful. For them, not only can we freely determine what we choose to do, we can also freely and independently determine the very nature of good and evil.
Both of those errors shatter the link between freedom and truth, between truth and goodness. If the human person is completely determined by urges and circumstances, then our dignity disappears, as does our capacity for spiritual creativity, friendship, loyalty, love, and any other moral virtue that would give authentic meaning to life. If, on the other hand, the human person is actually divine, unlimited in our capacity to create meaning and truth simply by willing to do so, then every individual becomes, in
essence, a universe unto himself, and the possibility of true communion between persons (human and divine) disappears. In either case, the theoretical divorce between truth and goodness is a lie that, if accepted, makes interior peace, fulfillment, and authentic happiness impossible.
Jesus Believes in Us
Jesus freed us from these lies. In the first place, he acknowledged and accepted the complex influences that contribute to conditioning our freedom in this fallen world. This is why he commanded us not to judge the interior intentions and culpability of other people—we simply cannot know enough to make a full and accurate judgment about a person, even when a particular action is objectively wrong. Only God sees clearly the many circumstantial and subconscious influences that may be at work inside a person’s soul. It is enough for us to seek light regarding our own soul, without trying to manage the souls of others:
Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you. Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove that splinter from your eye,’ while the wooden beam is in your eye? You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:1–5)
Our Lord, however, never exaggerated the role of external influences. He always believed in us. He always appealed to our spiritual ability to make good choices, to exercise our freedom in harmony with the truth, and in that way to achieve the maturity, wisdom, and holiness that we are created for.
Yet he didn’t fall into the other trap either. He never exaggerated the power of our freedom, exonerating us from the duty to humbly obey the truth. We are called not to be gods, but to love God, and that includes following God’s plan for the human family in general, and for our individual life in particular. This conscious, free obedience to the truth promotes the fulfillment of our highest spiritual potential, and it alone leads to the meaning, fruitfulness, and happiness that will last. His respect for our capacity to do what is right and true, his hope in us, shines through in the finale of the Sermon on the Mount:
Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock. And everyone who listens to these words of mine but does not act on them will be like a fool who built his house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. And it collapsed and was completely ruined. (Matthew 7:24–27)
The True and the Good
The same tone of exhortation fills the pages of the entire New Testament. In Christ, with him and through the gift of his grace, each of us has become “a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). As a result, if we remain in the Lord and stay united to the vine, our collaboration with God’s grace can truly work wonders in us and through us: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
We can learn to love God with all our strength. We can choose to follow Christ and travel the path of spiritual maturity. We can resist temptation and grow in virtue. We can make a difference in the world, building Christ’s kingdom and encouraging others to do the same. If we couldn’t, none of the New Testament letters would have been written, since they all contain passionate encouragement to make practical, daily choices worthy of our Christian calling. If knowing the truth were sufficient for our spiritual growth, and if we were not free to choose to live according to that truth, St. Paul, for example, would never have written this:
Put to death, then, the parts of you that are earthly: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry…Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do. And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection…And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:5, 12–14, 17)
When our hearts desire God above all things, and our emotions are joyfully subject to an intellect enlightened by faith and a will strengthened and aligned by grace, we can truly love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, just as Jesus commands.
Editor’s Note: This is another excerpt from Father John Bartunek’s new book “Seeking First the Kingdom” filled with “practical examples and down-to-earth wisdom which will show you how to bring Christ into each facet of your life”. Click here to learn more about the book…or if you wish to get it for a friend or relative who doesn’t read on line.
Art for this post asking if I can really love God with all my strength: The Parable of the Mote and the Beam, Domenico Fetti, circa 1619, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less; Vine branch on the way “Algunder Waalweg”, Huberbe, 10 August 2012, CCA 3.0 Unported; both Wikimedia Commons.