Home » Sermons » New Testament » Mark » On Loving God


On Loving God



Mark 12:29      Psalm 42:4; 84:2     1 John 4:8       1 Corinthians 2:9


I have never had a stroke, as far as I know. (To be sure, I have been concussed four times and fractured my skull once, and therefore I must have sustained some neurological damage. Still, I have not had a stroke.) One aftermath of some strokes is that the stroke-sufferer cannot say what she wants to say, cannot articulate what she longs to communicate. Those attending the stroke-sufferer can only guess and guess and guess again.

Sometimes I feel that I too am not articulating what I long to communicate, and therefore people are left guessing again and again.

One guess is that I am trying to improve the moral tone of the community. To be sure, I should be happy if the moral tone of the community were improved. I am scarcely a booster of immorality or amorality. Nevertheless, at the end of the day I am not a moralist, concerned with having the community conform to a code. I am a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Another guess is that I am concerned to have religious observances better attended. To be sure, I should like to see them better attended; it bothers me that church-rolls carry so many people who are never or rarely seen at worship. At the same time, Jesus himself reminds us that the way is straight, the gate is narrow, and the few who enter upon it and persist in it are few indeed.

Another guess (guessed chiefly by those without church-connection) is that I am in the business of providing an affordable counselling service. To be sure, I am glad to offer whatever help I can to any suffering human being. Still, I’m not a psychologist.

Then what am I trying to do here? At the risk of speaking again like the stroke-sufferer who cannot articulate what she wants to communicate, I shall make another attempt: I AM TRYING TO FACILITATE AND FOSTER LOVE FOR GOD. I am trying to move us — all of us — to love God. You see, I have never lost sight of the “great commandment” reinforced by Jesus himself. When asked, “Which commandment is first of all?” he replied, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’.” These two are never to be separated. At the same time, the first cannot be reduced to the second or collapsed into the second. It is not the case that by loving the neighbour we also love God. God insists on being loved for himself; being loved as God. The first command ever remains the first: we are to love God.

Actually, we are not exactly commanded to “love God”; we are commanded to “love the Lord our God”. The difference is crucial. “The Lord”, Yahweh, is the proper name of God everywhere in the Hebrew bible. The Hebrew name YHWH is spelled with no vowels. A word with no vowels cannot be pronounced; and a word which cannot be pronounced cannot be translated; neither can there be a substitute for it. Yahweh, “the Lord”, cannot be translated into Zeus (the deity of the ancient Greeks), or into Gitchi Manitou (the deity of Amerindians), or into Supreme Being (the deity of modernity). Neither can it be translated into any of the gods which people worship all the time: the American way of life, Canadian nationalism, or even something as crude as undisguised mammon. Neither can Yahweh, “the Lord”, be translated into the highest cultural achievement (however rich) or the profoundest environmentalism (however necessary). The name of God is spelled without vowels: it cannot be pronounced or translated. It admits of no rivals or approximations or substitutions. We are not to love God-in-General; we are not to love any vague deity. We are to love “the Lord” our God. He alone is creator; he fashioned a people to be a light to the nations; he spoke with Moses and seared upon him what the world will never be without; he arrested and infused prophets; and he, ultimately, became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. Yahweh alone is God and he cannot be co-opted by anyone or anything. Him we are to love.


I: — But why? Why should we love God? Because we are grateful. Surely our gratitude to him compels our love for him. He has made us and ever sustains us. This is reason enough. Yet this is not where the Hebrew mind begins. The Hebrew mind begins not with creation but with redemption: God has saved us. The Hebrew heart is always moved most profoundly in reflecting upon our rescue at God’s hand.

Think of the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are not an abstract moral code; neither do they enjoin conformity to a code. The Ten Commandments describe the shape, the pattern, the direction and the freedom of the life of that man or woman who knows that God has rescued her and is thereforeverlastingly grateful to God. The preface to the Ten Commandments is crucial: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt , out of the house of bondage”. Deliverance. This is what leaves us breathless. If we have stood, adoring, before the cross then we know we’ve been rescued from ultimate loss. Then of course our gratitude will render us eager to have our lives take on the shape, pattern, direction which our rescuer wills for us. We shall love God ardently inasmuch as our gratitude to him dissolves all hesitation or reservation.


(ii) Yet we love God for another reason: God’s love for us creates in us and elicits from us our answering love for him. I love my children (who are now adults.) I am overjoyed to find them loving me. I like to think that I could continue to love them even if they never loved me, even if they answered my love with arctic iciness. But how difficult it would be, because what a heartbreak. I want my love for them to create in them and elicit from them a love for me; their love for me would then magnify my love for them, and my magnified love for them would in turn swell their love for me as the spiral of love became more intense and more wonderful.

A minute ago I said I should like to think that I would continue loving my children even if they never returned my love, but I am not sure that I could; at least not sure that I could for ever. But God can, and God does. God’s love remains undiminished even though there are countless hearts which remain cold and stony. What such people have not yet grasped is this: they were made for love. They were made to love God. They would be most authentically human, most richly human, most nobly human, if only they surrendered their indifference or defiance. For then they would find that God’s great love had begun to create in them and elicit from them a love for God through which they became most truly themselves.

Obviously I am speaking here of human self-fulfilment. We have to be careful in speaking of self-fulfilment, since what passes for self-fulfilment in our era is, at bottom, selfish-fulfilment. When people complain that they are not fulfilled they usually mean that they can’t get what they want. Seminars which provide techniques for “self-fulfilment” give people the tools whereby they can finally get what they want. What’s more, since I am a fallen creature and therefore sin-riddled, fulfilment of my sinful self could only result in a monstrosity better left unimagined. (Secularites who prattle glibly about self-fulfilment never seem to grasp this point; never seem to understand that fulfilment of the depraved self results in intensified depravity.) At a much profounder level, however, to love God is the true fulfilment of my self, since to love God is to know the remedy for my sinful self.

The psalmist is correct when he writes, “My soul thirsts for God… my heart and flesh cry out for the living God”. To have our thirst and our outcry met is surely to be fulfilled, most profoundly fulfilled. It should not surprise us, then, that we are most profoundly ourselves when we most self-forgetfully love God. After all, we were made “in the image and likeness” of God, and God, John says so very pithily, God is love. We have been made by love for love.

The answer to the question, “Why ought we to love God?” the answer to this question has been rather long. But the length of the answer is nothing compared to the depth of the reality: we are to love God inasmuch as the God who is love has created us and has rescued us. In addition, he has fashioned us in such a way that we can become what we are created to be only by giving ourselves up to him and loving him with an ardour which reflects the ardour of his love for us. Paradoxically, it is as we love the God who is not an extension of ourselves that we most profoundly become ourselves.


II: — The next question can be answered more briefly. The next question is, “How ought we to love?” The answer is stated in our text: with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. Fancy preachers (or fanciful preachers) finesse the four words, “heart”, “soul”, “mind”, “strength” and develop a four-point sermon. The truth is, there aren’t four points here. There is only one. “Heart”, “soul”, “mind”, “strength” are virtual synonyms in Hebrew! Each word means the same as the others. When Jesus insists we are to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength he is increasing the intensity until we understand that we are to love God totally, with everything in us. We are to love God without hesitation, without reservation, without qualification, without calculation. Our love for God is to be whole-soulled, admitting no rivals.

To say that we are to love God with all that we have and are is not to say that we are to love nothing else and no one else. There is much else that we are to love: our neighbour, to say the least. We are to love children, parents (scripture insists that neglect of parents is heinous), spouse. We are to love much else, yet love nothing else pre-eminently. Our love for God must come first.

Since the commonest metaphor for faith, in scripture, is marriage, it is fitting that we discuss our love for God in terms of marriage. Everyone knows (or should know) that exclusivity is of the essence of marriage. Regardless of our society’s preoccupation with inclusivity, exclusivity remains of the essence of marriage. The relationship we have with our spouse we are to have with no other man or woman. My wife occupies a place in my heart and life which no one else can occupy. But this is not to say that others have no place in my heart and life. They do! It is just that the place which others occupy (and even occupy at my wife’s urging); the place which others occupy cannot encroach upon the place which she occupies.

The older marriage vows contained the line, “…and forsaking all others”. These words did not mean that the newly-married couple forsook absolutely everyone else, dismissing friends, relatives, needy human beings, henceforth to live in a shrivelled, miserable universe of two. “Forsaking all others” meant that they forsook having the kind of relationship with others which they now had with each other. Exclusivity is of the essence of marriage. Where this truth is doubted or denied, the marriage is destroyed.

If you understand this then you understand what prophet and apostle mean when they tell us that God is jealous. To say that God is jealous is not to say that God is insecure or suspicious, like the insecure and suspicious husband who rages if he sees his wife talking to another man at a social function. To say that God is jealous is simply to acknowledge that exclusivity is of the essence of our love for God.

Our Israelite foreparents in faith, always earthy in their expression of spiritual truth, used to say, ” Israel has gone a-whoring after false gods!” They meant that the Israelite people had given to other things the whole-soulled love which they owed God alone. In doing this they had violated their covenant-promise to God, had become unfaithful; and like anyone who “goes a-whoring” they had debased themselves.

If we become most profoundly ourselves through loving God, then we debase and denature ourselves through deflecting our first love from God to something else, anything else. For God is a jealous God, we are told again and again. God is not insecure or suspicious; he does insist, however, that he be acknowledged as God. If we refuse to acknowledge the exclusivity of our relationship with him, we destroy the relationship.


III: — With what result do we love God? What is the outcome of our love for God? One result we have already discussed at length: insofar as we answer with love the love that has made us and redeemed us we become most truly ourselves.

Another result is that we love our fellow-believers who, like us, aspire to love God without hesitation or reservation. In his first epistle John writes, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is a child of God; and everyone who loves the parent loves the child.” To be sure, we are to love the neighbour (the neighbour being, according to the parable of the Good Samaritan, any suffering human being). Nevertheless, we are especially to love fellow-believers, fellow-lovers of God.

In the year 1663 one of England ‘s finest puritan writers, Thomas Watson, wrote a little book called A Divine Cordial. It was meant to be a tonic for Christians who had become dispirited through savage persecution in Britain . In his brief book Watson lays down fourteen “tests of love to God”. One such test of love to God is love for fellow-Christians. A fellow-Christian, Watson says, “is like a fair face with a scar”. Then he adds, “You who cannot love another because of his infirmities, how would you have God love you?” I am emphasizing the matter of our loving fellow-Christians because I know that discouragement abounds in the Christian life, difficulties abound in church life, dispiritedness alights on us like the ‘flu, isolation blows its chill breath upon us, and before we know what has happened someone else has dropped away from the congregation. One test of our love to God, says Watson, is that we love those who love God.

Another result of our love to God is that we rejoice to see God’s name glorified and God’s truth exalted. One afternoon a parishioner came to see me and told me that she would do anything to help me in my work, anything she could do to free me for my work because, she said, what issues from this pulpit honours God. I trust it does. Of this much I am certain: through the work which she does, through the service which she renders, that woman herself honours God every bit as much. Myself, I rejoice to see and hear God glorified, the gospel commended, his truth enhanced, his love owned, his mercy confessed, his faithfulness welcomed, and his people cherished.

Another result of our love for God is that we, his people, are humbled. One day I overheard a conversation between a friend of mine and another woman. The second woman mentioned that she had been asked to do something, to render some service in the congregation, and then added that she regarded it beneath her. “I’m not that small”, she said in conclusion. My friend quietly replied, “What you really mean is, you aren’t that big; you aren’t big enough.” God’s love, poured upon us, never demeans us, never shrivels us. God’s love dignifies us and renders us big. So big, in fact, that no service to him and his people will ever be found too small. Our love for God humbles us without humiliating us. No service is beneath us. After all, we are only loving him whose love for us washed dirty feet and endured the contempt of the cross.

The final result of our love for God is this: our love for God will be consummated by what God has prepared for all who love him. Paul insists that what God has prepared for all who love him cannot be described, cannot even be imagined, so glorious is it. Our love for God will be crowned so gloriously as to leave us speechless yet forever adoring. Nonetheless, that love of his which he has already shed abroad in our heart is surely a clue to it. Then for the full splendour of what he has prepared for us we can wait confidently now, just because we have already tasted and enjoyed that love which has quickened ours.


Then we shall continue to love him. We know why we are to love him. We know how we are to love him. Do we know how much? Let Bernard of Clairvaux, a medieval thinker and hymnwriter, have the last word today: “The measure of our love to God is to love him without measure.”


                                                                                                          Victor Shepherd                                                                                                      

September 2004