“How do I love Thee? Let me count the ways:
I love Thee to the depth and breadth and height
my soul can reach….”
–From Sonnet 43
Elizabeth Barret Browning, nineteenth century English romantic poet, composed those lines to express her love for Robert, her husband. I believe her poem rose spontaneously from her heart. After all, we can’t command love from another.
Or can we?
Consider these commands that God told Moses to share with Israel: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6: 4, 5, niv)
Those words, beginning with the word “hear,” were the bedrock of ancient Judaism. The passage is often called The Shema, because the first word, “hear,” is the Hebrew word shema. The Israelites were reminded that Yahweh, their God, was the one and only legitimate God. There were no competitors, except in the imagination of surrounding cultures. I believe the Shema is still foundational truth for us today. Jesus Himself declared that the Shema was the first and the greatest commandment.
So what do we learn about God from the Shema? We discover that He is the one and only God, and that we are to love Him with all that we are and have. There is no need to debate the distinction between heart, soul and might. Those three words, welded together, are a way to emphatically describe everything that we are—our totality as a person. To love God with all that I am demands passion—foot to the metal passionate love with total and absolute voluntary submission. In the word all, I see whole-hearted service lived out with gut-busting energy because of our love for God.
My mind is drawn back to a breakfast scene on the shores of Galilee after Jesus’ resurrection and before His glorious ascension. I imagine Jesus handing Peter another grilled Tilapia and looking deeply into Peter eyes asking, “Peter, do you love me?”
Peter responds almost mechanically, “Yes, I love you.”
Three times the same script is repeated. Jesus is asking Peter to take inventory of his heart. “Do you really, really love me, Peter? With all your heart do you love me?”
It is easy for me to criticize Peter and assume his problem was half-hearted love and anemic loyalty. It is also painful, because that describes me more often than not. How many times, I wonder, would Jesus need to ask me before I “fessed” up about my shallow love for Him?
I know that I am not alone. In the May 15, 2019 Christianity Today blog by Mark Galli, I was shaken out my complacency. Galli, with over 50 years of significant Christian ministry confessed:
I do remember when I became aware of a personal crisis that gave me insight into the challenge we all face. I cannot remember the time and place, but I do remember my reaction.
It may have been as the result of hearing a sermon, or perhaps reading a book. But I distinctly remember thinking that my Christian life was sorely lacking in the love of God. I didn’t have any affection for or yearning to know and love God. I wasn’t angry with him. I didn’t doubt his existence. I wasn’t wrestling with the problem of evil. I was being a faithful Christian as best I knew how. But it occurred to me that I didn’t feel any love for God.
As for myself, I have preached, taught and studied my way through Scripture. I have visited the sick and comforted the grieving for 50 plus years. From time to time I have “met God on a mountain” and felt renewed passion and love for Him. But, far too often it been business as usual.
I believe life’s greatest challenge and privilege is to know and to enjoy God as He is.
Knowledge about God, however, doesn’t build bridges or transform lives. I hear in the crevices of my mind and sense in my heart a perceptive voice asking, “Syd, do you really love Me? With ALL your heart, soul and strength do you love me?”
I wonder, is Jesus also knocking on the doors of our churches asking to be treated as the special guest He is? Might He be saying, if we care to listen, “You have left your first love! Your love is lukewarm; I want passion. I want all you heart!”
Listen with me for just a moment….. I think He is saying that right now.