How I’ve Been Reading the Greatest Commandment in the Bible Wrong

When I was 19, a friend helped me see that I had been reading the Bible incorrectly. I had been going through it trying to find the right way to live my life with inspirational quotes and good tattoo material. I learned of the importance of Jesus Christ– how all of the Bible hinges on his life and teachings. This new outlook revolutionized my life and led me down the path I am on today, pursuing pastoral ministry.

Now at 25, I’ve had another (slightly less dramatic) revelation– I’ve been reading the Great Commandment wrong.

For those who might not be aware of what that is, here’s the passage it appears in:

34 But when the Pharisees heard that [Jesus] had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Until recently, when I read those verses I would walk away thinking that the most important thing for a Christian to do is to do good deeds for God and by doing so, love him. I had subtly replaced love in the verse with serve so that it read, “You shall serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” However, it doesn’t say that, nor do I think it means that.

What the verse actually says is that the Christian needs to love God. Love is not an action, but an emotion or an attitude towards someone. For sure, love produces acts of kindness and care for other people, but it isn’t an action in itself. This distinction makes a world of difference.

Gifts and Taxes

I’m writing this post in January which means tax season is right around the corner. Rarely does anyone enjoy paying taxes. Taking from one’s own wealth and giving it to the government to be used at someone else’s discretion is not exactly a thrilling experience. My money for an agency’s benefit does not give me warm fuzzies inside. But I can tell you what does give me that feeling: handing out presents on Christmas. Giving gifts during the holidays brings a joy that can’t be found by filling out an IT-40. That’s because my gift is going to someone I care about and not some anonymous government agent.

This is the difference that I discovered between the two ways to look at the Great Commandment. When I look at the verse from my previous perspective, replacing the word “love” with “serve”, I pay my taxes to God– giving him his due as cosmic governor of all. The problem with this is that it is really hard to develop a solid relationship with your IRS agent.

Thankfully, this is not how Jesus describes the Great Commandment. Instead he commands his followers to develop an affection for God. Full Stop. His most important command isn’t to give him your money, or abstain from bad things, or go to church. No, the most important thing is to develop strong feelings of love for God.

Now before I lead anyone down a path of rampant debauchery, I want to clarify something. Jesus is not throwing all other commandments out the window. He is simply saying that the most important rule is to have love for God. All other laws flow out of that.

This may not seem like it makes any variation in how one should go about the Christian life. You might question, “If you still have to follow all the other commandments, what difference does it make how you feel towards God?” I would say that it transforms the life of a Christian in two fundamental ways: 1) How you look at the commandments and 2) What you spend your time on.

How You Look at the Commandments

As we’ve already seen, the difference between serving God and loving him can be compared to paying taxes and giving gifts. When we look at the command to love God with all of our being, our acts of service come from a place of joyful obedience, meaning we do things for God to give him the gift of our efforts.

When I pay my taxes, I expect to be compensated for my dues. I trust that I’ll get good roads, thriving public education, and national security and my satisfaction with my government usually hinges on the effective use of my money. When I give a gift, however, I expect nothing in return. I’m giving that gift because I already have something that no material item can equal, a loving relationship with another person.

Christians, our lives will continually be spent paying taxes to God until we can learn to love him and see our service as a gift to him, which bring me to my next point.

What You Spend Your Time on

When we consider developing a genuine, intimate love for God as the primary goal of the Christian life, what we do in our free time changes.

Do you know the best way to get the IRS off your back? Pay them. Seriously, if you pay your taxes and do all that they ask of you, you’ll get radio silence. So often it’s the same with God. It’s easy to treat God like this, doing enough good deeds to appease him so that he’ll leave you alone to do whatever else you want to do. Our obedience only goes as far as our conscience needs in order to be quieted so we might return to living our lives.

With love for God as our supreme goal, our free time instead becomes consumed with building love for God. We will do whatever it takes to make our hearts leap inside us, finding God good, beautiful, lovely, and pleasing. And in response to this love we will demonstrate our gratitude for God with acts of love and service to him and those around us.

But all this begs the question, how does one develop this strong love for God?

Answer: by looking at him in Jesus.

In Jesus, we see the one human being who actually lived out the Great Commandment perfectly. We also see, in Jesus, God himself coming down to make amends on our behalf for all the ways in which we love other things more than God.

This is what sin is, loving anything more than the rightful object of our devotion, our Creator God. When we value romance, power, or image above God, it is a cosmic affront to him who created us for recipients and reflectors of his love.

Jesus came not only to direct our love to God, but to demonstrate what love God has directed toward us! The length at which he went to make a way for us to know his love is unbelievable. The pain he went through on the cross to illustrate his infinite love is mind-boggling. And by looking deeply into that, our affection will grow for him.

An old hymn goes like this,

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.

When we look to Jesus and his amazing love for us, we see love itself. That will motivate us to feel love towards God more than anything else. Who else has given so much for you? What else embodies glorious love as he does?

Look to Jesus and find God lovely.

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