"Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?" 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.' This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets."
- Matthew 22:36-40
We tend to get away from it because of our religious habits and traditions, but the essential purpose of man in this world is to love God. Matthew 22:36-40 is, therefore, the answer to the questions, "Why am I here, or why was I born?" In this passage is found the summary of our total and final responsibility (to love God with every fiber of our being). This is why we are here and what our lives are really about.
Of course, the immediate problem with this is how do you love what is not seen? How do you manage to love something or someone who is invisible, who is not evident to the senses? Despite the best efforts of believers throughout the centuries it remains difficult to love the invisible God.
In response to this dilemma (physical beings commanded to love an invisible Being) we have tried to make church attendance the vehicle of our love for the unseen One. As edifying as attending worship services can be, it is sometimes hard to make the emotional connection between going to church and loving God. Compare the experience of loving your spouse or parents, child or special friend, to the experience of loving God. Why do these not feel the same? I believe it is because we have made the practice of public worship a substitute for our practice of loving God, and in doing so have lost any sense of love that our relationship with Him should produce.
In other words, we have made the activities that surround worship the main way that we express our love for the Almighty and the manner in which we perceive His love for us. Trying to express and feel love in this way is like the experience of love that residents feel in a nursing home. The care they receive may be motivated by a form of benevolent kindness, with people being properly cared for, but it's an institutional type of love, not the warm and personal kind that the human heart hungers after. Loving "church attendance", therefore, is not the same thing as loving God.
Birthday cards provide another example of this difference. Have you ever received a birthday greeting and inside the card you find only the sender's name, and just a first name at that? There is no, "I hope you have a great year" or, "I pray God's blessing on you," no check, no cash, or gift card, nothing but the first name. I mean, it's still your birthday and yes, they remembered, but somehow it seems a little dry as affection, doesn't it?
What I'm getting at here is that loving God and receiving His love ought to be an experience that motivates. It should be an occasion that has an impact of some kind on us or be something that changes us, as love normally does when we experience it with other people.
For the most part I see that much of the contact that Christians have with God in worship doesn't motivate, change, or bring pleasure to the faithful because in many cases they have turned an act of love into a habit of rituals and rules. It's very much like a married couple who are merely going through the motions. They do enough to keep up the facade of a happy couple but don't have any of the joy that love is supposed to bring into a marriage.
I believe the problem is that we have a one-sided relationship with God. In human terms this is where one person loves more than the other person, and if you have ever been in that kind of relationship you know that it does not work very well.
In our case, I think God loves us more than we love Him. Some who recognize this situation argue that the remedy for our lack of love and feeling is to change our style of worship (again supposing that worship service is the main delivery system for loving an invisible God). The idea is to generate more emotion (love?) while we worship, so congregations try singing louder, or add instruments and flashing lights, all in an attempt to experience something while worshipping God. This approach confuses "feeling something" with loving something or someone. Changes to our style of worship, forced abstinence from marriage or food, and other disciplines of the flesh cannot create a love for God in us because they are centered on ourselves and powered by a law-keeping mindset which, by the way, cannot not save us (Romans 3:20) so how can it ever produce love for anyone, especially God? The Law produces fear and condemnation, not love.
I'm not suggesting that public worship has no connection to loving God. To worship God reverently, biblically, and regularly demonstrates our faith, piety, and desire to demonstrate our love for God in a collective sense, not to mention the benefits of Christian fellowship, bible instruction, and opportunities for evangelism and edification present when we gather to worship. However, there are more effective and rewarding ways to become intimately acquainted with (love) the God that we cannot see. Here are some things we can do that can help in that pursuit:
1. Develop a Sense of His Presence
I love the gentleness that I see in our grandchildren. I love that about them. I feel something about that. Yet, I cannot touch that thing. I love the kindness and the generosity of my wife, but I don't have to see her in front of me to appreciate and love that about her. I love the stillness of an early morning, and yet do not actually see the stillness but it surrounds me nevertheless. My point here is that we can love things that we cannot see, but we cannot love things that are not actually there. In order to love the God we cannot see, therefore, we must learn to recognize the different signs that point to His actual presence.
For example, I know He is present because of the answered prayers in my life. Prayers I have specifically offered up which have been returned to me as blessings or understandings from the One I have appealed to but not seen. Not all prayers are answered immediately or in a positive way, but those that are reveal the One who listens and responds. The asking and the receiving point to a God who is there to hear and to give.
The Psalmist said, "He asked life of You, You gave it to him." (Psalms 21:4). This is another way of developing the sense of His presence: realize that spiritual insight is only possible because God is actually there. The reason that we are encouraged to read the Bible regularly is because it is in reading the Word of God that we gain insight, knowledge, and wisdom. However, God is the one who actually imparts these things, not just the words on a page.
but just as it is written,
"Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard,
And which have not entered the heart of man,
All that God has prepared for those who love Him."
For to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words.
- I Corinthians: 2:9-13
In this passage, Paul chastised the Corinthians for thinking that through human wisdom or cleverness they could know the things of God. He tells them that what they know of God, God has not only transmitted it to them through the written Word, but has actually enabled them to understand it through the power of the Holy Spirit dwelling within them (Acts 2:38). Believing in Jesus is a decision that I make for myself, but the revealing of Jesus is a work of God and a witness of His presence. Every time you exclaim, "I never saw that!" as you read and gain some spiritual insight from the Bible, you are not only grasping a new idea or an old one more fully, you are also becoming more aware of God's presence. It is impossible to love Him unless you are making an effort to know Him, and in the effort to know Him you begin to experience His presence.
Another way to sense His presence is through the comfort of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is God, and manifests Himself in many tangible ways that are unique to Himself because not every member of the Godhead manifests Himself to us in the same way. For example, the Father initiated the creation (Genesis 1:1) and we can perceive His power, wisdom, and sense of beauty in it. The Son is the Word made flesh and we have His presence recorded in a historical sense through the gospels. We see Him through the eyewitness records of the four gospel writers.
We perceive the Father through the things He has made, the Son through what He has done, and the Holy Spirit through the power of the Word and the ministry He carries out in our personal lives as well as the life of the church. Among other things, the Spirit provides strength to overcome sin (Romans 8:13). I see myself overcoming sin and in doing so I perceive the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life. I also aware of His nearness when I am comforted in times of sorrow (Acts 9:31) or trial, and strengthened when faced with great temptation.
The peace that we experience when we should be experiencing fear or other negative feelings dictated by human emotion, this peace that Paul talks about in Philippians 4:7, where do you think it comes from? When the Apostle says that you will experience a peace that surpasses understanding, what is he saying? He is explaining that this peace is not coming from you, it surpasses your understanding, and thus is coming from somewhere else. The Comforter brings this peace. He is the One that reaches inside to comfort and support you in times of trouble and sorrow.
Again, how do I see this invisible God? I see Him through the comfort that He gives me during times of trial or crisis in my in my faith. I see Him working in me, and recognizing Him there enables me to love Him more. Therefore, if we want to love God, the invisible One, we need to recognize the different signs of His invisible but yet undeniable presence.
Another way to love the invisible God:
2. Exercise Sincere Repentance
What kills love in any relationship is sin. Never mind your relationship with God, consider the relationship with your friend when he finds out that you lied to him. What does that do to your friendship? Cheat on your spouse and see what that does to your marriage. Imagine having a double standard with your children. You have told them all of their lives that such and such is wrong, immoral, and shouldn't be done, and at some point they discover that you yourself do this thing and have been doing it all along. What effect does that have on your relationship and moral authority with your children?
Sin destroys relationships at every level. Lying, adultery, violence, selfishness and pride, these and other sins are usually the root causes of marriage, as well as any other relationship, breakdown. The same rule works in our relationship with God, except that in this relationship the sin is always on our side, not on God's side. The sins that we commit not only separate us from God in a spiritual way, but do so in an emotional way as well.
Sin hardens the heart, rendering it unable to feel a desire to love God. When I sin, and sin repeatedly, I harden my heart to the point where I no longer want to love God (Hebrews 6:6). It is not that sin causes God to stop loving us. After all, the Bible says,
But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
In John chapter 3:16 John quotes Jesus saying, "God so loved the world." Note that Jesus doesn't say that God so loved the people in the world while they were doing everything properly. He says that God so loved the world in whatever condition the people in that world were in. The sad truth is that sin renders us incapable of returning God's love. The reason the response to the gospel message is to repent and be baptized (Acts 2:38) is that without repentance we cannot succeed in loving God. Even if our past is forgiven, the inability to love God will eventually drive us away from Him once again. For example:
- Judas, the Apostle of Jesus, never repented of his greed. He loved money more than he loved the Lord and as a result betrayed Him (Luke 22:1-6).
- Demas, the disciple of the Apostle Paul, did not repent of his worldliness and because of this abandoned Paul at a critical moment in his ministry (II Timothy 4:10).
Sin dries up the heart. It not only renders us incapable of loving the invisible God, but also limits us in loving the people in our lives that we can actually see. Repentance, on the other hand, is painful but it is always liberating. Sincere repentance moves us to open our eyes to see what our lives are like without God and helps us turn towards Him in love. Without repentance the only love that we actually feel is the allure and excitement of the world and the momentary pleasure of sin. Repentance is an exchange. We go from loving the world and the sins of the flesh, which are the tangible things of the unseen Satan, to loving purity, obedience, and righteousness which are the tangible things of the unseen God. In time, loving the things of God leads us to loving God Himself.
This is what God was doing with the Jews. He gave them the Law and temple worship (the things of God) as a way to eventually recognize Him (when Christ would come as a fulfillment of these things - Matthew 5:17-20). But, they never went beyond the things of God to God Himself because they approached Him through the pride of self-righteousness (i.e. we are doing the "things of God" perfectly) instead of the humble faith of a repentant sinner (i.e. the things of God have revealed that I am unworthy of the unseen God). As a result they did not recognize Him when He was actually among them. Instead of loving Him, they crucified Him.
Loving God first requires repentance because it is through repentance that one takes the proper vantage point before God where He comes into view. The Lord ultimately reveals Himself to the humble, and repentance is the act that opens the eyes and enables the penitent to begin loving the God that through the eyes of faith he now sees.
3. Love Others as Self
Yet another way to cultivate this love for God, and Jesus mentions this, is to love others as self (Matthew 22:36-39). Jesus provides a very practical way to express our love toward God. Felt love is unfulfilling if it is not expressed. Your love for your spouse or child propels you to do something, to make sacrifices on their behalf, not because you have to but because you want to, it can't be helped.
Discerning God's presence through answered prayer, spiritual insight, the lessening influence of sin in our lives, along with the comfort of the Holy Spirit heightens our desire to love Him. This desire to love moves us to do something, and Jesus says that loving others is the tangible way that we demonstrate our love for God.
The mistake that we make at times (which I mentioned previously) is that we devote all of that love and energy to public worship with people we know and love. Attending the assembly is necessary and edifying (Hebrews 10:25) in that we make a public witness of our faith and share the memory of the cross with other believers. This is our collective act of love, but doing only this, no matter how intensely or often, does not produce in us the satisfaction that comes from personally loving God Himself.
The amazing thing about loving others, that public worship is not designed to do, is that when we love others as a result of our love for God, they begin to feel God's love for themselves and this moves them to search for the invisible God as well. Loving others as a way of loving God is the most powerful form of evangelism because through our love, the ones we love catch a glimpse of the God who can save them, and this experience confirms the truth of our words concerning Christ.
I can write any number of books about what we need to do and what we ought to say as faithful Christians. These would be necessary in explaining the details of what the Bible says about Christian living and church growth. However, the power that should move us to actually do these things is not simply understanding or fear, guilt, or persuasion. Love for God and appreciation for His many blessings should be what motivates us to obey, serve, and return our love to Him.
God must have known that loving an invisible Being would be difficult for man, so He sent His Son in a visible form as a human being to demonstrate His unmistakable love for us by dying on the cross to remove the sins that separated us and rendered us incapable of loving Him. When we doubt His presence, when we are not sure that our prayers are heard, when loving the unseen becomes just too much for us, let our eyes rest on the cross of Jesus as a testimony, not only of God's presence but the presence of His love for us as well.