“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind” (Matthew 22:36-38)
What is it—the part that really matters? Can we distill the essence of Christian life to find the part that really matters? Jesus gives us the answer in the Gospel of Matthew. He said the most important thing in life, the quintessential ingredient that God requires, is to love Him with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind.
In fact, I think it no exaggeration to say that the chief end of man, the primary purpose for our existence, is to glorify God by loving Him forever. Love is the key to every other requirement of the Christian life. If we learn how to love God properly, love for others, the second most important command, will flow out of that love. Obedience to God and His Word will flow out of that love. Holiness of life will flow out of that love.
In our study, let’s first examine the meaning of the command to love God totally. Second, we will consider why there is so much confusion about the meaning of the term “love.” Lastly, we will examine each of the characteristics of a total love for God.
The Command to Love God Totally (Mat. 32:27)
Jesus says that the command to love God is the most important commandment in all Scripture. This immediately raises the question, “What does Jesus mean by the terms “heart, soul, and mind,” as Matthew gives it, or “heart, soul, mind, and strength,” as Luke 10:27 states?
To answer this, let’s make sure that we understand that neither Matthew nor Luke are giving verbatim quotes. They are giving us interpretive statements of what Jesus taught from Deuteronomy 6:5. Jesus stressed the fact that every part of one’s being must be committed totally to loving God.
Every part of one’s being must be committed totally to loving God.
The terms “heart, soul, mind, and strength” are not mutually exclusive, indeed they are overlapping categories. We are to love God with our total inner being (all our heart), with every one of our faculties (soul—includes our mind, will, and emotions), to the utmost extent of our capacity (with all our strength). This is the first and greatest of all God’s commands.
The second most important command is similar. We are to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mat. 22:39). Jesus said, “on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Mat. 22:40). As a door hangs on its hinges in order to operate properly, so the whole Old Testament hangs on these two commands.
Hence, if we learn how to keep them properly, we will also keep all of God’s other commands.
The Confusion About What it Means to Love God Totally
Most of us associate “love” with feelings of affection or emotion. We talk about loving lots of things: our favorite food, our pets, our job, our car, our house, our children. What we mean by “love” and how strongly we feel “love” for any particular thing or person is largely dependent upon our frame of mind at any given moment, so our “love” fluctuates greatly.
Additionally, when we talk about “loving” something, we are usually talking about a positive feeling. As a result, most people honestly believe they love the Lord. If you asked the typical professing Christian, “Do you love God will all your heart, soul, and mind?” he or she would probably say, “Yes.” However, most would likely feel a bit uncomfortable with their answer, because we also associate “love” with feelings of strong emotion.
Most Christians do not sustain a continual strong emotional feeling of “love” for God. Because of this, some would suggest that it is impossible to love God continually with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. An important premise, when interpreting God’s commands, is the premise that the Creator who knows our design will not command the impossible.
Therefore, His commands bring to us the needed grace and ability to obey. Our goal is to search the Scripture to find out what God means when He commands us to love Him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.
The Characteristics of Loving God Totally
John Wesley, in his sermon “On Love,” gives one of the best definitions of what it means to love God that I have found. In answer to the question, “What is it to love God?” he replies that it is “to delight in him, to rejoice in his will, to desire continually to please him, to seek and find our happiness in him, and to thirst day and night for a fuller enjoyment of him.”  The only modification I suggest is that love for God begins with a commitment. Let’s examine each of these characteristics of loving God totally.
Commitment is the first element of loving God totally
This is implied in Matt. 22:37-38 in the phrase “with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might.” This does not happen accidentally. It requires a conscious choice and the cultivation of that choice. An illustration of the need for such a commitment is given in Deuteronomy 13:1-4. God tells Israel He may test their love by allowing a false prophet to prophesy accurately some sign or wonder. The false prophet would then use his prophetic success to try to entice Israel to serve another God.
God warns, “You shall not hearken to the words of that prophet, or the dreamer of that dream, because the Lord your God tries you, to know whether you love your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut. 13:4). Israel’s commitment to love God would be demonstrated by their refusal to be led away from Him. When God commands us to love Him, He is commanding total commitment. There must be no rivals for our affection and no reservations in our commitment.
There must be no rivals for our affection and no reservations in our commitment.
Delight in the object of our love is the second element of loving God totally
Richard Baxter (who died in 1691) prayed, “May the Living God, who is the portion and rest of the saints, make these our carnal minds so spiritual, and our earthly hearts so heavenly, that loving him, and delighting in him, may be the work of our lives.”  Psalm 37:4 gives us the command, “Delight yourself in the Lord.” Proverbs 3:12 shows that loving a person involves delighting in him.
This passage likens God’s love for His people to a father’s delight in his son. “For whom the LORD loveth he correcteth; even as a father the son in whom he delighteth.” When we love God, we commit ourselves to delight in Him.
In addition to delighting in God as a Person, we can join with the Psalmist who says, “I will delight myself in Your commandments, which I love” (Psa. 119:47). We can also delight in God’s works. “Great are the works of the LORD; they are studied by all who delight in them” (Psa. 111:2).
Rejoicing to serve the object of our love is the third element of loving God totally
To love God totally means we rejoice in serving Him. This element of love relates to the servant-master aspect of our relationship with the Lord. Deuteronomy 11:13 says that to love God is “to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul.” Further, Psalm 100:2 tells us that we are to “serve the Lord with gladness.” God does not want reluctant service; He requires rejoicing service.
God does not want reluctant service; He requires rejoicing service.
Listen to the warning in Deuteronomy 28:47, 48; “Because you did not serve the LORD your God with joy and a glad heart, for the abundance of all things; therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the LORD shall send against you, in hunger, in thirst, in nakedness, and in the lack of all things; and He will put an iron yoke on your neck until He has destroyed you.”
When we love God totally we will be supremely pleased and satisfied with him as our portion and rejoice in our service to Him.
Desiring to please the object of our love is the fourth element of loving God totally
We know from human relationships that when you love people, you enjoy doing things that please them, that make them happy. The same is true in our relationship with God. Jesus said, “So that the world may know that I love the Father, I do exactly as the Father commanded Me” (John 14:31). John wrote, “whoso keeps his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in him” (1 John 2:5). Jesus said, “If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him” (John 14:23). When we love God totally we will desire to please God in everything we do. Paul speaks of making sure we do what is pleasing to the Lord (Eph. 5:10), and of walking in a manner that is worthy of the Lord, pleasing Him in everything (Col. 1:10).
Seeking our happiness in the object of our love is the fifth element of loving God totally
C. S. Lewis in his book, Reflections on the Psalms, says,
All enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise…The world rings with praise—lovers praising their sweethearts, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game…I think we delight to praise what we enjoy, because praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. 
Blaise Pascal wrote, “All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, all tend to this end…This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.”  To love God totally is to seek our happiness in Him.
To love God totally is to seek our happiness in Him.
“Blessed is every one that feareth the LORD; that walks in his ways. For thou shalt eat the labor of thine hands: happy shalt thou be, and it shall be well with thee” (Psa. 128:1). The Psalmist well understood that ultimate happiness comes from loving God. He wrote, “My soul shall be satisfied as with marrow and fatness, And my mouth shall praise You with joyful lips. When I remember You on my bed, I meditate on You in the night watches” (Psa. 63:5, 6).
Again, the Psalmist wrote, “How excellent is thy loving-kindness, O God! Therefore the children of men put their trust under the shadow of thy wings. They shall be abundantly satisfied with the fatness of thy house; and thou shalt make them drink of the river of thy pleasures” (Psa. 36:7-9).
Thirsting day and night for a fuller enjoyment of the object of our love is the sixth element in loving God totally.
Love doesn’t just find happiness in the loved one; love wants to enjoy that loved one more. It continually seeks for ways to increase its joy in the beloved. David expresses this kind of love when he wrote, “One thing I have asked from the LORD, that I shall seek: That I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, To behold the beauty of the LORD And to meditate in His temple” (Psa. 27:4).
Loving God totally expresses itself in a desire to enjoy God more. “As the deer pants for the water brooks so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Psa. 42:1). Again, the Psalmist wrote, “O God, thou art my God; early will I seek thee: my soul thirsts for thee, my flesh longs for thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is; To see thy power and thy glory, so as I have seen thee in the sanctuary. Because thy loving-kindness is better than life, my lips shall praise thee” (Psa. 63:1-3).
The most important thing in our busy schedules—indeed, the most important thing we will ever do in this life—is to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind, and with all our strength. Every part of our being must be committed totally to loving God. When may a person say that he or she loves God totally?
Adam Clarke wrote, “He loves God with all his heart, who loves nothing in comparison of him, and nothing but in reference to him; who is ready to give up, do, or suffer anything in order to please and glorify him; who has in his heart neither love nor hatred, hope nor fear, inclination, nor aversion, desire, nor delight, but as they relate to God, and are regulated by him.” 
To love God with our total inner being requires a commitment to delight in Him, to rejoice in serving Him, to desire continually to please Him, to seek our happiness in Him, and to thirst day and night for a fuller enjoyment of Him and Him alone. This is the first and greatest of all God’s commands. Let us commit ourselves to loving God totally.
Originally published in the Ministry Library of God’s Bible School & College.
- John Wesley, “On Love,” The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1987), Sermons IV, #149, p. 383.
- Quoted by John Piper, Desiring God (Multinomah, rev. ed., 1996), p. 11.
- C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1958), pp. 94-95.
- Quoted by John Piper, Desiring God, p. 16.
- Adam Clarke, “Matthew” in Clarke’s Commentary, Vol. 5 , p. 215.