Before there was Enneagram or Myers-Briggs, there was Jesus.
When a stickler for rule-keeping asked him (prosaically) about the most important rule of all, Jesus’ answer went so far above and beyond that it could easily answer a dozen (better) questions.
- What is God looking for from humans?
- What is the key to eternal life?
- What is the key to abundant life?
- What, frankly, is the meaning of life?
- What are the most essential aspects of the human condition? (Emotional, spiritual, intellectual, physical, and social—heart, soul, mind, strength, and neighborhood.)
- Define worship.
- What percentage of a person’s life does God require?
- Where should we begin?
Here’s what Jesus actually said.
“Which commandment is the most important of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” —Mark 12:28-31
I find that the more I think about this rubric, the more I see a grid for understanding how I’m wired, how each of us uniquely connects with God. All of us, I think, have a sort of spiritual personality that inclines us in one direction or another. If we conduct a “strengths finder” inventory of our devotional life, we can see how it plays out. Some of us, for example, lean towards the cerebral; some of us are more action-oriented. For everyone, it starts with the heart.
You may be aware of Richard Foster’s work on spiritual formation. His organization, Renovaré, put together a gold mine of a book called Devotional Classics, a collection of excerpts from 2,000 years of Christian thinkers. It’s interesting how Foster divides these sojourners into what he calls six “streams” of spiritual formation:
- The Prayer-Filled Life
- The Virtuous Life
- The Spirit-Empowered Life
- The Compassionate Life
- The Word-Centered Life
- The Sacramental Life
With Foster’s categories in mind, I took another look at the Great Commandment and saw a lot of overlap. While Foster peels off the Spirit-fueled life as one way of knowing God, I’d argue that the Holy Spirit empowers every way to worship. All of our avenues to knowing God (heart and soul, mind and strength, loving neighbors) depend upon the power of our Counselor, Comforter, Keeper. Keeping Him always at the center, there are a lot of ways to worship. Where do we begin?
Worship, the prayer-centered life, a Godward orientation. This is the realm of heart and soul—longing, praising, singing. As I put it in Thirty Thousand Days,
Worship, boiled down, is love, quite different qualitatively from respect, or loyalty. Love usually begins with emotion but is sustained by choice, nurtured by tenderness and attention, and carefully guarded. But many, offering numb obedience, call it love, equating a tow-the-line mentality with devotion. It is true that God desires obedience (“to obey is better than sacrifice,” according to I Samuel 15:22), but also clear that he desires deeply our very hearts.
“Love me with all your heart” —Deuteronomy, Matthew, Mark, Luke
“Serve me with all your heart” —Deuteronomy, Joshua, I Samuel
“Trust me with all your heart” —Proverbs
“Seek me with all your heart” —Jeremiah
“Praise me with all your heart” —Psalms
“Follow me with all your heart” —I Kings
And finally, the right context for obedience, “Obey me with all your heart” —Deuteronomy, Psalms
Furthermore, we are instructed to have a heart that is soft toward God, yearns for God, pounds for God, is fully devoted, is stirred, steadfast, secure, and undivided. We are “above all else” to guard our hearts, to keep our hearts pure, to rend our hearts, to be glad and rejoice with all our hearts, and if we have strayed, to return to him with all our hearts, to treasure his word in our hearts, and to cultivate sincerity of heart.
An abundant life, then, is a life lit by love, a life lived fully from the heart.
Some of the writers who explore this intersection of heart and soul include Julian of Norwich, Frank Laubach, E.M. Bounds, and Brennan Manning—not necessarily a group known for their systematic theology, but for their amazing, emulate-able prayer lives.
When you live from the heart, it flows upward, to God, but it also flows outward, to neighbors. I think the natural overlap of loving God and others is compassion. Our love of God is humbling, awe-struck; we see God’s love of humanity and join Him. A meek understanding of ourselves in light of God’s mercy gives us empathy and makes us, like Christ, gracious. A couple writers who exemplify this compassionate life are John Perkins and Rich Mullins, people whose heart-love for both God and neighbor shines.
This vertical-horizontal life must be grounded in knowing God to be sustainable. After all, we cannot worship whom we do not know. As A.W. Tozer said,
What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.
The history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God. Worship is pure or base as the worshiper entertains high or low thoughts of God…
We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God. This is true not only of the individual Christian, but of the company of Christians that composes the Church. Always the most revealing thing about the Church is her idea of God.
The time we spend studying God is one of the greatest predictors of our spiritual vitality and Christlikeness. Whether we naturally tend to relish intellectual pursuits or not, we can’t afford to skimp on time with Him. Too many Christians, I think, neglect this path of loving God, and as a result, too many churches stall out, only ever an inch deep. But God is endlessly fascinating, infinitely surprising, and quite pleased to reveal Himself to seekers. (See Psalm 25.)
Knowing God requires studying Him, asking questions, seeking answers. We press into Him, never satisfied, and listen with rapt attention. It is an act of mental devotion and spiritual discipline, loving God with both our mind and our strength. Primarily, it is Bible study—daily, sustained attention on His Word.
If you need inspiration, dive into Tozer, J.I. Packer, J.P. Moreland, Jen Wilkin. Check out the Bible Project’s through-the-Bible-in-a-year plan, complete with fun videos explaining all 66 books of the Bible.
Loving God with all of our strength is active. The mental side of action is study, while neighbor-oriented action sends us out on mission. When we apply strength to neighbor love, we live set apart—holy—lives. We live purposefully—seeking justice, speaking truth, proclaiming the gospel. Knowing that “we are not our own, we are bought at a price” gives incentive to worship sacrificially, setting aside, as Hebrews puts it, “the sin that so easily entangles” and running “with perseverance the race marked out for us.” (Hebrews 12:1-3) It is the kind of radical, just life modeled by Martin Luther King, Jr. or poured out by any number of faithful missionaries, often at the expense of their lives.
Passionately pursuing God heart and soul, loving your neighbor with all of your strength, living self-disciplined lives—all of this can take a toll. When weariness sets in, the first to go is strength. Inevitably, our time with the Lord suffers, our love for neighbor dries up, and finally, we lose heart. What’s left?
When Michael and I hit our most weary moment in ministry, we were given the gift of rest, an extended sabbatical away from our hectic day to day business. Even in that precious time away, we were initially so tired that I found it hard to pray, hard to read. But God used that quiet season to restore my heart, through Sabbath, stillness, and contemplation. Instead of doing, I was allowed simply to be. Instead of studying, I was permitted to listen, and to see.
This last pathway to worship is perhaps the least intuitive in our ADHD culture: the quiet interplay between mind and soul. Some of my favorite teachers here include Eugene Peterson, Annie Dillard, and C.S. Lewis, people who took the necessary time to be still, and know that He is God (Psalm 46).
What happens when we still our hearts, look up? It leads us right back to worship, and refills our hearts.
Maybe you can easily identify which way of worship comes most naturally to you, and which areas are more of a struggle. What would it look like to learn to love God in new ways? The more we give God of ourselves, the more we are repaid (heaped up, pressed down, running over).
Who wouldn’t want more of Him?