Every true Christian aspires to love God wholeheartedly and must wrestle with the question of how they are to do so. Some would have you falsely believe that love is an action – perhaps they would also like to say that salvation is a matter of works? For how can love be an action when it is a matter of the heart? Or how can a man be saved through his deeds while he hates God? If love is an action then people can love God through actions while wishing His destruction in their emotions – ridiculous. Neither faith nor love are actions, and thinking of them as such is to walk in to all sorts of folly. Before considering how one comes to grow in wholeheartedly loving God we must first discuss what love is, and what love is not.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works…” (Eph. 2:8-9). These famous verses show us that faith comes before works, just as James teaches us that faith that does not result in works is dead (Jam. 2:17). The change in the inner being of man that comes from God’s gift of faith makes it impossible that one could believe and not then act, as the prophet Ezekiel promises “I will put me Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezk. 36:27). Now, if the Lord promises that the Spirit will cause obedience then it is not the obedience that brings the Spirit. So, the Spirit and faith come as undeserved gifts and so outward actions are the result. This faith brings with it the emotion of love. Or will someone claim that a person can genuinely accept Christ as their savior while yet hating him as scum in the emotions of their heart?
Now, we know from experience that at differing times our emotions have varying strengths in our heart – while our heart is the stage, the spotlight only shines on a few of the players at a time. Or has your hurt from the betrayal of a friend never distracted you from your love for your mother? Your love for your mother does not decrease just because you are focused on the hurt. I do not want anyone to think that I am promoting the awareness of our emotions as being the same thing as our emotions. Have you never thought back on your actions and realized that you had an emotional disposition toward a person that influenced how you behaved? Did your unawareness of this emotional disposition mean that the emotion was not there? Do not our friends often know whom we are attracted to by our actions before even we are fully aware of it? So, emotions exist within us even while we are paying them no attention and so on the surface level of our consciousness they do not make an appearance.
Short sighted Bible interpreters, such as Rick Warren, would have you excuse your calloused and loveless heart: “If love were just an emotion, then God couldn’t command it [because we are not hardwired to change our emotions on command]. But love is something you do. It can produce emotion, but love is an action.” In saying that love is not “just an emotion” Rick is not giving us the sober biblical truth that the emotion necessarily results in an action, but rather our hardwiring means that love is an action, which can possibly produce emotion later on. I wonder, then, why God commanded any form of obedience at all? Since the sinner is not hardwired to obey God but rather rejects Him in everything (Rom. 1). God commands the sinner to repent, but the depraved will never repent but rather would die (Rev. 6.16). So, we see that God commands obedience from those who will never obey, repentance from those who will never repent, and faith from those who reject Him even when they look Him in the face. Our sinful corruption prevents us from turning to God unless we are given the gift of faith that results in us turning to God. Also, does not Jesus command perfection (Mat. 5:47)? Is it fair for Jesus to command you to be perfect? Jesus seems to think it is.
But, Rick is on to something when he points out that love is identified by actions. Certainly salvation is not achieved through obeying until faith emerges, but rather faith comes first and then obedience follows. So too with love – acting out 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 without emotionally caring for the person is not loving. Proverbs speaks well to warn us against accepting the outward appearance of love from a person who does not truly love: “Do not eat the bread of a man whose eye is evil, do not desire his delicacies, for he is like one who is inwardly calculating. ‘Eat and drink!’ he says to you, but his heart is not with you. You will vomit up the morsels hat you have eaten, and waste your pleasant words” (Prv. 23:7-8). Do these actions of generosity show love when they do not come from a heart that feels generosity? Certainly they do not! Love precedes actions! What else does Jesus mean to imply when he says “that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (John 17:23) and “you loved me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24)? Does Jesus not intend to imply that the Father loved the elect before the foundation of the world? And if so, how could this be if love is an action and not an emotion? Did the father not desire a bride for the Son? Did Jesus not go to the cross because of the joy that was set before him (Heb. 12:2), namely his eternal union with his bride? Before God did any actions in creating the world, God loved. What more needs to be said? If love preceded action in the Godhead then how can we make the misleading claim that love is an action?
Is it not true that mankind seeks to excuse their sin? So when failing to love others they twist the clear meaning of love in to its results: deeds. Satan, having failed to lead the elect astray from understanding that salvation is by faith alone, has turned to pervert love in to an emotionless action and excuse away the sinful callousness of unloving actions. Let us leave behind the wiles of Satan and move forward to the love of God that both precedes actions and results in actions.
We turn to the greatest commandments: (1) You shall love the Lord your God; (2) You shall love your neighbour. In looking at the order we see that loving our neighbour is of secondary importance; love for God is the highest calling in life. If mankind were without sin we would naturally know that loving God necessarily results in loving man who is made in the image of God. But due to the hardness of our hearts the Lord finds it necessary to spell out the obvious truth that we ought to love others. However, loving our neighbour is not done to the exclusion of the greatest commandment – it is done in response to the first commandment. Thus the command to love others is a fruit of loving God. So, the person who desires to love his neighbour ought to love his God. For who expects his garden to produce fruit when he has not planted any trees? The tree of loving God must be planted before the fruit of loving our neighbour can grow.
One might object that unbelievers love each other and Christians who do not agree with what I have said yet love each other. But, I propose to you that being made in the image of God means that the remnants of love still linger in the image of man and, through the twisting power of sin, chisels rocks in to the appearance of fruit – the love for self can produce the appearance of loving others, so long as the appearance of this love brings about the circumstances that the self desires. Or has the concept of karma left the world? Do not people still act ‘lovingly’ in order to receive the same in return? One of the few exceptions of the love in the world that is most closely resembles the love of God is the type that parents have toward their children. But even this is seen to be disappearing. Parents label their children as “not human yet” and kill them in the womb, murdering their offspring and comforting their consciences with lies. However, even this form of love found in parents who care for their children in self-sacrificial ways is impure in the unbeliever because the children become idols and of greater value than God Himself. Abraham showed us true love for God when he was prepared to offer his son as a burnt offering to the Lord, until an angel restrained him.
To love others as the Lord commands we must love the Lord wholly. So now we come to the intended topic at hand: how to grow in to loving God whole heartedly. Rick is right to say that love is not something we can just drum up on command. Love for God flows out of the faith that He provides as a gift. The gift of faith, while unattainable by human efforts, is able to be matured, strengthened, and fanned in to flame through the means of grace. Through reading the Word and obeying it we see that it speaks truly and so our faith is strengthened. Through living out what we read we grow in understanding through experience enlightening our minds as to the many applications that the Lord intended when He provided us with the scriptures. We learn more of God directly from the word, from ourselves (as we are made in the image of God), and from the world (which was made to display His glory and from which we gain the experiences that the scriptures presuppose us to have – did not the Bible expect you to know what fruit was, seeing as it used the word without defining it?). The more the believer learns of God the more the believer will grow in loving God and this will result in the actions that show our faith in God and love for God.
Love to others, in order to not be idolatrous, must flow out of our love for God. So the believer, in the abundance of love for his God, sees man made in the image of God and proceeds to joyfully pour out his God-centered love upon him. Seeing a man in need the believer, having all his needs met by God, proceeds to meet that mans needs, and so joyfully participates in the song of the universe: displaying the glory of God. Joyfully accepting that the Lord has planned all the events in our lives (Rom. 8:28) the believer is patient toward the individual who is being disrespectful, eager for the opportunity to show the same patience that God has shown and is showing. With many more examples I could demonstrate how faith results in love for God that results in non-idolatrous love to man, but I leave that adventure to the reader to live out. We only need be aware that love for God grows out of faith and faith grows by the power of the Spirit.
Do not be deceived, love is not an action. Love, like faith, precedes actions and produces actions. You will grow in wholehearted love for God as you grow in faith. If this is all new for you then I encourage you to skim over a post on the means of grace.