Wednesday, September 7, 2016

To Love God

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied, “'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"Matthew 22:36-39 (NIV)

*Before I roll into things, I want you to make a list. Number it 1-5, and write down the most important things in your life. The things you love the most and dedicate yourself to wholeheartedly. It could be a person, or multiple people. It could be your education, your career, your religion, etc. Just five though. Keep this list for later.

            My birthday is coming up, and this year I decided I wanted to do nothing. I literally wanted to bum it in my pj’s, eat junk food, and watch Netflix all day. How sad, you may think, but this is how I saw it – I’ve done some pretty awesome stuff for my birthday, and I feel that 24 is a very insignificant age. 25 is an important age (quarter of a century). But there isn’t even a song about being 24. And of all the things I have done for all my birthdays, I’ve always wanted to spend at least one birthday doing absolutely nothing and with no one but myself.

            Apparently, though, that isn’t going to happen. Why? Because people love me too much. Nothing to complain about I guess. A bunch of my friends found out I was just going to watch Netflix all day, so they said they’d come join me. I didn’t invite them. I’m clearly not allowed to be alone for my birthday. I felt forced to plan something (‘cause it’d be super lame for everyone to come over and watch Netflix). Then, I reflected on how freaken loved I am by so many people. I am loved so much, and I feel it from everyone I care about. I’m also very convinced that out of my closest friends and relatives, I’m their favorite person. Whether this is true or not, I don’t care. It’s what I believe and that’s all that matters.

            Following my train of thought about being loved by everyone, I also reminded myself how much I love my friends and family. Last week, one of my three besties called me, and we ended up arguing about how downhill our friendship has gone. We’ve been friends since the fourth grade, and while in high school and early college, we used to be able to talk on the phone for hours. In the past few years, we hardly talk. Like ever. As he was ranting about our friendship woes, he still told me how much he loved me. He said that if I were across the world and needed him, he would hop on a plane and come. This is, of course, the reason he is one of my best friends.

            I know this is true of my three best friends. They would do anything for me and be there for me whenever I need them no matter how we feel towards each other at the moment. And I’d do the same for them. I’m a priority to them. I am loved by them. I am important to them. And they would sacrifice so much for me, just like I would for them.

            The love between me and those I care about is tangible. It can be shown in very real ways. What my reflection brought me to, interestingly, is that I can’t point to any tangible ways I love God. Further, I’ve never been sure I have loved God. Weird train of thought, I know, but it’s something I’ve thought for years. There is a real love between my friends and I. There is a love my family shows me and I show them. I feel it. I feel it whenever my sister hugs me, or offers to play a board game, because she knows I like them. I feel the love I have for my family whenever I try to make it to weekend events even though I have work. I have even felt God’s love for me, but I have never been sure I felt my love for Him.

            A lot of Christians I’ve encountered get their faith from their parents, who are usually also religious. My parents have never been religious. I’ve been a Christian by choice since I was about 9 or 10, because one of my uncles introduced Christianity to me. I didn’t grow up in church and I wasn’t taught a lot of things that other Christians are taught while growing up, such as loving God, going to church every Sunday, and praying to God whenever you need anything. I was taught these things while in high school and college, but by then, it was hard to let those lessons sink in.

            In college, I was taught that God should come first, but my parents have always taught me that family comes first. It’s been so hard to come to terms with these seemingly contradicting beliefs. My parents taught me a lot of good lessons, like being a good person, showing compassion to those less fortunate, and having a strong moral compass. I learned these things by listening and watching their example as I grew up, which is how Christians growing up learn how to be Christian. My parents taught me how to love people, but they never taught me how to love God. So, even though I’ve continually been told that I should love God, I’ve just never known how.

            I learned years ago, from my first boyfriend, that Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship between you and God. I didn’t understand this at first, but after a few years, I saw it this way: in relationships with people, you communicate, spend time together, do things for each other, and learn about each other. So, I figured, a relationship with God must be similar. You communicate in prayer, spend time with Him at Church and in daily activities, do service for Him, and read the Bible to learn more about Him.

            That’s as much as I’ve been able to grasp the relationship thing. I know I'm supposed to go to God first for anything, but it’s hard for me to understand that, because He’s not tangible to me like my friends and family are. My friends will sit beside me while I cry, and my family will go support me at things like a graduation, or reading my blog. When I'm struggling, I don't go to God first, but He's usually second, or somewhere down the line. My family and friends are the ones I instinctively go to first.

            It's easier going to a physical presence first, because it's someone you can listen to, hold, and touch. You know that person is there, because you see them right in front of you. Though God is not first on my list, I still go to Him eventually because He has shown His love for me. The most tangible way happened during my junior year of high school. I had lost a lot that year – I was allowed limited time with my mom, my dad lost his house and I had to move in with my two uncles, my boyfriend at the time broke up with me, and my cat died. On top of everything, I had become a leader of my color guard team, while two of my closest friends on the team had quit. I felt hated by half the team and bullied by the seniors. It was a very rough year.

            We had night practices every Thursday, during which I always had to find someone on the team to drive me home because I had no one to pick me up. Home was now with my two uncles, who though loved me very much, are the epitome of anti-affection and not showing emotion. During one Thursday night practice in February, a lot of things had gone wrong. It was just one of those practices where you can’t wait for it to be over. As my teammate drove me home, I just thought about how much I wanted to go to my mom, tell her about how awful practice was, and eat one of her home cooked meals. I thought about how she’d sit there and listen to everything I’d say, and then hug me, and how everything would feel better after that.

            Instead, my teammate dropped me off at my uncle’s house. It was nearly 10pm, and I knew that one of my uncles would be asleep, while the other would be creeping around doing something weird (he’s pretty eccentric). I walked to my front door and it hit me that there would be no one past that door who would listen about my bad practice, who would comfort me, tell me they love me, and make me feel better. No one would even care or notice how horrible I felt. I didn’t want to grab the door knob. I started crying before I walked inside. One uncle was asleep, as I knew he would be, and the other was on the computer watching Youtube videos. I forced the crying to stop, exchanged a small conversation with the uncle at the computer, then went to my room and bawled.

            It was one of those moments where I knew there was no one else I could talk to besides God. So, I prayed. I cried and I prayed to God, telling him that I knew I was loved. I knew my mom and dad loved me. I knew my uncles and the rest of my family loved me. I knew my friends loved me. I even know my ex-boyfriend still loved me, but I didn’t feel loved. There was no one who hugged me anymore, or not as often as I needed. I hardly heard anyone tell me they loved me. I didn’t feel loved.

            It was the only time I am sure I truly heard God speak to me. As I cried, He told me He loved me before my parents even knew I existed, He loves me now, and He will always love me. At that moment, I started crying out of happiness for how much love I felt wash over me. It was the most peace I had ever felt in my life, and that peace has been carried with me ever since. I felt God’s love.

            Even knowing and feeling that He loves me, it didn’t help me know and feel that I loved Him. Thankful to Him? Absolutely. But love Him? That’s still been hard for me to learn.

            In learning about what it means to love God, I came cross these very simplistic answers on “First, loving God requires knowing Him, and that knowledge begins with His Word. It may sound glib, but to know Him is to love Him.” So, we are to read the Bible if we love Him or want to.

            Additionally, “To love God is to worship and praise Him.” I’ve learned in college that worship and praise doesn’t have to only be at church. We can worship Him with our talents, such as creating art, or devoting to Him something we love doing. We can praise Him with songs, works of art, spreading His message, etc.

            “To love God is to desire Him, to yearn for His righteousness, His Word, and His grace.” We must desire to spend time in His word, at church, and trying to grow deeper in our faith. We must desire justice and mercy for ourselves and others.

            “… to love God is to obey Him.” Do what He commands. Follow His word, and spread the Gospel. Live a loving and compassionate life.

            “To love God is to put Him first.” Now, this is the one I have the most trouble with. I have yearned for God, am constantly learning about Him, and worship and praise Him, but I just have so much trouble putting Him first in my life. Even while showing my love for Him in other ways, I can’t say it was out of love, but more a sense of curiosity, desire, and obedience. Maybe that is a form of love, but I can’t be sure.

            I learned a long time ago that you can’t love God without loving people. If you don’t love people, then you don’t love God. How can you love Him without loving what He’s created? The way to love people, or in Christian terms “your neighbor,” is found in Leviticus 9:9-18. Be kind, generous, and giving to those less fortunate. Do not steal or lie to one another. Do not oppress others, put them down, or cause them to stumble in any way. Be truthful, fair, and reasonable to everyone, regardless of their status in life. Do not hate, take vengeance, or hold grudges against anyone. In other words, try to be as good a person as you can, who treats everyone with equal love and compassion. It’s not easy to follow all the time, or even most of the time, but it’s necessary to try.

            I am indebted to Nancy Missler for her two part article, “What Does It Mean to Love God?” She explains that God created us with two basic needs, “the need to be loved and the need to love.” I think most people constantly try to satisfy that first need and neglect the second. Whenever I have come across someone who desires to love others more than they desire to be loved, I have a lot of respect for them. She goes on to explain, “Our need "to love" can be fulfilled only by our learning to love God and others in the way that He desires.” Learning to love God and others is vital to our happiness and sense of purpose in life.

            She references Matthew 22:37, which says we are to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and says that this means we are to completely surrender ourselves to Him. In this verse, the Greek word for the verb love is agapao, which means, “to totally give ourselves over to it; to be totally consumed with it; or, to be totally committed to it.” In other words, it’s what we put first in our lives. Missler explains that agapao is different from Agape, “Agapao is… what we surrender our lives to, which can be good or bad. Whereas Agape is the supernatural, one-sided, other-centered, and unconditional Love of God.”

            She goes on to explain that loving God is not an emotional feeling, but instead, “To love God the way He desires us to love Him, means to totally give ourselves over to Him-to surrender, to relinquish and to abandon ourselves to Him, regardless of how we feel, what we think or what we desire.” She says that many Christians confuse storge love, which is “feeling love,” with agapao, which is “commitment love.” It is more important for us to be committed to God rather than to feel love for Him.

            I was relieved when I read her explanation of loving God, because it made a lot of sense to me and resonates with what I believe love is. Love is so much more than feeling. It’s deeper. Pastor Chip Ingram explains love very well on his website Living on the Edge: “... you know you’re in love when you’re willing to sacrifice for a person. You know you’re in love when you’re willing to endure hardship with a person. You know you’re in love when you’re willing to be sexually faithful to that one person. In other words, love is giving another person what they need the most when they deserve it the least at great personal cost. Love is a choice, a sacrifice, and a commitment.”

            When this definition is applied to loving God, it means that we are willing to sacrifice our happiness, desires, and goals in order to choose to be committed to God. We sacrifice what we want for what God asks of us. Missler adds, “To love God literally means to lose self.” It makes sense, because it’s the same when way we deeply love other people. We lose ourselves in them. Their needs, their wants, and their happiness become more important than our own.

            Remember that list I asked you to make at the beginning of this? Here’s mine:
1. My family
2. My friends
3. God
4. writing
5. my education/career

            God is important to me, but only after people I love. I want to serve Him, but I want other things more. For Christians, God is supposed to be the first thing on that list. It actually reminds me of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, particularly Inferno. In Dante’s version of Hell, people were placed in the different nine circles depending on their sins. Obviously, we sin more than one type, so they were placed in the sin that was lord over their life – the thing they put first before all else. For some, it was money (greed), for others it was violence, gluttony, anger, vengeance, betrayal, lust, etc. It’s the thing they chose before choosing God. That’s why, in Purgatorio and Paradiso, there were people who had sinned (obviously everyone does), but they had always still kept God first in their lives, trying to follow Him and do what He commands.

            What gives me some sense of comfort is that at least my top two things are about loving people. I love my friends and family and don’t know what I would do without any of them. I’m still hesitant to say I love God, but I know I’d be lost without Him, too. I’m even more comforted to know that even if I don’t feel love for Him, it’s more important that I’m committed to Him and willing to sacrifice my desires for His wants. I appreciate Missler’s last thoughts on the topic, which will also be my last message to you, “The Bible, therefore, can really be summed up in three little words: Learn to love.


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