Once you’ve pushed your way through the crowd, you see him. He’s calmly teaching, answering questions, conversing with inquirers and looking more, well, ordinary than you expected. He is, after all, the most extraordinary prophet Israel has ever seen, and the best claimant yet to the title Messiah. And yet, he is so fully human, that only the direction of the crowd’s gaze could have singled him out for you. You have this one rare opportunity to ask Jesus one question. He turns to face you. What are you going to ask him?
Some would waste their question, asking about some minor quibble of religion. Some would try to seem knowledgeable in asking something they already knew. Some would try to match wits with the spiritual genius that Jesus was. Only the refreshingly honest soul would ask what we would all like to know. When God the Son is among us as a man, what we really want to ask him is, “Lord, what is the priority of life? What is the central idea of life? If we are to summarise the Christian life in one sentence, what is it? What is the chief end of man?”
That’s what a scribe after my own heart once asked Jesus. He went for nothing less than the bullseye of meaning and purpose.
Then one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, perceiving that He had answered them well, asked Him, “Which is the first commandment of all?” (Mark 12:28 )
Thank you! There was a man who knew how not to waste an audience with the greatest Prophet Israel had ever seen. “Which is the first commandment of all?” means “what is the most important thing?” He was not asking which command comes first in sequence; he was asking which command comes first in importance. He wanted the picture on the puzzle box.
The Picture on the Puzzle Box
Have you ever tried to put together a puzzle, without the picture on the box? The bigger the puzzle, the more difficult that becomes. Trying to relate one piece to another, trying to match shapes and colours, without knowing what the big picture looks like, can be a very confusing and frustrating experience.
For many Christians, the Christian life feels much like that. They come to faith in Jesus Christ, and it soon feels as if someone has poured hundreds of individual pieces of the Christian life into their lap, without the complete picture of how they relate. They hear about worship, discipleship, obedience, becoming like Christ, church, baptism, evangelism, discernment, prayer, and hundreds of other Christian ideas or practices. They have entered into a faith containing a mountainous body of teaching, and it can seem very daunting to try to put this massive puzzle together.
A.W. Tozer said, “One trouble with us today is that we know too many things. The whole trend of the moment is toward the accumulation of a multitude of unrelated facts without a unifying philosophy to give them meaning.”1
Is there any way for us to understand the Christian life as a cohesive whole, so that we can then put the individual pieces together? In other words, is there any way we can see the picture on the box, so that we can relate the parts to the whole? Is there a unifying philosophy for the Christian life?
Fortunately for us, this inquisitive scribe asked Jesus something very close to these questions. His question was a request to describe the whole picture of the Christian life. He aimed high with his question, and he was not disappointed with the answer.
Jesus answered him, “The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. ‘And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. (Mark 12:29-30)
From the lips of the Creator comes an unambiguous answer: the supreme obligation is to love God. Whatever else it might be, a well-lived Christian life is a life mostly concerned with loving God. A life full of meaning, satisfaction and fulfilment is a life that fulfils its Creator’s intentions. “Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless, until they find their rest in Thee,” said Augustine in the fourth century.2
Christianity claims to answer the deepest questions of life. The answer that Christianity comes to is that human life lived apart from fulfilling its design – loving God – is a life that results in futility, restlessness, and despair. The book of Ecclesiastes is a journal of a man who tried education, sexual pleasure, music, feats of construction and design, political honour, worldwide renown, nearly limitless wealth, and philosophy to fill the void. His conclusion still haunts those who will not listen, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Life is as weightless, fleeting and empty as the wind if God is not the sun around which we orbit. Blaise Pascal was right in describing the human heart as an infinite abyss that “can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”3
A Case of Mistaken Identity
Unfortunately for us, the meaning of loving God has lately become confused. That’s because our idea of God has steadily moved to a sub-Christian one. Tozer put it this way:
For this reason the gravest question before the Church is always God Himself, and the most portentous fact about any man is not what he at a given time may say or do, but what he in his deep heart conceives God to be like. 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, just as her most significant message is what she says about Him or leaves unsaid, for her silence is often more eloquent than her speech. She can never escape the self-disclosure of her witness concerning God.
Were we able to extract from any man a complete answer to the question, “What comes into your mind when you think about God?” we might predict with certainty the spiritual future of that man. Were we able to know exactly what our most influential religious leaders think of God today, we might be able with some precision to foretell where the Church will stand tomorrow…It is my opinion that the Christian conception of God current in these middle years of the twentieth century is so decadent as to be utterly beneath the dignity of the Most High God and actually to constitute for professed believers something amounting to a moral calamity.”4
Judging by the songs, books, and sermons produced by professing Christians, God is everything from a romantic love-interest, to a sweet grandfather, to a non-judgmental therapist, to a grungy party buddy. Of course, God cannot be all these things. But since these distinctive visions of who God is are popular, we are faced with the problem of sorting through it all. What is God really like?
A wrong view of God will inevitably lead to a wrong kind of love for God. Not only is there disagreement on what God is like, there is also disagreement on what it means to love him. Several competing visions of how we ought to love God exist in the contemporary Christian world. What kind of love do you give to a God like ours? How do we love him in a way that pleases him? How do we know? Those are the questions we’ll try to answer in this series.
- “On Concentrated Vision”, The Early Tozer: A Word In Season (Camp Hill, PA: Wingspread Publishers), electronic edition, (Camp Hill: Zur Ltd. Database, 1987, Austin, TX: WORDsearch Corp., 2007 [↩]
- Confessions, Chapter 1, 1. (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library). [↩]
- Pensees, (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library), 65. [↩]
- The Knowledge of the Holy (Carlisle, UK: O.M Publishing, 1987), 11. [↩]