Can I Love God More than Anything? [Questions That Haunt]

This week’s question comes from frequent commenter AJG. He asks:

I’m a recovering evangelical who is probably somewhere on the spectrum between atheism and Christian Agnosticism these days. One of the things we were always taught in church was that we should love God more than anything or anyone else in our lives.

Now this always struck me as an impossibility because how does one go about loving something that one cannot see, hear, touch or interact with? It sounds more like loving an idea instead of loving a real person. What does it even mean to love an idea like God more than loving one’s spouse or children who are ever present in our own lives? My question boils down to the following: What does it mean to love God more than anyone else and is this even a possibility?

I’m on vacation, so the good news is that this question will be answered on Friday by Richard Beck, one of the kick-assingest  theobloggers and authors on the planet! But before that, let’s hear what you think!

  • http://www.facebook.com/jake.litteral Jake Litteral

    I’ve always wondered this myself. We can love people, we can love shoes, we can love songs, (etc.) in a much more tangible way because of their corporeality. They are easier to come by and are more tangible. But we can also love non-corporeal things, such as beauty, or justice. Maybe loving God can be in a way like loving beauty or justice. Although it’s not as clear how we can begin to do such a thing as loving God, because for beauty we can look at beautiful things immediately, and for justice we can look to places in the world where injustice occurs (and wishing it to be a state of affairs where it were put to Rights). We cannot immediately perceive things about God that would engender such a loving-relation. I guess you could look at an icon, or holy relics, or the image of the white bearded man on the cross. I honestly don’t know how to answer this question. For myself my relationship with God is a combination of seeing the whole of reality and it’s aggregate beauties, seeing human beings who are made in God’s image, desiring justice, wanting happiness and pleasure: and sort of taking all of those things and putting it into a mash–and pointing it outwards in hope that God is at the other end of all of them.

  • Pax

    This seems to suggest that loving God and others are somehow at odds with each other. They’re not. I’ve never heard anybody suggest otherwise, so I’m not really sure what people could mean if they say that. Since “love” is a notoriously overloaded word, there are kinds of love for which this works and kinds which it doesn’t. You wouldn’t have more (or any) erotic love for God like you would your spouse. But, you should adore and have reverence for God in a way that you shouldn’t for fantasy football.

    If someone is saying to love God more than anything, I think they simply mean that you should seek to be pious above having worldly goods. If God loves humans and wants the best for them, then loving God would entail loving what he loves, so this can’t be in opposition to loving other persons.

    • AJG

      My point is that most Christian doctrine indicates that a love of God should be paramount. Your love of God is first and foremost above your love of your spouse, for example. I’m well aware of the difference between Eros and Agape, but the question is not about the type of love but the measure of one’s love. You often hear this when people proclaim the love God, family and country in that order. I don’t understand what one means by this.

      Of course, in orthodox Christianity, one cannot love God without loving others, but can one love God MORE than others?

      Anyway, even Jesus draws a distinction between loving God and loving others in the two greatest commandments, and he gives precedence to the commandment to love God. Of course, he also says that unless a person hates his own family they are not worthy to follow him. Here, Jesus draws a hard line about how one MUST love God more than his own family. How does this play out in real life? Perhaps it was possible when Jesus was standing before his disciples as a man, but how can Christians today love Jesus more than their own family?

      I think Christians who say this don’t really mean it or haven’t even really thought about what it means. They just repeat the mantra because it’s what they’ve always been taught to say.

      • Jonnie

        Jesus is not ‘making’ a distinction, but dissolving one and connecting two previously distinct concepts…

        To the hating family passage– I would be careful to no derive abstract norms or a hierarchy of loves from Jesus’ statements here. Allegiance is no doubt in view, and relations that detract from the mission of God in the world–in the disciples case, deterring them from binding themselves to rabbi Jesus– are not to be put above commitment to discipleship. But we have to look at the whole of Jesus’ ministry to see WHAT that gospel is, and I think there is plenty of evidence to show that love of God is bound to loving and sacrificing for those around us. This should chasten any hierarchical or simplified or normative reading of a verse like Luke 14:26. The incarnation is the act wherein God in Christ, is in some sense ‘made diffuse’ to where we can literally say that we do unto God in Jesus when we do unto the least of these (Matt 25).

      • Pax

        I think I see what you mean, but I guess I don’t see the measurement problem as even making sense since the types are different – apples and oranges – maybe that’s the problem you’re having too.

        As far as the meaning of Luke 14:26, I have always understood this as a hyperbolic type of language (i.e. not suggesting that there is some kind of real measurement to be done) used to point out that some people in your family might not approve of your beliefs, but you should persist anyway.

      • Ric Shewell

        It seems like there needs to be a distinction between how one feels towards someone, and how faithful one is towards someone. For instance, I feel all sorts of good and love-y feelings towards my wife and my parents. But if there are instances when my parents and my wife are at odds with each other, I will most likely be more faithful to my wife than my parents. I love them both, but if they ask me to do different things, I’ll usually be more faithful to my wife.

  • http://287reuse.wordpress.com/ cwgmpls

    Yes, you can. In fact, it is impossible to love anything until you love God. Because God is inside of you, and you are incapable of loving anything until you love yourself.

    • Nick Gotts

      This is manifest drivel. I don’t love God, because (a) I don’t believe he exists and (b) If he did, he’d clearly be an utter shit, given both the account we have of his supposed actions in the Bible, and the amount of evil and suffering in the world. I do, however, love both myself, and my family and friends. I even do something to help other people in various practical ways such as regular charitable donations, although I’m not happy with claiming to love people I’ve never met or hardly know.

  • Jonnie

    I think the only way to make sense of loving God first/most/etc. is to look at the way Jesus binds the commandment to love God as the ‘greatest commandment (the shema) to the second commandment to love neighbor as yourself. Jesus is very intentionally included this second command as part and parcel with the first (Matt 22). To love God is bound to loving others and I think the relationship is also is reflexive in that truly loving and sacrificing for the other can connect us and make sense of loving God. They are bound together, not set in a hierarchical relationship. This same sentiment seems present in Jesus’ connecting service to himself with service of the ‘least of these’ in Matt 25.

    To love and serve these people IS to love and serve God. This is not a thin, moralizing relationship where we do right by God when we serve, but rather we love God in and through loving others, and loving God properly in turn necessarily connects to and produces love of the other, the radical other. Put crudely, the incarnation itself is the dissolution of any division between the two. I think the kind of confusion and relational emptiness in this question that haunts is born out in thinking of loving God in and of itself as an abstract isolable concept. Its not. To consider it in isolation is to confuse its very meaning. In this way, love of kin, stranger, and enemy IS, in some no trivial sense, love of God.

    • http://www.experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/ Richard

      Jonnie,
      I got my answer to Tony before his break started. But as you’ll read when my answer comes out, you and I see this very much the same way.

      • Jonnie

        Well I’m honored to be in such good company. Could have something to do with reading your blog often. :)

        • http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/ Richard

          Great minds. Mainly I was protecting myself. I worried that my answer would come out and you’d think, “That son of a bitch stole my answer!”

      • AJG

        Hi Richard. I understand that loving people is part of what it means to love God, but then why does Jesus seem to draw a distinction between loving him and loving one’s family in Luke 14:26 for example? Jesus seems to draw a line in the sand between what it means to love him and to love others and he seems to make it clear that your primary allegience must be to him. I suppose one could say that obeying God is equivalent to loving him and that if it comes down to a choice between obeying God and loving your family then obeying God takes precedence.

        • http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/ Richard

          Hi AJG,
          My take on the Luke 14.26 is that Jesus wasn’t talking about care for parents as much as he was interrupting–with the Kingdom of God–the patriarchal and matriarchal power relations in the family. That Jesus’s eye was on interrupting those power structures rather than making a comment about how we love Mom and Dad. For example, contrasting texts in this regard are Jesus’s teachings about corban (e.g., Mark 7.9-13), where the Pharisees were putting “love of God” over “love of parents.” Jesus rebukes that sort of thing strongly.

          Incidentally, I don’t know if it is possible to smooth the edges off all Jesus’s teachings. There’s lots of rough edges and tensions that are hard to reconcile. So what I offer above is just one why I try to make sense of it all.

    • Ric Shewell

      I want to split hairs a little with you. I don’t agree that it’s a complete dissolution between loving God and loving people. Otherwise, those who love others would be inadvertently loving God, whether they like it or not. I know that’s a great thought by many Christians, and is usually part of the interpretation of Matthew 25, but it is not a common understanding of “love,” that you can love something that you publicly denounce, hate, or disbelieve. Nick Gotts above should agree. He loves people, why should that mean he has to love God? If you ask him, I assume he would say that he does not love God.

      I don’t see the idea of unintentionally loving something or someone anywhere else except in Christian circles. And I think it’s an overstepping interpretive leap of Matthew 25.

      Rather than saying, “You cannot love people without loving God,” I would say “You cannot love God without loving people.” I think there is a succession. “Simon, son of John, do you love me? Feed my lambs.” “If you love me, then you will keep my commandments.” If you want to love God, then you must love what God loves, you must love people. Loving others is the commandment.

      Loving God and loving people are dovetailed together, but they are not identical. You must love others in loving God, but it doesn’t work the other way around.

      • Jonnie

        Hey Ric. A couple of things:

        First, I totally agree with your (and Nick’s) thoughts here. I do not mean to force the ‘non-believer’ into loving God. I should clarify that I mean the follower of Jesus, the disciple, has become apart of a tradition that dissolves the two, not that some abstract love of God is present in the loving non-believer whether they acknowledging it or not. I think you maybe imposing a meaning on me here that you’ve got from elsewhere. I wrote,” loving and sacrificing for the other can connect us and make sense of loving God.” And again, I mean for the disciple here. For them, the two are dissolved.

        Second, as for the ‘complete dissolution’ I mean to connote a disintegration of different things into a co-mingling/ a solution that can’t be separated out. What I want is to say more than necessarily connected, or loving neighbor makes loving God ‘real’ or true. Identity is a sticky word, and if I’m claiming identity, I think it is in the co-mingling sense where love of God is not something we do reflectively, but is actually happening in and through loving others. Matt 25 works in this regard as a description of what love of God is in discipleship under Jesus.

        Lastly, I’m not saying“You cannot love people without loving God.” I see where this can be trite and just wrong, especially if love is a ‘sentiment’ or conscious feeling. I merely mean to clarify the definition of love under disicpleship to Jesus as something that makes a unity between loving God and the other, a unity that disallows reflection or sentiment as the defining quality that makes love ‘love’ and replaces it with service of other, radical other.

        • Ric Shewell

          From my reading of your comments, serving another is serving God. I do have a problem with that “is”! Is it the same? Are they one? If that is the case, then we inadvertently mean “doing one is doing the other.” I know that I’m terribly reducing your argument, but I don’t see how you avoid saying something like “loving others and loving God is the same thing.” If it is the same thing, I don’t see why it ought to be different for believers and nonbelievers. I just think that these two actions cannot be congruent.

          I rather see it as an if/then situation. If you love God, then you will love others. These two actions are intrinsically connected, but distinct nonetheless.

          • Jonnie

            Ric, I appreciate your thoughts (alot), but I’m afraid we’re definitely on different wave lengths here.

            First, in my opinion, loving God is a praxis–a commitmed action–not a feeling that can apply to God inadvertently. Again, I don’t think it loving God can be understood in any isolable way, as loving some super-being etc. It’s the same thing for the disciple precisely because they’ve committed to ‘this’ God, ‘this’ way embodied in Jesus. So, yeah, its a reduction that looses the nuance to boil it down how you are. There’s not some “love” out there as a term we can all refer to as uniform and explicable in neutral terms. I see the rub you feel thinking in this way. I’m not thinking in those reduced and universal terms. I’m looking at the biblical witness and defining it internally in terms of what a Christian love looks like, and its not a feeling or a reflective experience…from what I can tell.

            Secondly, congruence is confusing in relation to your original identity puzzle. Congruence as exact replicated shape is wildly different than identity. Same shape/form/image is not same thing. I think we’re both saying more than congruence..

            For me the identity consists in this: Love is advocation for the needs, desires, cause of the other. God has bound himself to humanity (and creation as whole) to where service/ love of God is service/ love of that to which he has bound himself to. I see your necessary connection argument, but see no prior, pre-praxis, reflective state to point to as love of God that happens or consists prior to this participation. I see it conceptually, but not biblically or practically.

            • Ric Shewell

              I totally agree with your understanding of love as action. No problem there.

              You write, “God has bound himself to humanity (and creation as whole) to where service/ love of God is service/ love of that to which he has bound himself to.”

              I agree that in the Christ event God has bound himself to creation, but God remains distinct from creation.

              When you say “service of God is service of others or creation,” you are saying A = B. Therefore, you must also say B = A. But we all agree that B =/= A, so neither can A = B.

              It is why I think an if/then statement is better (and more biblical). If you love God, then you must love others. Then you avoid the reflective problem.

              However, another problem occurs: a distinction between loving God and loving others. And you cannot, or do not see a practical way of loving God “first” or apart from loving others.

              What would you call acts of piety or penitence? What about fasting? God calls for fasting in scripture. I don’t see how fasting is directly serving others, but I do see how it is serving God, especially if God calls for it.

              I think the biblical witness binds the two actions together, but there are serious distinctions. “If you love me, then…” “Do you love me more than these…” “Please God rather than humans…” etc.

              Thanks for the conversation! I know its a little nitpicky, but I think it is important.

              • Jonnie

                Good thoughts here Ric. Again, I would say I’m using IS loosely in the sense of co-mingling and to connote that the primary way in which we love (which is advocate for ones good, goals, desires, causes) is in loving an serving others. Consciously doing it aware of them (the beloved) is certainly a necessary component of love here. When we’ve done it to the least, we literally have done it to Christ, etc.

                Fasting is not an abstract act of piety. It’s preparation for ministry, invariably related to doing something for God’s mission in the world. I just don’t see isolable ‘relationship with God’ as a love concept in scripture, let alone as the primary or prior thing that obtains between me and God before love and service of other. As for your phrases, yes they are true, but we must as what is ‘pleasing God’ and ‘loving God’? Here, I think we are forced to the co-mingling idea of love of the other, so that works fine on my model.

  • Mike McKelvey

    Constantly fretting about whether or not you love God *enough* is one of the things that drives young evangelicals insane. Relax–don’t worry about it so much. My idiosyncratic take on this is that loving God more than anything else means that you should not do anything you know God would not want you to do just because some person you love wants or needs you to. Although we like to think of Love as pure and ennobling, the truth is people do bad things to benefit their loved ones all the time. That is the basic plot driver behind every mafia story from The Godfather to The Sopranos, and in the real world, nepotism is still the surest way to get a job.

    But, I think that if there is no conflict between loving God and loving your wife, parents, children, etc., then you don’t really need to worry about who you love the most.

  • Larry Barber

    How can one love God, whom he has not seen, when he does not love his brother, who he has seen?

    • http://gravatar.com/cwgmpls Curtis

      Amen. Combine this with “We love because God first loved us” and we are getting close.

  • Albert Padilla

    Great question! When I see and hug my children and now grandchildren the love i feel for them is beyond words. They are so full of life and wonder they came from God they are part of God. The love of God has been been poured into our hearts Giving us the capacity to love with the most amazing love in the universe! It doesn’t guaranty that we will only that we can if we chose too. We have been given the capacity to love God more then anything. But the human spirit is not a thing it is created in the image and likeness God it comes from God so it is part of God. So I chose to equally love God and all his wonderful works.

  • http://www.facebook.com/justin.hanvey Justin Hanvey

    1. Let’s posit that God exists.

    2. Let’s posit that existence deserves a reaction outside of our reactions to anything else.

    3. What should be that reaction?

    I think Richard, Jonnie, et al are really hitting it on the nail about loving others IS loving God. But I think we hit a pretty interesting point when we make others the only way we can love God.

    Let’s put it this way, I love my wife very much. I don’t love the things she loves and consider that me loving her. I love -her-. I love the way she laughs and smiles, the way she gets all girly about things, and when she dances ballet…etc.

    What about God, individually God, do we find loveable? Now I realize we’re just picking through verses in the bible, and interpreting God a certain way, and that we can’t be 100% certain we’re actually loving God Himself, but the least you can do is try right? If God exists, and we find in Tony’s earlier ignosticism post that God is pretty much an unfalsifiable Being, we should take what we know (uncertain as it is) and at least try to interact with it, to react to it and figure out the right reaction to it.

    What is the right reaction to the possible existence of God. That is one of the main questions I ask myself daily. And narrowing the scope to the biblical God is just one way of helping one figure out that reaction. Yes, Hinduism, etc. could be just as true, but I think it’s best for a human to narrow their focus. What I love about the biblical God is that more often than not He asks for that focus to -include- others. As Richard and Jonnie pointed out.

    But there are individual aspects of God I think worth exploring, worth loving.

    Now this doesn’t really answer the question of whether to love God more, but let me put it this way….

    I once had a “vision” (you can call it overactive imagination if you want and I won’t mind, what matters is what it showed), and I saw myself in a desert, with nothing, no one, I wasn’t healthy, I was destitute, without clothes, friendless and alone. There was no water or food to feed myself, and basically it was just me in a void. And I “heard” God ask, “Will you love Me even then?”

    I think that’s what it means, at least to me.

    • http://about.me/iamrobdavis Rob Davis

      What if love of ourselves is part of what it means to love God? So, if we’re entirely alone, we can still love God.

      • http://www.facebook.com/justin.hanvey Justin Hanvey

        so if you’re alone in a room with your wife, and nothing else, and you start hugging yourself, that means you’re loving her?

        God is an existing being. I think that deserves a reaction outside of anything else.

        She can love that you’re loving yourself, and thus making yourself a healthier happier human being capable of loving her, but you have to react to her existence too, you can’t just ignore it.

  • Jim Armstrong

    Not so sure that loving another is a meaningful thing without expression. The feeling of loving is something we ourselves experience. But until something in the way of expression happens, the other is untouched, …perhaps even unaware.

    In our human relations, those expressions somehow involve our senses, one way or another. And some say that among the most meaningful of such expressions are attention and respect.

    But this get’s trickier with the Transcendental one. Our traditions teach us a number of ways to approach this. And some of us also develop idiosyncratic ways of experiencing what is interpreted/understood to be communion with the divine. But at the end of the day, we cannot be certain – beyond belief – that the Creator God of this unimaginably vast universe (and who knows what else?) has much use at all for the man-labels and episodic man-rituals (and widely-varying traditions) per se. And aside from the persuasions of our traditions, we are pretty much guessing in what sensory way we might interact with God.

    All that to suggest that contrasting love in these completely(?) different domains may be an apples and lugnuts thing. But we might consider the “attention” and “respect” notions with some care. We can find ways to both pay attention to and act with respect toward the whole of Creation, and what it patiently says to us of the Creator, and in turn of the stewardship and husbandry that is increasingly evidently ours to deal with. Interestingly enough, if we get really thoughtful and intentional about that, that would seem to inherently pretty much take care of the love our brothers and sisters part as well. Such a perspective pretty much does away with (transcends?) either/or and more/less notions.

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