Many people think that loving God with deep devotion is not merely the greatest commandment, it is the only commandment. I think they are wrong—whether they actually advocate this idea or merely operate on the basis of it—and I’ll try to make my case against that notion today.
Those who advocate loving God exclusively and completely immediately run into a problem. The only way they can show the depth and breadth and height of their love is by comparing what they are willing to do to prove their devotion to God against lesser levels of devotion. “I’ll do anything to show that I love God” becomes their de facto motto; and quite frankly, when that premise takes over, bad things happen.
In Old Testament times, the depth of Israel’s devotion to God was tested against devotees of a god called Molech (probably derived from the Hebrew word melek, “king”). To show their superior devotion to their god, these people sacrificed their offspring to Molech as a votive offering. The child was given to Molech as a human sacrifice, and this sacrifice was offered in pre-Israelite times in the Valley of Hinnon immediately adjacent to Jerusalem. Though this abomination was condemned in Leviticus (18:21; 20:1-5), its enticement was evident in the time of Ahaz (who made his son “pass through fire,” 2 Kings 16:3), Hoshea (under whose reign sons and daughters were made to “pass through fire,” 2 Kings 17:6-17), and even Solomon (who in his old age built a high place for the worship of Molech, 1 Kings 11:1-7). These practices were thoroughly condemned by the true prophets, but the argument still swayed people’s understanding of devotion to God. If you truly love God, you will withhold nothing—even your own child—in demonstrating your superior love. Bad things easily happen when devotion to God is the supreme commandment.
We face a similar challenge today in radical Islam, where suicide bombers demonstrate their superior love for and devotion to Allah by giving their lives in sacrifice to their god. When the issue becomes, “How far are you willing to go to show your complete love and full devotion to God,” you begin to see how a sole commandment to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength can have disastrous results.
Jesus, of course, balanced the love of God with love of neighbor; and we may not have thought as deeply as we should about why that balance is necessary. Any rationale for doing bad things in defense of God, to advance God’s cause, to show our devotion to God, or to destroy the heathen enemies fails to maintain that balance. Whenever we act in God’s name in ways that denies a love of neighbor—or enemy or even evil incarnate—we fail in keeping the Great Commandment. First John recognized this essential connection between loving God and loving neighbor: “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20). And “Who is my brother?” finds the same answer as the question, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). The answer is not found in the object of our love or our devotion, it is found in the one who shows mercy (Luke 10:37) and the one who shows love.