First Things First

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hile speaking at a minister’s conference, a pastor asked me, “How can we measure spirituality?”

He said that in his tradition, people measured spirituality by how demonstrative and emotional they acted in a worship service. He wanted to teach his congregation what true spirituality is. I gave him Jesus’ answer, saying spirituality means two things: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37, 39).*

The rest of Scripture agrees that these two commands sum up true spirituality. It is measured by our relationships with God and others, plain and simple.

First and Greatest

Jesus said the commandment to love the Lord your God is the “first and greatest commandment” (Matt. 22:38). What did He mean by “first” since it was not the first commandment God gave in the Old Testament?

God told Adam not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. so that was the first commandment. Jesus means loving God is first in priority; it is the most important commandment. To love the Lord our God is the most important principle of life and our highest priority. This is the principle that puts us on the right path. Miss this one and we will miss everything else.

If you don’t get a spirituality of love, you will end up with a spirituality of law. God loves you with an amazing love. “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). That is not some slogan people created to put on a billboard or wear on a T-shirt. No, that was Jesus’ summation of who God is and how deeply God cares about us. God so loved.

The command to love the Lord is the natural response we have to God when we discover that He loves us. We don’t obey the command because we are trying to earn His love but because He loves us. The Scripture says, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Love is the first and most important principle of life and defines what it means to “be spiritual.”

When I say, “I’m spiritual, not religious,” it means the driving force of my life and the motivation of my actions is my love for God and my love for others because He first loved me so much that He gave His only Son for my salvation.

Spirituality is not something you do on Sunday or on the Sabbath day. It is not some habitual prayers or a Bible study you do at a set time each day where you work God into your schedule. That is how religious people think. That makes about as much sense as me saying, “I’ll work my wife into my schedule.” I can tell you that wouldn’t go over very well with her. I married her because I love her and wanted to be with her. I talk to her all the time; she’s my life, not an appointment I put on my schedule. But that is how some people think about God, and that is the trap of religion.

You don’t schedule spirituality any more than you schedule love. A relationship is constant. I have always avoided the phrase “devotional time” with God and chose, instead, to be devoted to Jesus. My time with Jesus is 24/7. He is always with me. As David said, “The Lord . . . [is] at my right hand, I will not be shaken” (Ps. 16:8).

Traveling Together

Jesus goes on to say the second commandment is like the first: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39). That’s from Leviticus 19:18. He connects these two great commandments as one. You cannot detach these two. They travel together, moving in tandem. Being spiritual means loving God because He loves us so much, and then we share that love with others.

The apostle Paul learned this lesson the hard way. He was a Pharisee, a man who thought of spirituality as keeping the Law—following the rules and keeping the customs of his religion. Yet, he writes, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another” (Rom. 13:8). The Bible says we can have debts only if we can pay them. Then, in the same verse, Paul says, “Whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.” That is amazing—if you truly love your neighbor, you have fulfilled the law of God.

All the Ten Commandments are summed up in this one rule: “‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (vv. 9-10).

The next time someone says you’ve got to love but you also have to keep all these other rules they give you, don’t! If we truly love God, then we won’t violate His commandments—do not covet, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness against your neighbor, and so on.

The minister who asked me about how to measure spirituality was dealing with this same issue. He said his congregation gauged the work of God by how exuberant people were in their worship service. Then he asked, “Are there any other ways to measure spirituality?” I am not sure that how people act in a public worship service is a measure of anything at all. But there are some real ways of measuring spirituality—having a true relationship with God as opposed to just acting in religious ways or practicing religious traditions.

Love is the first and most important principle of life and defines what it means to “be spiritual.”

True spirituality is a personal relationship with God. Jesus summed up all the commandments of God in two: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart . . . soul . . . and strength,” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” Then He added, “There is no commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:30-31). The rabbis identified 613 commandments in the Old Testament—265 positive and 348 negative—yet Jesus said, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matt. 22:40).

The Priority of Love

Loving God with all my heart and loving you as I love myself is the simplest and purest way to be spiritual, not religious. Mother Theresa said it well in “Garment of Love”:

Love has a hem to her garment

   that reaches the very dust.

It sweeps the streets and lanes,

   and because it can, it must.

A seminary student stayed up all night studying for his final exam. His grades were not very good in this particular course, so he really needed to do well on this exam. As he ran across the campus and started up the stairs, he passed a beggar sitting on the stairs outside the building. As he reached the top of stairs, he thought about the beggar. Should I go back and help him or go take the exam? he asked himself.

If he helped the beggar he would miss the exam and fail the course. But how could he pass the man by? He decided to help the man. Going back down the stairs, he talked with the man and took him to breakfast. He spent the morning getting him help and returned to the dorm. He knew he had failed the course. When he returned for the final class, the professor prepared to distribute the graded exams. Before doing so, he said to the class, “Only one student made an A on this exam.” And he called out this student.

The student said, “How did I make an A? I didn’t even take the exam.”

The teacher replied, “I planted the beggar by the stairs to see if you really learned what I have taught you about ministry. The beggar was the exam.”

David C. Cooper is lead pastor of the Mount Paran Church of God in Atlanta. Excerpted from his book I’m Spiritual, Not Religious (Pathway Press).

*All Scripture verses are from the New International Version.