The Shema: A Call to Love
WORDS BY MEL HENNEGAN
The ability to love and be loved is a gracious gift from the hand of God. It is a gift enjoyed by the rich and poor, healthy and sick, the believer and the non-believer. As image-bearers we enjoy the truest expression of love when we emulate God’s love, because he is the Author of perfect love.
Due to our sinful tendencies, we fall short of God and his expression of love to us. I mean, way, way short! It’s almost embarrassing comparing Christ’s love to what we call “love” today. Don’t get me wrong—people fall in love. They have romantic experiences. They get married. But when the honeymoon phase wears off another type of love must kick in for it to be a “till death do us part” marriage. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis writes, “‘Being in love’ first moved them to promise fidelity: this quieter love enables them to keep the promise. It is on this love that the engine of marriage is run: being in love was the explosion that started it.”
God’s covenantal love perfectly embodies this supernatural love Lewis describes. First, God acts on his love for us when he redeems us from our bondage. Second, he then sustains his covenantal love with a much “quieter love” that loves us even when we are unlovely. Moses expresses this love that God has for us in song, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin” (Ex. 34:6–7).
But covenantal love is a two-way street. Each party must show faithfulness, love, and devotion to one another.
In other words, Jews and Christians are called to love God with the love with which he loves us. This call for God’s people to love him is described in Deuteronomy 6 (and later by Jesus in Matthew 22). This command is called the Shema (Sh'ma)—which is the first word of the command meaning to “listen up”—because of its supreme importance:
(Deuteronomy 6:4–9 Author’s Translation)
The main call is to love. And not just any type of love, but a covenantal love—a “Shema love” that begins with God and works its way into our daily lives. Deuteronomy 6:4–9 gives us the reason, the nature, and the extent of a Shema love for God.
The Reason for Shema Love
Why should we love God above all else? Because “Yahweh is God!” And not only is he God; he is the “one-and-only God” (Deut. 6:4).
Just like the Israelites, we are prone to follow after other gods. No, we may not have secret shrines of golden calves in our back closets, but we do idolize the gods of our culture—idols like comfy bank accounts, chic houses and clothing, or the picturesque family.
God desires that we love him above all else, because he is the only true God. Driving a nice car, having a beautiful house, and raising a good family are not necessarily bad things. But when we make them ends to themselves, we lose our first love—God. Pursuing other gods may be pleasurable for a season, but in the end it will always leave us empty. As Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6).
The Nature of Shema Love
What kind of love must we have for God? A holistic, unique, undivided love that involves our entire being. It is a love that loves God with every fiber in us—all our “heart, soul, and might” (Deut. 6:5). We are to love God supremely, because he is supreme.
The only thing that comes close to this unique love is the type of love a spouse has for her partner. They express a love for one another in unique and intimate ways that are only appropriate within the bounds of marriage. This is why when the nation of Israel worships idols, they are accused of having “whored after other gods” (Judg. 2:17).
Christ is worthy of our supreme love because he is the Supreme One. To love anything lesser is idolatry and spiritual adultery.
The Extent of Shema Love
How far should this command to love God reach? The answer: as far as possible!
The command to love God needs to extend deeply, both internally and externally. It must reach present and future generations. This is why we must “recite [these commandments] to our children,” and continually “talk about them when we’re at home, on the road, before we go to bed, and when we wake up in the morning” (Deut. 6:7). We should wear things that remind us of God’s words on our wrists and on our necks, and we should have reminders of them on the walls of our homes and the desktops of our workspaces (Deut. 6:8–9). We are called to plant God’s word internally in our hearts and have external reminders of his words surrounding us.
I can’t help but wonder: What would our homes, families, workplaces, relationships, neighborhoods, and churches look like if we took the Shema to heart? What if Christians repented of their practical idolatries and loved Christ supremely? What if, like the Shema commands, we put reminders of this commandment to love God on places we look most often—places like our phones, journals, blogs, and bedrooms. What if we put it on places where others will see and know?
May the ears of our hearts “listen up” and heed the call of Jesus to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37).