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Sermon XVI: The Great Commandment

MATT. xxii. 37, 32.

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment.

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Some say, when they hear this,--It is a hard saying. Who can bear it? Who can expect us to do as much as that? If we are asked to be respectable and sober, to live and let live, not to harm our neighbours wilfully or spitefully, and to come to church tolerably regularly--we understand being asked to do that--it is fair. But to love the Lord our God with all our hearts. That must be meant only for very great saints; for a few exceedingly devout people here and there. And devout people have been too apt to say,--You are right. It is we who are to love God with all our hearts and souls, and give up the world, and marriage, and all the joys of life, and turn priests, monks, and nuns, while you need only be tolerably respectable, and attend to your religious duties from time to time, while we will pray for you. But, my friends, if we read our Bibles, we cannot allow that. 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God,' was spoken not to monks and nuns (for there were none in those days), not to great saints only (for we read of none just then), not even to priests and clergymen only. It was said to all the Jews, high and low, free and slave, soldier and labourer, alike--'Thou, a man living in the world, and doing work in the world, with wife and family, farm and cattle, horse to ride, and weapon to wear--thou shalt love the Lord thy God.'

And therefore these words are said to you and me. We English are neither monks nor nuns, nor likely (thank God) to become so. We are in the world, with our own family ties and duties, our own worldly business. And to us, to you and me, as to those old Jews, the first and great commandment is, 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God.'

What, then, does it mean? Does it mean that we are to have the same love toward God as we have toward a wife or a husband?

Certainly not. But it means at least this--the love which we should bear toward a Father. All, my friends, turns on this. Do you look on God as your Father, or do you not? God is your Father, remember, already. You cannot (as some people seem to think) make Him your Father by believing that He is one; and you need not, thanks to His mercy. Neither can you make Him not your Father by forgetting Him. Be you wise or foolish, right or wrong, God is your Father in heaven; and you ought to feel towards Him as towards a father, not with any sentimental, fanciful, fanatical affection; but with a reverent, solemn, and rational affection; such as that which the good old Catechism bids us have, when it tells us our duty toward God.

'My duty towards God is to believe in Him, to fear Him, and to love Him with all my heart, with all my mind, with all my soul, and with all my strength; to worship Him, to give Him thanks, to put my whole trust in Him, to call upon Him, to honour His holy Name and His Word, and to serve Him truly all the days of my life.'

Now, I ask you--and what I ask you I ask myself,--Do we love the Lord our God thus? And if not, why not?

I do not ask you to tell me. I am not going to tell you what is in my heart; and I do not ask you to tell me what is in yours. We are free Englishmen, who keep ourselves to ourselves, and think for ourselves, each man in the depths of his own heart; and who are the stronger and the wiser for not talking about our feelings to any man, priest or layman.

But ask yourselves, each of you,--Do I love God? And if not, why not?

There are two reasons, I believe, which are, alas! very common. For one of them there are great excuses; for the other, there is no excuse whatsoever.

In the first place, too many find it difficult to love God, because they have not been taught that God is loveable, and worthy of their love. They have been taught dark and hard doctrines, which have made them afraid of God.

They have been taught--too many are taught still--not merely that God will punish the wicked, but that God will punish nine-tenths, or ninety-nine-hundredths of the human race. That He will send to endless torments not merely sinners who have rebelled against what they knew was right, and His command; who have stained themselves with crimes; who wilfully injured their fellow-creatures: but that He will do the same by little children, by innocent young girls, by honourable, respectable, moral men and women, because they are not what is called sensibly converted, or else what is called orthodox. They have been taught to look on God, not as a loving and merciful Father, but as a tyrant and a task-master, who watches to set down against them the slightest mishap or neglect; who is extreme to mark what is done amiss; who wills the death of a sinner. Often-- strangest notion of all--they have been told that, though God intends to punish them, they must still love Him, or they will be punished-- as if such a notion, so far from drawing them to God, could do anything but drive them from Him. And it is no wonder if persons who have been taught in their youth such notions concerning God, find it difficult to love Him. Who can be frightened or threatened into loving any being? How can we love any being who does not seem to us kind, merciful, amiable, loving? Our love must be called out by God's love. If we are to love God, it must be because He has first loved us.

But He has first loved us, my friends. The dark and cruel notions about God--which are too common, and have been too common in all ages--are not what the world about us teaches, nor what Scripture teaches us either.

Look out on the world around you. What witness does it bear concerning the God who made it? Who made the sunshine, and the flowers, and singing birds, and little children, and all that causes the joy of this life? Let Christ Himself speak, and His apostles. No one can say that their words are not true; that they were mistaken in their view of this earth, or of God who gave it to us that it might bear witness of Him. What said our Lord to the poor folk of Galilee, of whom the Scribes and the Pharisees, in their pride, said, 'This people, who knoweth not the law, is accursed.'--What said our Lord, very God of very God? He told them to look on the world around, and learn from it that they had in heaven not a tyrant, not a destroyer, but a Father; a Father in heaven who is perfect in this, that He causeth His sun to shine upon them, and is good to the unthankful and the evil.

What of Him did St. Paul say?--and that not to Christians, but to heathens--That God had not left Himself without a witness even to the heathen who knew Him not--and what sort of witness? The witness of His bounty and goodness. The simple, but perpetual witness of the yearly harvest--'In that He sends men rain and fruitful seasons, filling their hearts with food and gladness.'

This is St. Paul's witness. And what is St. James's? He tells men of a Father of lights, from whom comes down every good and perfect gift; who gives to all liberally, and upbraideth not, grudges not, stints not, but gives, and delights in giving,--the same God, in a word, of whom the old psalmists and prophets spoke, and said, 'Thou openest Thine hand, and fillest all things with good.'

And if natural religion tells us thus much, and bears witness of a Father who delights in the happiness of His creatures, what does revealed religion and the Gospel of Jesus Christ tell us?

Oh, my friends, dull indeed must be our hearts if we can feel no love for the God of whom the Gospel speaks! And perverse, indeed, must be our minds if we can twist the good news of Christ's salvation into the bad news of condemnation! What says St. Paul,--That God is against us? No. But--'If God be for us, who can be against us?

'Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God's elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for as.

'Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

'As it is written, For Thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.

'Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us.

'For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.'

What says St. John? Does he say that God the Father desires to punish or slay us; and that our Lord Jesus Christ, or the Virgin Mary, or the saints, or any other being, loves us better than God, and will deliver us out of the hands of God? God forbid! 'We have known and believed,' he says, 'the love that God hath to us. God is love, and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.'

My friends, if we could believe those blessed words--I do not say in all their fulness--we shall never do that, I believe, in this mortal life--but if we could only believe them a little, and know and believe even a little of the love that God has to us, then love to Him would spring up in our hearts, and we should feel for Him all that child ever felt for father. If we really believed that God who made heaven and earth was even now calling to each and every one of us, and beseeching us, by the sacrifice of His well-beloved Son, crucified for us, 'My son, give Me thy heart,' we could not help giving up our hearts to Him.

Provided--and there is that second reason why people do not love God, for which I said there was no excuse--provided only that we wish to be good, and to obey God. If we do not wish to do what God commands, we shall never love God. It must be so. There can be no real love of God which is not based upon a love of virtue and goodness, upon what our Lord calls a hunger and thirst after righteousness. 'If ye love Me, keep My commandments,' is our Lord's own rule and test. And it is the only one possible. If we habitually disobey any person, we shall cease to love that person. If a child is in the habit of disobeying its parents, dark and angry feelings towards those parents are sure to arise in its heart. The child tries to forget its parents, to keep out of their way. It tries to justify itself, to excuse itself by fancying that its parents are hard upon it, unjust, grudge it pleasure, or what not. If its parents' commandments are grievous to a child, it will try to make out that those commandments are unfair and unkind. And so shall we do by God's commandments. If God's commandments seem too grievous for us to obey, then we shall begin to fancy them unjust and unkind. And then, farewell to any real love to God. If we do not openly rebel against God, we shall still try to forget Him. The thought of God will seem dark, unpleasant, and forbidding to us; and we shall try, in our short- sighted folly, to live as far as we can without God in the world, and, like Adam after his fall, hide ourselves from the loving God, just because we know we have disobeyed Him.

But if, in spite of many bad habits, we desire to get rid of our bad habits; if, in spite of many faults, we still desire to be faultless and perfect; if, in spite of many weaknesses, we still desire to be strong; if, in one word, we still hunger and thirst after righteousness, and long to be good men; then, in due time, the love of God will be shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

For that will happen to us which happens to all those who have the pure, true, and heroical love. If we really love a person, we shall first desire to please them, and therefore the thought of disobeying and paining them will seem more and more grievous unto us.

But more. We shall soon rise a step higher. The more we love them, and the more we see in them, in their characters, things worthy to be loved, the more we shall desire to be like them, to copy those parts of their characters which most delight us; and we shall copy them: though insensibly, perhaps, and unawares.

For no one can look up for any length of time with love and respect towards a person better, wiser, greater than themselves, without becoming more or less like that person in character and in habit of thought and feeling; and so it will be with us towards God.

If we really long to be good, it will grow more and more easy to us to love God. The more pure our hearts are, the more pleasant the thought of God will be to us; even as it is said, 'Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,'--in this life as well as in the life to come. We shall not shrink from God, because we shall know that we are not wilfully offending Him.

But more. The more we think of God, the more we shall long to be like Him. How admirable in our eyes will seem His goodness, how admirable His purity, His justice, and His bounty, His long- suffering, His magnanimity and greatness of heart. For how great must be that heart of God, of which it is written, that 'He hateth nothing that He hath made, but His mercy is over all His works;' 'that He willeth that none should perish, but that all should be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth.' Although He be infinitely high and far off and we cannot attain to Him, yet we shall feel it our duty and our joy to copy Him, however faintly, and however humbly; and our highest hope will be that we may behold, as in a glass, the glory of the Lord, and be changed into His image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord; that so, whether in this world or in the world to come, we may at last be perfect, even as our Father in heaven is perfect, and, like Him, cause the sunlight of our love to slime upon the evil and on the good; the kindly showers of our good deeds to fall upon the just and on the unjust; and--like Him who sent His only begotten Son to save the world--be good to the unthankful and to the evil.

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Charles Kingsley