The Greatest Commandment

36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Matthew 22:36-40 (ESV via biblegateway.com)
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This is a familiar Bible passage, and one that Jesus quotes from the ancient writings (in Deuteronomy and Leviticus). All the laws and regulations of history boiled down to two commands. And they are not what one might expect. The greatest commandment isn’t to believe; it isn’t a “shalt not”; it isn’t even to “obey.” Instead, the greatest commandment is to LOVE– love God wholly and without reserve, and love your neighbor “as yourself.”

It sounds so simple, but we don’t do it. In fact, we spend countless hours and waste energy trying to make the commandments MORE complicated and adding conditions, additions, interpretations, excuses, and critiques.

There is not enough time or space to list all the ways we try to avoid the greatest commandment, but here are a few I struggle with:

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  • My heart–I love the Lord, but I don’t always love Him with my whole heart. I love His creation; I love His promises; I love the “idea” of God. But I also love my comfort zone; I love my own moods (especially happiness and self-esteem); I love the admiration of my peers; I love God, but…I don’t always pray to God the way I would talk to my best friend. I don’t seek Him out ahead of everyone else. I don’t always seek His correction or welcome His Lordship.
  • My soul–Most of us would claim that we are “spiritual” on some level. But many of us (including me) don’t do a very good job of tending to our souls. We assume that behaviors and habits and a list of beliefs are “enough.” We spend very little time in prayer, worship, and Bible study (compared to the time we spend on chores, sleep, entertainment, driving around, daydreaming, etc.). I’m not suggesting that we all need to go into a cloister (especially in light of the second great commandment to love our neighbor). But souls, like bodies and minds, need to be nourished, exercised, and cared for. Very few of us make it a priority to nourish our soul-connection with God–to Love Him with all our soul. We skim over this part of the commandment, assuming it is much the same as loving Him with all our heart or all our mind.
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  • My mind– My mind wanders– a lot! And I spend a lot of time learning “about God,” instead of learning “from God.” I want to know what God is like– to be able to explain Him or comprehend Him. But God is bigger than my ability to “know” or even to imagine. And yet, He invites me to “know” Him, not just know about Him. In fact, He invites me to “follow” Him, to be His disciple, to model my character and my thoughts after His own.
  • My neighbor–I want to love humanity. I want to love “everybody”– from a comfortable distance! But God calls me to love my neighbor– that person who cuts in front of me at the grocery store, or revs their car engine outside my bedroom window at 3 in the morning, or laughs at me when I’m having a bad hair day. And not just “love” them in the sense of tolerating them– God wants me to love them “as myself.” To value them, reach out to them when I might rather avoid them, or seek peace when they are “pushing my buttons.” God wants me to offer them grace and forgiveness, when I might expect to demand justice or recognition.
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  • “As Myself”–Sometimes, I don’t love myself. Sometimes, I idolize myself. Other times, I despise myself. And the attitude I have rubs off on to others. God doesn’t call me to idolize my neighbor; to lie to my neighbor about Sin and its consequences, or to let my neighbor’s wicked behavior go unchallenged. Just as God wants to call me to repentance, He wants me to lovingly reach out to my neighbor, not enable her/him to live a lie. But if I am living a lie–not dealing with my own sin– I cannot demand from my neighbor what I am not willing to give to God. Similarly, I can’t give honest love to my neighbor when I despise myself– God created us both and loves us with an everlasting love! How can I give love I am not willing to receive?
  • My understanding of “commandment.” God has the authority to command my attention, my obedience, my worship, and my loyalty. But my “love?” God has given us the CHOICE to Love Him, and to Love others– He also gives us the imperative to live our lives filled with Love. It is not God’s will that we Love out of coercion, robot-like and against our own free will. Rather, God commands us to submit our will to Love in every situation. We are slaves to Sin, powerless to love perfectly–even when we try, or think we are doing well, we will fall into faulty thinking, ungoverned emotions, and uninformed, unloving reactions. We WILL break this greatest commandment, just as we will break other, lesser commandments. But God has also promised to listen to our confession and forgive us, redeeming our soul, cleansing our heart, and renewing our mind as we follow Him. God does not command us to Love perfectly in our own power. He does command us to choose Love–first and foremost for Him, and then for those around us whom He loves. In so doing, we will grow to understand the power of God’s commands as we experience the power of His Love!
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The Intimate, Unknowable, God

Prayer is an exercise in juxtaposition–we seek to have intimate conversation with a mysterious and unknowable God. He INVITES us into this mystery. He pursues us, seeks us out, surrounds us with His Presence, yet He hides His face from us and shrouds Himself in light and cloud.

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God is Spirit– He is Eternal, Omnipresent, and Invisible. Yet He chooses to reveal Himself– in the beauty of Nature, in the smile of a stranger, in His revealed Word, and through His Son. Everything we need, we can find in and through Him, yet we cannot say that we comprehend Him, because He is so far above and beyond anything we can imagine.

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Prayer is a humbling experience– to approach the Throne of the One who holds the Universe in the palm of His hand; but it is also an intimate and very personal experience– to run into the arms of the One who knit us together and knows the very hairs on our head (or lack thereof!).

After a lifetime of praying and pursuing prayer, I still marvel at the complexity, majesty, mystery, and fragility of prayer. That God should desire to listen to me–whimpering, questioning, confessing, and even offering my best and inadequate praise– it astounds me. And yet it also sustains me, strengthens me, and stimulates me. This same God who holds the stars and planets inhabits the tiniest of atoms in the air I breathe. The same God who ordered the first sunrise, and has watched empires rise and fall, cares when I shed a tear and rejoices when I laugh. God who is perfect, has mercy on me when I confess my pettiness and offers forgiveness when I throw tantrums. The same God who bore the pain and agony of betrayal and crucifixion promises eternal life to those who have rejected Him– if only they will listen, turn, and follow Him.

Today, let the awe of Who God IS– both sovereign, unknowable, and mysterious, AND intimate, loving, and gracious–wash over you as you enter into prayer.

Processed Prayer

I love to cook. I love looking at new recipes, and finding new ways to use fresh ingredient, use up that last bit of leftovers, or stretch staple foods like beans, flour, or rice. And I love to pray. I love being able to lift up praises, requests, and even questions. I love knowing that I can confess even my most shameful thoughts or deeds to a God who already knows, loves me more than I can imagine, and stands eager to forgive me and strengthen me to make wiser choices.

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Cooking can be exciting, challenging, and creative. But it doesn’t have to be. I don’t have to cook at all in our culture. I can (at some expense) dine out every day, and let someone else do all the work. Or, I can buy pre-made meals, “processed” foods and “instant” mixes– “just add water,” “cooks in 6 minutes,” “ready to eat.” I can pray “processed” prayers, too. I can recite prayers of others, mumble graces by rote, and even read off a list of requests with little or no effort or emotion.

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But processed prayer isn’t healthy– no more than processed food. Oh, it won’t seem much different– at first. And it isn’t “bad”–every once in a while. But a steady diet of praying someone else’s words and thoughts doesn’t build a personal relationship. We miss out on the “process” of praying, and the end result is not as fresh and healthful.

When I cook from scratch, I have to follow a process:

  • I need to make sure I have the proper ingredients.
  • Some ingredients need to be seeded, skinned, peeled, chopped, or otherwise readied before they can be used.
  • Ingredients need to be added in the proper order.
  • Measurements are important. 1 teaspoon of salt is not the same as 1/2 cup of salt!
  • I need to use the proper methods– simmer, boil, chill, bake, etc.
  • Timing is crucial, too. Cookies may take 10 minutes to bake– a roast may take 3 hours.
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Praying “from scratch” also follows a process:

  • I have to have the right heart attitude.
  • Distractions need to be put aside.
  • I want to include all the “ingredients” of a deep prayer– Adoration and Praise; Acknowledging God’s Sovereignty and Power; Confession and Repentance; Thankfulness; Presenting my requests; Lifting up the needs of others; and Committing to Listen and Obey God.
  • Timing is important–I need to make time to visit with God in Prayer. It shouldn’t be an afterthought or another activity to squeeze in IF I have a chance!
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That doesn’t mean that we can’t (or shouldn’t) pray “in the moment” or recite The Lord’s Prayer, or the Prayer of St. Francis, or another written prayer. It doesn’t mean that we should make all our prayers from a “recipe” or a formula. But if our prayer “diet” is becoming dependent on “processed” prayers, we may need to go back to the kitchen!

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Thank You For “Wee” Things…

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For the sound of my husband breathing
For the tick of the clock on the wall
For daffodils peeping through the sleepy earth
For the robins’ cheerful call

For the scent of frying bacon
For wrinkles and gray hair
For dishes in the drainer
For memories to share

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I thank You for the “wee” things
And I thank You for the “WE” things
I thank You for the fleeting things
And for the “barely see them” things

For times of laughter; times of tears
For times of loneliness and fears
For so many times throughout the years
You’ve proved Yourself “The God Who Hears”

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For bedtime stories and toddler sighs
For strangers met on planes and trains
For warm “hellos” and teary “good byes”
For Easter eggs and candy canes

For rainbows, sunsets, and gentle waves
For snowflakes and fragile butterflies
For echoes in mountains, and woods, and caves
For hands to hold and twinkling eyes

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Thank You, Lord for loving me
For Hope and Faith and Peace
Thank You for Salvation Free
Your promises to believe.

“I Never Knew You”

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ Matthew 7:21-23 (NIV)

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In my life I have met “important”people– people with money, or power, or fame, (or all three!) And I have met “forgotten” people, “ordinary” people, “special” people, flamboyant people, even repugnant people.

I know hundreds of people’s names; recognize their faces; carry memories of laughter created, or goals accomplished, or griefs shared. As I get older, I sometimes meet up with people I should remember or know, but I can’t place their name, or their face has changed out of recognition since we last met. And of course, the same thing sometimes happens in reverse– I expect to be recognized, but the other person has no memory of me. It can be distressing; this feeling of not remembering or not being acknowledged.

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I know many families who have journeyed through Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. Loving someone who no longer remembers looking into your eyes, no longer reacts to the tone of your voice, no longer knows your intimate secrets…who searches your face and sees only a stranger. Hoping for even a glimmer of recognition; a moment of memory–it’s heart-breaking and harrowing and exhausting.

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But imagine hearing those words from your creator– “I never knew you.” In all your life, never having made time to create memories with the God who formed you in the womb, who counts the very hairs of your head; hearing HIM say, “I never knew you. I made you; I was as close as your next breath through every moment of your life. I heard every laugh; I saw every tear– yet I never KNEW you. You never let me in; you never reached out or looked in my direction. You pretended to others that you knew me. You ‘name-dropped.’ You told others that we were friends. That you spoke with me every day. I heard you. I wept. But I never knew you. And you never knew me. Oh, you learned about me. You knew enough to convince some others that you knew me. You even said elaborate prayers and quoted many of my words. You put on a good show. But you lived your life as though you never met me; as though I were no more than a myth or a shadow. And now, now that you see me for who I AM; now that your eternal life depends on it–you have to hear the most frightening words I will ever speak: ‘I never knew you.'”

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10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.
Philippians 3:10-12

Of all the people I have met; of all the people I know– Lord Jesus, let me recognize Your voice above all. Let me cherish your presence in every moment of my life, and in every relationship. Grant me grace and wisdom to follow you and live in joyful obedience. And let me invite others into your presence. Let me know you and be known by you. Let me be eternally yours as you are mine.

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Jesus Calls Us

I was at worship yesterday. We sang some wonderful hymns and songs of worship. Still, I miss some of the “old” hymns we used to sing in the small country church of my youth. This was one of them:

In case the video does not show up, here are the words:
Jesus calls us: o’er the tumult of our life’s wild, restless sea,
Day by day His sweet voice soundeth, saying, “Christian, follow Me.”
Jesus calls us from the worship of the vain world’s golden store,
From each idol that would keep us, saying, “Christian, love Me more.”
In our joys and in our sorrows, days of toil and hours of ease,
Still He calls, in cares and pleasures, “Christian, love Me more than these.”
Jesus calls us: by Thy mercies, Saviour, may we hear Thy call,
Give our hearts to Thine obedience, serve and love Thee best of all. Amen.

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Prayer is never just a one-way communication. We may not “hear” from God in an audible voice, but He calls us into communion with Him daily. He wants to hear from us; He wants to speak to us–through His word, through our experiences, through friends and neighbors and even chance encounters. We may not have a deep spiritual burden to bring before the throne of grace– does that keep us from needing to share a quiet moment with the lover of our soul?

Suppose the only time you ever spoke to your spouse was when you desperately needed her/his help? What would that say about your relationship? The same holds with our spiritual walk. God wants to speak to us; to have us notice the beauty of the sunrise, or the grace of moonlight in the mist. He wants to bring us hope and comfort in the stories and psalms of scripture. He wants us to share our nagging worries and our minor triumphs– not because He doesn’t know or cannot see–because He wants to share in our struggles and our joys, our deep grieving and our small amusements.

He wants all of this because of His great love for each of us. If we could just see His eyes light up with love when we walk into a room…and if we could hear the love in His voice– we would be undone. Someday, we will be– undone, and remade, and able to catch His eye without shattering in the light of that love.

But for now– He is calling…

Jacob Meets– His Maker

It is fascinating to study the life of Jacob. His story is rich with contradiction and confrontation. But it is also a magnificent story of God’s grace, protection, and redemption.

We’ve spent a lot of time discussing Jacob’s relationship with Laban, his uncle/father-in-law, and a man who made Jacob’s lies and duplicity look like child’s play. (See https://pursuingprayer.blog/2019/07/01/jacob-meets-his-match-part-one/ and https://pursuingprayer.blog/2019/07/03/jacob-meets-his-match-part-two/ ). While Jacob learned a lot from this stormy relationship, God was not finished putting Jacob to the test. As Jacob moved his family away from Laban, bringing them to their new home in Canaan, he encountered his estranged brother, Esau. (See https://pursuingprayer.blog/2019/06/28/jacob-the-brother-of-esau/). But, just before the encounter, Jacob encountered someone else. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+32%3A22-32&version=ESV He wrestled all night with “a man”, and he refused to let go until he received a blessing. “The man” touched his hip joint, so it was wrenched out of its socket, and gave him a new name, Israel. When Jacob asked the man’s name, he returned with a strange question: “Why do you ask my name?” He never answered Jacob’s question, but he didn’t need to. Jacob acknowledges that he wrestled with God– he met him, spoke to him, and grappled with him face-to-face– and his life was not only spared, but blessed!

I love this story of Jacob, and it gives me a great deal of hope for many reasons:

  • Jacob got a new name. This is significant throughout the entire Bible. Whenever someone gets a new name, it indicates that he/she has a new nature, a new future, a new relationship with God. Jacob was named for all the worst of his character attributes– he literally came out of the womb grabbing his brother’s heel, and his name means “heel-grabber” and “cheat”. But his new name, Israel, turns all of that on its head–Jacob “grabbed” hold of God and would not let go! He “struggled” with God, and God promised to be with him in all his struggles; to protect him, to bless him, to be on his side. When we come to Christ in faith, we may not get a new name, but we get a new nature, and a new relationship with God. Christ promises to be our advocate– he will struggle with us, uphold us, strengthen us, and bless us–all we need to do is grab hold of the grace that is offered!
  • God met with Jacob where he was– literally and figuratively. Sometimes, we meet someone who “struggles”– with every thing and everyone. Jacob had contentious relationships with nearly everyone in his life. He was accused, abused, cheated, hated, passed over, fought over, lied to, and aggravated. God didn’t come to him in glory and splendor– he came and wrestled with Jacob–down and dirty, gritty and unannounced. And when Jacob hung on and kept fighting, God let him. He even “cheated” by putting his hip socket out of joint to end the match. God could have showed up and overwhelmed Jacob with his glorious presence. He could have visited him as he did Abraham–stopping by for a meal and a visit. He could even have appeared in another dream. But he knew Jacob from the inside-out– he knew Jacob’s character and temperament; he knew Jacob’s fears and deepest needs. He grappled with a grappler, twisting and turning in sweaty combat. And when it was over, Jacob KNEW his God. He knew that God would not let go– would not send him away, would not let him sneak away in the middle of the night, would not destroy him. Instead, this God would hold him, struggle WITH him, and bless him afterward. I think we often forget that God is not just Holy and Awesome; he is not just a God who loves in a vague and universal way. God is very personal and intimate. He will engage with our doubts, our fears, our high-spirited, strong-willed natures, and he will embrace us with all the fierceness of death–even death on a cross.
  • God’s timing doesn’t always make sense, but it is always perfect. Jacob was leaving horrible situation, on the eve of a difficult confrontation with his brother, and, ultimately, on a difficult journey to reconciliation with his father. God didn’t need to give Jacob a pep talk, or a list of do’s and don’t’s. He gave him a new name and a new blessing to replace the past hurts and inspire Jacob to build a new life. Jacob was able to face his brother and father with renewed confidence that God would see him through.
  • Finally, it is in this story that God literally becomes “the God of Jacob” in a personal and profound sense. God still longs to be the God of __________”– fill in the blank with your own name! If you have been wrestling with God or against God, or just avoiding God, let this be the day that you receive the blessing of God’s grace. It’s yours for the asking. And likely, it will be less painful than Jacob’s encounter!
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