Whole-Personed Spirituality

September 25th, 2011

Mark 12:28-34; Matthew 22:34-40; Luke 10:25-29

The two great commandments, whether cited by Jesus (as in Mark and Matthew) or by his questioner (as in Luke), remind us that a healthy spirituality should be whole-personed. Love of God and of fellow human beings is, of course, its heart. God initiates this love. We love because God first loved us (1 John 4:19). We who have experienced such great love want to respond not simply with one but with every aspect of our being. Not only so, we, the beloved, will love not God alone but everyone and everything God has made even as we love ourselves.

The spiritual life, Thomas Merton has said “is not just a life concentrated at the ‘high point’ of the soul, a life from which the mind and the imagination and the body are excluded. If it were so, few people could lead it. And again, if that were the spiritual life, it would not be a life at all. If [one] is to live, [one] must be all alive, body, soul, mind, heart, spirit. Everything must be elevated and transformed by the action of God, in love and faith.”

God Love

It is worthy of note that, according to the evangelists, Jesus added one extra dimension to the commandment as given in Deut 6:5. The commandment there is: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” All three evangelists add “with all your mind.” Mark and Matthew list it third, and Luke lists it fourth in the sequence. In the addition we may be looking at a Greek context in which the mind, rather than the heart, defined personal being. If so, it underscores the central point: Every fiber of our being should enter into our devotion to God!

The sequence seems important. Heart first. Faith begins in awe. “When mind and soul agree,” Abraham Heschel has said, “belief is born. But first our hearts must know the shudder of adoration.” Faith is not the end of a step-by-step process. It is not assent to a logical proposition. It is, rather, “a blush in the presence of God.” You can never answer all the questions human minds can devise. Yet your heart murmurs yes to Someone in response to an awareness that you are loved with infinite love. As Blaise Pascal, after long and agonized searching, recognized, “The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing; we feel it in many things…It is the heart, not reason, which experiences God. This then is faith: God perceived by the heart and not by reason.”

Soul must have intimate connection with the heart in this exhortation. In Hebrew thinking the heart had to do with the mind and will, whereas the soul corresponded to the self or vital life principle. God’s love asks for complete self-giving. From the depths of our being, we give ourselves, our very lives, over to God.

Mind probably puts into Greek idiom what heart communicated in Hebrew. In modern Western usage, we may think of left and right brain functions as we interpret the terms. The point is, both the rational and the emotional should play a role in our act of loving God. True, the heart makes the crucial decision as to whether you will live your life from the vantage point of a relationship with God. Once you have taken that leap of faith, however, your mind will set to work and do everything possible to unravel the mystery of faith.

Strength reminds us that the physical should not be omitted from our devotion. Hebrew psychology did not compartmentalize personhood. Adam was formed from the dust of the earth, into which God breathed the breath of life, so that he became a living being (Gen 2:7). All through the centuries, saints have taken note of the integral interknittedness of physical and spiritual health and have cultivated ways to praise God in both.


Just as our response to God’s love should entail our whole person, so too should it entail love of persons and things God has made. So integral is love of neighbor to love of God that the apostle Paul could declare, “The whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal 5:14). How could he gloss over the first and greatest commandment? Only by recognizing that it is fully implicit in the second. As Rabbi Heschel once said, “True love of man is clandestine love of God.”

“Love your neighbor as yourself” was not new; it was a part of Torah (Lev 19:18). Where Jesus stretched it was with reference to who “neighbor” embraces. For some it stretched no farther than the people of the covenant. Luke used his presentation of the two great commandments as an occasion to ask whether, in the nature of God’s love, it must not include some outside the covenant. In response to a self-justifying query, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus told the parable of the Samaritan who exhibited rather than prated about what is right.

The parable is quite familiar, but it would seem to have special applicability to the present day when animosities have reached a feverish pitch. Samaritans were not just outcasts and outsiders in the minds of Jesus’ contemporaries; they were enemies with whom the truly faithful did not associate. Yet Jesus chose the enemy to illustrate the wideness of God’s mercy in much the same way he earned a reputation as a friend of tax collectors and sinners. God is not as fastidious about adherence to the stipulations of the law as were those who confronted Jesus with this question.

If the parable of the Samaritan, as well as Jesus’ other words and actions, underscores any point about neighbor love, it is that in God’s economy compassion trumps religious and political correctness. Jesus headed a compassion movement that often locked horns with the holiness movement headed by Israel’s religious elite. Could this be one of those periods when Christians practice was what Douglas V. Steere called “mutual irradiation”? We let the light of God in us irradiate persons of other faiths, and we let ourselves be irradiated by the light of God in them. Not since the high Middle Ages has the need for such neighbor-love been greater.


  1. What happens to a faith effort that becomes all left-brained? What happens to one that becomes all right-brained?
  2. Who are today’s Samaritans? Would they include Muslims, whom we associate so readily with terrorism? Gays and lesbians, whose alternative lifestyles challenge traditional concepts of marriage and family? Immigrants, legal and illegal, who risk their lives to cross America’s borders so they can benefit from bounties their own societies cannot supply?
comments powered by Disqus