On Love

When asked which was the greatest commandment, Jesus responded:

… 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. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.  (Matthew 22:37-40, KJV)

“Law” and “prophets” are specific references in this context: the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament is called the Tanakh in Jewish tradition, an acronym for Torah (roughly “teaching” or “law”), Nevi’im (“prophets”), and K’tuvim (“writings”). The Torah is the first five books of Moses or Pentateuch; the Nevi’im the books that were eventually named after the prophets who (according to tradition) wrote them (e.g., Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Haggai); and the K’tuvim are the Chronicles and poetic works like the Psalms, Proverbs, and Job. Although the Old Testament as we know it today wasn’t compiled until after the time of Christ – many scholars date the redaction and final closure of the OT canon to the first or second century after Jesus – the Torah and the Nevi’im, the law and the prophets, were pretty well established by Jesus’ time. He was saying, then, that the entirety of the Old Testament as he knew it – the sum of religion – lies in these two simple dicta: love God, and love each other.

And he was citing scripture as he said it. The injunction to love God is in the text of the ten commandments, and the requirement to love each other is repeated in various iterations in Leviticus:

Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart … Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD. … But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 19:17-18, 33-34, KJV)

Love everyone: strangers, neighbors, and kin, as yourself – and love God. It’s expansive, radical, and beautiful.

Rabbinic tradition clarifies the relationship between the two great commandments, arguing that there is no tension between the ideal to love your neighbor and the ideal to love God. Instead, they explain, we show our love of God through the act of loving others. In other words, God will never ask us to choose between loving Him and loving someone else; God asks us to demonstrate our faithfulness and devotion to Him through our faithfulness and devotion to others. He sees in our treatment of others the ultimate reflection of the love in our hearts.

On occasion I’ve heard Mormons comment on hypothetical areas of tension in this commandment of love: what should you do if you have to choose between God and your neighbor? or your spouse? or your child? I’ve listened to my fair share of talks in which people emote lengthily on the idea that, if given the choice between God and a spouse or God and a child, one should always choose God first. (I recall this idea being put forth often during my tenure at BYU as the loftiest litmus test of spousal selection: ideally, so sacrament speakers would suggest, your future spouse will tell you explicitly that he will always choose God first, even before you.) It is a hypothetical that I struggle to understand, and not just because of my childless, spouse-less state. I am persuaded that the rabbinical interpretation is the more accurate, and that it is more in tune with the teachings of Christ: we show our love of God through our love of spouses, children, neighbors, and friends. We show it through embracing, not rejecting; through compassion; through mourning with those that mourn and comforting those that stand in need of comfort.


  1. I think the hypothetical is typically applied a bit less abstractly, in two scenarios.

    1. The mundane- Should I go home/visiting teaching or go home and play with my kids? While it is mistakenly framed as God vs. Children, it is really a question of children vs. neighbor and is not simply solved.

    2. The profane- My spouse has told me they do not believe in God and is perpetually berating my religious belief. Should I quit going to church to make my spouse happy, or put God first. This, I believe is also mistakenly cast as a God vs. Spouse scenario, as it is really a question of self vs. other, and while aided by the scriptural injunction that we must love neighbor as self, not above self, is still emotionally difficult for any who have been there.

  2. E- I also immediately thought of Mosiah 2. It is always fun to see these types of compliments between BOM teachings and rabbinical midrash.

  3. I wonder if we sometimes hide behind this false distinction, because it’s so much easier to love God than it is to love other people, especially people who aren’t our favorites.

    Also, I think the hypothetical tension sort of examples you state are, as you say, not questions of love at all, but questions of whose wishes you’re willing to honor, in which order. If someone I love asked me to do something that I felt would displease God, I would feel justified in ignoring their request that I might put God’s will first. But that doesn’t mean I’m not to show charity to that person, or stop loving them. (Although depending on what they’ve asked me to do, I may now find it hard to respect or trust them.)

    Great post!

  4. Beautiful post, Galdralag! I believe in your conclusion.

    In my experience it seems that we Mormons sometimes use the love God above all commandment as a justification for not taking our neighbor’s needs or suffering seriously. Then in our minds we can feel good about ourselves because we’re keeping the first great commandment. For example, I have heard this justification a number of times in reference to the challenges faced by LGBT individuals.

    On the other hand, I agree with Matt W. that there can be legitimate tensions that are difficult to resolve. For example, the mixed faith marriage where the Mormon spouse wants to magnify his or her calling but the time away from home can impose a hardship on the other spouse. But I would also agree that couching these as God vs. neighbor is probably a mistake.

  5. Awesome post. I’m reminded of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, when she said “My hands cannot meet the needs of all those to whom my heart responds.” I probably mangled it a bit, but it’s so true of my life.

    I think our attitude, our motivation and our desire to be good and do good are more important than what actually happens.

  6. I think this false dichotemy arises mostly from the definition of “love” in the mind of the person posing the question about choosing between God and another person.

    In this false dichotemy “to love” is understood to mean “to please” or “to act in a way that will gain the approval of” or “keep the peace by sacrificing what you feel or think is the best thing to do”.

    But that’s not love. It is completely possible to love someone sublimely and still choose to go against their wishes, even if they pull the “if you really loved me….” card or feel bereft and ignored or angry when you make that choice.

    Love is sympathy and empathy and wishing well and encouraging goodness and appreciating and kindness and consideration, but it is not defined by pleasing or going along with or agreeing with or placating or doing what you don’t think is best in order to keep the peace or to satisfy another’s demands or wishes.

    But many people don’t understand that. They think that love is only truly manifested when one does what the other wants or what pleases the other. It’s not so.


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