The biblical command to love God “with all your heart…” given in Deuteronomy and quoted by Jesus as the most important of all commandments (Matthew 22:37) lies at the very center of the Christian Faith. But knowing exactly what loving God with our “heart” means is not as simple as many people presume. Love is so fully equated with the emotions and the heart in modern society that it is easy to think that the command simply means to love God “dearly” or “from the heart.”
The many biblical passages that speak about the heart can easily be misunderstood if we are unfamiliar with the way the term was understood and used in the world in which the Bible was written. Both the Hebrew word lebab (or leb) and the Greek word kardia that we find translated “heart” in our English Bibles had a very different meaning from our modern idea.
When these biblical words are used metaphorically – as opposed to talking about the physical organ we call the heart – they rarely have anything to do with emotions. In the Old Testament, for example, lebab primarily refers to thought, understanding, or memory, and even things such as awareness or courage.
In other words, “heart” in the Old Testament usually refers to things of the mind rather than the emotions. That is why we find biblical verses such as “As [a person] thinks in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7), or “…the Lord has not given you a heart to understand …” (Deuteronomy 29:4), and why Solomon prayed “… give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong…” (1 Kings 3:9). That is also why many modern Bible versions translate the word “heart” in these verses as “mind” (NIV, Holman, etc.).
Although on the surface some uses of “heart” in the Old Testament may seem to relate to emotions, the essential idea is almost always one of thought rather than feeling. In fact, when biblical writers wanted to refer to “feelings,” they usually spoke of them as being located not in the heart, but in the lower organs – the intestines (1 Kings 3:26, etc.)!
In the New Testament we find the word “heart” (kardia) has the same metaphorical usage as lebab – most frequently meaning “mind” – as when we are told “Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, ‘Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts?’” (Matthew 9:4) and “For out of the heart come evil thoughts” (Matthew 15:19). In fact, when the New Testament writers seem to be speaking of the heart and mind as two separate things – as in the verse “All the believers were one in heart and mind” (Acts 4:32) – they are usually using a common Jewish expression which was literally “one heart and one soul” – meaning they were completely unified (Jeremiah 32:39, etc.).
As we saw with the use of the Hebrew, when New Testament writers wanted to speak of the emotions they usually used a term for the lower organs, just as the apostle Paul wrote that we should put on “bowels of mercies” (Colossians 3:12 KJV), meaning we should have compassionate feelings toward others.
When we understand this background, we realize that modern versions of the Bible may sometimes actually confuse us. In other words, when the Bible speaks of the heart, we must be careful to determine whether we are reading a verse giving the modern meaning of “emotions” or the ancient meaning of “mind.” This can be important in many cases. When the Old Testament tells us that David was “a man after [God's] own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14) and this is repeated in the New Testament as “a man after my heart” (Acts 13:22), we must realize that God’s “heart” means his thoughts and attitudes rather than his feelings.
This fact is especially important in understanding the greatest commandment of all – that we must love God with all our “heart.” Easy as it may be to see this command in modern terms as referring to deep feelings and emotions for God – good as such feelings may be – the Bible actually means that we must love God with all our mind. Loving God with all our “heart” means not leaving the slightest part of our minds separate from the rule and influence of God. This is what Paul was speaking of when he tells us we must “… take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).
There is no place for any kind of divided affection in the command to love God with all our heart. Just as Jesus stressed that “No one can serve two masters” because we will invariably love one and “hate” or love the other so much less by comparison (Matthew 6:24), loving God with our whole heart means having a love that includes nothing short of total and complete dedication of mind. Only when we give our minds – our very selves – completely to God are we loving him with all our heart.