During His ministry, Jesus was challenged by both the Pharisees and the Sadducees. On one occasion one of the scribes "asked him, Which is the first commandment of all? And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God is one Lord: and thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment" (Mark 12:28-30).
Although we have all heard this very familiar story countless times, very rarely does someone ask, "Why are we commanded to love the Lord with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength?" What makes this question even more intriguing is that it's the very first commandment we are required to follow, signifying its importance in relationship to all the other commandments. In fact, in Matthew's account it says that this is not only the first commandment but that it is the greatest of all the commandments (Matthew 22:37). But why?
It can be said that we should love God simply because He is God. In other words, a god (regardless of which god it is) is someone who is required to be worshiped. In paganism it was believed that if you angered the gods they would punish you, therefore they offered up various kinds of sacrifices to appease them, thereby staying on their good side and being blessed instead of being cursed by them.
But that's not what Christians believe. They believe that God has given us our agency to decide for ourselves whether we want to worship Him or not. As Jesus Himself taught, God causes "his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain [to fall] on [both] the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:47). The scriptures indicate that God does punish men when they sin but He doesn't punish them simply because they don't love Him with all of their heart, mind, soul, and strength.
Others may say that because God has given us so much, including sending His Son to redeem us from our fallen condition, that we should love Him out of a heart full of gratitude. However, gratitude and love are not exactly the same thing. We can be extremely grateful to someone for something they have done for us without being in love with them. But God doesn't just require us to love him or even to merely worship Him; He commands that we are to serve Him with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength and place Him above everyone and everything else.
Some say that we should love God because He is our Father who lives in heaven. In fact, one of the commandments is for children to honor their mother and father therefore, since God is our Father, we should honor Him as well. But, no righteous earthly father would ever command their children to love him, let alone that they should love him with all of their heart, mind, soul, and strength.
Jesus taught, "He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me. He that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me" (Matthew. 10:37). Any father who calls himself a Christian would never tell their children that they have to love him more than they do anyone else. In fact, it was God who told Adam and Eve that a man should "leave his father and mother and shall cleave unto his wife" (Genesis 2:24). Then why does our Father in heaven require us to be willing to forsake all others and cleave only unto Him, or to place Him and give obedience to him above everyone else?
It can be said that the second commandment God gave to Moses was that we are not to worship any other gods except Him. But that's different from commanding us to love Him with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength. For example, just because a child doesn't do everything their father tells them to do is not an indication that the child doesn't love their father. Oftentimes children will do what they are told, not because they want to but simply because they have to. In which case, they certainly aren't obeying their father with their whole heart and soul. But that doesn't mean they don't love their father.
Yet, even when a child is disrespectful and rebellious, a Christian father will still love that child. Sometimes children become estranged from their father and refuse to have anything to do with him, but most fathers would still love that child. Sometimes a child will chose to live a lifestyle that the father disapproves us, yet most Christian fathers would sill treat that child with love. A good example of this is the story of the prodigal son.
And our Father in heaven is no different. Even while we were yet sinners, God commended His love for us by sending His Son to die for us (Romans 5:8). So why then does God command us to love Him with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength when He still loves us no matter what we do?
Jesus told a certain ruler that in order to inherit eternal life he had to keep the commandments, and He listed as examples: adultery, stealing, lying, and bearing false witness (Luke 18:20). But why is the commandment to love God with all of our heart so necessary in order to receive eternal life, and why is it more important to keep this one commandment than it is to keep the commandments not to lie, cheat, steal, bear false witness, commit adultery, or even murder, especially when God loves us even when we do sin?
The answer is found in knowing what kind of being God is.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that God, our Father, is a resurrected, immortal and glorified being. But for someone to be resurrected, they first must have been mortal and then died. That means, there was a time when God was like we now are - living a mortal life and being tested to see if He would qualify Himself to become a glorified and exalted being. Therefore, God now is what we someday hope to become.
But how did our Father in heaven become God? The Lord revealed that answer when He said, "All kingdoms have a law given, and there are many kingdoms; for there is no space in the which there is no kingdom; and there is no kingdom in which there is no space, either a greater or a lesser kingdom. And unto every kingdom is given a law; and unto every law there are certain bounds also and conditions. All beings who abide not in those conditions are not justified… For he who is not able to abide the law of a celestial kingdom cannot abide a celestial glory… And again, I say unto you, that which is governed by law is also preserved by law and perfected and sanctified by the same" (D&C 88:36-39, 22,34).
Our Father in heaven became God by obeying the laws that govern the celestial kingdom and those laws are based upon the principles of righteousness. This is the same way Jesus became God. In speaking of Jesus, the scriptures tell us "Thou hast loved righteousness, and hated iniquity; therefore God, even thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows" (Hebrews 1:9).
Because Jesus "loved righteousness" God was able to exalt him above all other men. In speaking about the Lord, the psalmist wrote "Thy righteousness is an everlasting righteousness; and they law is truth" (Psalms 119:142), and Jesus himself is referred to as "the Son of Righteousness" (2 Nephi 26:9). If Jesus is the "Son of Righteousness" and He is God's Son, then God must be the Father of Righteousness.
If the way our Father and Jesus became exalted Beings is by following the law of righteousness, then this must be the way we too can become like them. This is why the apostle Paul counseled "But thou, O man of God, flee these things; and follow after righteousness" (I Timothy 6:11).
As Christians, we believe that because of our faith in God that after the resurrection we will go to live with God in heaven, but the scriptures tell us that those who go there will be given "a crown of righteousness" (2 Timothy 4:8) and will wear a "robe of righteousness" (Isaiah 61:10). From these and many other scriptures it is clear that the celestial kingdom is governed by the law of righteousness.
If Jesus became exalted because He loved the law of righteousness enough to follow it with His whole heart, mind, soul, and strength, and this is the same way that our Father in Heaven became exalted, then, if we want to become like them, then we must love what God loves. Since God loves righteousness with all of His heart then we too must likewise love righteousness as He does. If we don't then we will not be able to live the law of a celestial kingdom, in which case, we will not be able to live with God.
It is impossible for someone to say that they love God and at the same time say that they don't want to be with Him. Those two statements contradict one another. Therefore, if we say we love God, then we are also saying we want to be with Him but the only way we will be able to do that is by living the law of righteousness with all of our heart because that is the law of the celestial kingdom.
If all the commandments God gives us are all based on the principle of righteousness then, to love God with all of our heart means that we love keeping His commandments with all of our heart. This is why the apostle John wrote, "For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments" (1 John 5:3; 2 John 1:6 ). "He that saith, I know him (Jesus), and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar and the truth is not in him" (1 John 2:4). This is why Jesus said that anyone who is not willing to forsake mother, father, son or daughter, or anything else that takes us away from God is not worthy of being with Him.
If that is true then it becomes important for us to understand what the law of righteousness is. Although God has given us many different commandments, they can all be summed up in one word - love.
When one of the scribes asked Jesus, "Which is the first commandment of all?" Jesus answered saying "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all they heart, and with all they soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like [unto it], namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these" (Mark 12:28-31).
In reality, these are not two commandments but one. In its simplest form we can say that the greatest commandment is to love God and love our neighbor. This is why Paul wrote, "He that loveth another hath fulfilled the law… Love worketh no ill to his neighbor: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law" (Romans 1:13; 13:10), "for all the law is fulfilled in one word, even this; Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" (Galatians 5:14), and why James wrote, "If ye fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, ye do well" (James 2:8).
The definition of love is that we care about the needs of others more than we care about our own needs. That doesn't me we don't care about our own needs but that we are willing to put ourselves in second place and even make sacrifice for the sake of others if need be.
God so loved the world that He was willing to sacrifice His only begotten Son in order to save us from the consequences of our own sins. Jesus loved us so much that He willingly took the punishment of our sins in order to save us from being punished ourselves. Even when He wanted to shrink and not drink the bitter cup because His suffering was so great, Jesus nonetheless fulfilled everything the atonement required until He finally declared, "It is finished."
Jesus sacrificed Himself, "not [because of any] works of righteous which we have done, but according to his mercy" (Titus 3:5). Christ did not suffer and die because we were righteous but, instead, He died to save us while we were yet sinners (Romans 5:8). That's why the scriptures say of Him, "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13).
This is the depth of love that God has and it is the kind of love that is total and complete. The scriptures refer to this as "the pure love of Christ" and it further tell us that "Except men shall have the pure love of Christ they cannot be saved in the kingdom of God" (Ether 12:34; Moroni. 10:21). This is why John wrote: "Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and everyone that loveth is born of God" (1 John 4:7). In fact, John goes so far as to say that "God is love" (1 John 4:16). If we want to become like our Father in heaven and live with Him forever then we too must become a being of pure love.
If this is true, then it is understandable why God commands us to love Him. After all, if we can't show love to Him from whom all blessings flow, how can we expect to love our enemies, or those who curse us, hate us, persecute us, or despitefully use us (see Matthew 5:44)?
But the command to love God goes much deeper than this. God revealed that His work and His glory is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man (Moses 1:39). Everything God does centers around this one thing. God doesn't need to go to work somewhere for a paycheck in order to provide for the needs of His children, and He doesn't need to raise food on a farm in order to feed His family.
The only thing God has to do with His time is to raise His children and help them to become like Him. This is all that God does. And the more children He can help become immortal and exalted like He is, the more glory and honor it brings Him. This is why the commandment to love our neighbor is equal to and is as important as loving God because the more we love our neighbor as God does the more we are becoming like Him.
Eternal life means living the kind of life God lives, and if God goal is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of His children, then when we achieve eternal life we too will bear spirit children as He has and spend all of our time helping them achieve eternal life as He now does. Thus, it is by loving God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength now that we are learning how and preparing ourselves to do what God does.
To love God mean to want to be like Him with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength, but to do that we have to love what He loves. Since God loves righteousness with all of His heart, then we too must have that same kind of love for righteousness. To love God means wanting with all of our heart what He wants, which is to give His children eternal life.
However, the only way we can learn to love as God does is by keeping His commandments because all of His commandments are specifically formulated to help us gain eternal life. It is by keeping the commandments that we learn to become ready for, fit for, qualify for, be prepared for, become proficient at, become eligible to receive, and be capable of inheriting eternal life.
But to keep the commandments requires us to love God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength. Without doing that we will waver in our commitment to following His word. Only those who endure to the end in being faithful and valiant in keeping God's commandments will come forth in the morning of the first resurrection to be clothed with robes of righteousness, given a crown of righteousness, and placed on a throne where they will rule and reign with Christ forever (Revelation 3:21; 5:10).
On the other hand, those who love mother, father, brother, sister, or anyone or anything else more than God are forsaking the glorious gift of eternal life that God has in store for those who love Him. Worse yet, in the end they will lose both eternal life and all the other things they have set their heart on. This is why the first and great commandment upon which all the other commandments hang is to love the Lord thy God.