My favorite painting of Augustine is by 17th-century Flemish artist Philippe de Champaigne. Augustine sits in his study with a feather pen in one hand and his heart, set afire, in the other. His gaze is fixed on a beam of light shining from above, illuminating both his head and his heart. Veritas, Latin for truth, is at the center of the light.

The artwork illustrates the importance of loving God with all of one’s heart, mind, strength, and soul, what Jesus called the summary of the Law and the Prophets (Matt. 22:36–40). Paul made a similar point, showing us that we can be an eloquent speaker, a generous philanthropist, or even a martyr, and still fail in our relationship with God (1 Cor. 13:1–3). Without love, it all adds up to nothing.

It’s possible you’re wasting your life. Have you considered that? Is love for God captivating your heart? Are you more focused on having carefully parsed theology than on loving him?

I remember the day this question first made sense to me.

No Burning Bush

It was a day when nothing happened and everything changed. I was listening to an old-fashioned, hellfire-and-brimstone preacher. He was loud. He was pacing back and forth in front of hundreds of students at a youth camp, talking about what it means to follow Jesus. I was captivated.

I’d only been a Christian for about 24 hours. The night before, I believed the gospel message and received God’s love and forgiveness offered through Jesus Christ. This night’s talk was about how followers of Jesus must love him with their whole heart.

The speaker’s final challenge to all the campers was to find somewhere after the service to spend time in prayer. He told us to stay there until we loved God with our whole heart. I was sincere, passionate, and naïve. I couldn’t wait to try. I found a nice quiet spot where I knelt between some bushes. I placed my hands on the ground in front of me and rested my forehead on my hands.

I prayed over and over, “Dear God, I want to love you with all my heart.” When nothing magical happened I began emphasizing each word. “DEAR God, I want to love you . . . Dear GOD, I want to love you . . .” Still nothing.

I was hoping for the miraculous. I was thinking the bushes might catch on fire and that I’d hear a deep voice like that of actor Morgan Freeman saying, “Yes Dan, you now love me with all of your heart. You can go play putt-putt and get a cheeseburger now.”

Still nothing.

After what seemed like hours, I finally stopped praying. I was only 15 years old at the time, and I bet I didn’t pray for more than 15 minutes. But it seemed like a really long time to my adolescent self. To be honest, back then it felt like a whole lot of nothing. I was a bit disappointed.

Total Eclipse of the Heart

Those first two days of my Christian life sum up how it can be for many of us. Sometimes we’re wholehearted about living for God. Other times our hearts are elsewhere, with the cheeseburgers and putt-putt. Other things can easily eclipse our love for God.

Having the right beliefs isn’t enough. He wants your heart.

I wonder what you see as you look back? Was there a time when you felt you knew and loved God more than you do now? When you were wholehearted about following Jesus? Or maybe you’ve never been sure that level of commitment is really for you?

While I sometimes laugh thinking back to that youth camp, I also realize I understood then something I often miss now. Jesus wants my heart above everything else. It was true of me then; it’s true for each one of us right now. Having the right beliefs isn’t enough. He wants your heart.

Believing in God Isn’t Enough

Orthodoxy may sound like a painfully expensive dental procedure, but it just means having proper beliefs about God. A relationship with Jesus begins with truth—with orthodoxy—forming the proper beliefs about Jesus. This is illustrated when Jesus asked the disciples what people believed about him. They volleyed around some of the more generous titles overheard in the villages: John the Baptist, Elijah, or maybe another prophet (Mark 8:27–29). But then Jesus made the question more personal. Why did they believe in him?

Peter spoke up right away. “You’re the Messiah,” he declared. This is where Peter got an A on his orthodoxy test. But in the last chapter of John’s Gospel, we don’t find Jesus questioning Peter’s beliefs or orthodoxy.

We can accumulate a lot of knowledge while our hearts remain far from him. We can even give our life as martyrs and still miss the mark.

It would seem to make sense if Jesus did. After all, Peter is about to preach the historic sermon as God launches the church. A captivated 3,000 people will decide to follow Jesus in response (Acts 2:14–41). So it’s important that Peter gets his stuff right.

But what did Jesus ask Peter? He asked him about his love. He asked about his heart. Three times he asked, “Do you love me?” According to tradition, Peter did go on to die as a martyr, just as Jesus predicted. Love for Jesus led him to that place of obedience.

Orthodoxy—proper beliefs—is where we begin. But it’s not where we end. To be clear, we can’t grow much in our love for God without also growing in our beliefs about God. What we believe about God is vitally important. But it’s dangerously possible to grow in our knowledge of God without growing in our love for God. We can accumulate a lot of knowledge while our hearts remain far from him. We can even give our life as martyrs and miss the mark.

Confessions of a Divinity Master

If you came to my office you’d see some degrees on my wall. I have one degree that sounds really impressive: a master of divinity. It means I’ve taken a bunch of classes about the Bible and God, and I have the degree to prove it. Divinity has been mastered by yours truly.

How impressed is God with the degrees hanging on my wall? Not much. To be honest, I imagine he was more impressed with the 15-year-old boy who just wanted to love him with all his heart.

That day so long ago, it felt like nothing happened. But I was doing my best to love God. And that isn’t nothing. It’s something. In fact, it’s what it’s all about. May the truth of God captivate our heads and hearts for his glory. For without that, we’re just wasting our lives.

Editors’ note: 

Dan DeWitt is author of Sunny Side Up: The Breakfast Conversation That Could Change Your Life (The Good Book Co.), from which this piece is adapted.