Often today we can hear the word, “Holistic.” According to internet searches (including Merriam-Webster and Cambridge), the word holistic means a focus on the whole rather than the parts. We can see this concept emphasized with holistic remedies, further utilizing the idea of holistic health, focusing on all aspects of a disease or body in order to provide a comprehensive cure for particular ailments.
We aren’t going to focus so much on this popular understanding of holistic health, I only mention it so we can further grasp the idea of the word “holistic.” As it relates to this post, I believe that the Christian faith offers us a holistic understanding of the entire world. Everything from the beginning to the end, the wholeness of universe, of reality, of our very persons, can be understood in this holistic Christian faith.
My focus today, however, is not going to be on the whole of the faith. Instead, I want to focus on something often neglected in our modern American understanding of Christianity, and that is the holistic Christian life. By that, I mean the way in which the teachings of the Scriptures provide us the best understanding for our entire personal identities. How does it do this, you ask? By showing the complete person is bound to heart, soul, mind, and body. I will be breaking it down into two parts. The first is, what the Scriptures say and comment on it, and then the second is the concerns I see around me in far too many Christians and their response to this teaching.
The Holistic Concept
28 And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
-Mark 12:28-31, ESV [Also found in Matthew 22:34-39 and Luke 10:25-28]
Now what is interesting about this response from Jesus to the scribe is that Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 for verses 29-30. In other words, Jesus is quoting directly from the Law when answering this question. It is part of the Law for the people to love God with all of our human faculties. Another interesting thing is that this is a commandment. This is something we ought to be doing. Likewise, I am aware that there is the second commandment which is to love your neighbor as yourself, this is a significant teaching but today I am focusing on the first for the individual Christian life.
Now before we get into those faculties, I want to express one of the reasons why I call this the holistic Christian life. To do that I will need to utilize the Greek. I will put the English with the Greek for verse 30 for easier comparison.
30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’
30 καὶ ἀγαπήσεις κύριον τὸν θεόν σου ἐξ ὅλης τῆς καρδίας σου καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς ψυχῆς σου καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς διανοίας σου καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς ἰσχύος σου.
Now, I know, this is literally Greek for everyone. Let me break it down a little further. First the word ὅλης is pronounced “Holis” and it means “All.” It is actually from this word where we get the word holistic to begin with. So it seems reasonable to utilize the holistic understanding here.
The question then is, what is the “all” that we are called to love God with? We see four different ways. Καρδίας (Kar-Dias) or Heart, ψυχῆς (Psoo-Kay) or soul, διανοίας (Dee-Ah-Noy-As) or mind, and finally ἰσχύος (Is-koos) or strength. This all sounds pleasant, but the real question is what does this even mean? How do we understand these human faculties? I think the best thing we can do is to examine each particular one in order to understand the whole.
Καρδίας (Kar-Dias)/Heart: The first way we are to love God is with all of our hearts. This word is probably the one most of us can most associate with the English language, as it is from this Greek word we have the word Cardiology. But does that mean that we are commanded to love God with our beating hearts? The physical part of our chest?
The answer is yes and no. Yes because we are called to love God with our might (See below). No because in both the Old and New Testaments the word “heart” also represents the seat of our affections. I prefer to use the word affections than emotions because I believe one can have affections toward something without having emotions toward it. This isn’t to say that emotions aren’t involved at all, and I would argue that it is here that the emotional aspect of our human existence is most clearly seen. As it is I would say our affections, then, has a far broader understanding than just emotions, but it includes emotions as well.
In any regards, to love God with all of our heart would mean to love God with all of our affections. This makes sense. Where we place our affections will often lead to what we think about and also determines our actions. We can often find the depth of human affections in our relationships with each other. If I have deep affections for my wife, then I will think about her and do things for her that I would not for others. Likewise, mothers and fathers have deep affections for their children that will lead to them acting for their children’s betterment.
Yet, it isn’t only in positive things we can place our affections. We can also place our affection in negative things such a sin. When we have high affections for ourselves it can swell our pride and selfishness, for example, and that can lead to acting for ourselves rather than others.
For us to love God with our affections, then, would lead us to behaviors which show that we love Him. It would lead to obedience to what He has called us to be and called us to do, because we would desire to honor Him and glorify Him in the ways He has informed us. The same way my wife tells me ways I can express my affection for her, so it is with God though in a deeper sense than even my affections for my wife.
Likewise, because God is the foundation of all things, when we place our affections in Him it will lead to our affections being properly placed elsewhere because He has given us commands to place our affections in their right places. In other words, God commands me to love my wife as Christ loves the Church, by placing my affections in my wife, then, I am fulfilling God’s command showing Him my affections are placed in Him. It also works with our children and loving our Church families and neighbors.
As such, to have affections in God gives us the foundation to where we place our affections in other places as well. Having our affections placed in the right starting location gets it right the rest of the way.
ψυχῆς (Psoo-Kay)/soul: The second way in which we are to love God is with all our soul. Admittedly this is the hardest to grasp because the soul is an abstract object by definition. Still, the question again is, what does this mean? What is the soul? The simplest answer is the soul is our nonphysical essence or being. Every human has a soul which is immortal being nonphysical.
One would say that the soul plays a significant role in understanding our personhood. What separates each male from male, or female from female? One would say it is the soul. The answer to our uniqueness is that each of us has been given a soul which is separate and different from others.
One would then say that the way we love God with our soul is with our unique identities and personhoods. Being different from one another means we have different experiences and as such we can love God with our uniqueness. The ways in which the soul, my being, my essence, makes itself known to the world may be different than you, and I may have different gifts and abilities than you.
Likewise it would mean appreciating the way in which God has made me in this personal way. Not disdaining who I am as me, but loving what God has created despite myself.
In all of these ways, then, I am to love God. I love Him with my soul by following His commands to pray, to fast, to grow spiritually in the knowledge of God. By worshipping God, who is Spirit, in Spirit and truth. By giving who I am to Him in devotion and seeking His glory above all. Again, that part of me that is unlike any other part, the inner person, all given to Him in truth.
διανοίας (Dee-Ah-Noy-Ah)/mind: The third way in which we are called to love God is with all our minds. This is one which, I think, is often misunderstood in our own time. Indeed, if I were to ask people what it means to love God with their minds most would likely think it means to not have bad or evil thoughts. The truth is, this is not the case. I know this because of the following teaching from Christ.
10 And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: 11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” 12 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” 13 He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. 14 Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” 15 But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” 16 And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? 18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” (Matthew 15:10-20, ESV [also in Mark 7:14-23])
As we see, it is from the heart where evil thoughts come from. This makes sense, if our affections are toward evil then not only will we act out evil desires, but we will think about doing evil and think about evil as well. Still, this also means that that to love God with all our minds does not mean having evil thoughts or refraining from having evil thoughts.
No, to love God with our minds means to love God with our ability to reason. It means with the knowledge and wisdom we gain through study. The deep contemplation which occurs when we are thinking is the way we are to love God. Utilizing our minds to seek and find truth.
Some might think that this is strictly speaking of reading the Bible and learning it. I do not think that is the case, though it certainly is a necessary part. Instead, I would argue that this should lead to a desire to know more about God’s world and the wisdom found therein. About the sciences, about history, about theology, about philosophy, etc. All ways in which we are capable of gaining knowledge and wisdom are worthy pursuits for a Christian.
Some might wonder about science. But like the early scientists of the scientific revolution, they all studied because they knew their Bible. In Proverbs we learn God used wisdom to create the universe, and in Romans 1 we learn that the invisible attributes of God are seen in the physical world. By studying the world, then, we can understand God’s wisdom and therefore know more about the God who made these things.
Obviously this does not mean every Christian must be a scientist, or a philosopher, or academic theologian. It does mean, however, that Christians cannot be intellectually lazy. It also means we can encourage those who are gifted with attaining knowledge to continue to do so for the glory of God.
Knowledge does not need to cheapen faith, instead faith and knowledge go hand in hand together as we experience God. Regardless of how much knowledge we have, we always need faith in our worldviews. This is true of atheism as well as theism. Faith and reason are separate things, but very much tied together.
That God exists gives us reason, then, to gain knowledge, wisdom, and to seek truth because we know God has revealed Himself in this world and because we know truth can be attained. Reason is not a bad thing. Our God is a reasonable God who has created us in His image to utilize our reason for good. Learning, then, is something commanded to us by God in order for us to love Him more. We become disobedient when we fail to at least attempt to love God in this way.
ἰσχύος (Is-koos)/strength: The final way to love God is with all our strength. The question again arises, what does this mean? How can we love God will all our strength? Does this mean muscles?
The answer is yes and no. We can love God with all our strength by loving God with all of our bodies. God has created us as both physical and spiritual. Both are important and part of God’s plan for us as His image bearers. He perfectly designed us to have the bodies we have for His glory.
As such, we can love God with our bodies by loving what God has made as male and female. We can love God with our bodies by not seeking to utilize our bodies for sinful behavior. We can love God with our bodies by speaking kind words rather than harsh ones. By speaking truth rather than lies. By loving that which God has given us rather than scorning it.
The simple truth is, far too many Christians neglect this aspect of the body. Sure we may say, “Our bodies are a temple.” Indeed, they are! That shows how significant the body is after all! But far too often we think that the physical becomes less important than the spiritual. We place an incredibly high view of the spiritual aspects of Christianity but ignore the physical.
Some will try to say that the soul is more important than the body, but if that were true then why would God create us with our physical bodies? Indeed, why would Christ rise with a physical body which will never taste death again? No, the truth is the physical is just as important because it was made by God, designed by God, for good.
It also means that Christians can, and should, reject any view of the body which makes the body seem less important. Beliefs in which the way the body is seen as less important, or views in which the body can be changed, or that the clear physical design of the body should be neglected, should all be rejected by the Christian who desires to love God with their body.
Holistic Life: As we can see, the holistic Christian life is one which incorporates all parts of our identities. This does not mean that someone who is incapable of feelings, such as psychopaths, or those who are unable to learn because of cognitive issues cannot love God. Instead, these teachings remind us that whatever God has given to us in this human experience can be utilized to love Him.
This is the holistic Christian life when we seek to love God with all of who we are and all the capacities in which God has given us. It is all of who we are which, in the end, belongs to God. He is our Creator, our Sustainer, and our Designer. He knows what is best for humanity, for all these things, and being the foundation of all these things He is the best starting place with our love in order for us to love others and even ourselves as we should. If, however, we start anywhere else we will not only cheapen our love but find no reason for the love which we possess and give.
For those who doubt all of this, one final thought is this. Jesus of Nazareth was the perfect embodiment of such love for God. I would challenge anyone who doubts whether such love for God is good to read His life and tell me whether such a life is one worthy of pursuit. As it is, I have found no greater life lived than that which is lived by Jesus. While I do not believe I can ever attain such a perfect obedient life as the Son of God, I do know that I am called to follow as His disciple in these things, and in light of who He is, it seems all the more worthy a pursuit.
Oftentimes I find it peculiar that people focus on only one of these elements in order to grasp the human person and experience. There are those who focus only on the soul, for example, at the expense of the body (we find this with transgenderism and the promotion of sexual identity). We find those who focus only on the mind rather than the soul (those who have incredible intellectual learning but are spiritually blind). Even those who focus on the heart or soul rather than, let’s say, the mind (those who have incredible emotional experiences, but then ignore learning as being less important than their emotional or spiritual states with God).
Not only do we see this today, whether in the world or in the Church, but the truth is we have seen this occur throughout Church history. We have seen different groups arise focusing on one area of the Chrisitan life and proclaim it is the way. We can think of the mystics (soul), the scholastics (mind), emotives (heart), and monastics (body). Admittedly, there are times when certain things overlap. For example, sometimes the monastics were quite mystic, sometimes they were quite scholastic. Sometimes mystics were quite emotive, etc.
In our modern Church time I see much of the same trends. We focus on one aspect of the Christian life as the “real” or “true” rather than the others. I believe the more we do this, the more we do so to our own undoing. I have encountered many Christians who love God deeply with their emotions for a time, but fail to love God with their minds, soul, or strength, and when something comes along that wrecks their emotions, they have nothing to grasp since they focused greatly on their emotions.
If I had to say, I would say this example is the most serious problem facing us when it comes to the holistic Christian life. Many Churches capitalize on the emotional needs of people, and instead of teaching from a holistic perspective, they simply continue to feed the emotional because it is far easier to manipulate emotions than it is to manipulate the physical, spiritual, or the mind.
This isn’t to say that the emotional aspect is wrong. I have had intense emotional moments with God. Where it feels as though the grace and love of God overpowers me to tears. The emotional is good, these are good experiences, but it isn’t the whole, and it isn’t the only way for us to love our God.
Neither, however, is it enough to simply learn, or exercise our strength, or practice spiritual disciplines. God wants all of us, and this will likely play out in different ways in our lives. Let’s not, however, settle on just one. Let’s not be content to focus on a single understanding, and let’s not allow the deception which says our current way is sufficient or hide behind the abilities and experiences given and neglect the rest.
No, seek to love God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. Don’t settle for less than holistic Christian life. For those who struggle with mind, strive to love God, and continue to learn. For those who struggle with heart, strive to love with your affections. For those who struggle with strength, strive to honor God with your body. For those who struggle with their soul, strive to love God with the being He has made you as.
If Christ is any indication, such attempts will not lead to failure, but will only ever lead to increased obedience to the command given by God to love Him with all we are. In the end, there is no greater teaching which so encapsulates the whole of human experience.
Soli Deo Gloria,