The Shema begins by calling us into silence, that we may hear, and then into our confession that God is one, that the LORD only is worthy of our devotion. So what comes next follows pretty logically. “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart.” If God is one, then so shall our love be one, not splintered into many loves, but unified and moved solely toward our one God. The rest of Deuteronomy reiterates this commandment, to love with all the heart, multiple times. Repetition of course means that it didn’t sink in the first time. We humans have a hard time giving the whole heart to God. There are so many idols bribing us to give them portions of our heart. And yet the Shema has the audacity to say to us, “Yes, your heart is a splintered thing; now give your one, unified heart to God anyway.”
“Heart” is such a commonly used word that it can pretty easily lose its meaning. When we say “heart” we’re often referring to feelings and affections, which is partially helpful. But throughout scripture, the heart is the home of all of our desires and priorities. That’s why Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “Wherever your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Show me your stuff, show me how you prioritize your time and money, Jesus says, and I’ll show you where your heart is. The heart is right here with our desires and priorities, whatever they may be. The heart has some to do with feelings and affections, but a lot more to do with the ways in which we orient our lives to experience the presence of God or to pursue whatever treasure is promising us meaning and security and belonging. Love is a similarly common word. Scripture does use it to refer to affection, but even more so to loyalty. Whatever we remain loyal to is what we love, whether we realize it or not.
And so it’s in the Shema that we begin to reorient these desires and affections. The Shema begins with silence, oneness and the heart because these are inseparable. Without silence to hear, the heart cannot be rearranged. We’re surrounded by noise all the time, by voices competing for our attention and devotion, and the only way for the heart to be reoriented toward God is for silence to dissolve the noise so that we may hear God and God alone. The Shema is not just telling us this is how things ought to be. The Shema is actually creating this reorientation in us. The Shema is awakening us to our God-given need for silence, to the oneness of God and the farce of idolatry, and to the oneness of our own hearts as well.
Scripture recognizes how fractured the human heart is. But scripture is also hopeful. God speaks through the prophet Ezekiel to say, “From all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you; a new spirit I will put within you… and make you follow my statutes.” (Ezekiel 36:25-27) By the grace of God, the human heart is losing its rebelliousness and becoming something that desires only to live in perfect accord with the will and love of God. The human heart is not beyond God’s reach. He’s coming to claim every heart, every last desire and priority. We pray the Shema because when we say, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart” time after time after time, it’s going to start being true.