Anyone who has studied a foreign language knows the fun of stumbling across a word that looks familiar. It’s like a treasure hunt. In my first weeks of high school Latin, I found that my own surname, Vincent, was a Latin word for “conqueror,” which gave rise to the word vanquish. That’s a pretty cool find for a slightly bored 15-year-old!

It was my enthusiasm for surprising derivatives that inspired me to surf the pages of the Vulgate, which Jerome translated in the late fourth century. This Latin translation of the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures served as the standard translation of the Bible in churches throughout the Western world for centuries, and many of Jerome’s interpretive decisions provide a glimpse into the heart of the church’s historic understanding of Scripture. For me, it was a hotbed of etymological discoveries.

Several years ago, I stumbled across one such nugget of linguistic history hidden in the Vulgate. It started as I was reading the Great Commandment from Luke 10:27 (ESV throughout):

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.

When Jesus told an inquisitive lawyer that all the Law and Prophets hung on these two commandments (Matt. 22:40), he knew that his audience would recognize them. Both were drawn directly from the Torah (Deut. 6:4–9; Lev. 19:18) and would have been intimately familiar. But Jesus imbued them with a new and shocking centrality, and he spoke them with an unprecedented authority (Matt. 7:29).

He also spoke them in a new language. Although Jesus himself spoke primarily Aramaic, the Gospels record his words in Greek, with “love” often rendered with the Greek word agape.

If you have attended church for long, you have likely heard mention of this word. Agape carries shades of meaning that set it apart from more common Greek words for “love,” and the biblical distinctness of the word has made it a popular choice for both sermon illustrations and forearm tattoos.

This is not without good reason—it is remarkable to the modern English-informed mind that love could be commanded and not merely stumbled into!

It is not agape that commands my interest, however. Instead, I am fascinated by the Latin word Jerome chose to stand in its place: diligere.

Even if you’ve never studied Latin or picked up a copy of the Vulgate, diligere may look familiar to you. It is from this word that we have derived our English word diligence, which is typically used in reference to hard work and perseverance.

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This connection is not an accident, and the journey that turned a Latin word for “love” into an English word for “good work” is a beautiful illustration of the nature of both love and labor.

A jaunt through the fascinating linguistic history of diligere has a lot to teach us, and it may reenchant us with the transformative power of the love to which Christ calls us. It may also present a very timely lesson for Christ followers living in an age of inattentiveness and distraction.

A quick glance at a standard Latin dictionary, such as the 1879 version of Harpers’ Latin Dictionary, will tell you that diligeremeans “to single out, value, esteem, prize, love.” To gain a full understanding of the word’s history and meaning, though, we need to go even further back. Diligere is a compound word formed from the Latin prefix dis-, meaning “apart,” and the Proto-Indo-European root leg-, meaning “choose” or “gather.”

This combination—meaning literally “to choose apart (from others)”—makes sense of Jerome’s early usage of the Latin term. Diligere effectively means to single something or someone out, value it highly, and treat it with commensurate honor and affection.

In a commentary on the Vulgate text of Psalm 18, where diligere is used for the Hebrew word for “love,” the Roman statesman and scholar Cassiodorus puts it this way: “Diligo is said as if I choose [one thing] out of everything” (translation by Dan Bellum).

At its heart, then, diligere is about selection—the choice to hold fast to one thing above all others. In its earliest history, diligere communicates willful devotion. We would be wise to consider how that root remains in the heart of our own language today: Diligence denotes a kind of practical devotion.

This history makes clear why Jerome chose to translate agape as diligere: Diligere beautifully illustrates the heart of the Great Commandment. When Jesus commands us to love the Lord and our neighbors, he is commanding us to make a conscious and often difficult choice: to devote ourselves to others and to their good. He is commanding us to pluck them out from the crowded field of demands on our attention and affection and to elevate them to a position of value and esteem.

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This is not merely the experience of affection—this is the kind of loving devotion that can be commanded. And we are commanded to make this difficult choice every day, consistently and repeatedly.

This is the first lesson from diligere. To love God and our neighbors—to fulfill the law of God at its very core—is to choose them. I am reminded of this daily by the three little words my wife had engraved on the inside of my wedding ring: I choose you. Choice and devotion are the bedrock of biblical love, and this bedrock is visible even in the words themselves.

That alone is a beautiful and transformative idea. But diligere has yet more to teach us.

The verb diligere branched out further to create more words and meanings. One of these, the Latin term diligentia, is defined in Harpers’ Latin Dictionary as “attentiveness,” “assiduity,” “earnestness,” or other related words. The famed Roman orator Cicero calleddiligentia the “single virtue on which all other virtues are dependent.” High praise indeed!

Cicero’s praise of diligentia stems from its place at the center of a web of related virtues—“carefulness, mental concentration, reflection, watchfulness, persistence, and hard work.” Every one of these qualities derives from a single starting point: willful devotion. This is how diligentia comes to be derived from diligere.

Whether or not God shares Cicero’s assessment of its rank among virtues, diligentia has much to do with Christian love.

After all, how can you be persistent in a task to which you are not devoted? How can you be careful unless you care? Hard work only feels worthwhile if it is powered by underlying diligere—abiding, willful dedication to the object of your love and attention. In this way, a word for the activity of love gave birth to a word for the quality of careful attentiveness.

We will return to the significance of attentiveness, but it’s worth first exploring how we landed at today’s concept of diligence.

Over the centuries, diligentia continued to evolve, eventually taking on the form diligence in Old French. In the 18th century, a large stagecoach for long journeys in France and England was called a “diligence,” with the implication that a “diligence coach” would be swift, sure, and reliable—ideal for long, important journeys.

It wasn’t long before the term was applied more broadly, eventually producing our familiar English form of the word diligent. It’s a word that’s familiar to most of us, albeit with a slightly stripped-down meaning.

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“Work diligently, son.” Those were my father’s simple instructions to me the first time I was employed for work outside my own home. It was a favorite word of his, and I heard it frequently enough that it soon became a key part of my own vocabulary.

The concept of a good “work ethic” and a general sense of diligence as wholehearted, persevering labor came to occupy a central place in my understanding of my father. As far as I knew, diligence meant something like “good old-fashioned hard work.” That’s not a bad place to start. Although diligence certainly doesn’t mean less than that, it turns out that it means a whole lot more.

In recent years, more attention has been given to what the Bible has to say about work, and the church has benefited from a more robust interest in what might be called the theology of work. I am grateful for the Theology of Work Project and for the writings of Tim Keller, Tom Nelson, and others who have contributed to this vital conversation.

Scripture contains a great wealth of wisdom pertaining to the meaning, nature, and purpose of work, from the first pages of the Bible to the last. Whether you are a pastor, a plumber, or a parent, you are commanded to “work heartily, as for the Lord” (Col. 3:23).

Work is inextricably tied to love, devotion, and care. To work diligently in the broadest and deepest historical sense means to bring all these qualities to bear on our daily tasks.

We have already seen how diligere—the act of choosing something (or someone) and willfully devoting yourself to it—can reshape our understanding of love. We also ought see how it can revolutionize our thinking about work.

Let’s face it: Most of the work we do is not work we choose to do. Most of our day-to-day tasks are not done out of personal passion. There’s not much we can do about that.

The trouble is, we tend to put a lot more diligentia—that is, care and attentiveness—into tasks we enjoy. It’s easy to be fastidious about something you’re passionate about; it’s a lot harder to care deeply about the details when you’re just going through the motions to get something done. Sometimes that’s okay; not every task requires deep engagement.

But what about the unpleasant tasks that do? How can we cultivate a character of diligence in the day-to-day drudgery? It all comes down to choice—to diligere.

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When Jesus commands us to love the Lord and to love our neighbors, he is commanding us to make a choice: the choice to value, prioritize, and act for the good of the other. This first choice—the choice to be devoted to another—necessarily pushes us to make further choices.

We must choose to bring the same level of care and investment to the work we do for the sake of others that we bring to the work that furthers our own interests. We must choose, through preparation and in the moment, to remain focused, attentive, and persistent in the day-to-day tasks of care and involvement in the lives of others.

Choices that define Christian diligence are ones that require us to pour out our heart, mind, soul, and strength and allow our self-love to be eclipsed by love for others.

This reframing of diligence does not make our duties easier. On the contrary, it raises the bar higher. An exalted vision of diligence could be deeply discouraging—how can you or I ever hope to live up to this? Perfect diligence is out of reach for us creatures with rhythms of attentiveness and easily broken concentration.

But isn’t that true of every virtue worth pursuing? Isn’t that God’s modus operandi—to set before us a bar we cannot hope to clear on our own and then promise us his daily grace as we grow into good and godly living?

Diligentia presents a particularly relevant challenge to Christians in our current age. Love demands attentiveness—something that is in increasingly short supply.

In 2015, Time magazine reported a shocking bit of misinformation: The average Canadian attention span has become shorter than that of a goldfish. The comparison has been debunked many times but is still frequently cited. Nevertheless, research done by Gloria Mark at the University of California, Irvine, does show that half of the time, our focus on a task is fewer than 40 seconds.

A key factor in this worsening problem is a drastic increase in what Mark calls “attention-switching,” which refers to the process of actively shifting our attention from one task to another. This process takes time and effort, so the more often we shift gears from one thing to another, the more time and energy we expend on the simple process of transferring attention. Other factors, including increased stress and sleep deprivation, exacerbate the issue.

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This is probably not the first time you’re hearing of this problem, as awareness of the attention crisis has grown in recent years. With this growing awareness has come an array of proposed solutions, including tech minimalism, discipline around sleep, meditation, and modified expectations for employees. The trouble is that growing awareness has not solved our problem.

Could it be that the biblical definition of love may directly combat the attention crisis? Might an old Latin dictionary provide resources to fight back against a 21st-century tribulation?

I don’t want to overstate my case—a fun linguistics fact is not enough to fix PTSD or sleeplessness or to tear down the sociological structures that have given rise to the attention crisis. But I do believe that followers of Jesus are uniquely equipped—and indeed commanded—to be a bulwark against distracted, inattentive living.

With the crisis of attention growing worse, the virtue of diligentia is all the more valuable. That is why it’s worth reminding ourselves of its place at the heart of diligence, and even at the heart of real Christian love.

If we want to live out a truly biblical definition of love, we must develop an ability to be careful and attentive. This takes time and practice. I’ve come to believe diligence is an even bigger part of love than good old-fashioned acts of kindness and service.

Regardless of all the obstacles in our way, Jesus is so bold as to command us to love diligently—to make the daily, willful choice to devote ourselves to others and to God; to be present, attentive, caring, and committed; and to imbue every task with the kind of steadfast diligentia that we naturally invest in our own interests.

We as followers of Jesus should be known for being present and attentive just as much as we should be known for our kindness to strangers and our love for enemies.

Every day, you will be called to do something you would rather not do or to show love to someone you don’t care for. Every day, you will face attention snatchers. And every day, I pray that the Lord will bring this little phrase to mind, as he has so often done for me: Do diligence.

Benjamin Vincent is assistant pastor at Journey of Faith Bellflower and teaches at Pacifica Christian High School in Newport Beach, California.

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