Saturday, January 05, 2013

Love God with your will

Jesus said,
Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven....Therefore, whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock.... (Matt. 7:21,24)
Here Jesus enters into a rabbinic dispute of the day: Which is more important--to hear the Torah, the Law, or to do it? Remarkably, Jesus applies this question to his own words. He puts his own sayings on a par with the will of the Father and, tacitly, with the Torah itself. That estimate of oneself and of the status of one's words and commands was not standard rabbinic practice! This is just one of those passages that utterly blows away the many pseudo-historical pictures of Jesus foisted upon us by faddish "scholarship"--Jesus the (merely) great teacher, Jesus the (mere) man, Jesus whose omniscience was so radically emptied that he was gradually discovering himself and his nature and mission throughout his ministry on earth. That is not Jesus as the Scriptures show him to us. Rather, Jesus knows quite well who he is and what he is here for, and Jesus speaks with a quiet authority that drops like a bombshell into the lives of his hearers. Hence "the people were astonished at his doctrine, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes."

The first and great commandment, we are reliably told, is "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind."

But what does it mean to love God? There are, no doubt, some saintly souls to whom the love of God comes naturally, who find themselves spontaneously filled with love for God in their private and public worship, and who never suffer from the sneaking worry that they are just ginning up their own emotions. I am not among those. To me, God is not vivid. He is a spirit, and I have little idea of what it will be like to have the beatific vision, to "see him as he is" to "know even as also I am known." The solution to that, in Christian theology, is supposed to be the Incarnation: "No man hath seen God at any time," but "the only begotten Son...he hath declared him."

Very well, then, what does it mean to love Jesus? I recently heard a song, new to me, called "The Stranger of Galilee." I have to admit, it didn't resonate. It says, "And I felt I could love him forever,/So gracious and tender was He." Hmmm, really? Read the Gospels. Go ahead; read them. Is your first response to Jesus there to "feel that you could love him forever"? Would that have been your initial reaction had you known him in person? If so, you're a better man than I am, so to speak. I might have been curious about him, fascinated, disturbed, but also, I suspect, annoyed. Just who does this man think he is? Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels is incredibly compelling but not a fuzzy bunny you want to stroke. You take him or leave him as he is, with eternal consequences. Your opinion of his graciousness and tenderness is neither asked nor required.

So if one's ability truly to love God and truly to desire God, to want God above all things, in the sense of experiencing a psychologically and emotionally sensible desire for ultimate union with God the Father or with Jesus Christ, is the measure of a soul's health, I'm in trouble. Of course, that's hardly a reductio of the position that desiring God is the ultimate measure of spiritual health. Probably most of us are, to one extent or another, at most times in our lives, spiritually "in trouble." But the concern here is that there is little one can do about it and that God would not demand something and then sit back and not give us the capacity to fulfill those demands. If the wise writings of C.S. Lewis have taught me one thing (and they have taught me many) it is that it is spiritual folly to try to make oneself feel certain things because one thinks that is what one ought to feel.

This is where the will comes in. Can we not say that to try to unite one's will with God's will is to love God? To ask, sincerely, that "thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven," and to commit oneself to doing, to the best of one's ability, what is required of oneself to that end, is to respond to Jesus' words: "Whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock." It may be beyond my scope to desire God in the abstract, but I can desire in the concrete that nothing in myself should stand in the way of God's glory and the fulfillment of God's will on earth, that I should, rather, be a tool used to that end.

And it seems to me, though I speak under correction, that at that point "he'll take care of the rest."


John said...

Hi Lydia,

I had to (wanted to) read this one twice. My reflection is that we see, in Jesus, a God who is the consummate partner in relationship. He is genuine to the disdain of any games whatsoever, yet trustworthy beyond doubt. And it is said that the covenant relationship that God offers makes Him very predictable. Top all this off with a forgiveness that is full of grace and that restores the fallen, and it steals our hearts.

You are quite right, that the appeal of God is not that generated by the cinematography of Hollywood, using personas brimming with charisma and sexual attractiveness. This is precisely the representation of God that Jesus, revealed in Scripture, does not offer. And as you found in one song, the Jesus worshiped by many seems to be a Hollywood mock-up of the real thing.

And your look forward to the vision of God that will be ours on entering eternity, still pulls us to a Hollywood finale. Maybe it will not be like that. Maybe seeing each other "as we are" means that we will see not stunning visual effects, but seeing, face to face, the One who has revealed perfect relational qualities.

And your notion of loving God with your will gets right to the heart of covenant relating. It is posts like these that truly make me grateful for finding your blog(s), Lydia!

Lydia McGrew said...

I don't mind the absence of stunning visual effects in imagining the beatific vision. I just have trouble imagining it in the concrete at all. Which is actually probably as it should be. It would probably bring it down to an earthly level of some kind or another to make it too vivid. Dante's heavenly rose (all the people sitting around in tiers in a kind of amphitheater, looking toward the center) is interesting precisely because it is not very interesting. That is to say, unless one _really_ likes sitting around in seats in tiers in an amphitheater, it isn't in itself a terribly attractive picture. Yet Dante is a wonderful poet because when he talks about looking at what they are all looking at and communing with God, he really does make the reader, if only for a moment, _desire_ that communion and, especially, that perfection of understanding and peace.

On the other hand, when I think of heaven chiefly in terms of peace (which I often do), I wonder if this is "instrumentalizing God," valuing God for what he can give me rather than for what he is in himself.

On the other hand yet again, there is no point in trying to make oneself feel things. A better thing to do than saying to oneself, "How shallow you are! You only value heaven because you will be at peace there!" would be to take that concept of the peace of God and relate it to both his character and to theological truths like freedom from sin and the like.

Beth Impson said...

Oh, this is so wonderful to read. There are other people like me who think and live this way! Thank you, thank you for posting this!

Lydia McGrew said...

I'm so glad it was useful, Beth. I often think of things like "knowing God" and "desiring God" and try to have an idea of what that should be like, but I often feel that I'm not quite sure. This after being a Christian all my life.

Beth Impson said...

Me, too, Lydia. After many, many conversations with my students over the years, who are being raised in a culture that values emotion above all else, I'm beginning to wonder if those of us who don't experience God emotionally as a normal thing are here precisely to remind people that love is not just a feeling. It's action -- obedience, good works, forgiveness, etc. that demonstrate that God has made a difference in the way we live and want to live by the sacrifice of His Son and the indwelling of the Spirit. You might enjoy this post at Inscapes:

Lydia McGrew said...

Good post, Beth. I think that those moments are what our Catholic brethren refer to as "consolations," if I'm not mistaken. One prays for such "consolations," but they come or not as God wills.

I admit that one of the reasons I enjoy gospel music so much is because it has the potential at times and for certain songs to call forth Christian emotion--gratitude, anticipation of heaven, love of God.

There are those who consider this _very_ dangerous in music, a kind of emotional indulgence. One blogger I'm acquainted with even referred to it as a form of gluttony.

I don't see it that way, though I think one could become too dependent on the emotions conjured by the words and music. Perhaps that is something that people from certain Christian subcultures don't watch out for enough.

The greatest danger of emotional Christianity, as you imply, is thinking that *you are bad* if you aren't feeling the right things. I know of one young lady who will go up to a Christian she has just met and say, "So, how's your relationship with Jesus Christ?" While I appreciate the emphasis on relationship, and while there is something refreshing about such a lack of inhibition, it is difficult to escape the sense that she would be unsatisfied if the person admitted to *feeling* very little in his relationship with Jesus.

Beth Impson said...

Thanks, Lydia.

Music can indeed be dangerously manipulative -- but I've known people who use the Word itself manipulatively. Anything that is good can be abused; that doesn't mean the good thing ought to be avoided! Music helps me to worship, too, as long as there is substance to it. (There's a reason I don't go to college chapel except when I'm required to.)

I have a friend who asks me that same exact question! She is very intense and very sensitive to her own feelings of love and adoration in response to the love she feels from the Lord, and I love that for her. But I actually have to prepare myself for any time I will be alone with her so that I don't go ballistic when she asks me that, and will have an answer ready that is both honest and won't get her into a critique of my spiritual state.

My biggest worry is for our youth who have been taught to gauge their relationship with the Lord by how they feel on any given day. And that way disaster lies, because how you feel is not a reliable gauge for anything. Wise married people don't use their feelings to gauge the state of their marriage or their love for each other, nor should we do so with the One who created us.

Lydia McGrew said...

Wise warning regarding feelings. I was giving a talk to my girls about this on Epiphany. The subject was faith vs. sight. I used C.S. Lewis's idea that faith is opposed not to reason but to feelings and instinct. So, for example, we may sometimes not _feel_ like God loves us or like we have a true relationship with him. Faith is holding on at those times. I told them that there will come times in their lives, if they have not come already, when they will be trying to pray and will *feel* like God is not hearing them, like God does not exist, like they are just fools talking to themselves. I said that the Devil will use those times to insinuate doubt, not doubt arising from any evidence but simply from feelings.

That is the time to have faith, to hold on to what you know to be true in the face of feelings to the contrary.

Lydia McGrew said...

I was thinking about your friend, Beth, and here's a funny thing: I often say, and mean it, that one reason evangelical Christians and fundamentalists are as a rule more successful at discipling their young people than mainline denominations is because "low Protestants" are not ashamed or embarrassed to talk explicitly to their young people about their relationship with Jesus Christ and to challenge them to keep that relationship alive and vibrant. I have even said that it is important to nag your children and not to be embarrassed to say these kinds of things to them. So it might seem inconsistent for me to be feeling embarrassed about my young friend and your friend who go up to individuals and ask them that question: "How is your relationship with Jesus Christ?"

I have to think about that. One difference of course is that I was envisaging parents or youth leaders or other people who really are in some sense responsible for the souls of those under their care. Another difference is that I wasn't necessarily envisaging asking someone a question in a context where he has to answer. I was more thinking about exhortations, Bible studies, sermons, and the like, where the young people could keep silent and just ponder rather than _having_ to give an account of their spiritual health.

Still, I think there could be a place for challenging someone fairly directly: "Son, I'm concerned about the direction you're going/your attitude/your friends, etc., and I was wondering about your relationship with Jesus Christ."

What you and I seem to be reacting somewhat negatively to is a person who stands in _no_ such relationship to the other person and has _no_ reason specifically to be concerned who just comes up to an adult and demands that the adult give an account: "Stand and deliver: How is your relationship with Jesus Christ? Tell me. Now." Which seems rather rude and also like it could encourage an overly emotional religion.

Beth Impson said...

I like to talk with students who are too emotionally bent about that great scene in _Jane Eyre_ where she is torn almost in two by her desire to live with Rochester and her knowledge that this would be grave sin. She comes to the conclusion, of course, that she is precisely in the kind of situation where what she has been taught about right and wrong is supposed to give her strength to do what is right despite her feelings. I don't have the book handy, but her speech to herself on the subject is very bracing, and I've often had occasion to remind myself of it.

I think you are probably right about how we react to certain questions. I appreciate my friend's caring and her desire to know how I am. However, I have great difficulty with that question and with ones like, "Well, what have you been learning from the Lord lately?" It's like asking me what's my favorite book. There's simply no good answer, no quick answer, no definite answer, most of the time. Maybe I've just finished re-reading an old favorite and can claim it for the moment. Maybe the Lord really has just brought my attention to some specific thing I can mention. But usually I just have to say "I don't know; lots, nothing, the same old, same old . . ." And then I feel like I'm not quite as spiritual or book-loving as I should be! :)

Lydia McGrew said...

I wonder what people would say if one said, "You know, I had such-and-such a thought lately, but I can't be absolutely sure that it was specially given to me by the Lord, because I have no reliable way of distinguishing thoughts that come to me in natural ways and are permitted from the Lord from those thoughts that are specifically and miraculously _given_ to me by the Lord. Do you?" :-)

Beth Impson said...

I rather like that! One of my colleagues often says that he wishes people wouldn't say that their poems and stories and songs were "given to them by the Lord" -- because way too much bad literature and music has already been blamed on Him. I am very sympathetic to this view!