Love Story

I have this against you, that you have abandoned your first love. Revelation 2:4

The above sentence is best understood when read in the light of Revelation’s last few chapters. There the church is revealed as “a bride adorned for her husband” who has made herself ready for “the marriage supper of the Lamb”.

The Bible is a story about a Bridegroom and his bride.

The imagery of this divine union is found early in Genesis, and it reaches its climax in the last chapters of Revelation. In Genesis we read about the union of the first Adam and his bride, in Revelation we read about the union of the Last Adam and his bride.

Everything in between is a commentary on this divine romance, a glorious love story of love lost and found.

Humans are obsessed with this story, even if they won’t acknowledge it. Our movies and books are filled with it: Boy meets girl, fall in love, split up and reunite. And then they live happily ever after. This is the grand narrative of the ages. This gospel is written on our hearts, and it is a tragedy if we fail to make the link between this deep intuition, this overriding passion, and our “Christian theology.”

I always marvel how easy it is for new believers to grasp the above. Their love affair with their Lord is plain to see. They are dizzy with joy and oblivious to the call of all other lovers. For them, Jesus Christ is all.

Unfortunately, the passion of the heart tends to become the knowledge of the head after a while, and then “first love” fades away like morning mist.

Love for God was never intended to be temporary. It is freely given at first, but it requires careful cultivation to become permanent.

Lessons from a Lost Son

In his classic work The Return of the Prodigal Son Henri Nouwen offers some penetrating insights into the symbolism behind the younger son’s departure. He says: “Leaving home is living as though I do not yet have a home and must look far and wide to find one. It is a denial that I belong to God with every part of my being, that God holds me safe in an eternal embrace, that I am indeed carved in the palms of God’s hands and hidden in their shadows.”

The prodigal son experienced what we would call today an “identity crisis”, a term coined by the sociologist Eric Erikson to describe that period in our teens when we struggle to dissociate ourselves from our parents with the hope of forming a secure identity. This explains the turbulence of those years. We are like strangers in a storm looking for the bridge that will take us to adulthood and safety.

The prodigal tried to solve his particular crisis by dreaming of a “distant country” where he believed he would discover himself. He had not come to terms with the fact that he was the beloved of the father, and that this constituted his identity. Instead, he chose to be defined by the world.

In his book Nouwen draws a striking parallel between the prodigal’s fantasies and the temptations of Christ. Satan offered Christ instant gratification, worldly treasures and the acclaim of the people – a shortcut to self actualisation. Yet Christ resisted these: He had just heard the voice of his Father, saying “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

These words tell us who we are and where our true home is. When we are in touch with our sonship, as Christ was, we become immune to the onslaughts of the tempter.

A Love that Fills

As promised…

I bow my knees before the Father… that you may have strength to comprehend… the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Ephesians 3:14-19

The “fullness of God” is a subject that has been receiving a lot of airtime lately. Everyone wants to be full of the Lord, it seems.

The problem is that not everyone agrees on how to receive this fullness. Some think they need an evangelist to pray for them during a revival service and shout “Fill!” Others retreat to a quiet place, such as nature, and spend time in deep contemplation before the Lord, waiting to receive the Spirit’s fullness. Others believe that the Lord only fills the obedient, and so they try to live blamelessly. And so on.

Whilst all of the above may be perfectly legitimate expressions of Christian devotion, the Bible portrays the fullness of God differently. According to Paul, a Christian can only be “filled with all the fullness of God” as the result of a profound revelation: The comprehension of “the breadth and length and height and depth” of Christ’s love.

To know this love, Paul says, surpasses knowledge. It cannot be taught in a classroom, studied at a seminary or learned during a clever sermon. The lover does not use messengers. He himself wants to say to the beloved “I love you.” This explains why Paul does not lecture the Ephesians on this topic, but prays to God that he will reveal it to them.

The Bible is a divine love story. The good news is that you are the bride on whom the Bridegroom wants to bestow his love, and herein lies your fullness.

Love Over Coffee

I went for a bike ride this morning and ended up sipping a hot cuppa in the corner of a delightful coffee shop. What a blessing to enjoy God’s goodness and beauty in the small things of life! Truly, he is everywhere if we would only look.

As I paged through the day’s paper my eyes fell on a quote by Albert Schweitzer: “Success does not lead to happiness, happiness leads to success.” How true.

It took me many years to discover that God’s perfection is best expressed in humanity’s contentment. (By the way, this has been a cornerstone of many Christians’ theological understanding long before John Piper was born, and you most certainly do not need to be a Calvinist to grasp it!) Our satisfaction testifies to the sufficiency of God’s grace, to put it differently. This means that Christians are meant to be truly happy people. It also means that if you are not truly happy, you are missing some pieces of your theological puzzle or its application to your life.

Perhaps a personal reference would be in order here. I came into this world with an inexplicable melancholia that ended up haunting me on a near daily basis. This continued for many years after my conversion. I eventually concluded (rather prideful, I should add), that the hollow emptiness at the core of my being was the downside of my artistic and bookish inclinations. And so I imagined myself as being in the same band as Hemmingway, Churchill and all the tortured poets who constantly had to fight their suicidal tendencies.

I was mistaken. My “impenetrable fog”, as Abe Lincoln used to refer to his depression, vanished when the sun of God’s love shone over it. And in its stead an indescribable joy bubbled up from deep within. I was no tortured genius. I was a poor lost soul who took way too long to grasp the central message of the Bible, namely that God loves me just as (JUST AS, get it?) he loves Christ. When that penny dropped my years of theological training, articles I had written, sermons I had preached and theological battles I had fought underwent a baptism of mammoth proportions. And what emerged was… new. Very new. In fact, so new that it appeared to be a different gospel to the one that I had been spreading for many years. Paul put it well: It all amounted to nothing because it was not based on love.

The man who writes these words is now a very, very happy man. I am indeed obsessed with the love of God. I sleep it, drink it, think it, talk it, preach it. This discovery has been my treasure in the field, and I gladly rid myself of everything in order to buy the field and unearth the treasure. And what a treasure it is! I have subsequently discovered that the two greatest motivators on planet earth, fear and fullness (or happiness, if you wish), are directly linked to the love of God, the former negatively and the latter positively. I have discovered even more, much more than I can ever share with words. This chest has no bottom. Truly, the love of God is beyond description. It is as infinite as God is infinite, for God is love. And if all else pass away, love will remain… and remain… and remain…

I dedicated my weekly newspaper column to this glorious truth. As it will only be out tomorrow, I cannot post it yet. But I will do so the moment it hits the streets.