Thursday, October 1, 2009

Christian Love, Part 2

I’ve been reading the latest issue of Parabola (Fall 2009), and an article about Sufism, “When the Fruit is Consumed by God: An Interview with Sheikha Fariha” (pp. 74-81). In the introduction, the interviewer notes that he was looking for the sheikh of a local Sufi order when he stopped by a recommended pizza parlor with a friendly owner. As it turned out, the sheikh of the order was the man who made the pizza there. Among other interesting topics, the article connected the Sufis' longing for God and their service in the world.

I like to read about other religions partly because I start mulling about aspects of my own faith. In this case, I thought about the way we Christians love God.

Loving God, like loving another person, isn't always a happy honeymoon. Sheikha Fariha, for instance, discussed the need for a guide to help a Sufi seeker continue on the path. John Wesley is the well-known founder of the Methodist movement, and in 1766, when he was 63, he wrote the following candid thoughts to his brother Charles. The brackets indicate places where historian Richard Heitzenrater translates Wesley’s Greek terms.

"In one of my last, I was saying I do not feel the wrath of God abiding on me; nor can I believe it does. And yet (this is the mystery), I do not love God. I never did. Therefore I never believed, in the Christian sense of the word. Therefore I am only an honest heathen, a proselyte of the Temple, one of the [God-fearers]. And yet, to be so employed of God! And so hedged in that I can neither get forward or backward! Surely there never was such an instance before, from the beginning of the world! If I ever have had that faith, it would not be so strange. But I never had any other [evidence] of the eternal or invisible world than I have now; and that is none at all, unless such as faintly shines from reason’s glimmering ray. I have no direct witness (I do not say, that I am a child of God, but) of anything invisible or eternal." [1]

What a remarkable admission! This is nearly thirty years after Wesley’s famous experience of the “warmed heart” which had been such a profound event for his Christian pilgrimage, and many years into his overall ministry. As Heitzenrater notes, other people had told him similar things. Was Wesley a fraud, or was he trusting God amid his own limitations?

Of course we love God with our emotional feelings, but feelings are notoriously changeable and inaccurate. I remember times in my life, for instance, when I felt very lonely and believed I was not a good person. Looking back, I think: what about all the people who loved me? Were they irrelevant? I wouldn’t have thought them irrelevant, but my sad feelings were so strong. Of course, I thought God didn’t think much of me, either--what a “pitiful” kind of spirituality, completely different from the liberating, empowering Gospel! I had the love of God but I didn't feel it.

Because of our feelings, we can also feel condemned by God when, in fact, we are not. I love this Martin Luther quote: “Troubled consciences are like geese. When hawks pursue them, they try to escape by flying, though they could do it better by running. On the other hand, when the wolves threaten them, they try to escape by running, though they could do it safely by flying. So when their consciences are oppressed, men run first here, then there; they try first this, then that work … the one true and sure way of healing the conscience is what David [in Psalm 51:8] calls “sprinkling,” by which the Word [that is, the free justification of sinners through God’s grace alone, not our good deeds] is heard and received.” [2] We need to hold to God’s promises in God’s word when our feelings and faith aren’t “meshing” very well. (The converse is also true: we could feel very smug in our faith but actually be drifting from God).

Unfortunately, I also associate the love of God (in any religion) with an touchy or angry defensiveness when one’s religion seems persecuted. I’ve felt frustrated when friends were up in arms about a political issue which, to them, makes them feel angry and persecuted in their faith. Somehow, a fervent love of God translates into (often knee-jerk) political outrage which, to me anyway, never sounds very loving. In this case, a person might feel emotionally filled with God's love but also filled with some very negative feelings.

Loving God is indivisible with loving others, including people whom we might otherwise despise. Oops! That makes love of God a much more difficult prospect than having loving emotional feelings toward God. But the prospect of loving others can also give us an excellent guide to our progress in loving God.

Read Romans 12:9-21. Although the Greek biblical word agape is well-known and means a Christian kind of love, I actually prefer the Hebrew word hesed, which can be translated “steadfast love” or “loving kindness.“ “Love” is easy to say and to declare, but loving-kindness (hesed) implies something active. This Romans passage describes so well aspects of an active, self-giving love: you treat your persecutors with kindness and benevolence, you try to abandon your feelings of pride and stubbornness, you refrain from cultivating your inner, vengeful feelings and from taking revenge, you work together with people without competing for praise and credit.

These are difficult things, emotionally and practically. Haven’t you met Christians who had a “don’t mess with me” approach to life? Haven't you met Christians who were gossips (or you spread gossip, too)? It's difficult to bring negative feelings and habits in line with God's love. We'd rather not pray for blessings for people who are jerks and worse; we'd rather get back at them. Forgiveness is difficult; bitter feelings lodge in our souls and resist healing. Love requires prayer, strength, common sense, and advice from friends. Love is not just an emotion but always entails doing good for others, as God does good for us (1 John 3:17-18, 4:7-8).

And yet ... how happy we can become, when we can grow past difficult, bitter, or selfish feelings and love others as God loves us! The Gospel is good news because God loves us undeservedly, no matter how we feel. In turn, God does not expect us to love others through our own psychological efforts, but instead gives us power, grace, and an indefinite number of new chances to love.

Loving and serving others seems to have been Wesley’s secret for dealing with his faith-struggles. Wesley had a busy career of preaching and administration but also writing and hands-on service. Heitzenrater notes that “Wesley always seems to have had the ability to preach beyond the limits of his own faith… Since the first days of his field preaching, John Wesley’s own sense of assurance had been buoyed up by the gospel. He considered this evidence of God’s activity in to other persons as an important means of his perceiving God’s providence and of knowing God’s will. And he was becoming more aware that God’s presence in his life did not always depend upon his perception of it” (pp. 224-225).

If someone like Wesley had struggles with his faith, then you and I can use his example amid our own longings for God!

1. Richard P. Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodists (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p. 224.

2. Luther’s Works, Selected Psalms 1 (St Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1955), Volume 12, page 368.

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