Thursday, March 24, 2011

Love Like Ocean Depths

"[W]hat the Bible says about the love of God is more complex and nuanced than what is allowed by mere sloganeering."
-- D.A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God

What every believer in every age is challenged to do is resist the innate compulsion to flatten out the expansive love of God. His lovingkindness is everlasting. God is in fact love. We then rush headlong into sentimental distortions, self-centered appropriations, assuming that to know simply that God is love is to know simply what this love is like. "Love demands freedom," we want to say.

Does it?

Love demands giving the loved what he or she wants. And by this, hell is maintained: a la Lewis, the doors are locked from the inside, yes?

No. If my daughter is unaware of the Mack truck bearing down on her, or she is aware that putting her finger in a light socket will electrocute her but she wants to do it anyway, do I love her if I am able to intervene but defer to her freedom? Or am I loving to tackle her out of the truck's way, to slap her hand away from the socket?

Perhaps the latter, and since God loves everyone, it means he will some day tackle everyone, including the unrepentant and dead haters of God, out of the way. But this not only fails to maintain hell, it fails to maintain justice. Is the alternative now that God does not love everyone?

Or maybe the reality is a love more multifaceted than we can understand with finite, fallen minds. Maybe the reality is that the God of the Bible is as transcendent as he is immanent, that his ways are inscrutable, that his love is glorious and astonishing precisely because it is too wonderful for us. Maybe the heights and breadths of God's love do not refer merely to its size but its complexity.

In the hymn "O Love That Will Not Let Me Go," we sing of the "ocean depths" of God's love. It is deep like the ocean, and not just in fathoms and leagues, but in diversity and complexity. There are clear shallows to play in and opaque depths of mystery. There are hidden places in the ocean, places we will never see, places too deep for us to go. There are things about the ocean depths small children can understand, things marine biologists still haven't figured out, and things nobody will ever discover to even have the opportunity to scrutinize.

And then, since we are alleged people of the Book, we know that the unfathomable oceans of God's love do not exist in a vacuum, hermetically sealed off from all the other "things" God is and God does. God's oceanic love occupies space in the perfect balance of the infinite universe of all his attributes.

It is a sad irony, then, that the ever-fashionable impulse to do justice to the depths of God's love amount to a very dramatic exercise in one-dimensionalism. This is polyhedronal stuff, man. Woe to the flatteners of what is hyperspatial, multi-dimensional, intra-Trinitarian, eternal in ways awesomer than "one year after another."

We can feel the weight of this inscrutable awesomeness in Paul's prayer in Ephesians 3:14-19:
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is 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.
We may know a love that is beyond our knowing. (We are given the amount we need in the cross of Christ, itself a comprehensible prelude to incomprehensible "subsequent glories"). But we will need the strength of Spiritual power in our insidest insides to scratch the surface of this comprehension. We won't even come close with our cliches and sentimentality.


Gabe said...

Great post, as usual.

I tend to disagree with Lewis on his vehement defense of absolute freewill, but I believe that were I able to sit and discuss it with him, I would find us closer to one another with semantics removed.

Further, I am not sure I buy the whole, "Rob Bell is just our C.S. Lewis argument" either. And here's my rational and well explored argument to that statement, "Nuh-uh!"

I should probably keep thinking and researching and praying over that.

Jared said...

I think there is a sense in which Lewis is right, and many aspects of his view (and Wright's) resonate with me. We are responsible for our rejection of God, so in that way, God is giving the condemned "what they want."

But I don't believe that those in hell still want to be there. If given the choice, I think they would want to get out. In Lewis's (alleged) viewpoint, those in hell continue daily choosing the hell they're in. In some places, Lewis denies that God sends people to hell, because he doesn't have to: they are going there "on their own steam." I think the Scriptures clearly show otherwise -- that he does send, throw, whatever word we prefer people into hell -- and I don't understand why he cannot be a compatibilist on this matter like he is on salvation.

There are several vivid ways Bell is not like Lewis at all, and one of the biggest is that Lewis wrote with clarity. We can't speak for the dead, obviously, but I do think if Lewis were alive today he'd find Bell's coyness insulting and immature.

Gabe said...

Well said. Yes, I think that Lewis did write so clearly and absolutely. In fact, he often repeated himself ten ways just to make sure his readers knew without a doubt what he thought of something. And if he ever 'hid' something in his writing, he didn't leave it hidden.

I struggle between the ideas of free will and free desire and Lewis has helped me in some of that, but I do see what you mean about the doors locked from the inside. That said, I think I was watching something from Washer who described hell as being filled with, in essence, 'pure' men who hate Jesus and regardless of their torment, would rather be there. And that to describe them as having a desire to be free of hell would be to describe them as able to desire God, which they don't.

It's such a tangled and strange topic and I thank God there are people really beginning to engage and talk about it now.

Estelle des Chevaliers said...

I don't think I know anybody that "hates" god. I know some to do not acknowledge the existance of an invisible man in the sky who zapped everything into existance only 6000 years ago, but that is indifference, not hatred.

Bill Blair said...


I think you are correct in saying that people do not want Hell. I think there is a consistent human desire to want the blessings of God without wanting God himself. Idolatry is centered on this goal. I'll sacrifice something to the farm god so my crops grow. I do this not because I want fellowship with the god, but because I want the blessing I think it will give. If Hell is the absence of God, then clearly the damned choose *not God*, but since the things they lust for are gone then one would suspect they would not want to be there.

If you go back to Genesis 3 Adam and Eve did not choose to leave the Garden, God drove them out and then guarded the tree of life with a flaming sword. By the way some people talk, you would have thought they wandered out on their own. Clearly they chose disobedience knowing the consequences, but it was God who brought such consequences about. I think we can apply something similar with Hell where people are there because they choose *not God*, but it is God who brings the consequences of their choice.

Jared said...

I don't believe in an invisible man in the sky either.

Estelle, sincere opposition is welcome. Trolling is not.

Jared said...

Bill, good and thoughtful stuff. Hadn't thought of the garden expulsion.

To connect your thoughts to Gabe's last comment, I think I'd say that someone in hell may want to be free of hell but not under God's yoke in the same way some professing Christians this side of the afterlife don't seem to want God so much as they don't want hell.

Gabe said...

There's a video of Piper defending his statement "God is the gospel" by saying that you can't just want heaven and not care whether the King of that heaven is there or not. In juxtaposition, you can't 'dislike' hell enough (to use both literal and Facebook terms, for the win) to evade it. You have to want Jesus as the only Way, the only Truth and the only Life, not just, "Hell looks too warm for my liking."

Jared, I'd like to know your thoughts on this idea and this seems like a fitting post to ask:

"Our salvation introduces a fundamentally foreign desire into our being. Before God saves us, we have no desire for Jesus and after our salvation, we have that desire placed into our being. What we desire most, we seek, what we seek, we are given. Every man is given precisely what he wants most (not everything he wants) and that for the Christian, the truth of 'this side' salvation and the 'other side' salvation turn on the pivot point of desiring Jesus."

Jared said...

I completely agree with that.

The mind set on the flesh does not understand the things of the spirit, nor is he able to. And I would say "desire" makes as much sense there as understand, that whole God-shaped hole thing notwithstanding.

Estelle des Chevaliers said...

Trolling? What is that? I am not in opposition, I am only seeking answers to the questions I have to face every day. Maybe I should look elsewhere, you all here seem to go way over the head of a simple (and sinful) girl.

Jared said...

Trolling is when someone leaves angry/insulting/sarcastic comments on a blog, and only those kind of comments. Your initial comments had all the marks; your first impression in my comment space was "angry" and sarcastic, so I am sorry if I was inclined to think that's all you were interested in doing.

If you have honest questions, feel free to ask them. This sinful man will do his best to answer them.

Estelle des Chevaliers said...

I would probably confess to cynicism, but I don't think I am witty enough to be sarcastic.

Jared said...

Oh don't be too hard on yourself. :-)

Gabe said...


I can't speak for your experience or the people you know, but I can speak for my own heart. I grew up in church, was a professing Christian for many years. I also really hated the God of the bible. I thought the bible was too strict, too demanding, too legal and that all of it was a bit hard to swallow. And yes, I did all of this as a 'professing' Christian. I did the Christian life with an Oscar level performance.

And then something powerful and supernatural happened to me. No, not a life threatening situation, but more a moment of complete revelation brought about through extended suffering. The Holy Spirit showed me how much I had hated and reviled God and then opened my heart to Him.

Since then, the truth of Jesus, the truth of the gospel, has changed me from a cynical liar into a broken, screw-up of a sinning Christian. It's a major step forward for me. I love Him now because He has given me the ability to love Him. He saved me for Himself and the difference in my heart is stark and beautiful.

Most people would never say out loud that they hate God. But their actions speak words that would deafen most hearers. I know because no matter what I professed for 25 years, my life was a demonstration of hate for God.

Not sure why I felt inclined to give you this part of my testimony, but I can only hope it helps.

Estelle des Chevaliers said...

Thank you for the invitation to write here, though I hardly know where to begin. It was your post on lust that interested me; I fell into temptation and ended up as a single mom. I am also a science writer, which makes me reject out of hand anything in Genesis (and much else). I am aware of the point you make but the very fact there is no universal agreement within Christianity is disturbing. So you end up with Calvinists persecuting Arminian pastors; Catholics and protestants blowing each other up in Ireland; clergy around the world sexually abusing children; and opposing armies on a battlefield praying to the same god that they will kill more soldiers than their opponents.

What appeals to me about the Unitarian movement is the tenet that "Jesus is a man to be followed, not a god to be worshipped". Though I am puzzled why we should want to follow a 2000 year old culture when times have moved on. Jesus did not know about computers, the human genome or natural selection. How can we be expected to be supplicants to the same rules of society?

You have your almighty god setting up disasters that snuff out 20,000 people in one go, and we are taught that he loves us, and we should love him even more, and pray to him all the harder. It seems to me that he must be laughing at us.

"The grace sufficient for salvation is conferred on the Elect". I feel absolutely convinced that I am not elected (those who are seem to know it) and so I am exploring ways of dealing with what I do feel.

I do not hate god. There simply seems to be no evidence of his existance that I find persuasive.

I think I better stop here.
E. des C.

Jared said...

I am aware of the point you make but the very fact there is no universal agreement within Christianity is disturbing. So you end up with Calvinists persecuting Arminian pastors; Catholics and protestants blowing each other up in Ireland; clergy around the world sexually abusing children

I understand the frustration, because I share it. I cannot dismiss the problems, but only say that any time human beings are involved with anything, it will be messy, be it religion, politics, family, or earth.

What appeals to me about the Unitarian movement is the tenet that "Jesus is a man to be followed, not a god to be worshipped"

I have always found this problematic for two reasons:

1) The place one goes to figure out how to follow the man Jesus is the same place where this man claims to be the only way to God, where his enemies understood him to be claiming to be God. So one has to come up with a different Jesus than the one in the Bible to follow, unless we get to pick and choose which things he said we want to follow, which plenty of people do of course.

2) Secondly, if we are trying to avoid religion and just want a functional ethic, I'm not sure Jesus' teaching makes the most non-religious sense, as it is very impractical. Turning cheeks, blessing enemies, giving to all who ask of us, etc. His ethic only makes good practical sense in the context of his larger message about God's kingdom. Taken from that, it is a one-way ticket to being doormats for no good reason. And many who claim to follow Jesus "as a man" can't seem to really do it anyway. It involves a selflessness that requires supernatural strength. At least, it does for me. I'm certainly not good or strong enough myself to follow Jesus without his help.

You have your almighty god setting up disasters that snuff out 20,000 people in one go, and we are taught that he loves us, and we should love him even more, and pray to him all the harder. It seems to me that he must be laughing at us.

It could seem that way.
The distinguishing mark of Christianity, though, is precisely that we have a God who isn't just observing callously from afar but actually embodied suffering himself. He knows what it feels like to suffer. And of course the Bible tells us that he does not delight in the death even of the wicked.

I am compelled to ask about the alternative, however. If the Christian option is a God who allows suffering for some inscrutable reason (but offers eternal life freely to whoever would believe in his Son for forgiveness), and this is to be rejected as not comforting enough, where is the comfort in the alternative? The other option is no hope. You suffer, you die, that's it. There's no avoiding suffering this side of the veil -- Jesus himself promised "In this world you will have trouble" -- for anybody, no matter who they are. But one view says there is an eternity of pleasure to be had with God after death for those willing to trust Jesus. And the other view, rejecting the meanness of that one(!), offers no hope of its own.

I do not hate god. There simply seems to be no evidence of his existance that I find persuasive.

I understand.

Estelle des Chevaliers said...

Thank you for your reply which is indeed thought-provoking. I am especially grateful that you cared to address the points I raised rather than criticising me - I find that unusual. It is the weekend now and I am going away, but I will reflect on what you say. I will look in from time to time.
You are sincere - may your god bless you. I am sorry that my first comments gave the wrong impression.
E.des C.

Gabe said...

The thing I like most about this post and the ensuing comments is the title that keeps framing it for me, "Love Like Ocean Depths".