I’ve just finished reading The Furious Longing of God by Brennan Manning, where he states:
The seldom-stated truth is that many of us have a longing for God and an aversion to God. Some of us seek Him and flee Him at the same time. We may scrupulously observe the Ten Commandments and rarely miss church on a Sunday morning, but a love affair with Jesus is just not our cup of tea.
This is my first exposure to Manning, a prolific author who would probably describe himself as a man obsessed with the love of God. In hisÂ introduction, he describes the numerous books he has written as variations on this captivating theme, one that I must sadly confess has never featured prominently in my own studies, reflections, or teaching until the past two or three years.
Those of us who embrace a Reformed soteriology (doctrine of salvation) have many mind-boggling themes competing for our attention: the covenants of grace and works, the absolute sovereignty of God, predestination, providence, and what we often call the doctrines of grace (total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints). We could insist that, since all of these themes are deeply rooted in the love of God, every aspect of a Calvinistic worldview inherently proclaims God’s love, but I’m afraid that would be putting too positive a spin on the reality.
Perhaps I’ve missed something along the way, because I can remember vigorous theological discussions on whether Calvinists could legitimately say to non-Christian people, “God loves you.” Many of us find ourselves squirming in our theological seats because the Reformed “system” only makes room for God’s love toward the elect, those whom He has chosen to save from the foundation of the world. So we feel very uncomfortable expressing God’s love to just anyone. In our minds, the “elect” are few in number compared with the overwhelming mass of humanity who are traveling the broad road that leads to eternal destruction. God does not love the non-elect, our theological system tells us; in fact, He will forever and ever pour out unimaginable punishment and suffering on these “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” (Romans 9:22, ESV).
This perspective of God has made it very difficult for me to fathom what Brennan Manning means by “a love affair with Jesus,” even though I consider myself to be a recipient of God’s grace and a follower of Jesus Christ. And yet I think back to the garden of Eden, prior to Adam and Eve’s trespass, where the first human couple walked with and enjoyed unhindered fellowship with the Triune God. The Bible gives us virtually no information about their daily relationship with God or how long before sin entered and tainted the perfection of Eden’s paradise, but surely they enjoyed an intimacy with their Creator that would stagger our imagination.
A more fully developed portrait of God dwelling with men can be seen in the life and ministry of Jesus, who held nothing back when He said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9, ESV). Think about that. Daily interaction, shared experiences (meals, parties, festivals, funerals, frightening episodes on the sea), times of hushed reverence and exuberant laughter, teaching in the context of life, sadness, disappointment, suffering and the full range of human emotion must have characterized the Savior’s life as he walked this earth with his disciples. While we may not know how Adam and Eve interacted with God prior to the Fall, we have been given an even greater vision of daily life in/with God through the Lord Jesus Christ in his three-year ministry in the towns and villages of Palestine.
I hunger for that. I long to know God’s grace more fully in the ordinary routines of life, outside what many people would describe as the religious component of their lifeâ€¦the weekly church-going activities where we tick the obligatory boxes and hope God sees our sacrifice. We participate in the holy rituals that have been handed down through the centuries because we want to know Him, and yet those activities often leave us feeling empty and wondering if God can be known in these ways.
At the same time, we’re not sure what we would do if God really showed up on Sunday. How would we know? Does the hair stand up on the back of your neck? Does the pace and intensity of our “praise and worship” increase when God’s in the house? Do we sense a special anointing on the pastor’s sermon? Should we stand, sit, or fall prostrate on the floor? And what if God doesn’t show up in most church services week after week? What does a “worship service” feel like when it’s devoid of His presence? You see, I’m not sure we can tell the difference; in fact, I don’t think we really want to know, because of our deep-seated aversion to God. We want to be God’s people, but we’d rather the Almighty keep His distance, like the Israelites of old feared hearing the voice of God.
Should our relationship with God (I speak here of the triune fellowship of Father, Son, and Spirit) resemble anything of the faint glimpses we see in Eden or the more robust images of first century Palestine? Do we look to the Puritan era or modern movements like the emerging church? If our religious rituals seem empty and unfulfilling, should they be jettisoned as relics of the past that have little or nothing to do with a daily experience of His presence? Or should we dive deeper into ancient patterns, like the neo-monastics or those seeking God in a more formal liturgy of worship? More young Christians seem to be doing this, praying the “daily office” and observing the orthodox holy days like monks in an ancient monastery, exchanging their middle-of-the-road evangelicalism for a more high church, smells and bells liturgy.
At this point, pursuing various styles and approaches to “church” (I hesitate to even use the word in this way) seems quite ludicrous unless they lead me to know God more intimately on a day-to-day basis. Christ died for me! I want what Paul prayed for the Ephesians: that I would have the strength to comprehend the dimensions of Christ’s love that surpasses knowledge. I want to be filled with all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:18â€“19). And I don’t think experiencing these realities is dependent on what we do when we gather with other believers, whether informally over coffee or in a more structured Bible study group. The fullness and the reality should already be present within us, shouldn’t it? We take that with us everywhere we go, so that the fragrance of Christ may permeate every place, sacred or secular, our feet take us.