In recent days a couple of friends asked me if I’d been keeping up with my blog, which brought to mind that indeed, since this unusually busy fall semester began, I’ve broken one of my 2015 resolutions: To post here at least once every two weeks. (My last post was over a month ago.) The good thing is that this pushed me to do this third and last post on Marilynne Robinson’s breathtakingly beautiful, and beautifully written, Gilead (Picador 2004). To re-cap, the book is written as a series of letters from a father who is soon to die to his young son, and in it he speaks of his father and grandfather who, like him, are preachers, and of the ties, and loves, and even sins, that bind these generations. Like the first two I shared, I love this excerpt for the way it captures beauty – the beauty that a man beholds in the woman he loves, the son he cherishes – and which he connects to God, its source, in a most appropriate expression of gratefulness and awe.
“I can tell you this, that if I’d married some rosy dame and she had given me ten children and they had given me ten children and they had each given me ten grandchildren, I’d leave them all, on Christmas Eve, on the coldest night of the world, and walk a thousand miles just for the sight of your face, your mother’s face. And if I never found you, my comfort would be in that hope, my lonely and singular hope, which could not exist in the whole of Creation except in my heart and in the heart of the Lord. That is just another way of saying I could never thank God sufficiently for the splendor He has hidden from the world – your mother excepted, of course – and revealed to me in your sweetly ordinary face” (237).
- What do you believe is the most important thing about God?
- What kind of father did you have?
Do you realize that every time your father loved you – such as by putting thought and energy into making sure you were protected, or embracing you and forgiving you after you did something you weren’t supposed to do, or giving you that toy or dress you’ve wanted, and delighting in watching you receive it with joy – he was reflecting God? And even those, like me, whose fathers were absent, or worse, abusive, have seen this phenomenon of the created being reflecting a perfect Creator because we have seen fathers act like this – that is, as they were meant to act. (I have been especially blessed by the care, counsel, and example of many fatherly figures who at different times were to me the father I didn’t have.)
But compelling as they are, these images are mere shadows of God, who “before he ever created, before he ever ruled the world, before anything else, this God was a Father loving his Son.” From Michael Reeves’s Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith (InterVarsity, 2012):
“… The most foundational thing in God is not some abstract quality, but the fact that he is Father. Again and again, the Scriptures equate the terms God and Father: in Exodus, the Lord calls Israel ‘my firstborn son’…he carries his people ‘as a father carries his son, disciplines them as a man disciplines his son’…
“… Since God is, before all things, a Father, and not primarily Creator or Ruler, all his ways are beautifully fatherly. It is not that this God ‘does’ being Father as a day job, only to kick back in the evenings as plain old ‘God.’ It is not that he has a nice blob of fatherly icing on top. He is Father. All the way down. Thus all that he does he does as Father.” (21-23)
In rereading Bonhoeffer’s masterful Life Together (1954), my favorite book, I was again blown away by the passage quoted below, where, in discussing how Christians must “bear each other’s burdens,” he says that the reason that such bearing (or forbearing, or sustaining) is difficult is because of the other’s freedom, meaning that in all their particularities and needs and quirks and sins, that person – something completely real, outside of ourselves – makes demands on us and challenges our own freedom and preferences and selfishness. I think this is a basic but profound reality that sheds light on what makes all meaningful relationships – whether in friendship or brotherhood or marriage – so difficult at times. This same reality, however, is what can make them so worth it, because in testing our limits, as such relationships will often do, they broaden those limits to make us more loving, more patient, more humble, and stronger – in short, more large-hearted. This reminded me of another passage (below) that stopped me in my tracks: What C.S. Lewis said about marriage, based on his brief experience as husband to Joy Davidman, an American poet and writer whose romance with Lewis began over a series of intellectually- and literary-minded letters to the Oxford Don.
“The most precious gift that marriage gave me was this constant impact of something very close and intimate yet all the time unmistakably other, resistant – in a word, real.” (19)
And from Bonhoeffer:
“It is, first of all, the freedom of the other person, of which we spoke earlier, that is a burden to the Christian. The other’s freedom collides with his own autonomy, yet he must recognize it. He could get rid of this burden by refusing the other person his freedom, by constraining him and thus doing violence to his personality, by stamping his own image upon him. But if he lets God created His image in him, he by this token gives him his freedom and himself bears the burden of this freedom of another creature of God. The freedom of the other person includes all that we mean by a person’s nature, individuality, endowment. It also includes his weaknesses and oddities, which are such a trial to our patience, everything that produces frictions, conflicts, and collisions among us. To bear the burden of the other person means involvement with the created reality of the other, to accept it and affirm it, and, in bearing with it, to break through to the point where we take joy in it.” (101)
In his excellent treatment of the Bible’s passages on God’s love, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Crossway, 2000), D.A. Carson retells the Les Misérables’ story of Jean Valjean to make the point that we must “never, never underestimate the power of the love of God to break down and transform the most amazingly hard individuals”:
“Sentenced to a nineteen-year term of hard labor for stealing bread, Jean Valjean becomes a hard and bitter man. No one could break him; everyone feared him. Released from prison, Valjean finds it difficult to survive, as innkeepers will not welcome him and work is scarce. Then a kind bishop welcomes him into his home. But Valjean betrays the trust. During the night he creeps off into the darkness, stealing some of the family silver.
“But Valjean is brought back next morning to the bishop’s door by three policemen. They had arrested him and found the stolen silver on him. A word from the bishop, and the wretch would be incarcerated for life. But the bishop instantly exclaims, ‘So here you are! I’m delighted to see you. Had you forgotten that I gave you the candlesticks as well? They’re silver like the rest, and worth a good 200 francs. Did you forget to take them?’
“Jean Valjean is released, and he is transformed. When the gendarmes withdraw, the bishop insists on giving the candlesticks to his speechless, mortified, thankful guest. ‘Do not forget, do not ever forget that you have promised me to use the money to make yourself an honest man,’ admonishes the bishop. And meanwhile the detective constantly pursuing Valjean, Javert, who is consumed by justice but who knows nothing of forgiveness or compassion, crumbles when his black-and-white categories of mere justice fail to cope with grace that goes against every instinct for revenge. Valjean is transformed; Javert jumps off a bridge and drowns in the Seine.
“Of course, this is Christian love – i.e., the love of God mediated in this case through a bishop. But this is how it should be, for God’s love so transforms us that we mediate it to others, who are thereby transformed. We love because he first loved us; we forgive because we stand forgiven.” (81-82)
In The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Crossway, 2000), D.A. Carson seeks to balance the popular view of the love of God (often reduced to the fuzzy, feel-good claim that “God is love”) with what Scripture says about his holiness and sovereignty, attributes that actually enrich our understanding of God’s love. And while most of us, whether Christian or not, tend to think of the love of God as his love toward us, Carson spends a significant amount of time on the intra-Trinitarian love of God – the love expressed among the three persons of the Trinity – which is the basis for the love that we receive and, because of Christ, are empowered to give. The passage below, which discusses the primacy of the Father’s love for the Son, completely blew me away.
“We too quickly think of our salvation almost exclusively with respect to its bearing on us. Certainly there is endless ground for wonder in the Father’s love for us, in Jesus’ love for us. But undergirding them, more basic than they are, is the Father’s love for the Son. Because of the love of the Father for the Son, the Father has determined that all should honor the Son even as they honor the Father (John 5:23). Indeed, this love of the Father for the Son is what makes sense of John 3:16. True, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son’- there the object of God’s love in the world. But the standards that tells us just how great that love is has already been set. What is its measure? God so loved that world that he gave his Son. Paul’s reasoning in similar: If God did not spare his Son, how shall he not also with him freely give us all things (Romans 8:32)? The argument is cogent only because the relationship between the Father and the Son is the standard for all other love relationships.” (35)
In Can I Really Trust the Bible? (The Good Book Company, 2014), Barry Cooper offers a compelling series of arguments for the historical reliability and truth of the Bible. Cooper puts forth several types arguments – historical, logical, philosophical – but my favorite type of “evidence” he gives is the living testimony of those he calls “Bible-shaped” people. The best part of this for me is that I know many people like this. They’re many of the people at my church, and they were among those in the church where I used to attend before moving to the District. Some aren’t from my church but were part of the campus ministry my wife and I were part of in college. What they all share, as Cooper writes, is a love of God and others that is informed by what the Bible says about who God is and what he’s done for us in Christ. But enough of what I think. Below, see what these “Bible-shaped people” – who do exist! – are like:
“As people look for certainty that the Bible really is from God, they sometimes miss what seems – to me at least – to be very persuasive evidence.
“The most Bible-shaped people I know are a wonder to me. You don’t hear much about them in the media because their lives are self-sacrificial and other-centered. They love tirelessly and genuinely, in the background, under the radar. They want to find ways to encourage you or mourn with you or give you practical help. They are patient. They are kind. They take their Bibles seriously, but not themselves. They know how to laugh. Engage them in conversation, and they want to talk about you. They don’t pelt their Facebook feeds with mock-humble pronouncements of their own greatness. And when others say that Christians are bigoted or stupid, they don’t lose heart or respond with anger. They carry on, quietly loving and serving others.
“The most Bible-shaped people I know have been men and women who opened their homes and their lives to me. They spent time with me. Loved me when I was at my least lovable. Some of them, having no education to speak of, spoke with a wisdom that left me slack-jawed. During periods of depression, when I was seemingly unreachable, they sat patiently with me, they put their arms around me. They never lost patience, they never lost hope. They called me to throw off the sin that so easily entangles, but they weren’t shocked or self-righteous about any darkness they saw in me, because they acknowledged it in themselves. Love like that always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. It isn’t self-seeking, or easily angered, and it keeps no record of wrongs.
“I’ve only ever seen love like that in two places. I’ve seen it in Jesus. And I’ve seen it in the most Bible-shaped people I know” (75-76).
BONUS: Here’s a funny promotional video of Barry Cooper talking about the book, the “most yellow” that’s ever been written.
One of the amazing things about the Christian faith is that it presents a God who is almost embarrassingly extravagant in his love for his people. This, despite the far-from-lovely character of his people, who’ve exchanged his glory for lesser things, including ourselves, and scorned his patient mercies and entreaties to repentance. Yet this – the gospel – is at the heart of the Christian faith: that God gave up his only Son, Jesus Christ, to not only forgive his enemies, but to adopt them as his own sons and lavish his riches upon them. And in all this, God is joyful and exultant. This is the wonderful truth that John Piper brings out in this passage from The Pleasures of God (Multnomah, 1991):
“Jesus uses [the story of the Prodigal Son] to help us feel the force of what it means to have the Father rejoice over us with all his heart… He illustrates what happens in heaven by telling a story about a father who had a wayward son who left home and squandered all his inheritance. The son comes to his senses while feeding pigs in a far country, and decides to go home and seek mercy from his father. He heads home and, as he goes, prepares a speech something to this effect: ‘Father, I’m not worthy to be called your son; so maybe you would let me live in the servants’ quarters and work and eat with them?’
“As Jesus tells this story you can feel the energy of love building as he shows how the father rejoices ‘with all his heart’ over the boy’s arrival. While the boy is still a long way off the father sees him and his heart warms with compassion (v. 20). He doesn’t hold back and watch to see what the boy looks like; he bursts out the front door and starts running down the road. Now don’t miss the force of this scene. Well-to-do, dignified, aristocratic, aging men don’t run, they walk. They keep their composure. They show that they are on top of their emotions. But not in Jesus’ story about God’s joy over his people.
The father runs. Can you see them both running? Or maybe the boy was too stunned to run. Perhaps he couldn’t believe his eyes. Maybe the smell of pigs was still on him. Maybe the thought flashed through his mind to turn and escape this utterly unexpected demonstration of affection. But he does not turn. Jesus say the father embraced him and kissed him – pig smell and all. Can you see that embrace without feeling the emotion? I can’t. Maybe that’s because I have four sons…
…But I think the emotion goes deeper than that. I know I am that son in Jesus’ story. And I cannot comprehend that the Father in heaven – the great and glorious Creator of all the universe and Sovereign over all things – throws to the wind all dignified self-consciousness and runs to me and embraces me and kisses me, as though – no! it is no fiction – rather, because he is happy with me. He is glad with all his heart that I am part of the family. This is why I cannot see that embrace without pausing to let my eyes and throat recover.”