God’s Heart

God is one and only one. He is the only true God, and not one among many. He created the world and he rules it as his own.

This is what I believe and affirm along with many others. But I know not all will agree with us. Why not? Because the world of religion has always been divided by different visions of God. Christendom is set over against the alternative realms of Hindus, Buddhists, Moslems, and so on.

My point here is not to review, or to challenge, or to correct others, but to be reminded of a basic point: differing visions of God lead to different versions of faith. And if God exists in his own right—and not as some ever-pliable human construct—and if God is a communicator who has disclosed to us something of who he is, then we must conclude that at least one vision of God is more accurate than all others. That is, those who are listening to God and seeing him as he really is—as he has actually and accurately disclosed himself to us—are in a privileged position when we worship him.

So I write this as a Christian, privileged—with very many others—by my union and communion with God through his Son and by his Spirit. All this is facilitated by Scriptures that collectively and reliably offer God’s heart to us. There we find the same God who spoke to Samuel of David in 1 Samuel 13:14, as one seeking out for himself those who are “after his own heart”.

Yet Christianity is itself divided by competing visions of God. There are the broad movements that include the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Reformation clans. And within these are even more divisions such as the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist groupings of the Reformation tradition.

So what do we do with all these differences? One option is to think of them as preference-based communities in the same way that the world is distinguished by clubs and societies—of dog breeders, auto enthusiasts, poetry clans, political parties, and so on—which is to say that the differences don’t amount to much. But Jesus—the defining figure of our Christian faith—did not treat such superficial distinctions as meaningful. Instead he was ever and always polarizing people by insisting that every human heart is either captured by his father or disaffected towards him.

We can think here of Christ’s famous saying, “No one can serve two masters”—one master will be loved, the others hated. So, too, among our current Christian groupings a given person—whether Baptist, Methodist, or Anglican—is distinguishable by this one affective measure: love. This is surprising in that features of creedal devotion, of liturgical tradition, or of church polity—matters that often divide Christians—are not elevated by the Bible as ultimate indicators of God’s mastery of a given soul. Instead every person is tested for either loving God or hating him. In the gospels Jesus returned again and again to this question of heart-orientation. In the book of Revelation the utterly orthodox church in Ephesus was called to repent for having left her first love for God.

That is not to say, of course, that people who “hate” God ever think of themselves as hating God! Instead they find their orientation unveiled only as God exposes their deepest motivations. Their hatred only surfaces once they find that Christ opposes their ambitions. Think, for instance, of what is reported in John 8:30 and following. There Jesus uncovered a group of “disciples” who were actually children of “the devil”. The indicator was that they refused to “abide” in Jesus’ word. Despite professing a belief in Jesus at the beginning of the event they ended up trying to kill him with stones for what he said about himself! Why? Because, Jesus said, they did not have God’s spiritual paternity: “if God were your father you would love me.” A love for the Father and the Son is the indicator of real relationship with God.

Nor is it to say that “love” is a shallow, syrupy sentiment. Instead the love God calls us to experience is both rich in emotion yet as sharply focused as Christ’s passion on the cross as he was accursed for our sins. In love the Son fulfilled the Father’s paradoxical plan to draw us, by the Spirit’s wooing, into the eternal Father-Son love relationship. The Son’s obedience to this plan expressed his own love for the Father and for us. So it is that Christian love is as expensive as Christ’s blood, and as expansive as God’s shared glory. It was this outcome of seeing and enjoying God’s own glory through our union with Christ that Jesus celebrated in his prayer of John 17.

Love, then, is the heart’s devotion to another. It is not a self-concerned, intransitive sentiment—as in “my personal feeling”—but an other-oriented, transitive devotion. As believers we love God because he first loved us. That is, love is defined more by its object of focus than by the subject who loves: it is only in knowing God that we love him properly and truly as a response to his self-disclosures.

This, in turn, sets up every aspect of our faith as “affective”. That is, our faith works through love just as Paul informs us in Galatians 5:6. The basis for this is in God himself: “God is love” and has made us, in his image, to be lovers as well.

Let me say more on this point. We must recognize that when John twice stated that God is love in 1 John 4:8 & 16 he was not saying that God “has” love—as if love is a commodity that God imports to himself. Rather we can say this: God exists the eternal relationship of “Father-Son-and-Spirit” and the bond of his union and the nature of his communion is what we call love. Augustine of Hippo put it this way in speaking of the distinctions of the Godhead: the Father loves, the Son is beloved, and the Spirit communicates the love between them. So it is that love is God’s bond; holiness is the moral ethos of that bond; and glory is the ongoing relational joy, honor, and delight in which that bond subsists.

Yet all too often we Christians still revert to our fallen patterns of acting as if we are in a contractual partnership with God: treating our own initiatives towards God—our perceived duties and responsibilities—as the substance of faith. We can all too readily treat doctrines as ends in themselves rather than as God’s ways and means to express his love for us. And so it is that duty begins to displace delight; responsibility is confused with response; and joy is lost as God is seen as demanding rather than merciful, compassionate, and captivating.

Jesus confronted this sinful misdirection in the religious leaders of his own day:

His [the Father’s] voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. I do not receive glory from people. But I know that you do not have the love of God within you. (John 5:37-42; emphasis added)

My concern is that even today we can still miss this crucial point. The reason for a false confidence is that our present generation of theological leaders acknowledge Jesus, unlike those he confronted in this passage. But the deeper question we must still face is whether we “have the love of God” in us. Or—as was the case in those days—do we “receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (5:44)

To be honest, over the years as I regularly attended the annual theological meetings of the best and the brightest Christian leaders of today I often grieved over the absence of a clear and palpable love for God and for each other. It may have been there, of course, in many relationships; but on the whole the meetings had little in common with the communion of love that Christ shared with the disciples in the upper room as he told them, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

So when we come to God we have a double pathway before us: to love or not to love. And love is a response to the One who first loved us. It is not a love reduced into disaffected acts of willpower and discipline, but a devoted affective love for Jesus that meets every biblical call to know and choose the good—because we love the One who alone is good. Paul captured the point with enormous power when he wrote to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 13. We all need to pause, read, and reflect: “Faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” The greatest because love expresses God’s own heart.  Given such love, may our own hearts leap with delight!

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6 Comments

  1. mw

    A bunny trail:

    Frost writes, “differing visions of God lead to different versions of faith. And if God exists in his own right—and not as some ever-pliable human construct—and if God is a communicator who has disclosed to us something of who he is, then we must conclude that at least one vision of God is more accurate than all others.”

    Later, he states, “features of creedal devotion, of liturgical tradition, or of church polity—matters that often divide Christians—are not elevated by the Bible as ultimate indicators of God’s mastery of a given soul. Instead every person is tested for either loving God or hating him.”

    Question: Shouldn’t a genuine love for God among those of differing “devotions,”
    “traditions,” and “polity” not only seek to eradicate the differing “visions of God” which lead to “differing versions of faith,” but also show signs of eventual achievement?

    Consider the words of Paul in Ephesians 4, as he describes the unity of the Church being conformed to the image of Christ in truth and love:

    13 . . . until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.

    14 As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming;

    15 but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ,

    16 from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.

    It seems that those proclaiming their love for God ought to be willing to seek a unified vision of God with others making the same proclamation, though presently holding a differing vision. On the contrary, what we presently see (and have always seen) is a continuing “vision division” in the name of God, evidenced by a new denomination around every corner.

    The current image of Christ reflected in the love of God’s people might be said to better represent a time when “every man was doing what was right in his own eyes” than it does a people who are being “made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment.” After all, which Christ are we? The Christ of 171st street or that of 172nd?

  2. Bobby Grow

    Or maybe we’re simply simul justus et peccator, Luther’s simultaneously righteous and sinner. Maybe this is why the church looks the way it does, in fact I’m sure of it!

    But I would agree that we should be moving closer to the unity that we already share in Christ. There is always the ought that drives the is. I honestly can’t think of a time in church history (even Acts) that reflects any kind of golden age . . . I think this is why the NT and OT for that matter finds it shape eschatologically.

    I just think, per MW’s comment, that the field is too mixed with wheat and tares for their to be this outward or “visible” (Roman Catholics) aspect of the church that looks like Heaven . . . which is why we Protestants also hold to an invisible church, which is grounded in Christ’s love for us.

  3. R N Frost

    Thanks to both responders. I agree with MW that unity is a proper response to the gospel, and with Bobby that the invisible church is where that unity is ultimately found.

    Yet Bobby has captured the heart of what I’ve shared while MW seems to be drawing on a vision that knowledge transforms us: i.e. that we can somehow eradicate false visions of God by [implicitely] a more correct vision. I think of how the apostle Paul was a man with a false vision (and zealously so). His new vision came only when the captivating presence of Christ spoke to him: “Paul, I’m actually over here!”

    That was also the problem with the leaders in John 5. They were ready to confront Jesus for making himself out to be “equal with God.” And the fact was that Jesus IS equal with God! But their failure, as Jesus noted, was in a misplaced love: a love for mutual glory rather than a love for God.

    So how do we gain unity? By better arguments? Perhaps, but good arguments only work when hearts share a common devotion of love. So my point in this entry is to point to the underlying issue, not the subsequent matters.

  4. mw

    Perhaps I should have been clearer. My point was that love – if it is truly the “unmixed” love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit – ought to produce greater unity between members of the Body of Christ. This unity ought to include the pursuit of agreement on non-disputable matters (e.g. Romans 14-15), as the members, in their Spirit-filled devotion to the Head of the Body, pursue perfect conformity to His revealed image (cf. Eph. 4.15; Rom. 8.29; 1 Cor. 1.13a).

    I am confused at to how that equates to “a vision that knowledge transforms us.” I’m also distressed that our lack of such pursuit seems to be so easily dismissed with excuses such as “it’s never happened in the past” and “at least we have the invisible Church.” Tangible unity is commanded (1 Cor. 1.10). “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.”

    This kind of love comes only by the Spirit. And the Spirit comes only by surrender – a surrender that necessitates confession (James 4.5-10). This kind of surrender is aided by the examination of the “subsequent matters,” in order that the “underlying issues” needing to be confessed might be revealed – e.g. a self-centered, isolating love for particular “visions” of God, rather than a Spirit-engendered love for God and neighbor that produces a surrendered and unifying pursuit of God’s truth, will, and good pleasure.

    Does such a pursuit necessitate “better arguments?” I would rather say that it necessitates more Spirit-filled dialogue.

  5. Bobby Grow

    MW,

    I don’t see how what you’re saying is any different that what Ron is saying.

    Ron said:

    So when we come to God we have a double pathway before us: to love or not to love. And love is a response to the One who first loved us. It is not a love reduced into disaffected acts of willpower and discipline, but a devoted affective love for Jesus that meets every biblical call to know and choose the good—because we love the One who alone is good. . . .

    And MW you said:

    . . . if it is truly the “unmixed” love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit – ought to produce greater unity between members of the Body of Christ. . . . I would rather say that it necessitates more Spirit-filled dialogue. . . .

    I don’t see Ron, nor myself disputing this point. Visible unity certainly is the goal (Eph 4); but it is the invisible unity, in Christ by the Spirit, that drives this in ever increasing ways (II Cor 3.18). It seemed like you weren’t recognizing the reality of sin in your scenario.

  6. R N Frost

    Let me shift gears here. I wonder, MW, if you’re catching the point I aimed to make in my original post: that an authentic (i.e. a transitive, response-based) love for God is the necessary precursor to any accurate portrayal of God. So a love for God is prior to saying anything accurate about God. Hatred for God is the other biblical alternative.

    Now, your point: isn’t your concern addressing a different issue, i.e. that we must maintain the accuracy of any given discussion about God?

    If that’s correct let me reassure you that I meant to set that question aside for now. Hence: “My point here is not to review, or to challenge, or to correct others, but to be reminded of a basic point: differing visions of God lead to different versions of faith.”

    Did you take me to be saying, by that caveat, that discussion of the content about God is something always to be avoided? If so, that was not my point. It was a boundary set for this particular post.

    So let me say that I agree that a Spirit-sensitive, love-guided, community-based discussion of God’s self-disclosures in Scripture is very much a matter to be pursued. But that’s a matter for other posts, not this one.

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