The Romance of Heaven—August 26, 1998
Romans 14:7-8 reads: "For none of lives to himself, and no one dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord and if we die, we die to the Lord. Therefore whether we live or die we are the Lord’s."
There is addressed in these two verses the remedy for the central crisis of human life: loneliness. Loneliness is so common, so universal that it is popularly described as part of the human condition.. From one perspective it is presented as an inescapable psychological fact—it is presented as a necessary stage on the road to personal autonomy and mature identity. This is cold comfort indeed for those who attain autonomy only to see it snatched away by the dependence enhancing process of aging! However, we must admit that there are lonely children and there are lonely seniors and there are lonely everything in-between. Hence loneliness is no respecter of age, or circumstance. It is not even a respecter of marriage. Two persons may be living together BUT each of them may be painfully isolated, afraid and alone—a tragic, but avoidable state.
Paul’s bold claim here is that the problem of loneliness is resolved by the believers union with the Lord Jesus Christ. In the New Testament, the metaphor of marriage is summoned to describe this union of believers and their Lord. We, the Church, are the Bride of Christ and our Lord is the Bridegroom. He has drawn near invitingly, and we have responded positively to His proposal of eternal union. We have died to self in the process and now live for the Lord, we live toward the expectation of complete and final union with Him. The future is our present by anticipation, and by His promise of return and consummation. Hence we are no longer alone. We find company for our souls with Him and in the body life of the church as the faith community. Openly, publicly, that is by confession of faith and selflessly, we abolish our loneliness in the enactment of that sacred union. We act upon the presumption of spiritual union rather than that of modern individuality, or psycho-biological reality.
I should pause here to make a vital distinction. There is a conflict of world view exposed by these claims to spiritual union. It has to do with the real and the actual. The actual corresponds to what is knowable through the physical senses. It is the materialist side of what is. The real on the other hand transcends the actual. The real is discernible with the mind, it corresponds to the truth on a non-materialistic plane. The real encompasses abstraction, form, what some of the ancient Greeks referred to as the Ideal. Now for our present argument, Christians are saying that the real (Christ) became actual in the Incarnation (as Jesus) and bridged the gap between these two realms. We now know that the two are connected ultimately. As a result of this revelation of ultimate unity, we refuse to split the universe into two separate spheres. Our union with Christ is real and actual—even if it is only partially actual now, we are convinced that it will ultimately be completely real and actual together. . . in glory, in the consummation of the ages when we are raised in our resurrection bodies to reign with Him.
The world’s stratagem for dealing with loneliness could hardly be more different. The world promotes the pursuit of endless romantic love as the antidote for loneliness. What an exhausting prospect that is! We are told by the world that the tingle is it, and that by the channel of infatuation we are to find our way to the lasting, permanent and real love we all long for. The Christian faith says the solution is open, public and selfless and the world says it is secretive, private and selfish. The way of romantic love is certainly dependent upon the allure of the secretive, and even forbidden, for much of its appeal. However this pathway is dangerous to our well-being and fatally flawed. Is it possible to cure our loneliness by total submersion in romantic love? I think not. Indeed, in its idealization of the other and in its recommendation of total identification with the love object, we have the certain recipe for the collapse of personal boundaries which leads to unhealthy dependence and even obsession which leaves one more broken, wounded and alone after the love affair than if it has never happened. The endless repetition of this romantic pursuit can cause great depression, or, equally as unfortunate, jaded cynicism.
Of course, romantic love properly pursued can lead one into a level of personal commitment and responsibility that elevates us out of infatuation into a more mature love—a selfless love which is at the foundation of every sound marriage. But all too often romantic love is advocated as a form of perpetual adolescence—insatiable, and addictively passionate. That is the kind of romantic love endorsed and promoted by the media. And that kind of love is unhealthy. The serial pattern of the quest after that "special someone" can produce sexual addiction, or some other form of sexual dysfunction. The legitimate need for love and affection is harnessed to forces that actually deepens the loneliness that is temporarily obscured by the smoke and mirrors of infatuation. Infatuation cannot cure human loneliness because it is inherently as disrespecter of persons. If it is kept to its proper function of quickening interest in others, there’s no problem, but if infatuation is the sum total of the relationship both parties end up robbed and cheated.
Something analogous to infatuation seems apply to the experience of new Christians. The new believers appear to act, as it were, as if in love with Jesus. The strong and wonderful emotions of release, of finding forgiveness and of personal as well as divine acceptance may approach ecstasy. These are powerful, wonderful feelings and we want to bask in them forever. Part of us doesn’t want things to change, and we want to stay on the mountain-top experience of enthrallment always. BUT that is not God’s plan for us. His plan is for truth to come into greater dominance. There is the matter of obedience to be considered. Just as scientists use the laws of nature, harnessing them and, in a sense, bringing them to fulfillment, Christians are to use the commandments of God towards that greater end for which they were given: purity, piety, increasing resemblance to Jesus Christ. Obedience is not just a matter of "do this, or do that," rather is a matter of expressing our mature love through grateful imitation. Obedience is a matter of joyous enactment, not merely mechanical compliance.
God’s longing for our restoration to Him is real. He actively desires our reunion as spiritual beings with our spiritual Creator. However, on the basis of restoration, God wants to establish, shall we call it collaborative momentum. His purposes are dynamic. He is going somewhere with human history. That direction supplies purpose, direction and meaning to human existence, uniting us with larger causes than the mere abolition of loneliness. Indeed, embracing God’s momentum goes a long way towards uniting us with other Christians completely outside any romantic attachment! Unless of course we are talking about the romance of heaven, the greatest love story every told. Scripture teaches that God wants us to move beyond the homecoming experience and into the walk of sonship. God desires for us some eager re-engagement in the work of co-creation, of cultivation, of the ordering, replenishment and fruitfulness throughout the whole of creation.
Let’s establish that claim on the basis of scripture. Turning to Exodus 20 and to the introduction of the Ten Commandments. What reads rather flatly on the page was such an awesome encounter with Almighty God that the people responded by begging Moses to be their mediator. You speak to God for us, we’d rather not hear directly from God, thank you very much! But what God actually speaks, read with tenderness and longing, is really quite wonderful. We have to struggle to get past the discomfort of the imperative—something we seem to insist on when dealing with the Ten Commandments. Let’s dwell instead with the indicative. God’s utterance states a divine cry for a genuine, mature, spiritual relationship with us. God begins:
"I am the Lord Your God."
This brief self-identification offers some precious nuances. In the Hebraic language the word "Elohim," the supreme god of all gods, identifies Himself in relationship to us. We may be His special possession, but He presents Himself as our possession, too. Also implicit in this statement is the acknowledgment that we are created for relationship with Him. That relationship is informed by a specific claim to exclusivity: "and you shall have no other gods before Me." That means none other in My place, or in preference to Me. You shall have no authorities before Me. The prohibition of idols reiterates negatively, what this presents positively: I made you for Myself and nothing (and nobody) is to be allowed to come between us!
"I brought you up out of Egypt and out of bondage there." This statement establishes our God as both historically engaged, and as our Deliverer. We are free to spiritualize God’s role as Savior if we emphatically honor the historicity of it—that is, God specifically, and literally delivered His People out of actual bondage in Egypt. Surely, this delivering God can be trusted to deliver us out of our specific and literal places of bondage today. This is the framework upon which we are to stretch the redemptive work of Jesus Christ on the cross—in a specific time and place, Jesus enacted an actual work of deliverance (called atonement) which has effected our deliverance from bondage to sin! We were bought with a specific price there and then, and, yes, we can apply that to our here and now. We can even employ psychological terms as long as we a clear that it was not a psychological event as in something happening just in our head, or as if it were simply something symbolic of the real thing that now occurs subjectively.
Returning now to Romans 14, we learn that Christ died to become Lord of the living and the dead. This is confirmed by other scriptures, and more fully explained. 2 Cor.5: 15 sets forth the purpose of Jesus’ dying as a liberating act, one which delivered us from bondage to our own needs, our impulse towards self-preservation. This is a problem with romantic love: we really seem to be wanting to love someone to meet a need, or to escape from loneliness, or to find significance in being defined by a personal relationship with someone. The way out of such self-love is to re-direct our love towards Him. What is required is death to self. We find in Jesus Christ a love object adequate to deliver us from self-centered living. Self-preservation is totally redirected by the cross: there we learn that we find our life by losing our life! God has undertaken to preserve us, we need not fear. So the challenge is to live for God, and before God and thereby to secure that relationship as the foundation of all other relationships. The only secure human relationships we can have are those constructed on that foundation of our friendship with God.
Is death to self overstated in 2 Corinthians? No. If anything it is understated because as we read in Galatians 2:20, we are urged to suffer crucifixion with Christ. By such intense identification with His death on the cross, we accomplish our own death to self. Then we can exult with Paul, "It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. Faith has come to replace the flesh as the perceived source of vitality in us, spiritual life (or power) for the living of our lives. Yes, we are still in the flesh but, by identification with Jesus’ death on the cross we cast off the domination of the flesh. It no longer rules us, we are not under its compulsion. The new man is the spiritual man, a person motivated from above and not from below. James 3:13-18 details for us this disjunction between the spiritual and the sensual, the real and the actual. Bitter envy and self-seeking (v. 2) are incompatible with the purity, peace, gentleness and mercy (v. 17) which flows from heavenly wisdom. Only those who are oriented from above have any hope of really escaping the hypocrisy which dogs every self-centered, flesh dominated person!
"Whether we live, or whether we die, we are the Lord’s" underscores the spiritual victory you and I have as believers over the loneliness that terrifies the rest of mankind. We have not only overcome loneliness in the here and now, we’ve overcome it eternally. Paul exclaims (Romans 8:39) that "nothing shall separate us from the love of God" ever—in the person of Jesus Christ means both that Jesus is the vehicle of that love, and that as the One who is eternally alive, we are personally connected in a manner beyond severance. "For God did not appoint us to . . . wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us that whether we wake or sleep we should live together with Him." (1 Thes.:5:9-10). That, and nothing less, is the Lord’s remedy for the scourge of loneliness! In reality we are not alone, now we must bring that into actuality by living it.
Even our understanding of suffering is transformed by these truths. What is it that actually delivers us from bondage to the flesh, and to the lusts of mankind, and over to the will of God? It is embracing what we suffer in the flesh as the means by which we are to put to death our selfish impulse to sin! In 1 Peter 4, we find "Forasmuch as Christ has suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same mind (i.e. that Christ possessed—forgiveness, meekness and self-control). For he that has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin." We who are dead to sin should by no means continue in sin.
The resolution of the crisis of loneliness, biblically, then comes through the double action of dying to self and coming alive toward God. The world says that we should find that special someone and find relief in that special feeling of being in-love. The world says we are to lose ourselves in an endless cycle of romantic pursuit. But it doesn’t work: emotions are subject to change, Mr. or Mrs. Right suffer in the light of reality. No human being can supply what can only be found in right relationship to God secured through Jesus Christ: there we find peace, centering and focus. To be won by Christ and to realize yourself as the subject of heaven’s great romance is far far better than anything anyone human being could possible offer for the short season that the offer stands. Amen.