Chapter 1: Relational Spirituality: Loving God Completely

Since God is a relational being, we who are created in his image are also called to right relationships, first with him and then with each other. This chapter considers the causeless, measureless, and ceaseless love of God and the fitting response of loving God completely. We move in this direction by knowing him more clearly, loving him more dearly, and following him more nearly. Ken Boa Part 1 of 2

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Table of contents

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What Is Man, That You Take Thought of Him?

The God of the Bible is infinite, personal, and triune. Because God is a communion of three persons, one of his purposes in creating us is to display the glory of his being and attributes to intelligent moral creatures who are capable of responding to his relational initiatives. In spite of human rebellion and sin against the person and character of the Lord, Christ bore the awesome price of our guilt and inaugurated “a new and living way” (Hebrews 10:20) by which the barrier to personal relationship with God has been overcome. Because the infinite and personal God loves us, he wants us to grow in an intimate relationship with him; this is the purpose for which we were created—to know, love, enjoy, and honor the triune Lord of all creation.

Because God is a relational being, the two great commandments of loving him and expressing this love for him by loving others are also intensely relational. We were created for fellowship and intimacy not only with God but also with each other. The relational implications of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity are profound. Since we were created in God’s image and likeness, we too are relational beings. The better we know God, the better we know ourselves. Augustine’s prayer for this double knowledge (“Let me know myself, let me know Thee,” from his Soliloquies) reflects the truth that our union with Christ is overcoming the alienation with God, with ourselves, and with others that occurred at the Fall.

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Our Greatness and Smallness

Human nature is a web of contradictions. We are at once the grandeur and degradation of the created order; we bear the image of God, but we are ensnared in trespasses and sins. We are capable of harnessing the forces of nature but unable to rule our tongue; we are the most wonderful and creative beings on this planet but the most violent, cruel, and contemptible of earth’s inhabitants.

In his Pensées, Blaise Pascal described the dignity and puniness of humanity: “Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapour, a drop of water, suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.”

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The Glory of God

Psalm 8 explores these twin themes, sandwiching them between expressions of the majesty of the Creator of all biological and spiritual life: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth” (vv. 1a, 9). The living God has displayed his splendor above the heavens, and he has ordained praise from the heavenly host to the mouth of infants and nursing babes (vv. 1b–2). When, after our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the children cried out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” the chief priests and the scribes became indignant, and Jesus quoted this passage to them (Matthew 21:15–16). The children’s simple confession of trusting love was enough to silence the scorn of his adversaries and “make the enemy and the revengeful cease” (Psalm 8:2b).

In Psalm 8:3–4, David’s meditation passes from the testimony of children to the eloquence of the cosmos: “When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained; what is man that You take thought of him, and the son of man that You care for him?” From the time David wrote those words until the invention of the telescope in the early seventeenth century, only a few thousand stars were visible to the unaided eye, and the universe appeared far less impressive than we now know it to be. Even until the second decade of the twentieth century, it was thought that the Milky Way galaxy was synonymous with the universe. This alone would be awesome in its scope, since our spiral galaxy contains more than 200 billion stars and extends to a diameter of 100,000 light years (remember that a light second is more than 186,000 miles; the 93 million miles between the sun and the earth is 8 light minutes). But more recent developments in astronomy have revealed that our galaxy is a member of a local cluster of about 20 galaxies and that this local cluster is but one member of a massive supercluster of thousands of galaxies. So many of these superclusters are known to exist that the number of galaxies is estimated at more than 200 billion.

What is humanity, indeed! The God who created these stars and calls them all by name (Isaiah 40:26) is unimaginably awesome; his wisdom, beauty, power, and dominion are beyond human comprehension. And yet he has deigned to seek intimacy with the people on this puny planet and has given them great dignity and destiny: “Yet You have made him a little lower than God, and You crown him with glory and majesty!” (Psalm 8:5). These words are applicable to all people, but they find their ultimate fulfillment in Jesus Christ, as Hebrews 2:6–8 makes clear. We were made to rule over the works of God’s hands (Psalm 8:6–8), but we forfeited this dominion in the devastation of the Fall (“but now we do not yet see all things subjected to him” [Hebrews 2:8b]). However, all things will be subjected under the feet of Christ when he returns (1 Corinthians 15:24–28), and we will live and reign with him (Romans 5:17; 2 Timothy 2:12; Revelation 5:10; 20:6).

As wonderful as our dominion over nature will be, our true cause of rejoicing should be in the fact that if we have placed our trust in Jesus Christ, our names are recorded in heaven (Luke 10:20). “What is man that You take thought of him, and the son of man that You care for him?” The infinite Ruler of all creation takes thought of us and cares for us, and he has proved it by the indescribable gift of his Son (2 Corinthians 9:15; 1 John 4:9–10). In the words of C. S. Lewis, glory means “good report with God, acceptance by God, response, acknowledgment, and welcome into the heart of things. The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last.” Let us exult in hope of the glory of God!

God's Love For Us

We have seen that the love of God is the wellspring of biblical faith and hope. Consider these truths about the love of God from Paul’s epistle to the Romans. In the book of nature, God reveals his eternal power and divine nature (1:20), and in the book of human conscience, he reveals our imperfection and guilt (2:14–16). But only in the book of Scripture does God reveal his limitless love that can overcome our guilt and transform us into new creatures in Christ. God’s loyal love for us is causeless (5:6), measureless (5:7–8), and ceaseless (5:9–11). Nothing in us merited or evoked his love; indeed, Christ died for us when we were his ungodly enemies. God’s love is spontaneous and unending—he loved us because he chose to love us, and if we have responded to Christ’s offer of forgiveness and relationship with him, nothing can separate us from that love or diminish it (8:35–39). This means that we are secure in the Lord’s unconditional love; since we belong to Christ, nothing we do can cause God to love us more, and nothing we do can cause God to love us less.

George Herbert
Internet Archive Book Images

 

For people who have experienced pain and rejection caused by performance-based acceptance and conditional love, this description seems too good to be true. Isn’t there something we must do to merit God’s favor or earn his acceptance? If we are afraid others would reject us if they knew what we are like inside, what of the holy and perfect Lord of all creation? The Elizabethan poet George Herbert (1593–1633) captured this stinging sense of unworthiness in his superb personification of the love of God:

 

Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,

Guilty of dust and sin.

But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack

From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,

If I lacked anything.

“A guest,” I answered, “worthy to be here.”

Love said, “You shall be he.”

“I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,

I cannot look on thee.”

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,

“Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord, but I have marred them; let my shame

Go where it doth deserve.”

“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”

“My dear, then I will serve.”

“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”

So I did sit and eat.

 

Beyond all human faith, beyond all earthbound hope, the eternal God of love has reached down to us and, in the ultimate act of sacrifice, purchased us and made us his own.

How do we respond to such love? All too often, these revealed truths seem so remote and unreal that they do not grip our minds, emotions, and wills. We may sing about the love of God in worship services and learn about it in Bible classes but miss its radical implications for our lives. Spiritual truth eludes us when we limit it to the conceptual realm and fail to internalize it. We dilute it through cultural, emotional, and theological filters and reduce it to a mental construct that we affirm more out of orthodoxy than out of profound personal conviction. How do we move in the direction of loving God completely?

Loving God Completely

I sometimes use these words based on a prayer by Richard of Chichester (1197–1253) in my own quiet times before the Lord: “Thanks be to thee, O Lord Jesus Christ, for all the benefits which thou hast given us; for all the pains and insults which thou hast borne for us. O most merciful Redeemer, Friend, and Brother, may we know thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, and follow thee more nearly; for thine own sake.”

 

Richard of Chichester
Public Domain

 

Loving God completely involves our whole personality—our intellect, emotion, and will. “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). The better we come to know God (“may we know thee more clearly”), the more we will love him (“love thee more dearly”). And the more we love him, the greater our willingness to trust and obey him in the things he calls us to do (“follow thee more nearly”).

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Know Thee More Clearly

The great prayers in Ephesians 1:17–19, Ephesians 3:16–19, Philippians 1:9–11, and Colossians 1:9–12 reveal that Paul’s deepest desire for his readers was that they grow in the knowledge of Jesus Christ. The knowledge the apostle had in mind was not merely propositional but personal. He prayed that the Lord would give them a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, that the eyes of their hearts would be enlightened, and that they would know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge (Ephesians 1:17–18; 3:19).

The occupational hazard of theologians is to become so engrossed in the development of systematic models of understanding that God becomes an abstract intellectual formulation they discuss and write about instead of a living person they love on bended knees. In the deepest sense, Christianity is not a religion but a relationship that is born out of the trinitarian love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

 

Thomas Aquinas
Public Domain

 

When thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas was pressed by his secretary, Reginald of Piperno, to explain why he stopped working on his uncompleted Summa Theologica, he said, “All that I have written seems like straw compared to what has now been revealed to me.” According to tradition, in his vision he heard the Lord say, “Thomas, you have written well of me: what shall be your reward?” and his reply was, “No reward but yourself, Lord.” Our greatest mental, physical, and social achievements are as straw compared with one glimpse of the living God (Philippians 3:7–10). Our Lord invites us to the highest calling of all—intimacy with him—and day after day, we decline the offer, preferring instead to fill our stomachs with the pods of short-lived pleasures and prospects.

What does it take to know God more clearly? The two essential ingredients are time and obedience. It takes time to cultivate a relationship, and unless we set aside consistent time for disciplines such as solitude, silence, prayer, and the reading of Scripture, we will never become intimate with our Lord. Obedience is the proper response to this communication, since it is our personal expression of trust in the promises of the Person we are coming to know. The more we are impressed by him, the less we will be impressed by people, power, and things.

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Love Thee More Dearly

To know God is to love him, because the more we grasp—not merely in our minds but also in our experience—who he is and what he has done for us, the more our hearts will respond in love and gratitude. “We love, because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). When we discover that the personal Author of time, space, matter, and energy has, for some incomprehensible reason, chosen to love us to the point of infinite sacrifice, we begin to embrace the unconditional security we longed for all our lives. God’s love for us is spontaneous, free, uncaused, and undeserved; he did not set his love on us because we were lovable, beautiful, or clever, because in our sin we were unlovable, ugly, and foolish. He loved us because he chose to love us. As we expand our vision of our acceptance and security in Christ who loved us and gave himself for us, we begin to realize that God is not the enemy of our joy but the source of our joy. When we respond to this love, we become the people he has called us to be. By God’s grace we need to grow in love with him in our thoughts, in our emotions, and in our actions. The theme of loving him more dearly is developed later in the section on devotional spirituality.

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Follow Thee More Nearly

As we grow to know and love God, we learn that we can trust his character, promises, and precepts. Whenever he asks us to avoid something, it is because he knows that it is not in our best interests. And whenever he asks us to do something, it is always because it will lead to a greater good. If we are committed to following hard after God, we must do the things he tells us to do. But the risk of obedience is that it will often make no sense to us at the time. It is countercultural to obey the things the Holy Spirit reveals to us in the Scriptures. Radical obedience sometimes flies in the face of human logic, but in these times our loving Father tests and reveals the quality of our trust and dependence on him. If we love Jesus, we will keep his commandments (John 14:15); he taught us that obedience to his commands is the way we test and express our abiding relationship with him (John 15:10). Our great task in the spiritual life is to will to do his will, to love the things he loves, and to choose the things he sets before us for our good. The theme of following him more nearly is developed in the sections on holistic and process spirituality.

Questions for Personal Application

  • What is your view of our greatness and smallness? How do you deal with the tension between these images?
  • How does nature speak to you about the glory of God? How often do you reflect on God’s attributes through the created order?
  • What are the implications of the love of God in your heart and mind?
  • How do you practice the triple prayer “may I know thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, and follow thee more nearly”?

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Conformed to His Image, Revised Edition © 2020 by Zondervan Word Version for Use by Permission Only
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