Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Loving an Abstraction Abstractly

Christianity Today’s editor in chief Mark Galli recounts a personal crisis:

“It may have been as the result of hearing a sermon, or perhaps reading a book. But I distinctly remember thinking that my Christian life was sorely lacking in the love of God.”

Not only that, but as Galli frankly concedes, he wasn’t even really sure he wanted to know and love God more deeply. He certainly did not yearn for intimacy with God as he felt he should.


Not Such an Uncommon Problem

I suspect Galli’s is not an uncommon problem, but it’s one many Christians are understandably disinclined to talk about. We think it should not be that way. Galli came to the place where he says the most honest thing he could pray was this: “Lord, help me to want to love you.” While hesitant to universalize a personal experience, he goes on to suggest that evangelical Christianity as a whole is currently in much the same place he was.

I walked around and thought about that for a while this morning. If true, it would certainly explain a fair bit about our churches these days. It is actually very difficult to love an abstraction, and that is what God is to many of us. It is even tougher to love an abstraction abstractly.

Fortunately, scripture does not encourage us to attempt this.

Feelings, Whoa Whoa Whoa Feeeeelings …

Since we’re in confessional mode this morning, let me offer one of my own: I’m a bit of a dry stick. If you ask me how most days are for me, they run between 6.2 and 6.6 out of 10. Big emotional moments of any sort, good and bad, are rare. Moreover, they never happen when they should. I feel Christmas emotions in February. I mourn four weeks before a funeral, or three weeks after. At the event itself, I am entirely composed. I do experience moments of profound joy, elation, pain and sorrow. I am occasionally overwhelmed by great surges of deep affection. But I cannot plan or control these, and I cannot always identify what triggers them. They are things that happen to me.

If I tried to assess my love for God exclusively on the basis of how I feel about him on the average day of the week, I would have to concede I’m in much the same spot as Mr. Galli. That does not trouble me a bit.

Measuring Our Love

How exactly should we measure our love for God, if at all? Is trying to take our own emotional temperature a useful exercise? That is Mr. Galli’s metric: “I didn’t have any affection.” “I didn’t have any yearning to know him.” “My personal relationship with God did not really affect much inside me.”

If we put it like that, I think most Christians grasp the fact that the intensity of our own emotions provides no accurate indication of love, and that trying to work up affection for God on cue is probably an exercise in futility. People blow hot and cold. Our emotions can be profoundly affected by something as insignificant as a decongestant tablet or a single really bad day at the office. Moreover, people can have very strong feelings about which they do nothing whatsoever. Are these emotions significant just because they are intense?

A More Biblical Love-Meter

When we turn to scripture, we certainly find great displays of human love for God. But the sort of love Jesus and the apostles urge on us is no abstract thing. It is quite measurable and concrete. Some examples:
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

“If anyone loves me, he will keep my word.”

“ ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ ”

Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”

“Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”

Whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected.”
Regardless of its object, real love does stuff. It obeys, it serves, it sacrifices, it avoids sinning. You can measure it by how much it costs and the effect it produces, not how intense it feels to the person experiencing it. Love for God may be measured the same way. It is not abstract.

One caution: OF COURSE running around engaging in a great big hubbub of activity on God’s behalf is no guarantee you actually love him. People obey and serve and sacrifice for all kinds of less commendable reasons: guilt, pride, duty, appearances, fear … you name it. But my point is this, if you are going to try to measure your love for God at all (and I don’t recommend it, since your heart will deceive you in any case), don’t use the apparent intensity of your emotions about him as an indicator.

The Bible doesn’t. Why would you?

The Difficulty of Loving an Abstraction

That sums up the difficulty of trying to love abstractly. But what about the difficulty of trying to love an abstraction? We are not in the position of John the apostle who reclined at the table with the Lord, or Mary who sat at his feet. Both displayed deep affection for the Lord because they knew him personally. John could say, “That … which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands …” You and I have never seen, heard or touched the Lord Jesus. We have certainly never seen God. If you think it is easy to love someone you cannot see, hear or touch, consider the words of John himself on the subject:
“He who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.”
Loving an abstraction is difficult. To us, Jesus and God are first and foremost ideas. That does not mean they are unreal. They are very real indeed. Their reality does not depend on our subjective ability to apprehend them, let alone to feel things about them. But we must concede that it is exceedingly difficult for most human beings to engage in a genuine relationship with persons who are intangible, inaudible and invisible. It is the exercise of a lifetime, and it is massively aided by the presence of Christ in the world in a more accessible form:
“Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
So love displayed to the brothers and sisters of Christ is love for Christ. A visit. A meal. A cup of cold water. A pair of shoes. That’s not abstract at all. You can quantify it, you can measure it, and best of all, even if you don’t always feel it, you can DO it.

Yearning to Know Him

The apostle Paul speaks of craving the knowledge of Christ, suffering the loss of all things in order to know him. I suspect that’s what Mr. Galli and others are after, and it’s a great goal.

But bear in mind that Paul wrote those wonderful words to which we ought to aspire after nearly thirty years of concentrated service and obedient living. During that period, the Lord Jesus came alive to him in a way we should all covet but maybe don’t yet. Paul’s sentiments about Christ are not abstract at all. We know this because he had done the spadework of loving God’s children all along the way, watching Christ be birthed in them and watching them grow to maturity in the faith. He was meeting, engaging with and loving Christ in the real world as he interacted with and loved God’s people.

Read the last chapter of Romans if you doubt this: “My beloved Epaenetus”, “my beloved Stachys”, “my kinsman Herodion”, “the beloved Persis”. Paul’s letters are full of superlatives toward his fellow believers, notwithstanding their faults and complexities, and the fact that they sometimes did not mirror Christ to him with the greatest accuracy.

A Lovely-But-Intermittent Byproduct

Look, affection for Christ and a yearning to know him are very desirable things, but I am convinced they are a lovely-but-intermittent byproduct of other ongoing Christian habits, not something we can be consistently expected to work up within ourselves. They are things that happen to you along the way as you daily obey, resist sin, serve, study, submit, suffer and most of all daily love — with words and actions — some very un-abstract and occasionally undesirable others.

If, having done all these things, we still have doubts about our affection for God, bear in mind that what we think about our own feelings for God matters immeasurably less than what he thinks about them.

And he knows them a great deal better than we do.


  1. Something that might be worth pointing out if there is an issue is that loving God is actually fairly uncomplicated since it's the end result of a simple logical sequence provided in the Bible. Namely, love yourself by loving your neighbor hence you love God. It's not required for you to do any special soul searching or feel upset about lack of emotional content. That will probably appear on it's own eventually anyhow if living along those lines.

  2. Part of that I definitely agree with.

  3. Coincidentally (*cough*), Stand to Reason has a nice perspective on this topic on their blog today: https://www.str.org/blog/desire-me-what-i-cannot-desire