More on Inviting our Everywhere-Present God – Brad Jersak
Awhile back, I wrote a post on why we ask Abba for gifts already given. In that article, I distinguished between problematic assumptions about our need to ask (e.g. needing to beg a stingy God) and healthier reasons why we Christ instructed us to ask (e.g. God honors our permission).
In this post, I will pick up on the important difference between alienation, separation and space as we conceive our relationship with God.
Alienation vs Separation
This weekend, I was thinking about the Prodigal Son’s real experience of alienation from his father. That is, he felt the pain of turning from his father’s love. Out of this alienation, he composes a prayer of contrition that exposes some lies he’s begun to believe:
- He believes the father has disowned him as a son. He no longer belongs in the family. He’s unworthy.
- He believes that he needs to plead for the father to receive him back.
- He believes that at best, he’ll acquire a slave-master relationship.
- In short, he believes in the lie of separation from his father’s love and that a convincing and heartfelt display of repentance will get him back into the house.
Christ actually composes these words and puts them in the son’s mouth, not because he endorses our religious negotiations, but probably because his Abba has heard them literally millions of times in prayer and he hopes we’ll hear his Father’s grace-filled interruption . . . and much more!
Here’s the truth:
- His father’s love and forgiveness followed him out the door on the first, fateful day of his departure.
- His father has been watching for him and sees him, even while he is a very great distance away.
- His father is filled with compassion for him.
- His father runs to
his, hugs and kisses him.
- His father identifies him as his son.
- His father welcomes him home for a great celebration.
- His father welcomes everyone, even the bitter elder brother, to participate in their reconciliation.
This is an essential distinction: the alienation from Abba’s house was a real experience. But separation from Abba’s love was a terrible lie. Separation is essentially the lie of every Christless religion (including exclusionary Christianity). Hear these bold words from the late Alexander Schmemann:
“Christianity is in a profound sense the end of all religion… Nowhere in the New Testament is Christianity presented as a cult or as a religion. Religion is needed where there is a wall of separation between God and man. But Christ, who is both God and man, has broken down the wall between man and God. He has inaugurated a new life, not a new religion.”
Paul is also convinced: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).
Note how the Apostle doesn’t end the sentence. He doesn’t conclude that separation from the love of God is only for Christians. The love of God from which we cannot be separated is in Jesus Christ. That love extended to both Prodigal Sons. Even in their self-imposed alienation–in their turning– neither was able to turn their father’s heart from them. In both cases, the father’s love compels him to go outside and meet them, even in the darkness of their common slave mentality.
Separation vs Space
Having pushed back against the delusion of separation, let’s return to the question of why we ask Abba for what he’s already given. Isn’t that a confession, similar to the younger son, that we believe God has somehow separated himself from us or isn’t actually everywhere present?
Yes, it can be. But that’s hardly what Symeon the New Theologian (10th century) had in his heart when he prayed:
Come, O unknowable One;
Come, O unceasing joy,
Come, O unwaning light,
Come, O you who remain ever the same and who, at every hour,
moves and draws near to us who lay in hades,
Come, O my breath and my life!
Is Symeon implying that he’s been separated from the love of the Father and needs to grovel before him as did the Prodigal? Not at all. Symeon’s posture teaches us two important and helpful truths:
While nothing can separate us from the love of God, we still experience the trials of the human condition.
Symeon knows the real experience of human helplessness. He even compares his trials to being laid out in hades–the New Testament metaphor for death. He may even be experiencing some of the alienation of the prodigal sons, but mercifully, he hasn’t bought into the brothers’ lies about God. For him, though transcendent, God is also his source of light, joy and life. His cry does not at all imply God has turned from him or even that he’s actually distant. It is, as it was for Christ on the cross, a cry for help to the ever-present, always coming one whose love and care we ask for, wait upon and surrender to.
While nothing can separate us from the love of God, God makes space for our freedom.
In A More Christlike God, we worked through the language of kenosis–the word Paul uses in Philippians 2 to describe how Christ “emptied” himself. Without ever ceasing to be fully divine for even a moment, Christ emptied himself in the following ways:
- He poured himself into the world as self-giving love through the Incarnation.
- He completely “let go” or “set aside” the advantage or privilege of his majesty.
- In an act that revealed God’s profound humility, Christ assumed the human condition and descended all the way into our predicament, including the fragility of human mortality.
Christ’s humility was not a newly added attribute of God. Jesus Christ’s kenosis revealed the nature of Triune Love as self-giving and others-centered. While our God is everywhere present and we’re never separated from his love, God also makes space for “authentic otherness.” In other words, Abba grants us the space to make real choices–even bad ones. Christ honors human freedom–even when we misuse it. Grace (the Holy Spirit) consents to our willingness or willfulness as the case may be. Triune kenotic love creates and consents rather than coerces or controls. We could sure stand to learn from their example!
And this beautiful, dangerous, God-given freedom is the space into which the Almighty God does not infringe apart from our welcome. Olivier Clement says,
“The Spirit, though he bears us up and gives us life, surrounding us like an atmosphere that is ready to penetrate the slightest fissure in our souls, cannot do so without our consent, without our call. We must pray: Come.” (Olivier Clement, The Three Prayers).
IF there is any exclusion within all of God’s creation, we do not find it in God. Rather, it lies at the heart of creation–in the human heart that says “NO, stay out!” to the love of God. Christ’s parable is the gospel in a nutshell. In our gospel, only kenotic love (divine consent) explains the space–the tremendous agency–the father gives his sons. The space he created for love is a boundary that Abba would not violate.
Even so, in love, our Abba extends his perpetual invitation. If anyone is pleading in this picture, it is him. “Come!” he says. “Come home! Come in! All I have is yours!” May we, without hesitation or hindrance, return the favor.
As Paul says, “All this is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ, not counting men’s trespasses against them. And He has committed to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making His appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ: Be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:18-20).