Mark Galli on What It Looks Like When Christians Remember Their Greatest Love

I ended the first essay in this series by saying that the deepest crisis of the American church, and of evangelical Christianity especially, is that we have forgotten God. I recognize that it seems absurd to say we have forgotten God when God is on our lips so much of the time. While the numbers are slightly down from previous decades, American Christians worship, pray, read their Bibles, and say in polls that religion is “very important” significantly more than do people in most other nations. If anything, we sometimes talk about God so much, many in the culture are sick of God-talk, especially when his name is invoked in the public square to support one political cause or another. So how can I say we have forgotten God?

Let me begin by picturing what the church looks like when it hasn’t forgotten God. Evangelicals certainly didn’t forget God at the birth of the movement in America, what we call The Great Awakening. But today I believe we have forgotten our first love—more of this in the next essay. But first a reminder of what that first love was like.

The reality of which I am speaking—a church that has not forgotten God—exhibits one principal characteristic: a desire for God. A desire so intense it sometimes looks like drunkenness or even madness. [Note: A condensed version of this essay appeared in the June 2019 issue of Christianity Today.]

The first place to go looking for a picture of this passion is Scripture.

Desire from Beginning to End

The most vivid example of such desire is King David. David was known as a man of action, a military leader, a nation’s king, so very busy with the affairs of state. (This is important to note, because later we’ll acknowledge how activism is part and parcel of evangelical faith.) He is also famous for his marital affair with Bathsheba, and the subsequent murder of her husband. But the one characteristic that seems to have earned him the label of “a man after [God’s] own heart” was that he was a man who sought God with all his heart. (Acts 13:22, NLT for this and all biblical quotations.)

Psalm 63 expresses this most eloquently:

O God, you are my God;
I earnestly search for you.
My soul thirsts for you;
my whole body longs for you
in this parched and weary land
where there is no water.
I have seen you in your sanctuary
and gazed upon your power and glory.
Your unfailing love is better than life itself;
how I praise you!
I will praise you as long as I live,
lifting up my hands to you in prayer.
You satisfy me more than the richest feast.
I will praise you with songs of joy. (v. 1–5)

Believing that God’s presence was especially to be found in the Temple, David also prayed:

The one thing I ask of the Lord—
the thing I seek most—
is to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
delighting in the Lord’s perfections
and meditating in his Temple. (27:4)

Of course, he isn’t the only psalmist to yearn for God’s palpable presence. Psalm 42 was written by “a descendant of Korah” and famously begins:

As the deer longs for streams of water,
so I long for you, O God.
I thirst for God, the living God. (vv. 1–2)

The examples could be multiplied, as any reader of the Psalms knows. The psalmists were driven by a desire to know God. Not just to do know his will. Not just to do his will. Not just to be wise. Not just to be righteous. But to know God, to be with God, to bask in his presence.

Persons of a stoic nature, like me, are tempted to assume such passion is only for highly emotional personalities. Frankly, at times David and the other psalmists seem like emotional wrecks to me, either lamenting their sorry state or begging desperately for divine aid or longing passionately for God. My instinct is to tell them to just calm down.

Yet since this over-the-top drive to know and love God is found throughout Scripture, I have to question my stoicism. For example, we see it also in Isaiah the prophet: “In the night I search for you; in the morning I earnestly seek you” (26:9).

We see it in Paul:

… everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ and become one with him. (Phil. 3:8–9)

And, we see it in Jesus, not so much in his yearning to be one with God (that would be absurd for the one in whom God fully dwells) but in his teaching, especially in what he said was the greatest commandment: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength” (Mark. 12:30). That pretty much covers the emotional, physical, spiritual, and mental landscape of human life.

To put it another way, Jesus tells us we are to be monomaniacs for God.

Again, people like me—who strive to keep my emotions in check, to navigate life on an even keel, to take things in stride—try to squirm out of this by saying that this first and greatest commandment is merely about obeying God’s commands. We demonstrate our love for him by caring for others in very practical ways—doing favors for friends, listening attentively to a troubled coworker, serving at the food pantry, and maybe even attending a prayer vigil at an abortion clinic or joining a protest march against racial injustice. Doing stuff that helps others—that’s what it means to love God.

That’s certainly part of it. But here’s the rub: Jesus didn’t say that loving the neighbor is the way we show we love God. He said the first commandment is to love God, and then he announced a second commandment—as if it were in a different category—which is to love others. This was not a commentary on the first commandment.

Add to that the unique character of the first commandment—there is something extraordinary about the love of God: We’re commanded to love God with the complete range of emotion, with the full measure of spiritual fervor, with unending intellectual effort, and with every calorie of energy.

Jesus, as was his custom, is trafficking in hyperbole, because if we were to love God like this, we wouldn’t have anything left for the neighbor. But the point is made. Jesus is simply putting into command form the passion eloquently found in the Psalms: “Whom have I in heaven but you? I desire you more than anything on earth” (73:25). This is the deep and abiding desire he calls us to pursue.

Starving for God

Scripture employs a variety of metaphors to drive home the intensity and wonder of this desire. One set traffics in the idea of bodily nourishment—hunger and thirst.

We see this first in the Exodus account, where Moses explains one lesson from the miracle of manna:

… [God] humbled you by letting you go hungry and then feeding you with manna, a food previously unknown to you and your ancestors. He did it to teach you that people do not live by bread alone; rather, we live by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. (Deut. 8:3)

This, of course, is the very verse Jesus quotes when tempted by Satan to break his fast. But this isn’t the only time Jesus employed this metaphor. On one occasion, he was explaining to a crowd that in the desert his Father was responsible for feeding the Israelites with bread from heaven, but he now he offers “the true bread from heaven.”

To this his listeners reply, “Give us that bread every day.”

In response, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35).

When his listeners became increasing disturbed by this teaching, Jesus doubled down, saying something that no doubt shocked them:

I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you cannot have eternal life within you. … For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him (vv. 53, 55).

It is a violent, frankly cannibalistic allusion meant to shock them into seeing a deeper reality—the intense and personal nature of our union with God. As much as food and drink nourish and sustain us and become part of our bodies, so Jesus can sustain, nurture, and become one with us. And if we want such an intimate and life-sustaining union, we will hunger and thirst for it like nothing else.

Most of us reading such words live in lands of abundance, so the biblical metaphor does not quite register. Our pangs of hunger needn’t last but for a few minutes. Within ready reach—in a refrigerator or store or vending machine—is something to nourish us. Hunger for us is mere inconvenience, and food an entertainment. We watch reality TV shows that revel in the abundance of food and in the creativity of chefs, and some of us pride ourselves in being “foodies.”

The biblical writers knew little of the affluence we enjoy. It was not uncommon for them to endure periods of drought or famine. Food was not a hobby nor about satisfying cravings but often a matter of life and death.

They would much more likely identify with the sufferers of modern-day famines. Christopher Hitchens, in his Love, Poverty, and War: Journeys and Essays, described one such famine on a trip to North Korea:

In the fields, you can see people picking up loose grains of rice and kernels of corn, gleaning every scrap. They look pinched and exhausted. In the few, dingy restaurants in the city, and even in the few modern hotels, you can read the Pyongyang Times through the soup, or the tea, or the coffee. Morsels of inexplicable fat or gristle are served as “duck.” One evening I gave in and tried a bowl of dog stew, which at least tasted hearty and spicy … but then found my appetite crucially diminished by the realization that I hadn’t seen a domestic animal, not even the merest cat, in the whole time I was there.

To hunger and thirst for God in the biblical sense is to be desperate for God. The psalmist, among others, believes he is starved and dehydrated without God, one whose skin sucks on his bones and exposes his skeleton, whose listlessness fuels his despair, who scours the ground for even single grain of rice. The psalmist so desires to know God and his love—and here’s where the nourishment metaphor is transcended—he says it is better than life itself (Ps. 63:3).

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Source: Christianity Today