Very short musings on beauty and love

This was the view over Belfast Lough the other night. The vista from the Craigantlet hills above Holywood is a favourite of mine but last night was a pretty special show.

A connection between beauty and love goes back a long way – for example to Plato’s Symposium where beauty is the highest or primary form of love.

Here’s a very short musing evoked by this beautiful scene that goes in a slightly different direction.

One of the most popular sayings about love is that “true love is unconditional”. But what is meant by that phrase is often left unclear.

It could mean that love just loves with no strings attached, with no expectations of the other at all. Yes, this expression of love does occur – but it is pretty rare.

One example is a devoted daughter caring for her terminally ill mother, who cannot communicate or do anything much for herself at all. The relationship is very much ‘one-way’ – the giver selflessly giving out of love that does not expect anything in return (unconditional).

But let me suggest that generally human love is anything but unconditional. Typically it is conditioned (evoked or dependent on) specific qualities in the object of love.

Take the scene above. It is a lovely view. There is a tight connection between beauty and love – think of a place that you love to go to. Why? I bet it is not generally an anonymous industrial estate on the fringe of city. It will probably be beautiful, or it will have a deep personal connection in the story of your life. I love this view not only because of its beauty but because this is where I grew up – it links to many good memories and connects to stories and people.

Or take a person you love. A son’s love for his dad is conditioned on the fact that he is his father. It is anything but an unconditioned love. Human love tends to be very specific in direction. It is far from random.

Or take two lovers. They are drawn to each other for specific reasons. It’s a pretty cold sort of relationship where partners have nothing to say about the special, attractive qualities of the other!

Think of the woman from the Songs of Songs chapter 5 extolling at great length the unique physical characteristics of her lover:

My beloved is radiant and ruddy,

outstanding among ten thousand.

Song of Songs 5:10

Her love is obviously conditioned on who he is, just as his love is conditioned on who she is – both are intensely attracted to each other and pretty well the whole book is a celebration of their delight in one another.

And if we jump forward from their relationship to modern relationships today, for a couple’s bond to last and flourish both individuals need to be loving the other. Relationships die if only one partner actively loves (cares for, is kind to, acts for the other’s good). Love in this sense is conditional on the other person loving back. Yes there are many examples of one partner relentlessly loving the other even in the face of betrayal and coldness, but generally for love to survive and develop it is conditional on reciprocity.

So the next time you hear the slogan ‘True love is unconditional’ maybe ask the person, ‘What do you mean?’ and see where the conversation goes.

Love in Paul (13) Conclusions and suggestions for a love-audit of our lives

This is the final post in a series about the apostle Paul’s theology of love. To recap, there are three great strands of love in the OT that also continue, now Christologically framed, into the NT (and Paul in particular).

1) The elective and saving love of Yahweh for his chosen people.

2) The responsive love of Israel (God’s people) to God’s prior redemptive action.

3) Inter-communal love: the love God’s people are to have for one another

We’ve covered a lot of ground. The evidence is overwhelming that love is central within Paul’s own experience and plays a determining role within his entire theological framework.

That’s a significant claim, but the supporting evidence is strong. Too often love in Paul has been overlooked, downplayed or marginalised as some sort of ‘second order’ doctrine.

There are reasons for this – not least the dominance of soteriology in Pauline theology. Centuries of polemical debates about justification – whether RCC/Reformers, New versus Old Perspectives – have tended, particularly within Protestant/evangelicalism, to make one’s position on justification a touchstone of ‘soundness’ or orthodoxy.

E.G. – if you like N T Wright over John Piper you’re suspect on ‘the gospel’ of justification by faith alone. And therefore suspect (not to be trusted) in general.

But, ironically, this passion for orthodoxy can miss the wider purpose of justification in Paul’s thought. Love is not a nice ‘by-product’ of justification – it is the entire point (Galatians 5:6).

What would it look like I wonder if there was equal passion for ‘soundness’ regarding ‘faith working in love’ as in a correct understanding of righteousness by faith alone?

Paul is first and foremost a missionary-pastor. His priority is the moral formation of believers in the fledgling Christian communities that he planted or helped to grow. And that moral formation is framed within a comprehensive theology of love.

For Paul love does the following:

> His understanding of who God is is revolutionised in light of Jesus Christ. God demonstrates his love in the cross. Out of love the Father, Son and Spirit work together of effect salvation.

> The Spirit works to transform believers into the likeness of Christ – a process that has love at its core

> Believers living in communities of love fulfil the Law

> Christian freedom takes the form of self-sacrifical love

> Christian worship revolves around love for God and love for one another

> Love is God’s ‘spiritual weapon’ in an eschatological conflict between the realm of the flesh and the Spirit

> Love is the ‘oil’ which enables the church to function. The apostle knows that without love communities made up of diverse social, ethnic and religious groupings will fall apart.

> Communities of love are missional in that they form a counter-story to the hierarchies of power that shaped the Greco-Roman world

> Love is inseparable from Paul’s theology of financial giving to help fellow brothers and sisters in need.

> Love for God and being loved by God give a robust framework to withstand suffering, persecution and even death

> Love is the primary motive for Christian mission

> Echoing Jesus, love for enemies is to mark a Christian’s response to injustice

> Without love, all Christian ministry is worthless

> Love describes ultimate eschatological hope for believers – it is love alone which will endure forever

In other words, theology and ethics in Paul must not be divorced. They are inseparable.

A Love Audit of Our Lives

Reflecting on this final list again I’m challenged to think about what a ‘love-audit’ of my – or any Christian’s – life would look like

Perhaps something like this: and feel welcome to add your own comments or suggestions – this is very much a thought experiment.

  1. Consider honestly and self-critically each point above and reflect on your own life in light of them.
  2. Move to prayers of confession and repentance (if you have nothing to do here may I suggest you haven’t done point 1 very well!)
  3. Ask the Spirit’s help to deal with areas of un-love in your life – grudges; unforgiveness; arrogance; lack of action; selfishness; disobedience; lack of generosity; bitterness; despair; greed; where unloving means have justified even good ends.
  4. Be accountable – a life of love is a corporate journey. It is to be shared with others – our failures and weaknesses as as well as successes. Have a friend / mentor who can ask you the hard questions and expect truthful answers.
  5. Write down some concrete actions in light of your reflections and act on them
  6. Repeat 1-5 on a continual basis. In this way make love central to your Christian faith and life since this is God’s agenda for his people.

Love in Paul (11) Love for one another as imitation of Jesus

We’re continuing a series about the apostle Paul’s theology of love. To recap, there are three great strands of love in the OT that also continue, now Christologically framed, into the NT (and Paul in particular).

1) The elective and saving love of Yahweh for his chosen people.

2) The responsive love of Israel (God’s people) to God’s prior redemptive action.

3) Inter-communal love: the love God’s people are to have for one another

This is the second post in strand 3. If strands 1 and 2 were ‘vertical love’ (love of God for humanity; human love for God in response), this strand is ‘horizontal love’ – at a human to human level. It is also the strand about which the Apostle Paul has by far the most to say.

In the last post we looked at love as central to Paul’s mission to see communities of believers ‘shining like stars’ within an immoral world as they lived according to the cruciform way of Jesus. Exhortations and encouragement to live such a life worthy of the gospel abound in Paul’s letters.

The Purpose of the Christian Life: being formed into the image of Jesus

In this post we look at how love for Paul the Jewish rabbi is reconfigured Christologically. In other words, the Christ-event leads him to a new understanding of what a life pleasing to God looks like. It is not Torah observance, but a life in whom Christ is formed.

Let’s look at some texts to illustrate that claim:

Galatians 4:19 “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you”

Take a moment to read that verse again. See how it reveals how Paul understands the ultimate purpose of his mission – that Christ is formed in the lives of believers. [How well I wonder do we keep this ultimate goal front and centre of all church life and ministry?]

This isn’t an isolated example – other texts speak similarly of transformation into the image of Christ:

Rom 8:29, “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.”

1 Cor 15:49 “And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.”

2 Cor 3:18 “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”

Col 3:9-10 “Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.”

It’s easy after 2000 years of church history to miss just how extraordinary this is. Paul the Jewish monotheist sees his God-given mission as preaching the death and resurrection of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, Mary’s son so that all who have faith in him are transformed into his likeness.

But what does being formed into the likeness of Jesus mean? Quite simply the answer is love.

Love Reimagined: imitating the way of Jesus

Imitate me as I imitate Jesus

In these days of (justified) scepticism about the integrity of too many high-profile church leaders, I guess many would hesitate to say what Paul sometimes does – namely to ‘imitate me as I imitate Christ’

1 Thes 1:6 “You became imitators of us and of the Lord ..”

1 Cor 4:16; “Therefore I urge you to imitate me.”

2 Thes 3:7, 9; “For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example … We did this … in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate.”

Phil 4:9. “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”

1 Cor 11:1 “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.”

Phil 3:17 “Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do.”

The last text is significant. Paul outlines his own narrative of giving up previous status and identity for the sake of the Philippians (Phil 3:2-16), an example he calls them to imitate (3:17).

Similarly in 1 Corinthians 9:14-15 (giving up of rights) is based on how Paul has given up his own apostolic rights.

Imitate Christ

Other examples of imitating Jesus are peppered through the apostle’s letters.

  • Sometimes the imitation is to copy God’s self-giving love as demonstrated by Christ’s sacrificial death (Eph 5:1-2).
  • Or of churches to imitate the willingness of Christ to endure suffering (1 Thes 2:14-15).
  • In Romans 15:1-3 pleasing one’s neighbour is based on Christ’s refusal to please himself.
  • In Romans 15:7 acceptance of one another is grounded in the imitation of Christ’s acceptance of believers
  • Within marriage, husbands are to love their wives ‘just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her’ (Eph.5:25; cf Col.3:19).
  • Most important of all is Philippians 2:5-11 where Paul’s encouragement to humble other-regard is rooted in the story of Christ’s voluntary self-giving death and giving up his own rights and glory

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Phil 2:3-5

1 Corinthians 13 as the Imitation of Jesus

Paul’s famous description of love does not specifically mention the imitation of Jesus but it describes perfectly the way of Jesus.

  • verse 3 – giving all of one self at great cost for the good of others
  • the description of love that follows clearly describes a life imitating that of Jesus. He is the one who demonstrates such love in action. The Gospels give story after story of what such a life of love looks like
  • such love is unlimited and without end.

_____________________

This is what Christianity is all about

This is God’s ‘end game’. Love is greater than faith and hope because it characterises the new creation to come.

The purpose of justification is to be transformed into the image of Christ.

Being transformed into the image of Christ means living a Jesus-like life.

Living a Jesus-like life means loving others.

Loving others is difficult, costly and will be at times deeply self-sacrificial.

But that is the way of cruciform love.

No-one said being a Christian is easy.

But it is life-affirming and joyful.

For it is in losing our lives that we find them.

Love in Paul (10) love for one another

We’re continuing a series about the apostle Paul’s theology of love. To recap, there are three great strands of love in the OT that also continue, now Christologically framed, into the NT (and Paul in particular).

1) The elective and saving love of Yahweh for his chosen people.

2) The responsive love of Israel (God’s people) to God’s prior redemptive action.

3) Inter-communal love: the love God’s people are to have for one another

This is the first post in strand 3. If strands 1 and 2 were ‘vertical love’ (love of God for humanity; human love for God in response), this strand is ‘horizontal love’ – at a human to human level. It is also the strand about which the Apostle Paul has by far the most to say.

Indeed, he has so much to say about love for one another that I call him the ‘apostle of love’. He’s right up there with John in the frequency and importance of love within the community of God’s people. The love believers are to have for one another is to be THE distingushing mark of these fledging churches, reflecting their new-found identity in Christ and marking them as belonging to a different story and ethic to that of the surrounding nations.

We’ve mentioned earlier how Douglas Campbell calls this ‘agapeism’ – that love captures all that is important about Pauline ethics. And I agree, it does. Let’s take two broad themes in this post, and we’ll continue with others in the next post

The Missional Focus of Pauline Love

Here’s a sweeping generalisation – there is a strange lack of attention paid to the importance of love within Christian mission. There can be much discussion of context, strategy, culture, vision, leadership, apologetics and so on, but, rarely a sustained focus on the most important element of all – the integrity and attractiveness of the Christian community. (happy to be corrected here)

Paul, it seems to me, has a razor sharp awareness that love is essential for the health and witness of his Christian communities. There was nothing like them in the ancient world. No other communities embraced individuals across the profound religious, gender, socio-economic status and ethnic divisions of the ancient world. Believers now have a new primary identity in Christ as brothers and sisters (adelphoi) within God’s household. Previous identity – whether Jew, Gentile, male, female, slave or free – are relativised, not erased they are – radically – now of no spiritual significance.

In this vein, coming from a social-scientific angle, David Horrell (2016) makes the argument that Paul is primarily concerned with the construction of a corporate solidarity that acts to heal inner-communal conflict and draws strength from a vocation to holiness within an immoral world.

So, in Paul, love is not an end in itself. Rather, it is the defining characteristic of the first Christian communities in their new vocation to live lives worthy of the gospel under the Lordship of Jesus Christ within a world that is ‘passing away’ (1 Cor 7:31).

Love is only thing that could possibly hold such ‘households’ together. Love is essential to the life and witness of the church. Without love no church and no family can survive – and that’s as true today as it was then.

Love as following the paradoxical way of Jesus

For Paul, Christian love is cruciform love. God’s love is demonstrated and experienced through the cross of Christ. Cruciform love is costly, it acts for the good of others at the expense of the self.

This is the paradoxical way of Jesus.

Sometimes this can be misunderstood. Christianity does not call believers to be ‘doormats’ – walked over by others at every turn. Nor does it call for self-abnegation or self-hatred. Rather, it proclaims that real flourishing, happiness and purpose is found in loving others. Loving another means acting for their good, even at cost to the self. Christianity is a corporate faith, which is another way of saying it is orientated around living well with others within a network of mutually loving relationships.

This conflicts head on with Western individualism that says fulfilment is found in self-realisation, finding yourself, loving yourself, expressing yourself and so on. This sort of ‘expressive individualism’ is centered on the self rather than on loving others. It has no place for community and its ‘eschatology’ is consumerist – short-term individual pleasure or achievement. There is nothing ‘bigger’ or more significant than the self.

We see other-focused Jesus-type love applied by Paul to a multiplicity of situations and contexts. Here are some examples and we could keep going at length here:

  • Other-focused love is seen in his repeated appeals to maintain unity (Rom 12:16; 14:1-15:7; 1 Cor 1:10; 12:21-27; 14:12; Gal 6:10; Eph 4:1-3; Phil 2:1-2; Col 3:12-13; 1 Thes 5:12-15; Titus 3:1-2, 8)
  • In his many warnings against divisive attitudes or behaviour (1 Cor 3:1-4, 16-17; 6:1-11; 8:9-13; 10:24, 31-33; 11:17-34; 2 Cor 12:19-20; Gal 5:15; 6:3-4; Eph 4:25-32; Phil 2:3, 14-15; Col 3:5-9; 1 Thes 4:3-6; 1 Tim 6:2b-10; 2 Tim 2:23, 3:1-5; Titus 3:9-11).
  • Converts to Christ are to act in love for each other (1 Thes 4:9; Rom 12:9-10; 14:15; 1 Cor.8:1; Eph 4:2, 15-16; Phil 2:1-2; Col 2:2).
  • Famously, in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3, all Christian life and ministry is of no value at all if it is not done in love.
  • The Colossians are encouraged to clothe themselves with love on top of a list of other virtues (Col.3:14)
  • In 1 Thessalonians 5:8 all believers are to put on the breastplate of faith and love.
  • Paul prays that believers’ love would grow as they await the coming of the Lord (1 Thes 3:12; Phil 1:9) and is glad to hear of a church’s love (e.g., 1 Thes 3:6; 2 Thes 1:3).
  • In Philippians he is thankful when Christ is preached ‘out of love’ (Phil 1:16) – regardless of who the preachers are.
  • He rejoices when he hears of believers’ love for God’s people (Col 1:4, Philem 1:5, 7)
  • He encourages the Corinthians to show the ‘genuineness’’ of their love by giving financial help for brothers and sisters in need (2 Cor 8:8, 24).
  • Rather than use apostolic authority, he prefers to appeal to Philemon about Onesimus ‘on the basis of love’ (Philem.1.9).
  • And, as a pastor, it is significant how often Paul expresses his deep love for the communities to whom he ministers (e.g., 1 Thes 2:8; 3:12; 1 Cor 4:21; 16:24; 2 Cor 2:4; 8:7; 11:11; Phil.4:1).

That’s a pretty strong case for ‘agapeism’ right there. More to come in the next post.

Love in Paul (9) Love, Faith, the Spirit and Union with Christ

We’re continuing a series about the apostle Paul’s theology of love. To recap, there are three great strands of love in the OT that also continue, now Christologically framed, into the NT (and Paul in particular).

1) The elective and saving love of Yahweh for his chosen people.

2) The responsive love of Israel (God’s people) to God’s prior redemptive action.

3) Inter-communal love: the love God’s people are to have for one another

This is the last post within strand 2 – the responsive love of God’s people to God’s prior love. In this post I want to sketch the connections between faith (pistis) and union with Christ. The role of the Spirit is critical here. And the ‘outworking’, or we may even say ‘purpose’, of being united in Christ through faith alone is seen in a life of love.

The gospel calls for a response of faith which results in believers being joined together ‘in Christ’. This is a remarkable image when you think about it. It speaks of Paul’s high christology that is some cosmic / spiritual sense all believers are united together within the ‘body of Christ’ – the church.

To be ‘in Christ’ is therefore an eschatological concept – believers ‘in Christ’ belong to God’s new creation (Gal 6:14-15; 2 Cor 5:14, 17). Elsewhere Paul talks about them being baptised into Christ’s death and resurrection.

A tight connection between faith, the Spirit and love is typically Pauline. It is the Spirit through whom God’s love is poured out into believers’ hearts (Rom 5:5) and through whom God is known (1 Cor 8:3; Eph 3:19). Indeed, faith and love are often mentioned alongside one another (Eph 6:23; 1 Thess 1:3; 3:6; 5:8; 1 Tim 1:14). The primary evidence of the empowering presence of the Spirit is love (Gal 5:6, 13).

It is important we see the apostle’s pastoral concerns here. So often we get lost in technical theological debates about justification and soteriology that we miss how Paul’s priorities are primarily ethical – that believers would be living lives of love and holiness pleasing to God. This is his heartfelt plea to the believers to whom he writes.

Paul leaves some things unsaid – he doesn’t really explain how someone ‘in Christ’ is transformed by the Spirit into a person of love. The NT scholar Michael Gorman lists different biblical images or ideas that various scholars have argued captures how union and moral transformation ‘work’ in Paul: participation, incorporation, identification, (mutual) indwelling and even (Christ-) mysticism (Gorman, 2019). Volker Rabens (2014) has done outstanding work on unpacking the relational role of the Spirit within the community of the church.

Most recently, Douglas Campbell’s Pauline Dogmatics: The Triumph of God’s Love (2020) gives five chapters to love within the theme of ‘Formation’. For Campbell love explains everything important about Pauline ethics – he calls this ‘agapeism’. And I’m inclined to agree with him on that point.

Two points to note – and these are absolutely crucial for understanding the theology and pastoral mission of the apostle Paul. Both, I think, are too often missed or marginalised in teaching and preaching today

1) Christianity is a Communal Faith

Or, to put it negatively, Paul knows nothing of individualism. The idea that a believer would or could try to follow Jesus apart from a community of believers would be incomprehensible to the apostle. Faith, the Spirit, and union in Christ brings a Christian into a new community – and it is within that new community that he / she is live and love and forgive and serve and teach and care. And it is in doing so that the Spirit works to effect moral transformation. That doesn’t happen on your own.

If you are reading this it’s likely that like me, you are a Western individualist – shaped and formed by an individualist culture that says follow your own dream, do your own thing, be yourself, you’re worth it etc etc. It is easy to frame the gospel around this sort of narrative – it’s about me and my happiness, or my experience of God’s love, or my assurance about the future and so on. Of course the gospel is personal and individual – it has to be real for each person. It requires personal faith and repentance and a turning around to follow the Lord. But it’s a reduced and distorted Christianity that makes it all about individual experience or individual salvation.

Yes, church can be the hardest place to be a Christian. Yes, churches can be toxic. Yes, any community is going to be difficult. But this was nothing new to Paul – just read 1 Corinthians! His passion is to see renewal and reform – the idea of opting out to go my own way was inconceivable.

2) Every Christian is in a spiritual battle – and love is God’s weapon in the war

Second, love lies at the heart of an eschatological conflict between forces belonging to the old age and the new.

In 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 love is both the goal of God’s salvation and an eschatological foretaste of God’s new creation in the present. Within the present believers are to ‘pursue love’ (1 Cor 14:1) and are later exhorted ‘Let all that you do be done in love’ (1 Cor. 16:14).

In Galatians love grows and matures in opposition to attitudes, desires and actions that belong to the ‘present evil age’ (Gal 1:4) or ‘kosmos’ (world). It is only the empowering presence of the Spirit which can transform uncontrolled ‘desires of the flesh’ (Gal 5:16, epithymia, ‘desire’) that lead to destructive ‘works of the flesh’ (Gal 5:19). In contrast, ‘those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions (pathēma, ‘passion’) and desires’(Gal 5:24).

In the ancient world it was not unusual for the passions to be seen as obstacles to a virtuous life. What is of profound importance in Paul is how the Spirit and love is the means by which the battle is fought and won. Love in this eschatological perspective is God’s ‘weapon’ in a cosmic battle against destructive forces opposed to his good purposes.

Think about this for a moment. This is the heartbeat of the Christian faith. It takes us back to the previous post on Stanley Hauerwas and the way of Jesus being love and non-violence. The radical core of Christian faith is love – not force, not selfish power, not exclusion, not human reason, not Torah obedience. It is the way of the cross. And this all flows from God’s own loving nature – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Becoming a Community of Resistence in a Consumer Culture

I can honestly say I love teaching all my modules on the undergrad and post-grad courses in IBI. But it’s when you get ‘in’ to the nitty gritty of teaching and interacting with students that a module comes alive – and every time is different because every group of people has its own dynamic.

We’ve recently begun ‘Faith in Contemporary Culture’. But it could just as easily be called ‘Everyday Discipleship’, or ‘Being Resident Aliens’ (re quote Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon) or even perhaps ‘How To Develop Your Love Life’ – but I suspect that might lead to disappointment.

We try to set the historical context and also consider what culture is and how it works in the first 3-4 weeks. The idea here is to look at the ‘big stories’ that have framed Christian faith and experience for centuries: Christendom (Irish style) to post-Christendom; modernism (human progress, reason etc) to post-modern scepticism and disenchantment. I used to spend more time on these big stories. Another major one is nationalism (again Irish nationalism was a very particular expression but still typical of a of modernist metanarrative of the onward march of the nation leading to a utopian future).

But I’ve shifted to spend more time in the present – in the contemporary stories that shape our culture. Here’s the overall framework.

Several ideas lie behind this approach

One is that we are storied people – identity and purpose are found in and through narratives of meaning.

Old narratives are in the process of fragmenting in all directions.

The narrative of the free self, with love at its core, is probably the dominant story of Western culture.

We are first and foremost ‘lovers’ – people who are shaped by desires and loves. To quote JKA Smith, we are what we love.

Contemporary culture is a desire factory. Consumerism is first and foremost, after our hearts.

Christian theology needs a robust theology of love and desire if it is going to even begin to grapple with the pervasive reach of contemporary consumerism.

Augustine’s theology of love and desire is a profoundly important entry point to begin to think theologically and critically about contemporary consumer society.

A theological response of what it looks like for Christians to be ‘resident aliens’ or a ‘community of resistence’ will need embodied practices that reflect an alternative narrative. In other words, to live as disciples of Jesus, to live to his kingdom and not the kingdom of the market, means intentionally resisting the corrosive story of consumerism. It means living to another story.

To even begin to do this requires first recognising consumerism’s power, its pervasive reach, and unmasking its ‘invisibility’ – how consumerism is taken for granted as a perfectly ‘normal’ way of envisioning a fulfilling life. It’s the air we breathe every day.

[I’m not the first to say this, but my sense here is that swathes of modern Christianity have a comfortable and uncritical relationship with the values, story and destructive impact of contemporary consumerism. A gospel of personal salvation has little or nothing to say about the idolatry of the market. If an illness is undiagnosed and we don’t even know we are sick, then we aren’t going to pose much of a challenge to the marketeers and gods of mammon.

More positively, the Christian faith has a positive vision of what it means to live a flourishing, good and happy life – and it is not a consumerist one (to put it mildly). Christians follow a crucified Messiah after all.

This course encourages and facilitates students to work out that Christian vision for a flourishing life for themselves.

So that’s a flavour of what’s going on – comments and suggestions for reading welcome

LOVE IN PAUL (8) Towards a theology of love and suffering (and a critique of some contemporary Christian worship songs)

When bad things happen to us we often doubt the love of God. Is he really there? Does he care?

We’re continuing a series about the apostle Paul’s theology of love. To recap, there are three great strands of love in the OT that also continue, now Christologically framed, into the NT (and Paul in particular).

1) The elective and saving love of Yahweh for his chosen people.

2) The responsive love of Israel to God’s prior redemptive action.

3) Inter-communal love: the love God’s people are to have for one another

We are in strand 2 – human response to God’s prior love.

So how to respond to God when our world falls apart? When a beloved spouse dies?  When a business collapses and bankruptcy looms? When a doctor says ‘I’ve got some bad news …’?

However counter-intuitive it feels to us today, for Paul there is no conflict between suffering, persecution, hardship and even martyrdom and being loved by God.

To put it another way, being loved by God is no guarantee of some sort of divine protection from the harsh realities of life.

Now, that is a lot easier to say than to live through, but we need to get a theology of suffering in right perspective. If we don’t, then when suffering comes we are unprepared. Its arrival can shatter faith – and reveal unexamined assumptions about some sort of guarantee of divine protection and blessing.

Love and Suffering

Recall how I’ve been arguing that there are deep continuities (as well as some profound discontinuities) between Paul the OT faith in regards to love. This call to faithful trust in God whatever happens brings us back to OT wisdom literature and especially to the book of Job.

If you’ve read Job you may recall Job’s response to his wife who urged him to ‘curse God and die’. In her thinking there was an unspoken assumption of divine protection and blessing for those who loved God.

When God did not keep his side of the bargain, all bets were off.

But Job rejected her advice, saying that

Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad? (2:10)

And he is affirmed for this right answer.

Paul stands in this Jewish wisdom tradition: God is still good, even if things that happen to us are not.

His emphasis is on trusting God in the face of ageing, and whatever hardships come our way, while awaiting a future eternal glory (2 Cor 4:16-18).

16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Indeed, from this eschatological perspective Paul does not even address the question ‘Why me?’ or ‘Why suffering?’. These things are inevitable and to be expected – but they do not have the last word. He can even call them ‘light and momentary troubles’ of relative insignificance compared to what lies ahead.

Now I’m not suggesting that telling someone in the middle of a traumatic crisis to cheer up because their troubles are relatively insignificant is a good strategy for pastoral care.

But I am suggesting that we need to get our theology of love and suffering right before that crisis hits. Paul’s words could easily be misunderstood. He is not trivializing suffering. He is putting it in a far bigger eschatological perspective. He has a profound understanding that our lives are lived in the overlap of the ages – where the forces of Sin and Death and Evil still hold sway.

And, while those forces hold no fear for the Christian in Christ, they are still real and will do their worst. Since we are not yet in the new creation, all believers will feel their cold grip.

This means we need a theology that combines being loved by God with a theology of suffering, lament and longing for that new creation.

Distorted Love

And I’m suggesting that this sort of theology is lacking within a lot of contemporary Christian spirituality. Or, to put it another way, what Job and Paul (and Jesus) tell us is increasingly alien to much Western Christianity, distorted as it is by a misshaped theology of divine love.

I’d better explain that rather big assertion.

We are inundated with songs and sermons celebrating the immeasurable love of God – that we are special, that we are chosen, that we are the apple of his eye, that we are beloved etc.

None of this is untrue of course. But it is what is not said that is as important as what is said. The overwhelming impression can be little different from a session of hug therapy that helps us feel better about ourselves when we leave.

Within this culture of peppy optimism about ourselves and about God’s all-embracing and unconditional love, there is little room left for lament, for expressing anger, for tears, for confession and repentance, for grief.

David Smith, who teaches on our MA programme at IBI, recently wrote a book on this. Stumbling toward Zion: Recovering the Biblical Tradition of Lament in the Era of World Christianity. After the death of his wife, his experience of much Christian worship left him feeling like an exile. It had little or nothing to say to someone grieving a deep loss.

He laments the absence of lament in the “unremittingly affirmative, positive and celebratory” ethos of much contemporary Western Christianity.

Worse still, more than a few of those songs are more like romantic love ballads. They speak of being held in the arms of God the lover who will protect us and help us feel secure. Here’s one very well-known example:

Hold me close let your love surround me
Bring me near draw me to your side
And as I wait
I’ll rise up like an eagle
And I will soar with you
Your spirit leads me on
By the power of your love

Geoff Bullock, 1992 Word Music/Maranatha Music

This is the language of sexual intimacy between two lovers. It is personal and private, not public and corporate. The music is soft and emotive. Within the 240 word lyrics I counted 49 first-person pronouns (I, me, my) and not one plural pronoun. God becomes ‘You’ – an ambiguous term that makes it even easier for the lyrics to fit into the genre of a pop love song. In this song – and many others like it, Jesus does not appear – nor is there any reference to the Bible story, the incarnation, the cross, future hope etc.

There are hundreds of other examples we could talk about. Maybe that’s a subject for a blog series. Save to say that all this is a long way from the theology of Paul (and the rest of the NT)

Love in Paul (7) Experiencing the love of God

We’re continuing a series about the apostle Paul’s theology of love. To recap, there are three great strands of love in the OT that also continue, now Christologically framed, into the NT (and Paul in particular).

1) The elective and saving love of Yahweh for his chosen people.

2) The responsive love of Israel to God’s prior redemptive action.

3) Inter-communal love: the love God’s people are to have for one another

We are in strand 2 – the responsive love of God’s people (now both Jews and Gentiles) in light of God’s prior redemptive action.

Our focus in this post is how, in Paul, the response of believers to divine love involves more than obedience. It is, at heart, experiential.

I think this is often missed in theological discussions of the Pauline theology, that tend, for example, to be dominated by technical debates about how justification works. All to easily we end up making Paul some sort of Enlightenment rationalist writing abstract theology for academics when he was nothing of the sort.

Repeatedly the apostle affirms that God’s people are loved by God (1 Thes 1:4; 2 Thes 2:13, 16; Rom 1:7; 2 Cor 13:11, 14; Eph 1:4-5, 2:4, 3:17-9, 5:1-2, 6:23; Col 3:12). Faithful obedience flows from personal experience of God’s elective love in Jesus Christ.

Let’s look at some texts:

Romans 5:5: Love and the Spirit

And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

All believers experience God’s love being poured into their hearts through the Spirit. [An aside: N T Wright argues divine love in this verse refers to our love for God. But this is unconvincing. It makes much more sense to read it as God’s love for us].

In his commentary on Romans Paul Jewett concludes that believers have nothing to boast about except their shared experience of the love of God conveyed by the gift of the Spirit (Jewett, 2007).

Also notice Paul’s ‘us’ and ‘our’ language. It’s very likely he is talking about his own experience here of God’s extravagant love and grace for a zealous persecutor of the church.

Romans 8:35-39 and Ephesians 3:18-19:

These famous texts speak for themselves. This is no abstract theology but one that speaks of a profound, personal and yet corporate experience of divine love.

35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long;
    we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 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.

Ephesians 3:18-19

18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

It’s crucial to see what is going on here. Divine love is now reframed from the OT; it now has a Christological shape. Experience of the love of Christ leads to being filled with all the fullness of God (3:19).

These sort of Trinitarian connections between Father, Spirit and Messiah represent remarkable theological development in Paul’s understanding of divine love.

For God’s people, being loved by Father, Son and Spirit should lead to responses of gratitude, obedience and worship.

Indeed it’s fair to ask this question:

If someone claims the name ‘Christian’ but shows no signs of an experiential response of gratitude, obedience and worship in light of God’s prior love, have they really encountered the love of God at all?

Love in Paul (6) Love and ‘the obedience of faith’ (contra ‘when churches go toxic’)

We are in the second strand of three great themes that weave their way through the biblical narrative, OT to NT. The first is God’s love. The second is human love in response to God’s prior love.

Human Response to God’s Prior Love

In the OT, the appropriate response of Israel to Yahweh’s electing and saving love is humility, reverent obedience and heartfelt worship. Love in this perspective takes the form of faithfulness and practical obedience. It is about whole-hearted allegience.

If asked, what would you say is the opposite of love? Perhaps many of us would say hate, or, following Miroslav Volf’s insights from Exclusion and Embrace, perhaps the worst attitude of all to the ‘Other’ is indifference.

But in the Bible narrative, concerning God’s people, a more accurate answer would be idolatry – allegiance to something or someone other than God.

The fascinating thing is that in Paul these Jewish themes continue but are radically reimagined in light of the arrival of the Messiah.

Paul: An Inseparable Connection between Love and Obedience

Have you ever noticed that the surprising, fact is that Paul rarely, if ever, exhorts believers to love God? He never cites the first great commandment (love the Lord your God). The second great commandment (love your neighbour as yourself) is explicitly mentioned twice (Rom 13:9; Gal 5:14).

There are plenty of texts in Paul that refer to love for God but they tend to assume its existence rather than exhort its practice (Rom 8:28; 1 Cor 2:9; 8:3; 16:22; Eph 6:24; 2 Tim 3:4).

Paul’s real concern seems to be elsewhere. As a pastor he is concerned about the spiritual ‘progress’ of believers in his churches. Maturity has a specific form – Christ-like love. Think of his exasperation at the Galatians, longing that Christ would be formed in them but concerned he has been wasting his time.

In other words, Paul’s priority is that a deep experience of divine love will lead to a life of obedience to Christ characterised by love for others within the covenant community. An example is Romans: the apostle frames his mission as bringing about the ‘obedience of faith’ among the gentiles (Rom 1:5; 6:16; 15:18; 16:19, 26). Being loved by God, and love for God is to ‘result’ in transformed lives of obedience.

This helps us to understand Paul’s complex relationship with the Torah. The Law is rejected as a means of salvation – for Jews or for Gentiles. It does not have the power to save or transform lives. But the Law is affirmed in multiple ways as a basis for what a moral and ethical life in Christ looks like in practice.

This is where the apostle’s theology of the Spirit is critical. It is the Spirit, whose fruit is primarily love, through which the law is fulfilled. In Galatians 5:6, ‘the only thing that counts is faith working through love’. Freedom in Christ leads, paradoxically, to becoming slaves of one another (Gal 5:13b). Leviticus 19:18 is reapplied in Romans 13:8-10 and Galatians 5:14: love of neighbour, not Torah obedience, fulfils the law. Bearing one another’s burdens fulfils the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2).

All of this is to say that the Torah finds its true purpose in relationships of self-giving love within a community of believers who are being transformed by the Spirit according to the character of their Lord.

That is an astonishing reimagination of the Torah, of the people of God, of the work of the Spirit, and of love. There is continuity with the OT, but OT themes are reshaped and reworked in light of Jesus and the Spirit.

God loves in order to create people who love.

Toxic Church: When Love Goes Missing

Imagine if that sentence was front and centre in all that Christians think and do. Imagine if that priority were to shape the culture of churches and/or denominations? In how individuals were treated within those organisations and institutions? In what ‘goals’ the church sets as a measure of ‘progress’ and ‘success’?

I’m writing this shortly after reading this long-read article in the New York Times. “The Rise and Fall of Carl Lentz, the Celebrity Pastor of Hillsong Church” . It really is a ‘read it and weep’ story. Power, money, celebrity, sex, success, branding, elitism, greed, selfishness, narcissism – the list could go on.

Yes, this is an extreme example of a powerful pastor, and a church culture, that has lost touch with the heart of God – who loves in order to create people who love. But it is not an isolated one in the USA – and it is not confined to the USA. Church leaders and church cultures can become toxic.

And by toxic I mean when love is sidelined. When the good of the institution is put before people. When the purpose and mission of the church becomes about something else than forming communities of self-giving love.

It bears repeating: ‘the only thing that counts is faith working through love‘.

Do we really believe this?

Love in Paul (5) divine love reimagined in light of the cross

In the previous post in this series we looked at how Paul stands in continuity with three main strands of OT love:

1) The elective and saving love of Yahweh for his chosen people.

2) The responsive love of Israel to God’s prior redemptive action.

3) Inter-communal love: the love God’s people are to have for one another

But that each of these strands is comprehensively reworked in light of the Christ-event. We looked at how election is reworked to include Jews and Gentiles.

In this post we are still in strand 1) – the electing and saving love of God but turn to look at how God’s salvific love for his people takes a remarkable turn – the cross of Christ.

Divine Love Reimagined in Light of the Cross

For Paul, divine love is the motive for the cross. Numerous texts illustrates this perspective, but before mentioning a few, we should not skip over how astounding a reimagination of divine love it is. No-one in the Roman world familiar with the brutal reality of crucifixion and its attendant political message intimidating opponents, could ever have interpreted the cross in any positive way.

How on earth could a sadistic method of public execution be connected to love? It would be like saying today that God shows his love through the noose or the guillotine.

Some texts

Galatians 2:20: The self-giving death of Christ is an act of salvific love.

I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.

Romans 5:1-11 is probably the most significant example. Humanity needs redemption and are even described as ‘enemies’ of God and facing his wrath. But due to God’s grace (5:2) believers now have ‘peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (5:1). The result is reconciliation through the death of Christ (5:10-11). The cross for Paul therefore ‘proves’ the love of God (Rom 5:8).

For at just the right time, while we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God proves His love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom 5:6-8).

Ephesians 2:1-3: Similarly in Ephesians, humanity is powerless under the power of the flesh (sarx), the world (kosmos) and the ‘ruler of the power of the air’. Again, divine love reaches its climatic expression at the cross – it is out of his ‘great love’ (2:4), ‘mercy’ (2:4) and ‘grace’ (2:5) that believers are made alive and are raised up with him to a new eschatological existence ‘in Christ Jesus’ (Eph 2:6-7).

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. Ephesians 2:4-7.

All this constitutes an astonishing development in the understanding of divine love. Revolution is not too strong a word. It is truly ‘apocalyptic’ – an unveiling of a new theology of God himself. The cross shows us the depth and cost of God’s love for humanity. Paul and John are on the same page – God is love.