Desiring God

30th May 2009

Most people will tell you that "love your neighbour as yourself" is the greatest commandment. But not according to Jesus:

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?" "The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this [...] Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.'[f] 31The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"

— Mark 12:28-31

And yet we don't love God with all our heart, mind and strength.

Why not?

Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

— 1 Corinthians 13:12

Compare this with the ancient prayer (variously attributed to St. Ignatius, St. Richard Chichester, Francis of Assisi and others): "Lord, grant that I may see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, follow thee more nearly." This is always the order: first, we see a glimpse of God; second, as a result, we love him more; and third, we try to follow.

But maybe we see more than we realise:

There have been times when I think that we do not desire heaven; but more often I have found myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else. All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it -- tantalising glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear.

— C. S. Lewis, 'The Problem of Pain'

If Lewis is right, then everything that we love is a signpost:

In 1 Corinthians 13 terms, these things are shadows or reflections of the reality, which is found in God.

We need to avoid the Romans 1:25 problem: "They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator". But I don't think this means that we need to love other things less, but more clear-sightedly. We need to understand why we love these things.

This is why I love the song "open the eyes of our hearts, Lord"

We need to take this sort of indirect approach to God because, for the most part, we are not made of strong enough stuff to see him as he really is. Instead, for now, we need earthly pleasures to function as a kind of distorting lens through which his glory is refracted. Or, to use Paul's image, ``we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror'' (1 Corinthians 13:12). That's not just because our perception is imperfect, but also because we couldn't bear the full weight of his glory if we saw it.

There's an interesting story in Exodus 33 about Moses' desire to see God face to face, and how God didn't let him:

Then Moses said, ``Now show me your glory.'' And the LORD said, ``I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you [...] but [...] you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.''

Then the LORD said, ``There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.''

— Exodus 33:18-23

So the full glory of God is too much - even Moses could only bear to look on God's back. We are only capable, for now, of looking at him ``through a glass darkly'' (1 Corinthians 13:12 KJV, which is a much more poetic translation than the NIV's!) - although Paul goes on to promise that one day, ``we shall see face to face''.

We are like children who don't like the taste of smoked salmon - not because salmon is an unpleasant taste, but because their palates are not developed enough for it, so that they prefer fish fingers.

Or maybe a better analogy would be that we are like our son Matthew, who says he never wants to get married, but always wants to live with Fiona and me - not because marriage isn't a wonderful state, but because he lacks the maturity, the mental and emotional equipment to understand what it's about. Likewise, we lack the spiritual maturity to understand God himself, so we often have to be content with his reflections and shadows until we are strong enough for the real thing.

Our physical eyes are not strong enough to look on the sun;
Our spiritual eyes are not strong enough to look on the son.

So maybe the song should also say "strengthen the eyes of our hearts, Lord".

But one day, we will see God perfectly, as Paul promised:

... All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it -- tantalising glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest -- if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself -- you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say "Here at last is the thing I was made for". We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul [...] the thing we desired before we met our wives or made our friends or chose our work, and which we shall still desire on our deathbeds, when the mind no longer knows wife or friend or work.

— C. S. Lewis, 'The Problem of Pain'

Pray for our spiritual eyes to be rightly focussed, and strong.

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