Thursday, January 31, 2008

A Prayer for Love: A Ragamuffin’s Reflections on Ephesians 3:14-21

(This is an article I recently submitted for the newsletter for the Society of Christian Psychology)

I'm absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God's love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us (Romans 8:38-39 The Message).

In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. . . . So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him (1 John 4:10, 16 ESV).

It is reasonable to assume that the apostles’ experience of the love of Christ was progressive. There was a process of being grounded in the love of God that increasingly penetrated their souls. Statements of confident trust in the unfailing love of God such as those above came with time and were the result of the sanctifying work of the Spirit. What I want to reflect upon here is: What was this “apostolic process” and how do we enter into it? How can we cooperate with the work of the Spirit in the pouring out of the love of God into our hearts until we are utterly defined by it? Paul’s answer to our question is imaginative and reasoned prayer.
It is no small thing to love or be loved. From the beginning, God created us to live and breathe in an atmosphere of love. Since the Fall, however, our experience of love has fallen woefully short of God’s intention. Simply by being born we are cast into relationships that were not chosen for us, and whether or not we are greeted with love seems arbitrary. God intended for us to be trained in receiving and giving love by our parents and siblings, and especially our fathers. Our fathers were supposed to image the strength and love of God to us. Paul seems to imply this when he addresses God as “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for Whom every family in heaven and on earth is named [that Father from Whom all fatherhood takes its title and derives its name] (Eph 3:14-15 Amplified, emphasis mine). For most of us, our fathers fell tragically short of passing on to us this awareness and ability to love and be loved by God. Thus, God’s redemptive work often takes on a fathering flavor.
In Paul’s prayer for the Ephesian church we find ourselves being fathered by God. These words create space within us for our created desires for love to be healed and filled. It is possible to know God’s love in a way that surpasses categories of knowledge. The result will be a life of imitating God in a life of love (Eph 5:1f). Just as there is inspired truth in the Scriptures that we need to believe, so there is inspired experience that we need to live. As Paul states elsewhere, “May the Lord direct your hearts into God's love and Christ's perseverance” (2 Thess. 3:5 NIV). There is a spirituality (Spirit-reality) here that the Spirit wants to implant in our souls as well as inflame our minds and imaginations.
Sometimes I wonder if Scripture would unravel us if we were more broken and open-hearted readers. For example, it is dangerously easy for us to quickly pass over mysterious words such as, “Jesus wept,” and “filled to the measure of the fullness of God,” with shallow familiarity or with merely an interest to parse and scrutinize. Somehow we must re-train our minds and imaginations to enter into the world of the Scriptures to the extent that they re-define our world, the world in which we live, breathe, work and love. Our goal, then, is to enter into the sacred task of listening with the view towards participating in what is going on. So, perhaps for the very first time, listen:

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen (NIV)

In the first three chapters of Ephesians, Paul has described in glorious detail the eternal purpose and pleasure of God in saving a people for himself. All of God’s salvation work has resulted in the creation of a new people whom he now indwells (Eph. 2:21-22). He is describing a new Temple, one that is not made by hands, but rather indwells hands and feet, heart and brain. At the end of chapter 3 his theology becomes overwhelmed with desire and he must bare his heart in prayer.
Paul's chief desire for himself and for us is to know God and enjoy his love. Nothing is more important than this, for nothing short of experiencing the love of Jesus will transform us into imitators of his love. As we are intimate with our Heavenly Father, we begin to take on the Father‘s characteristics. Intimacy with the Father, however, is fraught with problems and challenges. How can we experience the love of God in such a way that we are deeply, substantially changed? It takes nothing less than the awesomely tender power of God.
Paul’s prayer contains two primary petitions for us to engage with and enter into, and they both have to do with power. Power is a key word in Ephesians (Eph 1:19, 21; 3:7, 16, 18, 20; 6:10), always referring to the strength of God in working salvation, making the dead come alive to God. Without the power of God we will not taste deeply the love of God.
Petition #1: I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith (v. 16-17a).
What comes to your mind when you think of displays of power? Allow your imagination to present symbols of power to your mind. What do you see? Though we can easily think of displays of power within creation (earthquakes, Niagara Falls, hurricanes and tornadoes, etc.), the Scriptures present the resurrection of Jesus as the supreme display of power in (new) creation (see Eph. 1:19-23). When Paul prays for power in the words we are considering, we need to have resurrection in mind. Resurrection is the greatest display of the power and tenderness of God, for by it we are made alive and intimate with Him once again.

The request for power so that Christ may “dwell in our hearts through faith” has often been taken to refer to maturity in the Christian life, and it is certainly not less than that. But what is often overlooked in this passage is the raw intimacy it contains. There is something incredibly intimate about Jesus making his home in us; something amazingly tender and warm about these words and the realities they represent. To merely categorize them in terms of “Christian maturity” and “growth in Christlikeness” doesn't do them justice. The conceptual containers are simply too small, too narrow. Through union with Christ in the gospel we have been raised from the dead and seated with Christ in God. Further, by his Spirit God indwells our very souls. He has made his home in our hearts, and he invites us to join him there, surrendering everything that gets in the way of our enjoyment of one another. From this inner dwelling, God the Spirit exerts power in the form of compelling love and grace that manifests itself in gospel fruit.

“Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. In the same way that a branch can't bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can't bear fruit unless you are joined with me. . . . I've loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love. If you keep my commands, you'll remain intimately at home in my love” (John 15: 4, 9-10 NIV).

“God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us” (Romans 5:5 NIV).

Petition #2: And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God (v. 17b-19).

It would be revolutionary to rethink the categories of justification and sanctification in light of this passage. What would happen, for example, if we took the phrase “rooted and established in love” to refer to our secured stance in Christ in justification? Further, what difference would it make for our sanctification if we understood it in terms of growing in the experience of “this love that surpasses knowledge”? Our traditional theological categories would be transformed by relational intimacy with God, theology ending in consummation.
The phenomenological language of Paul (width, length, height, depth) is rich in significance for us. Most likely he has in mind the vast dimensions of creation, the metaphors of God all around us as described in Psalm 103:11-12, “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (cf. Romans 8:38-39). Spatial metaphors are provided as guides for our imaginations as we seek to know the love of God.
The fullness of God answers our perpetual emptiness. Our lives are “full” of emptiness, places where there is a gnawing sense of lack or need. The gospel invites us to bring our empty containers of sin, pain and need to the fullness of God issuing from the risen Christ, who dwells within us. The metaphors of creation are given us to help us in this process. Go outside and let your eyes scan the vastness of the horizon. Gaze up at the stars and take in the immensity of the space above you. Let your imagination be filled with an awareness of the suffusion of God’s great love for you, which fills all created space. We can also understand this spatial language to apply to the dimensions of our souls. For believers in Christ, every aspect of our createdness is included in this language. There is no part of us at any time that is devoid of God’s love for us in Christ: our past, present and future, the realm of our thoughts, memories, hopes and dreams; our deep wounds and tantalizing delights; our hidden as well as our publicized parts, etc.
In order for us to actually experience the love of God beyond mere doctrine, we need the power of God to redeem us from deep indwelling sin and to remove the soul debris that clutters our being. He longs to bring us to the place where we “come to know and to believe the love that God has for us” (1 John 4:16 ESV). The tender power comes from within us, from the indwelling Spirit who has “rooted and established” us in God’s love. Only the Spirit can enable us to know the love of Christ that is beyond knowing. Only the Spirit can fill every empty pot, every dry well. Imagine what that would look like for your life. Allow yourself to get in touch with these empty places, the memories and experiences, wounds and strands of damaged soul that often cause pain and shame. Confess your sin and unbelief. Stay in that place long enough for holy desire for God and his fullness to be born. Remember that each of us has a unique capacity for God and his love. Like tiny thimbles dipped into a vast ocean, God’s overflowing fullness is waiting and available to fill us.
Being rooted in and transformed by the love of Christ brings God great glory (Eph. 3:20-21), because it displays his resurrection power in ways that are unique to each one of us. Our individual stories become suffused with the light of his love in Christ for us. The horizontal and vertical dimensions of our souls are sections of the home in which Christ dwells by faith. Further, His capacity to fill and bless us in Christ far surpasses our wildest imaginations. We can dare to be known and defined as one of “the disciple[s] whom Jesus loves” (John 13:23; 21:7, 20).

“God’s love is based on nothing and the fact that it is based on nothing makes us secure. Were it based on anything we do, and that ‘anything’ were to collapse, then God’s love would crumble as well. But with the God of the Jesus no such thing can possibly happen. People who realize this can live freely and to the full. (Brennan Manning, Lion and Lamb: The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus, 18.)