In Tim Keller’s book entitled Prayer, Keller reflects, “It is one thing to know of the love of Christ and to say, ‘I know he did all that.’ It is another thing to grasp how wide and long and high and deep the love of Christ.”
This is something I have contended for in my heart for as long as I can remember. How do I merge the disconnect between the head and the heart when it comes to grasping how wide and high and deep the love of Christ? Even as I cry out to God in prayer, I sometimes still fail to feel the all-encompassing presence of God’s love and the impact of his redemptive sacrifice for me. As David exclaims in Psalm 86: “Incline your ear, O LORD, and answer me, for I am poor and needy,” I too feel helpless and need God to draw near to give me the strength of his salvation and peaceful presence.
Fighting for joy and for full comprehension of the solemnity of the depths to which Christ went to save us is not always easy. In fact, it’s not really ever been easy for Christians. That’s why Paul prays for the believers at the church in Ephesus in this way, “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” Notice the emphasis of his prayer…that they may “know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge” so that they “may be filled with all the fullness of God.” Paul makes a direct correlation between grasping the love of Christ and being filled with all the fullness of God. We will never feel the fullness of God or his presence unless our hearts are first captured by his love.
So, it’s that simple? All we have to do is rehearse the gospel to ourselves and we will immediately feel “all the fullness of God,” right? Well, not quite… God loves our pursuit of him, and if it were as simple as some formulaic process, we would steal that pursuit from him. To borrow a phrase from John Piper, we must still “fight for joy” on a regular basis. Because we are still fallen beings and our hearts are infected to the core with sin until we are made completely new in heaven, we will forever be challenged with feeling “all the fullness of God.” However, we must never lose our will or our impetus for pursuing Christ. As the great theologian John Owens reflected in The Works of John Owens, “Get an experience of the power of the gospel…in and upon your own hearts, or all your profession is an expiring thing.” We are expiring until we truly and fully experience the gospel. He continues in a different volume of his works by writing, “The spiritual intense fixation of the mind, by contemplation on God in Christ, until the soul be as it were swallowed up in admiration and delight, and being brought unto an utter loss, through the infiniteness of those excellencies which it doth admire and adore…are things to be aimed at in prayer, and which, through the riches of divine condescension, are frequently enjoyed.” Even if we don’t always feel God’s presence, we cannot neglect to intensely and frequently fixate our minds on Christ until they are swallowed up in admiration of him and his will for us.
Tim Keller makes the analogy that someone has left us a large amount of money, but for various reasons, we assume it’s modest and never even check it. Finally, when we’re no longer busy we check the envelope and discover the fortune. We were actually rich but had been living poor. This is what Paul wants his Christian friends to avoid, and only through encounter with God in prayer can they avoid it. Keller states, “This may be where you are. You are in him. You are adopted into the Father’s family. You have the very divine life in you, the Holy Spirit. You are loved and accepted in Christ. You know about these things, and yet at another level you don’t know them, you don’t grasp them. You are still dogged by your bad habits, often anxious or bored or discouraged or any. You may have many specific problems and issues that need to be faced and death with through various specific means. Yet the root problem of them all is that you are rich in Christ yet nevertheless living poor.”
Through Christ, we have attained great wealth. Though previously dead, hopeless, and walking in darkness, we now have life, abounding hope, and the great light to guide us and carry us. We just have to tap into the riches by considering God’s love. Even when we can’t seem to feel God or to know that he hears us, we must remember the tragic lengths to which he went to restore us back into relationship with him…namely, rejecting his own son that he might accept us. Keller (sorry for all the Keller quotes, but he more eloquently and intellectually explains things than I do) writes it this way: “We know that God will answer us when we call because one terrible day he did not answer Jesus when he called. Jesus prayed in Gethsemane that the ‘cup’ of suffering on the cross be taken from him, yet his request was turned down. On the cross itself he cried out, ‘My God,’ but he was forsaken (Matt. 27:46). How could that be? Jesus was the perfect man—he served God with all his heart, soul, and mind, and loved his neighbor as himself (Mark 12:28-31) and so completely fulfilled the law of God. Elsewhere in the Psalms it says: ‘If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened’ (Ps. 66:18). Sinners deserve to have their prayers go unanswered. Jesus was the only human being in history who deserved to have all his prayers answered because of his perfect life. Yet he was turned down as if he cherished iniquity in his heart. Why? The answer, of course, is in the gospel. God treated Jesus as we deserve—he took our penalty—so that, when we believe in him, God can then treat us as Jesus deserved (2 Cor. 5:21). More specifically, Jesus’ prayers were given the rejection that we sinners merit so that our prayers could have the reception that he merits.”
John Piper in his book The Legacy of Sovereign Joy marks the tension between Christian freedom in feeling the fullness of God and the ineluctability of his fullness when we truly experience the love of God and find our complete being in him. He writes, “The fact that grace governs life by giving a supreme joy in the supremacy of God explains why the concept of Christian freedom is so radically different in Augustine than in Pelagius. For Augustine, freedom is to be so much in love with God and his ways that the very experience of choice is transcended. The ideal of freedom is not the autonomous will poised with sovereign equilibrium between good and evil. The ideal of freedom is to be so spiritually discerning of God’s beauty, and to be so in love with God that one never stands with equilibrium between God and an alternate choice. Rather, one transcends the experience of choice and walks under the continual swat of sovereign joy in God. In Augustine’s view, the self-conscious experience of having to contemplate choices was a sign not of the freedom of the will, but of the disintegration of the will. The struggle of choice is a necessary evil in this fallen world until the day comes when discernment and delight unite in a perfect apprehension of what is infinitely delightful, namely, God.” Piper strikes a beautiful note as he reflects on Augustine’s theology of finding true fulfillment in the all-abandoning love of God.
You’re probably wondering, what do all of these quotes and these thoughts from great theological thinkers actually mean for us? I believe the answer is put simply in Hebrews. If you’ve made it this far, ha! You’ve been tricked… You could have simply skipped to the bottom and read this quote, but I’m glad you’ve read the entirety because these quotes and these excerpts from prominent authors are valuable and will hopefully cause serious reflection (as they have for me). In Hebrews 3:1, the author writes, “Therefore, holy brothers, you who share in a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession.” Notice first to whom he addresses, and then notice to what he calls them to. “Holy brothers” is the group he is addressing and he calls them to “consider Jesus.” The first time I read this passage I chuckled to myself because of the irony in calling those that are holy to simply consider Jesus. Shouldn’t those that are holy already consider Jesus as worthy of following? Then why does the author call the holy brothers to consider Jesus? It’s because even though we often think we are holy or righteous in our own eyes, we don’t truly consider Jesus—the gravity of who he is and what he has done for us—on a regular basis. That’s it, friends. I don’t have any profound wisdom to add to these authors I have quoted above or necessarily any action steps from here either. Though, I do know one thing, and it’s that I don’t consider Jesus or the gravity of God’s love nearly as much as I should. I wish it were as simple as some step-by-step process, but it isn’t. Fighting for joy and fighting for the fullness of God through the experience of his love is a daily discipline. Consider joining me in fighting for the comprehension “with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3) so that God may fill us and obtain all of our attention. Consider joining me in praying for this type of personal experience with God’s love each and every day. Consider joining me in prayer, as Paul does, for other believers that they too will become so captivated by the love God that they will feel his fullness and respond to the world in light of this. “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen” (Doxology from Jude).