Hello, friends! It’s been quite a while since I’ve written. The past several months have run the gamut of grief and joy for me, and as my internal gauge bounced back and forth from one end to the other, it was difficult to have a sense of where exactly my feet were planted.
I shared back in August that I was reading Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich. As per my church’s book club, that was preceded by On Loving God by Bernard of Clairvaux and followed up by Martin Luther’s Treatise on Good Works. The three months it took to read those were imbued with a strange set of realities – I was going through one of the most difficult seasons of my life personally, but spiritually, I was finding a new sense of freedom and security in my relationship with God that I had never felt before. My whole life I have had a looming sense of guilt in everything I do, something which I had always believed was conviction. But especially while reading Julian, I began to see a spiritual realm where within Christ, even in my shortcomings and sinful failures, I had nothing with which to reproach myself. And in some ways, I began to be like Julian, and I could laugh at the dark spiritual forces that tried to make me despair – how small was their power compared to Jesus’ victory!
The feelings of security lingered on as I read through George Herbert’s The Temple in October, but then we picked up Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I had been expecting to dislike the book on some level. I never have a problem with what Bonhoeffer has to say when someone else says it to me, but often when I hear his ideas with his words I am put-off by his abrasive manner of expression. He’s someone I can trust and respect, but not necessarily someone with whom I could easily socialize. To my surprise, that was not the main reason I had difficulty with the book.
The reason I had difficulty with the book was because Bonhoeffer’s hard line on all-or-nothing discipleship (which Jesus shares) created a new opportunity for those dark spiritual forces to question me, questions I could have so easily laughed at while I had been reading Julian. Where previously I had felt so much security in my relationship with God, I began to feel that sense of looming guilt and even dread, largely because I began to recognize the various ways in which I was holding out on God. I don’t normally see myself as a rebellious person, which in some ways is God’s grace to me. He doesn’t often confront me with the things I’m not actually willing to budge on.
The irony is that, at the same time I was starting to have this crisis between me and God, the biggest thing that had been causing me pain in my external life resolved – and only by God’s own hand. How could I reconcile the insane blessings and provision God was pouring out for me at a time when I was so aware of my own sinful attitudes and resistance against God?
Well, one answer lay back in Julian, where she writes, “God reminded me that I would sin… At this I began to feel a quiet fear, and to this the Lord answered me as follows, ‘I am keeping you very safe.’ This promise was made to me with more love and assurance and spiritual sustenance than I can possibly say, for just as it was previously shown that I would sin, the help was also shown to me…”
But, as much as I loved and connected with Julian and I cherished that season of safety I had felt in reading her, she was not my comfort in this season. That comfort lay in coming to know George Herbert.
George Herbert was a priest and poet in the early 17th century. At school he was recognized as a brilliant orator, and he went on to enjoy the attention of King James I and become a member of Parliament. But not long into his career, Herbert felt a call away from this life of prestige he had become swept up in. He quietly faded back from the public spotlight and became the priest of a small, obscure parish where he, his wife, and his three orphaned nieces lived in quiet devotion to the church. But Herbert had lived in poor health for some time, and only three years into his ministry, he died of tuberculosis.
For those three years of his elective exile, it probably would have seemed like Herbert was wasting his time and his potential. But it was during that silent period that Herbert grew most in his relationship with God. Herbert devoted much of that time to solitude with God and developed his poetry into a spiritual discipline. When it eventually became clear he was going to die, Herbert sent those poems to his friend Nicholas Ferrar and said to publish them if he thought they were of any spiritual value. Herbert described his work by saying, “[you] shall find in it a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed between God and my soul, before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus, my Master.”
These spiritual conflicts were my great comfort in the time of my distress. I want to share one such conflict with you and tell you why it was so meaningful to me. It comes from the poem “Sion”, in which Herbert discusses the strange move from God residing in the temple to God residing in human hearts.
Lord, with what glory wast thou serv’d of old,~ Sion
When Solomon’s temple stood and flourished!
Where most things were of purest gold,
The wood was all embellished
With flowers and carvings, mystical and rare:
All showed the builder’s, craved the seer’s care.
Yet all this glory, all this pomp and state
Did not affect thee much, was not thy aim;
Something there was that sow’d debate:
Wherefore thou quitt’st thy ancient claim:
And now thy Architecture meets with sin;
For all thy frame and fabric is within.
There thou art struggling with a peevish heart,
Which sometimes crosseth thee, thou sometimes it:
The fight is hard on either part.
Great God fight, he doth submit.
Solomon’s sea of brass and world of stone
Is not so dear to thee as one good groan.
And truly brass and stone are heavy things,
Tombs for the dead, not temples fit for thee:
But groans are quick and full of wings,
And all their motions upward be;
And ever as they mount, like larks they sing;
The note is sad, yet music for a king.
When I brought up this poem at book club, I had a difficult time articulating what it meant to me, and no one seemed to see what I saw in it. At least, not until I was able to discuss it with a friend at a later time.
What happened at book club is that the poem was put through a very “spiritual” lens. My favorite lines, “There thou art struggling with a peevish heart, which sometimes crosseth thee, thou sometimes it: the fight is hard on either part. Great God fight, he doth submit,” were interpreted in light of the cross. And in many ways, that interpretation is valid. After all, a fight between God and man is no fight at all when you compare the competitors. God is “crossed” literally by going to the cross, the fight is hard because Jesus suffered on the cross, and God submits because he is willing to die. I get it.
But that is not what I saw. And Herbert is a fan of multiple meanings. Herbert has a way of exploring high, heavenly concepts in tangible terms, but man, he’s also one of the most down-and-dirty theologians I’ve ever had the joy of reading.
You might call my interpretation of the poem the “earthly” lens. Because while I also think this poem has to do with the gospel, I think it would be a disservice to exclusively think of it in terms of the cross and miss what it’s saying about the way that God directly interacts with us. Yes, he ultimately dealt with the “peevish heart” by his death and resurrection, but I think the struggle begins rather than ends there. Herbert knew he was saved through the cross of Christ, yet he writes about this struggle as if it’s on-going, and the bulk of his poems relate to this struggle. What is it that Herbert is saying about God?
I think it’s this: God was not content to be known by humans in his high, heavenly dwelling, through the gilded stone temple that tended to invite reverence and awe more than personal interaction. It is insufficient for God to remain high and heavenly, because we have no hope of contending with him there. And friends, God wants us to contend with him.
“There thou art struggling with a peevish heart.” God condescends to struggle with beings weaker than him.
“That sometimes crosseth thee, thou sometimes it.” We rebel against God. Sometimes we withhold things from him, and sometimes we actively transgress against him. And you know what? Sometimes God “transgresses” against us. That is not to say that he ever wrongs us. But we all know that sometimes God does things we don’t like, and sometimes it even feels like he does it out of spite. “God, why did you have to do that,” we say, “I could have handled anything but that.” And yet, there is a promise that each of these “transgressions” are not only for our welfare but are also committed because of God’s great joy in us!
“The fight is hard on either part. Great God fight, he doth submit.” It is true that if God were only high and heavenly, there would be no “fight”. We wouldn’t stand a chance. But as we are reminded during this time of Advent, God is not just high and heavenly. He is more than willing to get down-and-dirty with us. The fight is hard on either part because God will only give us a fair fight. He won’t bend us to his will in a way that breaks us beyond repair. He fights to have that relationship with us, but he submits to be patient with us as we struggle to accept him.
And God understands how difficult it is for us to accept him. Not just in the initial moments of salvation, but in every day of the Christian life. How do you stuff infinite love into finite fear? Only God knows, and he is content and willing to keep wrestling with us as we struggle to catch up with him.
So if you, like me, are feeling the struggle, take comfort from the last few lines of “Sion”. Our groans, our complaints, our cries are precious to God. They are proof that we are still holding onto him, even though we struggle to do so. And those groans are “quick and full of wings, and all their motions upward be.” We might be down in the dirt – and God is with us there – but our cries to him are the promise of when we will be with him, high and heavenly, and we won’t have to struggle to accept him anymore. Merry Christmas, friends!