or: Thoughts on Fear, Love, and Salvation
But if it is possible to be saved | without love, O my Christ, |how shall this be? | Impossible! If we were separated from the light, | how shall we flee the darkness? | If we were deprived of joy, | how would we be free from sorrow? | Having been found outside the bridal chamber, | how would we be completely happy? | Having fallen out of the Kingdom, | –I speak of seeing you, O Savior — | what other salvation, | and what sort of consolation, | or in what other kind of place | would we be able to find salvation? | Certainly, absolutely nowhere…
~ St. Symeon The New Theologian, Hymn 17.426-441, from his “Hymns of Divine Eros.”
Sometimes my son, Zeke, will mess his diaper and immediately ask to be changed, and all is well. If the messy diaper goes unnoticed by parents and un-confessed by Zeke, and he’s in it for longer than a few moments, he is less likely to want to be changed. This may seem counter-intuitive, but if you sit in your own mess for a long period of time, though it’s uncomfortable, you get used to it. The cleaning process becomes a frightful thought, because the change seems more unbearable since it will require harder scrubbing.
Does this sound familiar?
My wife loves my son very much (so do I, but this story isn’t about me), he knows that she loves him, and he loves her in return. Just recently, Kelly knew that Zeke’s diaper was dirty and needed to be changed, but he didn’t know that she knew that. He just wanted to be near her, so he called out, joyfully, “Mommy!” and ran toward her. Kelly reached out her arms to embrace him, and said, “Let’s get you cleaned up.” Zeke replied with, “Noooooooo!!!” And he began to fight her. Kelly was cleaning him up, but he was calling for her as if she wasn’t even there. “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy!” In effect, he wanted the comfort, love, affection, and assurance he receives from Kelly, without actually wanting Kelly herself, at that moment.
Does this sound familiar?
We often speak of what Jesus saves us from, but let me ask: to what does Jesus save us?
Yes, Jesus saves us from sin, death, and hell. Yes, he frees us from the bonds of our fleshly desires. Yes, he protects us from our enemy, the one who “prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8).” But…is that all he does? It is true that all of these are amazing and we rightly should want them! However, if we are playing in a mud puddle (sin), and then get stuck in the mud, Jesus is not content to simply pull us out of the mud and send us on our way. Nor does he offer that option. Instead, he pulls us out, embraces us cleaning us up, then he puts his own clothes on us, nourishes us, and bids us to follow him, assuring us that he’ll be with us and we’ll be with him. But don’t we often think, “Jesus, I really just want you to pull me out of the mud and then let me go on my own way…”? Here’s the thing, Jesus offers us more than we want. He offers himself (Light, Joy, Intimacy). I think we could easily add to Symeon’s set of rhetorical questions in Hymn 17: “If we were separated from Purity, how would we be made clean?” If Zeke were separated from his parents, how would he be cleaned, fed, nourished, and loved?
Again, we can go our own way, attempting to escape (or simply accepting) darkness, sorrow, unhappiness, and our own filth, on our own terms, by our own efforts, seeking to fabricate our own rest and peace. We have that option, but it’s useless, says Symeon, because there is no other dwelling of Light, Joy, Intimacy (or Purity) outside of the Savior’s Kingdom.
How then shall we ever obtain these things that we all so desperately want and need if we can’t find them, take them, or make them ourselves? This is where fear comes in.
The Gospel is fearfully Good News! By God’s grace, he offers it to us freely, though it is at great cost to him; we cannot earn it or make it, but it can be received. God wants to show us “the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:7)! Can you imagine a King coming to you and saying, “I’d like to adopt you. Though you’ve hid from me, disobeyed me, and even fought me, I want to make you part of my family.” “What do I have to do?” you ask. “Nothing, I’ve done everything for you,” he replies, “just say ‘yes,’ and come live with me.” This sounds too good to be true, and you’re still skeptical. “What’s the catch?” you ask. He lovingly looks you in the eyes and says, “You will become part of my family and live as one of my heirs” (cf. Col 1:10-12).
For me, and for Symeon, this rightly causes “fear and trembling” (cf. Php 2:12). But as we accept his amazing grace and live with him as our Father-King, we grow in our knowledge of his love and care for us, and as we continue to experience this gift of love and adoption, we cannot but love and joyfully obey our Father-King in return (cf. Eph 3:14-19; Php 1:9; 1 John 4:19-21). Seeking the King’s will, then, because he loves us and we him, is our greatest desire as grateful, loved and adopted members of his family. John Newton wrote, “ ’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear…and grace my fears relieved.” The fruit of this fear is love, which leads to obedience! Now, some may obey the King out of fear but not love, but this is a sinful fear, which observes the King’s rules in hopes of earning his favor while avoiding the King himself. His favor cannot be earned, nor the benefits of the Kingdom gained without loving the King himself.
Friends, God has “rescued us from the dominion of darkness, and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves” (Col 1:13). Jesus saves us into his Kingdom. Jesus saves us to himself. Like Kelly to Zeke, the King will clean us, feed us, care for us, and protect us, because he loves us. Likewise, this purification, nourishment, sustenance, and protection are inseparable from intimate, loving relationship with him. This is Jesus’ only offer: himself. No more, no less. Salvation can be found nowhere else. Will you accept his offer?