Even to put a question mark at the end of that sentence feels like border line blasphemy!
But actually there IS something that can separate me from the love of God – stick with me here… I’ve not gone off my head.
I was reading that passage in Romans 8 this morning – I read aloud, it gets me into the words and the words into me just so much better. At the end of Paul’s list
“hardship, persecution,famine, nakedness, danger or sword” I thought I’d add a few things of my own and see how it played out … so I started to add the things that currently feel like they are separating me from the love of God and then I had a shock moment of clarity. There was a difference between Paul’s list and my list. My list was all ‘inside stuff’ whereas Paul’s lists was ‘outside stuff’.
Why does this matter? Because ‘outside stuff’ no matter how unpleasant or humiliating does not screw me up …. unless (or until) it becomes ‘inside stuff’.
My list of things that make me feel separated from God was comprised of inside stuff such as: anger, guilt, anxiety, resentment. So if Paul says outside stuff cannot separate us from God’s love, is that still true of inside stuff? Paul never mentions ‘inside stuff’ like anger or fear in this passage, it’s all outside stuff (go and check if you don’t believe me) and what dawned on me is the revelation that inside stuff doesn’t get included because it’s the inside stuff that actually CAN separate me from the love of God.
Let’s take a closer look at what’s NOT in Paul’s list of stuff that separates us from God. Paul does not mention anything from the three big feeling groups. Every negative feeling you have ever had can fit under one of these headings:
- FEAR: anxiety, despair, insecurity, worry…
- ANGER: resentment, frustration, impatience, intolerance…
- GUILT: shame, self-loathing, embarrassment
Why isn’t any of this stuff in Paul’s list? Surely not just because Paul wasn’t a psychologist! But maybe because it’s this stuff, this ‘inside stuff’ that can separate us from the love of God and that’s NOT because God has withdrawn his love but because we have allowed our inner being to be so filled with all this toxic stuff, there simply isn’t any space for the grace, love, joy, peace, patience and the light, warm and love that comes with God’s presence.
I’m going to use a few metaphors now and they are going to get a bit mixed up so I apologise for that in advance. I feel for Ezekiel who, trying to describe his vision, talked about storms, creatures and wheels with eyes; I’ll aim for something a little more mundane.
Imagine your life as a
or a sailing boat
and inside your ‘cup’ or your ‘sailing boat’ there are
cogs (drivers, motives/patterns of behaviour that make stuff happen).
Starting with the tea-cup idea: a tea cup only has a certain capacity to hold stuff – the stuff that consumes your time, your energy, your thoughts and your emotions. If the content of the cup is mostly the toxic stuff of fear, anger or shame, then there simply isn’t space for the love of God to flow in and fill you up.
Not for nothing are we constantly urged to ‘be filled with the Spirit’ but no amount of saying ‘Come Lord come’ prayers will make one drop of difference unless we also daily allow our cup to be drained of all the toxic dregs that accumulate there. This is the stuff that takes up space in our head and in our heart, consumes our energy and this is the stuff that will keep us from experiencing the love of God – it isn’t that God has removed his love or gone off in a huff and it isn’t that he loves us any less, it’s only that when we cling to all that negative inside stuff, there simply isn’t space for the love of God.
And why do we cling to it? Because it give us the illusion of controlling our lives – we worry and scheme and plan because we are anxious and we want to control that anxiety – we rehearse hurt, rehash disappointment and fuel suspicion because our anger makes us feel powerful – we rush about busily driven by an insecurity that drives us to impress.
The reality is we are not in control of our lives, and being powerless, weak, helpless and knowing we need God or someone to drain out the toxic stuff from the inside of our ‘cup’ of life is the only thing that will create space for the love of God to fill us.
What can we learn from a sailing boat?
All the water in the world,
However hard it tried,
Could never sink the smallest ship
Unless it [gets] inside.
And all the evil in the world,
The blackest kind of sin,
Can never hurt you the least bit
Unless you let it in.*
All of us are trying to stay afloat in choppy waters: a sea of difficult relationships, conflicting currents that pull us in different directions, powerful waves threatening to capsize us. It seems blinking obvious in nautical terms but basically the reason a boat floats is because the water is on the outside of the boat and not on the inside!
In spiritual terms that means not allowing our hearts and lives, our inner being, to be filled up by all that fear, resentment, hurt (even justified hurt) or anger, because that’s letting the ocean into our boat – we will quickly be overwhelmed and sink.
“All much easier said than done” you should be shouting at me by now.
Too right it is. But there are practical things that can be done to keep the metaphorical ocean out of your metaphorical boat. You need to admit, acknowledge, name or confess (whatever terminology you find helpful) all the negative stuff that has got inside, or under your skin. You might even talk about this stuff to one or two safe individuals you can trust.
Secondly you can change the cogs of your life.
The ‘cogs’ are the motives and preferred methods of operating that drive all your relationships. The ‘cogs’ have a variety of labels: I couldn’t possibly say which ones you favour, but there will be ones that act as your default ‘cogs’: cynicism is one, resignation is another, anger, anxiety, resentment, suspicion, all of these attitudes are the drivers behind your actions and whichever of these you choose, they will effectively keep you from getting close to other people, let alone close to God.
(Of course, you could find a group of other people driven by the same toxic cogs that you employ, such people will reinforce your cynicism, suspicion, fear etc and that will at least feel like a kind of togetherness – it’s what a lot of people settle for) But with these cogs, there will be no room in your life for the radically transforming love of God who longs to for your life to be run by a different set of ‘cogs’ or drivers – ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’ – the fruits of the presence and love of God in our lives.
So, in conclusion, there IS something that can separate me from the love of God and it’s ME.
I can separate me from God, he will take only the amount of space in my life that I allow him.
Having said all of that I must not despair of myself – no matter what my failings, I still believe God’s love will win, and there is ‘nothing in the whole of creation that can separate me from God’ but the degree to which I allow my life to be filled with stuff incompatible with trust is the degree to which I keep God out of my life, at least this side of eternity.
Here is how all this ended up in prayer:
‘Lord, whatever comes at me from the outside cannot separate me from your love but the stuff that is inside me can, and often does, separate me from you and from others. And this is not because you are powerless or unloving, it’s because I feel safer sticking with all those toxic cogs that have driven my life so far.
Just as I cannot see the back of my own head, I cannot see the depths of my own heart but I know it’s the stuff that’s inside me that keeps me distant from you.
Father I invite you to enter my inner world daily, drain and clean it, fill it up so that ‘my cup may overflow’ with your grace, your light and your presence. Amen’
*Author unknown, “All the Water in the World,” in Best-Loved Poems of the LDS People,
ed. Jack M. Lyon and others (1996), 302.