In Russia there is a proverb that reads: “Love and eggs are best when they are fresh.” I can’t think of a deeper level of nonsense if I try!
With eggs there’s some debate… a salt cured egg can be pretty yummy, fermented egg is used as a garnish and can be wonderful, and then of course there is the infamous Century Egg, which is cured in an acid mixture to gelitanize the proteins resulting in a pretty gnasty-looking, but mild and creamy oddity. Are fresh eggs, which are pretty great, actually better than these? In my opinion no, but your results may vary.
With Love, however, the sentiment is clearly garbage. Oh, I get what they are saying: that young Love is beautiful and sweet and heart-fluttery. But I wholly disagree that such Love holds even the palest candle to matured Love, weathered Love. No, there is beauty in the wider scope, the longer game. There are feelings, levels of emotion and will that transcend such petty definitions as could be captured in words. The Russians are speaking of eros Love and maybe the barest scant of philo Love or rechem Love, but agape Love, chav Love… no. No, these are forged by fires of time and trust and relentless dedication to another person and the pure, striking beauty of that Love can only be appreciated when it is mature, wrinkled, comfortable, and without hesitation. It is the heartbreaking passion of an old man painting his wife’s toenails because she can’t reach them and he wants her to feel beautiful. It is the hilarious normalcy of a mom holding one child while reflexively, unconsciously preventing another from falling with one lightning-fast spread palm. Show me one adoring teenage look that can elicit the tears of a full heart like a woman Lovingly washing her paralyzed husband for the twelfth year. No, Love’s true face is seen only in the providence of time.
Why, then, is it rarely so in our Love of God? Why does our time with Him largely yield less intensity, less devotion?
Falling Away From Me
There is an interesting pattern that happens with some Bible scholars, particularly when they are pastors. They start with a passion for Christ – some light interpretation of the Word and a large focus on the Gospel. Then they grow into an appreciation of Christology; they begin to delve deeply into Greek and Hebrew and the Law as symbology of the future Gospel. Eventually they move on from the New Testament almost entirely; they become enamored with the Old Testament and the deep study of doctrinal truth until they finally reach atheism, legalism, or specialization.
Now I don’t mean that to sound as cynical or dark as it does, but this pattern does exist and it plays out freqently; you can watch it if you sample books or sermons from scholars that were given years apart. The speed varies, and certainly they can be brought back from the brink by one good catharsis of the Spirit, but eventually at some point they find themselves lost in intellectualism and, frequently, blinded by it.
Their narratives begin to speak less about social action and more about dogmatic defense of tradition. They write of Love more as a tool of chastisement and correction than support and servitude. They focus more on the Law and less on the Gospel, more on the necessity of mercy and less on the free dispensing of grace. When they lead churches those churches become more about closed doors and isolated study than open doors and open arms. The sermons become more focused, more specific, more tied to the emotional turmoil underlying their weariness.
Rarely is it wholly switched; you only see so many Westboro-Baptist-type fringes pop up. But the more subtle infestation, the more common and deadly tumor, is the partial skew, the overlooked bias: the dedicated but weary scholar who has been scraped across too many years and whose messages carry a taint of death that isn’t immediately obvious. It is borne of a desensitization to God, a callousing of the heart Heavenward that they don’t want, but which they seem helplessly lashed to carrying out.
It is precisely for this reason that the Lord spoke about this very subject.
In the days when Moses died the Hebrews had been nomads for a very long time — for generations, in fact. This had a profound impact on the culture of the day, just as the tone of the 1960s set the stage for many of our cultural norms today (particularly in regards to our view and handling of sex, drugs, and music). Being a wandering body was embedded in them, and it pervaded not only their behavior and their identity but also their language. Take “right” and “left”, for example.
The idea of right and left held great significance for these people: you can read for yourself the incredible amount of times in the Pentateuch that the power of the right hand, the symbolism of the right toe, right ear, and right thumb is focused on, and the times the inferiority and offense of the left hand, the left path, the left kingdom is. The dichotomy was incredibly important to them. It was never God’s hand that sustained them, but His right hand. The blessings of the fathers were granted by the right hand; the left provided only the barest blessing for the younger heirs, the leftover portion.
These terms were rooted in direction, but there was much more to them. Catch this: right was used to reference the south and left the north, and this is because the sun rises in the east so they calibrated to the water at their back and the sun to their face, which makes right south and left north. I’ll submit there are a couple other reasons as well. The south, from that area, has more warmth, more water, more history, and more military power. The north had split kingdoms, dry land, and warring people. In their time wandering south became the call back to stability, to an Egypt that was, if not pleasant, at least predictable, comforting. The north was the call to strife, to hardship, to fear. How peculiar it is, then, that the Promised Land sat north.
These were a people coming to their promised homeland from the southwest. That means embedded in their language was an unconscious mistrust of the Promised Land, an unknown belief that it was an inferior inheritance. The nomads wandering in the final days of Moses had never seen Egypt, but still they longed for it, asked for it, and fought to prevent themselves from going north. In many ways that fight, that language, persists even through to the book of Revelation. We seek nothing so much as comfort.
But there is another interesting thing about of the use of right and left as directions, and that is in the phrase “neither to the left nor to the right.” Linguists will explain this was a cliché that meant “don’t vary in any way”, that the words themselves bear all the importance that the cat does in “there’s more than one way to skin a cat.” I respectfully disagree that such imprecision of language was found in this reverent dialect: I submit that it had tremendous meaning. A language made of letters which have definite meanings and symbolic purpose of their own would not construct wasted words or empty content.
Pumped Up Kicks
One particularly important example of “neither to the left nor to the right” that proves my point is found in Joshua 1:7, which reads:
“Only be thou strong and very courageous, that thou mayest observe to do according to all the law, which Moses my servant commanded thee: turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that thou mayest prosper whithersoever thou goest.”
Why is this important? Because for the first time since they set foot in that desert their leader was gone. They sat on a tenuous edge and could have fallen in any number of ways. The Lord gave them critical direction that held far more meaning to them than we pick up from these English words. The word “right” here, ימיז, yamiyn, also means “strength” and the word “left”, שמאל, semole, also means “enveloping darkness”. The comon interpretation is that this just means do not stray from the Law, keep the letter of it. These definitions make clear that’s not all of it.
What it really means is to maintain balance. Balance between strength and darkness, between carrying the Law through to some dogmatic oppression and casting it aside to live fleshy ecstasy. This was the instruction, direct from the Living God, that we should walk circumspectly, that we should live between Heaven and earth. This is the God, remember, who gave us 4 commandments to honor Him and 6 to honor each other. Who called us out from the world to be alive in it. He wasn’t just reminding us of the Law in Joshua. No, He was telling us how to use that balanced approach to the Law to have a more successful life.
And this balance is missed, which is precisely what causes all that scholarly heartache and wandering: they get lost trying to meet a set of rules they think He spelled out, a set of hoops to jump through.
Don’t hinge my point on that one verse; let me prove something about the nature of the Law. Let’s look briefly at two prophets: Elijah and Jonah.
Elijah, in case you don’t immediately recall, pops up first in 1 Kings 17 where he is passing messages from God to king Ahab. Elijah is the prophet who called down fire to consume a raiding party, who brought a child back to life, who brought riches to a beggar woman, who brought the rain with his prayer, and who mocked Ahab’s mystics when they couldn’t summon their gods to action.
Jonah comes to us in the book that carries his name. He is called to prophesy destruction to Ninevah and thereby provoke them to salvation, and while running from that task he is swallowed by a large fish where he lives for a few days. He also has a couple skirmishes with God over the Lord’s treatment of him.
These two men were both prophets of God, and both carried a vital mission, but the similarities basically end there as these men could not have been more opposite. Elijah approached the world in strength, coming from a place of joy and excitement to see what the Lord would do. Jonah, however, approached the world in the darkness of selfishness, annoyed by what the Lord would inflict on him. In both cases they changed the world and their names persist through eternity, but one very much enjoyed his time here and the other felt put upon to suffer here. Both men were blessed by God and followed the Law, but one was happy and the other miserable. In this they represent perfectly the purpose of the Old Testament: to provide guidance on how to live in that balance for a more enjoyable life here.
The Rabbi Hillel said, and Christ paraphrased, that the summation of the Law and the prophets is to Love your neighbor as yourself. That’s all about the here and now. But Christ didn’t say He came to preach the Law. He said He came as the Way that we all might have abundant life, eternal life, a seat and a home in the Kingdom. He didn’t overturn the Law, but He clarified His Father’s message from Joshua: live the Law in balance and you will prosper on earth. He then redefined “prosper”: to live for eternity by working in this world to bring more people to Him. Christ’s worldview was that success here has acceptance of Him as foundation and outreach to His sheep as structure. The Law’s version of prosperity is in riches and purity.
It’s a subtle but important distinction, because it shows that the books have entirely different purposes. Gospel prospers your eternity, Law prospers your life here. To get lost in the Law is to lose sight of Christ, to assign too heavy a strength to the world — to turn to the right. To get lost in the Gospel is to lose sight of God, to shroud yourself in darkness of segregation from the world — to turn left. Both are commentary on living here on earth, but from completely separate views. We are to walk in the balance of these two perspectives: with one eye to Heaven and one to earth. That is walking in balance, that is being in the world but not of it. That is how you seek first the Kingdom. Not only the Kingdom, but first.
That’s All, Folks
The need of the Law is to instill the discipline to have tangible earthly success. There is nothing wrong with that, but it must be kept in proper proportion lest you become a judgemental tool (turn to the right). The Law should not be held too strictly, but it must be held or you will walk the fleshy path of the lost (turn to the left).
The need of the Gospel is to instill the compassion to be a prosperous Kingdom citizen. There is nothing wrong with that, but it must be kept in proper balance lest you become a segregational tool (turn to the right). The Gospel should not be clung to too tightly, but it must be clung to or you will walk in the darkness of intellectual ignorance (turn to the left). These four tensions — legalism, hedonism, intellectualism, and separationism — are components of our perspective that cannot be eliminated, so they must be held in check properly lest our view of God and our relation to Him become skewed. It is a constant process that never gets easier, never ceases to be a conscious effort.
That is what relationships are about, that is what makes them beautiful: the effort. That may sound disheartening, but it is a matter of how you look at it. The old man painting his wife’s toes isn’t doing so automatically; it is a focused and intentional effort decided each time anew. That’s why it is tear-inducing: because you know what goes into it. So it is with God. He is constantly working in our lives to help us become what He made us to be. We can either be Jonah, drug along Lovelessly, kicking and screaming, or we can be Elijah, excited and adoring and dedicated to enjoying our sweet Lord and what He enjoys. I, for one, am trying my best to be more Elijah than Jonah. I fail more than I succeed, but I Love my Father and I am committed to Him fully forever. I have time.
Lord, again I carry the keyboard past 2,400 words and I’m unsure I’ve fully conveyed what You told me. Cover my gap and show them the image of this balance, the growth of Love for You. In the name of Your Word, my King, my Brother, my Savior and Your Christ, Jesus, I pray. Amen.