Nothing can separate us from the love of God

The Rt Revd John Pritchard

‘Nothing can separate us from the love of God,’ we’ve just heard - though the political soap opera of the last few months has come pretty close. Even God seems to have shut his eyes for a bit.

But it’s a comforting assertion, much beloved of Christians, that nothing, no exam stress, no relationship break-up, no twitter embarrassment, can come between us and the love God has for us.

But I have a couple of problems. First, what if tragedy has struck and the divine wi-fi is down? There’s just radio silence when we pray, no sense of God’s presence, not even a muffled ‘hang in there.’ What does it mean to say then, that nothing can separate us from the love of God?

Kate Bowler was in her mid-thirties, an academic at a top American university; she’d just got tenure in the theology department. She was married, and had just had her first child. And she found she had stage four cancer – a terminal diagnosis. She wrote a book about it with the wonderful title ‘Everything happens for a reason – and other lies I have loved.’ It was a best seller, one of Bill Gates summer reads. Not a bitter, ‘poor me’ book either, but witty, examining profound things with a light touch.

She said that she should have felt angry but she didn’t – she felt loved. And she concluded that when everything is said and done, this is what matters: God is here, we are loved, and that is enough. God is here, we are loved, and that is enough. I get it. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. And actually she is still here, six years on

Of course there’s a second and even more major problem with this comforting assertion. What if the whole idea of God is a dead zone – if we don’t believe in God, not really, so to say we can’t be separated from God is somewhat meaningless.

That’s reasonable of course. But the whole idea of God is beyond mysterious. Indeed, in a sense everything we say about God must be wrong; it must be our own construct, an idol made out of the bits and pieces of our own mental furniture. It can’t be the real God, the God beyond God. After all, how can Hamlet understand Shakespeare? How can Harry Potter describe JK Rowling? They’re in different categories of existence.

A missionary in the 19th century was trying to describe to his African friends what a railway engine was. So he got two tree trunks and laid them parallel on the ground. Then he got a cow to stand between the tree trunks and put a steam kettle round the cow’s neck. ‘There,’ he said, ‘an engine is something like that.’ The locals could have been forgiven for not believing such a thing existed.

In any case, believers say that God doesn’t ‘exist’ in the way anything else exists. God is the Foundation of Existence itself, the Source or Energy underlying everything. You can’t make God into an object, and draw up a list of objects like a smartphone, the Eiffel tower, Donald Trump, an umbrella – and God. Believers say God doesn’t exist like that. God is the one infinite reality in which everything else exists. (Though it might be nice to find that Donald Trump didn’t exist either).

So for believers this elusive God is somehow too close, too big, too omnipresent to recognise. But some clues may inconveniently disturb our scepticism about God, some fingerprints of divinity. Perhaps nature’s ordinary miracles bring us to a standstill. I was once with a group of working women in Gateshead. We were talking about spirituality in the city and one woman said, ‘It’s amazing how a single blade of grass can bugger up six inches of concrete.’

Or perhaps we get ambushed by beauty, a glimpse of beauty in a person, the joy of a child’s smile, a kitten turning somersaults with a toy, a glorious painting or a piece of music. For the writer Francis Spufford it was the poignant beauty of the slow movement of Mozart’s clarinet concerto, heard in a café one far remembered morning, music he said that sounded like mercy.

Another clue might be our experience of special people where it doesn’t make sense that they’re just sacks of genetic material; it only makes sense that they have souls. Shock can break open our secular assumptions too. WH Auden was sitting in a cinema in Manhatten watching news of the horrors of a concentration camp, and suddenly his optimistic view of the world was confronted by the reality of evil. He wrote, ‘If I was to say that was evil, I had to have a standard by which to do so. I didn’t have one. I needed to be able to say that this was wrong.’ That experience unblocked his resistance and he found his way to faith.

Two problems, then, with this seductive promise that nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God. First, the problem that tragedy sometimes strikes and God has gone absent without leave. But maybe ‘God is here. We are loved. And that is enough.’ And secondly the more basic problem that God may not even exist. Well no, not in the conventional sense of ‘exist’ but there may be fingerprints of God all over the place.

But we’re not quite done. I’ve been missing out a crucial phrase. ‘Nothing can separate us from the love of God  - in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ Christians say that that extraordinary, mysterious, indeed mind-boggling Foundation of Existence has actually made himself/herself known in Jesus Christ. If God was to be known it would have to be God who took the initiative, and in terms we could understand. Which would have to be human terms.

One Archbishop of Canterbury used to say, ‘God is Christlike, and in him is no unChristlikeness at all.’ You want to know the mind and heart of God? The closest you’ll get is Jesus. Jesus is the human face of God, God’s self-portrait. God is Christlike. Or as another scholar-bishop said, ‘God is as he is in Jesus, and therefore we have hope.’

The final word rests with Lord Hailsham, Lord Chancellor in a more reliable time of politics. In one of his books he wrote: I seek God, and behold a bedraggled human figure impaled for public ridicule upon a gibbet. I despair of man, and behold the same figure, enthroned in majesty above the clouds. If I go up to heaven He is there. If I descend to the depths of misery and grief, He is there also. He is Alpha and Omega, the source of my being and the end of my pilgrimage. He is love, at once the beloved and the eternal lover… He is always present and yet constantly eludes my grasp. Being infinite, he cannot be [held] in my understanding. Remaining Christian, I am constantly reassured in my wandering, in my doubting, and as constantly led back by my trusting. I do not know. I do not pretend to know. But I trust, and therefore I believe.

So do I. I believe that ‘nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’