Thoughts on “separation from love”

Saint Paul, by Rembrandt

“… nothing can separate us from the love of Christ” – ??

Here’s an additional thought on what, upon reflection, is a peculiar statement in Paul’s letter to the Romans: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (Romans 8:35)

Where does this statement come from? How would hardship or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword “separate us from the love of Christ” in the first place?

What does it mean to be “separated from the love of” anyone, anyway? Would it mean we are no longer loved? Or would it mean we no longer feel loved? Or would it mean we no longer benefit from their love – assuming their love confers some benefits, whatever those benefits are? (Or is there something else it could mean that I’m not thinking of?)

It would be strange if we thought that bad things happening to us meant we were no longer loved by someone – unless we thought the person was actively doing those bad things to us, in which case, that probably is what we would think. So, if my mom hits me and dresses me in rags and makes me sleep in the ashes of the hearth and calls me Cinderella, I might reasonably conclude that my mother does not love me very much, because she is actively treating me so cruelly. But if my mom is ordinarily kind to me, and then I get sick and feel lousy, and she hugs me and puts me to bed and tells me she’s sorry, but I still feel lousy … I don’t think Mom doesn’t love me, I think something more like “bacteria are not my friends.”

So if we thought hardship or distress or etc. were direct actions by Christ against us, then we might feel Christ does not love us, in which case, maybe Paul is saying – hardship, distress etc. are not Christ’s doing? Or: just because bad things are happening to us, doesn’t mean Christ does not love us?

But then, I might say: well, bad things are happening to me, so even if Christ is not doing this to me directly or on purpose, I am suffering and this does not feel much like being loved. It feels difficult and painful and alone and rejected, and I could probably go on. If I do not feel loved, am I not separated from the love of Christ? Because I feel separated – like, it’s not there, or not working, or not working properly. So maybe Paul’s statement is meant to say: even if you feel that way, what you know from faith is that Christ still loves you, these hardships and distresses etc. are not information about Christ’s love; whatever they might be information about (the state of the fallen world, for instance) they are not information about whether Christ loves you, so whether or not you feel Christ’s love, Christ’s love is there.

But then I might say: well, what good is Christ’s love if it doesn’t prevent hardship, distress, etc.? So am I not separated from the benefits of Christ’s love by those things, and in that case, am I not in effect separated from Christ’s love? (Maybe I say this because I was anticipating or expecting certain benefits, and I’m not getting those, so I conclude there is separation. Especially if I think: God is powerful and is supposed to be intervening on my behalf if God loves me so much … )

So if hardship, distress, etc. don’t separate me from the love of Christ, does that tell me that the reality of love doesn’t depend on the benefits it confers? Love need confer no benefits to be love, to be love we are “not separated from.” (I’m not sure I agree with that reading – I am somewhat biased toward the notion that love that has no impact on the beloved is mostly empty sentimentality, at least in the human model; I might be open to persuasion on this, but I think it would be a hard sell.)

Or might Paul mean that there are benefits that I derive from that love of Christ, even when I have to undergo hardship, distress, etc., or maybe even especially when I have to undergo those things? [like maybe a benefit of the love of Christ is having access to greater courage, or equanimity in the face of hardship, etc.] So that in whatever difficulty we might find ourselves, we are in fact loved, and have access to the benefits of Christ’s love, whatever those are (not identical to protection from hardship, distress, etc.) – benefits which will (if we recognize them as such) allow us to feel that love, as far as that goes?

I think that last reading would make sense of what he goes on to say, that in all kinds of circumstances that make it look like we are losing, we are actually “more than conquerors.” Consistent with Mr. “When I am weak, then I am strong” and all that.

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About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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