Robert Louis Wilken’s magisterial study of The Spirit of Early Christian Thought concludes, as it ought, with the highest of concerns among the Fathers: love of God. Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine of Hippo, Maximus the Confessor—they all tell us to “transfer our whole longing to God” (Maximus).
Loving God is the Great Commandment. Rightly relating to the Centre of Existence is clearly the key concern of life. And because, as Jonathan Edwards loved to remind us, God is more “amiable” (= loveable!) than anyone else, there is no joy that surpasses the enjoyment of God.
So the Psalmist desires God like a deer in the parched wilderness longs for water: There’s nothing more important, no lack to be felt with such terrible keenness. So centuries of commentators allegorize the Song of Solomon, with all its ardent eros focused entirely on the Beloved, as a picture of the Christian’s connection with the divine. So Dante concludes his great depiction of ultimate reality with the souls of the blessed arrayed in a giant rose bowl to gaze everlastingly at the beauty of the triune God. So hymn writers love to declare, “Take the world, but give me Jesus”…or, more recently, “You’re my everything.”
Today’s point is simply this: Don’t mistake poetry for philosophy, or hymns for theology. Don’t rip extravagant figures of speech out of their context of splendid effusion and plunk them down into a discourse of analytical exposition.
For the simple fact remains that God is not my everything, and the beatific vision is not the telos of human life.
Yes, the Psalmist desires God like a deer pants for water. First things first. But once the deer has slaked its thirst, it has to eat. And then it needs shelter against the rain or snow. And it longs for the company of other deer. And it cares for its mate and its young. And all these are the design of God. And the psalmist knows that. And the psalmist knows that we know that, and expects us to know that he knows it, too.
Yes, the world slips away when the lovers embrace. But eventually even the most besotted honeymooners come up for air, order room service, take a shower, and go for a walk on the beach. Indeed, pretty soon they go home, set up house, get back to work, and carry on in the various vocations to which God has called them.
Yes, God’s beautiful presence suffuses the world to come. But the clearest vision we have of that world, in Revelation 21 and 22, depicts a city, not merely a stadium; a society of ongoing and flourishing life on our planet, not a cessation of all that we know and do except participate in an everlasting worship service, world without end.
We need God, yes, but we also need a lot of other things, too: oxygen, atmospheric pressure, gravity, water, food, human company, purpose, work, recreation, and more. The latter are all gifts of God, to be sure, but they are not simply God. God is not our everything, even as “every good and perfect gift comes from above” (James 1:17).
In fact, those who would purport to have become so spiritual that they care only for God risk falling under the condemnation of the apostles and the Holy Spirit: faith without works is dead (James) while you cannot claim to love God and hate your brother (John). Indeed, one must beware those who declare themselves committed only to “the glory of God” or “loving God alone”: that way lies fanaticism, mania, manipulation, and tragedy.
To be sure, just as we therefore do not want to apply the exclamations of passion for the propositions of metaphysics, so we theologians mustn’t be hard on the lyricists. There’s nothing wrong with writing, or singing, “You’re my everything,” or “All I desire is you,” or “I’d rather have Jesus than anything this old world affords today.” That’s love language. It’s supposed to be extravagant! And in the moment of flaming love, everything else does melt away.
All I’m saying is to keep poems in their place and make sure they don’t distort our theology. (And, to be sure, likewise: theological propositions make lousy lyrics.) We do need God more than anything, but not only God. God created us and located us in an entire cosmos. And he called us to love each other and care for that creation. There’s plenty of love to go around, and we in fact dishonour and disobey God by neglecting anyone or anything God calls us to love (Matthew 23:23).
But God is pretty wonderful…!