From Isolation to INTIMACY
“Being heard is so close to being loved that … they are indistinguishable.”
John Donne famously penned the phrase, “no man is an island.” He pleaded that we might live in the reality that we are connected with others, seeing the ringing church bell announcing someone’s death as a personal loss.
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”
To live a “connected” life has been a challenge from the beginning. We struggle with identity as we survey our external world and then we isolate in order to protect a personalized sense of self. Even in the midst of relationship, we isolate and withhold in order to guard our heart. We don’t want to feel the loss and yet we must feel and hurt if we are going to live full lives. Paul, the Apostle, calls our tendency toward isolation the “old man” or “old self.” As we begin to identify with Christ and a new sense of self in which we live from the inside out, our defenses begin to drop and we are able to freely accept life as it is. From this position, we are poised to move toward loving others and ourselves fully. As we do this, we experience, return, and share God’s love.
Roughly nine hundred years ago, Bernard of Clairvaux wrote about four kinds, or degrees, of love. He observed that the basic, most primitive sense of love is to love yourself for own sake. Second, as we begin to be awakened, we love God for self’s sake. We see God as good, desirable, and able to meet our needs. Third, we love God for God’s sake. Our love is maturing into being other-centered. Finally, Bernard suggests that we begin to love ourselves for God’s sake. This is the deepest, purest form of love because we allow God to relate to us on His terms. We have opened our hearts to His love without defense or justification. Even in the third degree of love, we can keep God at a distance because we are still in control.
As we allow Him to love us, we are becoming vulnerable in the most intimate of ways. Rather than holding on to self-condemnation in which we never really believe we are fully lovable or holding on to self-justification in which we believe we deserve love, we let down all of our defenses and stand naked before Him. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were naked and not ashamed (Gen. 2:5). This was a physical reality but more importantly a spiritual reality. Of course, those first humans put clothes on and isolated from God as they were tricked into thinking God’s love wasn’t enough.
Thomas Merton observed that we can easily be distracted into isolation when we believe we can control our relationship with God: “If my prayer is centered in myself, if it seeks only an enrichment of my own self, my prayer itself will be my greatest potential distraction. Full of my own curiosity, I have eaten of the tree of Knowledge and torn myself away from myself and from God. I am left rich and alone and nothing can assuage my hunger: everything I touch turns into a distraction.”
The glorious movement from isolation to intimacy begins with putting on the love of God, the “new man” from Ephesians 4. As we increasingly develop our sense of identity in God’s love, we begin to live with an awareness of His presence in our lives.
Our modern world of social media and instant gratification exacerbates the issue of isolation and stirs the pot of discontentment and fear. We are able to focus on self in unhindered, unbridled ways which keeps us distracted. Moving into intimacy requires courage and trust, knowing that we are safe and secure with Him no matter what the world around us might portray.
And, of course, intimacy and living fully connected lives are what we long for. C. S. Lewis shared, “We do not want merely to see beauty … we want something else which can hardly be put to words – to be united with the beauty we see, to pass in to it, to bathe in it, to become part of it.” This union and connection is the very essence of the love into which we are invited.
The Trinity dances in love and intimacy, a connection so deep that the three are one. In John 15, Jesus challenges us to “abide” in His love as He abides in the Father’s love. To abide is to remain. So, to love is to remain connected, to stay close. Jesus says that we stay close when we keep His commandments. And, what are His commandments? They are expressions of His heart for us. Specifically, His commands are that we love God with all that we are and that we love others as He has loved us. This sounds a lot like loving ourselves for God’s sake. It is the dance of love into which we are invited, and Jesus simply says, “Stay close.”
As we have walked through the movements of the Spirit in drawing us into His love, we notice that it begins with being awakened to desire and progresses through a growing identification, or awareness, of His presence. Finally, we experience deepening intimacy as we learn to be attentive, to stay close to His heart.
Renewed in the Depths of Our Heart
In Ephesians 4:22-24, we were challenged to put off the old identity and put on the new identity. In verse 23, tucked between the old and new, is the phrase “to be renewed in the spirit of your minds.” We deepen that new sense of identity and awareness as we are renewed.
What does it mean to be renewed in the spirit of our minds? First, we need to understand “the spirit of our minds.” The mind is the part of us that reasons and thinks and remembers. Our spirit is our will, the part of us that desires and chooses. When these two concepts are placed together, it refers to the core of who we are. In Ephesians 3:16, Paul calls it the inner person. It is that place where are have the capacity to love and be loved. The inner person is our heart, the place where Christ dwells (Eph 3:17). So, to be renewed in our heart is to be transformed in what we love and how we love through allowing Him to love us.
That inner person is the intimate, vulnerable place where we exercise the capacity to love and trust. We can shut it down and try to stay safe or we can open ourselves to His love. How do we experience this renewing of the heart? It is through prayer as we listen to His heart for us.
In John 10:27, Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” As we listen to God in prayer, we are renewed. Why? Because He knows us. And, because He knows us, our trust grows. Theophan the Recluse, a Russian orthodox mystic, said, “To pray is to descend with the mind into the heart.” We descend to the heart as we let go of our own words and requests and fears (as appropriate as those are for prayer) and we silence ourselves in order to listen to Him.
As we learn to listen, we experience His love and we express love toward Him. David Augsberger made the observation, “Being heard is so close to being loved that … they are indistinguishable.” Listening is critical to knowing someone and expressing love.
Jesuit pastor and theologian Anthony deMello spoke to the fact that we frequently miss God:
“The fact is that you are surrounded by God and yet you don’t see God, because you ‘know’ about Him. The final barrier to the vision of God is our God concept. You miss God because you think you know. That’s the terrible thing about religion. That’s what the Gospels were saying – that religious people ‘knew,’ so they got rid of Jesus. The highest knowledge of God is to know God as unknowable.”
To say, “I don’t know” puts us in a vulnerable situation. It is much easier to rely on the things we know “about” God, but that can keep us from knowing God intimately. Knowing about God can keep us in our minds whereas saying “I don’t know” allows us to descend with our minds into the “spirit of our minds,” our hearts.
In Psalm 95, we find a familiar refrain: “today, if you hear His voice, don’t harden your heart.” The beautiful assumption is that God is always speaking. The challenge is to open our hearts to what He has to say, to be attentive to His heart.
“Today, if you hear His voice …”
How does this work? What is going on as we seek to listen?
In Hebrews 7:25, we are told that Jesus is constantly praying for us. He holds us before the Father always. And Jesus taught in John 16:13, that “when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak.” When we listen, we get to hear His heart for us.
When we listen to God, it is the Holy Spirit who communicates Jesus’ prayer to us. In Romans 8:14-16, the Apostle Paul shares that:
“All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”
We are led by the Spirit as He “bears witness” with our spirit about our identity as beloved children of God. Bearing witness is real communication. It doesn’t promise an audible voice but some sort of communication that is understandable. Perhaps, the best way to understand the communication is that of a gentle, discernible nudging in our spirit. 1 Kings 19 describes God speaking to Elijah as the sound of a gentle whisper.
As we sit in silence with God, we have the opportunity to intuit His heart through the Spirit. Romans 8:26-27 expresses the reality that the Spirit communicates the depths of our heart to the Father as well. In “groanings”, or desires, too deep for words, the Spirit prays for us based on the prayers of Jesus. Ephesians 3 speaks of “knowing the love of God” in way that “surpasses knowledge” and Philippians 4 describes a peace that “surpasses all understanding.” These realities express what happens when the mind descends into the heart and we sit in trusting silence before the Lord. We enter the love that the Trinity has for us.
A place of genuine concern often centers around the question: “how do I know if I am hearing from God?” As we seek to live in a posture of listening, what kinds of things does the Spirit tend to say to us? At the core of what we hear is that we are His beloved (Romans 8:14-16). This is the gentle consistent whisper that we receive from the Spirit. In addition, Gordon Smith suggests the following categories in his book, The Voice of Jesus:
- assurance of God’s love
- conviction of sin
- illumination of our mind regarding Scripture
- guidance in times of choice
He desires for us to live in a real relationship of love and the heart of what He says regards the nature of our relationship, barriers to that relationship, and how we can live with attentiveness to that relationship moment by moment. He loves us deeply and only specific communication can catapult us into the transformation that love provides. The beautiful truths of Scriptures can be deeply trusted but it is His gentle whispers that allow us to know.
The simple counsel is: “don’t harden your heart.” Henri Nouwen, in The Inner Voice of Love, wrote, “Only by constantly attending to the inner voice can you be converted to a new life of freedom and joy.”
Attending to the Inner Voice of Love
In the Hebrew Bible, the prophet Zephaniah paints a compelling picture of The God Who Dances: “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (Zephaniah 3:17).
We learn this dance as we learn to listen to Him. When we come to know Jesus as our Savior, we are adopted as children into the family of God. It’s a relationship in which we are secure. Learning the dance of this family is something that happens over time and it really only happens when we are intentional about the process. The beauty of being in God’s family is that He gently keeps whispering to us to come home, to sit around the table and listen in on the conversations that the Trinity is having about us. His gracious nature means that the whispers never stop. We attend to His voice as we:
- Release control. We must confront our desire to be in charge and dictate the terms of the relationship. David Vryhof asks, “Could it be that what we most deeply long for – namely, intimacy with God – is also what we most deeply fear because it means loss of control?” As we release control (often moment by moment throughout the day), we open ourselves to allowing Him to love us.
- Quiet the internal chatter. As we set aside specific times to listen, we gently let go of the lists and concerns and needs, trusting them to His care. When we allow the internal chatter of our interaction with the external world to dominate, we miss out on hearing that still small voice. Some have suggested keeping a pad of paper close to write down things that come to your mind as a way to let go of the chatter. Even more daring would be to simply say, “Father, I entrust this to you and know that you will bring it back to me if it is truly vital.”
- Attend to His voice through listening in silence. Allow Him to speak your belovedness over you. Receive it as a gift and see it transform you into one who loves as a fruit of relationship rather than obligation or duty.
As we listen to His voice, His love moves from our identity to a lived reality that is beyond words.
One of the most common fears as we move into listening silence is: “what if I don’t hear anything from God?” This is often our experience but for beautiful reasons. John of the Cross said:
“God’s first language is silence. Everything else is a poor translation.”
There are times when God speaks but His sheer presence is powerful enough to express His deep love for us. If we are not “hearing” from God, it is likely because He simply desires to be with us. The depth of intimacy enables being together without words, simply enjoying one another’s presence. We observe this in human love as a couple shares quiet moments without needing to speak. God’s love is so deep for us that words are not necessary. And, as Zephaniah 3 proclaims, His love quiets us. When we sit with Him in silence, we are returning the love.
Engage in “listening/abiding prayer” this week.
- Quiet your heart and mind before Him by taking slow, deep breaths. On the exhale, let go of pressing thoughts and demands, and on the inhale, receive His love by saying, “Abba, Father, I am your beloved child.” Go slow and spend a few minutes in this place.
- Express your desire to be attentive to God’s heart, addressing your desire to Father, Son, and Spirit.
- Quietly sit and open your heart to Him, “Father, I am here to be with You.”
- As thoughts and distractions come your way, simply repeat the prayer: “Father, I am here to be with You.”
- As you sense the Spirit speaking or nudging, notice the ways in which He is affirming Your belovedness. If you are uncertain as you hear something, sit with it in discernment:
- Ask if it is from the Spirit.
- Discern/sift it according to God’s word.
- Let it go in trust and trust the Lord to bring it back.
- Hold it loosely and seek the counsel of a trusted friend.
- Journal your thoughts and impressions, and seek to stay with them through the coming day. Carry a reminder that will bring you back to being present to His voice. (e.g., a notecard, a reminder on your phone, a post it note, etc.)
*Seek to spend 20 minutes in this kind of listening prayer. It generally take 10-15 for the internal chatter to quiet in order to enjoy and be attentive to His presence. Set a timer on your phone or use an alarm of some kind so that you don’t have to keep time.
- In what areas of your life are you tempted to isolate? Can you see areas where you distract yourself from your true identity in Christ?
- How do listening and love intersect?
- In what ways does descending to the heart bring fear?
- Reflect upon your desire for staying close (abiding) in the love of the Trinity. What is a metaphor that expresses that desire? Or, write a poem that gives voice to the desire.
- Do you believe that you can hear the voice of God? Are there things that make it difficult to believe?
- What most excites you about cultivating a listening relationship with the Trinity?
- Why do we tend to move toward isolation in our lives?
- Describe the movement from isolation to intimacy.
- What is the connection between listening and loving?
- What obstacles do we often experience in seeking to listen to God?
- Share your metaphor or poem that describes your desire for staying close.
- Share your experience of the Spiritual Exercise.