*Editorial Note: The following is a sponsored partner article from InterVarsity Press (IVP), one of Missio Alliance’s partners in mission. Missio Alliance partners participate in creating spaces and resources aimed at helping diverse church and ministry leaders engage in formational conversations around the crucial issues of our day in God’s mission. If you’d like to learn more about Missio Alliance partnerships, click here. Pick up a copy of Jared Patrick Boyd’s profound new work, Finding Freedom in Constraint: Reimagining Spiritual Disciplines as a Communal Way of Life, which releases today! ~CK
“God’s love is infinitely free and unmerited. It cannot be earned, it cannot be deserved, it cannot be repaid. It is simply a gift that is freely given.”
~ Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation
A Little Phrase That Grounds Me
I’ve been sitting with a little phrase over the past year from one of the most under-read letters in the New Testament. It’s one of those “words from the Lord” that has been grounding me during this season. Jude, the brother of James says this to us:
“…keep yourselves in the love of God.” (Jude 1:21a).
Jude is writing to a church facing the reality that many of the teachers and leaders that the people have looked to and relied on, have let them down. Leaders have always been tempted by sex and wealth. And Jude is offering some encouragement to the people by reminding them that the story they are living in — the story of belovedness and mercy and faith that has been handed down to them by “saints” — is also a story full of people who have rebelled against God. The mercy of God is so great, it turns out, that sometimes people turn the grace of God into an overabundance of freedom. Jude makes reference to the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah (which is about sex and SO much more) and the pagan sorcerer Balaam (which is about the temptation to use spiritual gifts for personal gain), and he says that these stories are examples of leaders turning into “clouds that don’t produce rain” and “autumn trees that don’t bear any fruit” (Jude 1:12).
We don’t have to look very far to see the same is true of the moment we face in the Evangelical and Evangelical-adjacent churches in America, as we too have discovered that teachers and leaders can be led astray, can lead others astray, and fail to bear the fruit we hope would come. It can be a bit disheartening. What should we do when we discover that many of the leaders we once trusted have been caught up in following after their own ungodly lusts for fame, power, or privilege, which by the way, is exactly what the Apostle Paul warned us would happen? In the midst of it all we should, I think, pay attention to what Jude instructs:
“But you, beloved, building yourself up on your most holy faith, praying in the holy spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God…” (Jude 1:20-21a)
We should keep ourselves in the love of God. This has felt prophetic for the season we find ourselves in. And I’ve been wondering how we should practically go about doing that. How do we keep ourselves in the love of God?
Jesus provides for us a metaphor of a vine connected to branches and tells us that the primary way we stay connected to him, as a branch is connected to a vine, is to keep his commandments. And then he tells us exactly what his command to us is: “This I command you, that you love one another” (John 15:17). If Jesus is the interpretive grid for Jude’s exhortation (which is the interpretive grid I think we ought to use for all the Scriptures) it seems that we might be able to keep ourself in the love of God simply by loving others. And yet this is the thing that we, all of us, seem to struggle with the most.
If we want to keep ourselves in the love of God we have to learn to love one another. But how do we do that? John gives us another clue in John’s first letter, where he reminds us of two critical realities:
- All love comes from God, and that
- The condition for loving others is that the love of God is first at work in us (1 John 4:7-19).
Keep yourselves in the love of God (Jude 1:21a), by keeping the command to love others (John 15:17), which we can only do by the power of God’s love at work in us (1 John 4:7-19).
Me: This feels a bit circular.
Also Me: Exactly! You get it. What should we do when we discover that many of the leaders we once trusted have been caught up in following after their own ungodly lusts for fame, power, or privilege? 'Keep ourselves in the love of God.' Click To Tweet
Both Active Participation and Passive Receptivity
There seems to be both an active work of keeping oneself in the love of God, as well as a passive work of receptivity to the love of God. This active participation and passive receptivity are both part of our ongoing conversion. The love of God in us, which heals us and purifies us, becomes for us the very fuel with which we are able to love others, and loving others is itself the condition and fuel for our love for God. In the end, we end up loving God with the love that he himself has poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). We love God with God’s love which he has so generously given us.
It’s a little like the presents I have received from my kids which they have purchased with the allowance I have given to them. They only have the resources because I have given them the resources. But of course, what they chose to do with those resources was entirely up to them. So their gift to me was in some very real way fueled by my initial gift to them, and their participative response in that gift-giving back to me.
When it’s God pouring out his love and us learning how to love God in return by ordering our love toward the love of others — well, the whole process is fire. And sometimes that fire feels like the fires of Pentecost and sometimes that fire burns slow and hot. But either way, the fire is the fire of God’s love at work in us for our ongoing conversion where we gain again our likeness of God that was lost so long ago.
This participatory work of keeping ourselves in the fire of God’s love, I think, is at the center of our formation. This principle of the forming, maturing love of God at work in us has been handed down to us primarily from the tradition of monasticism and the religious orders that were birthed from within this tradition – in particular the Order of St. Benedict. The love of God in us, which heals us and purifies us, becomes for us the very fuel with which we are able to love others, and loving others is itself the condition and fuel for our love for God. Click To Tweet
Conversatio Morum: The Ongoing Formation of the Human Soul by the Love of God
One of the primary vows of the Benedictine tradition is the vow to conversatio morum. Conversatio morum is often interpreted to be shorthand for the ongoing process of having one’s life transformed by God into the likeness of Christ. When a Cistercian monk takes a vow to conversatio morum, they are promising to participate with the fire of God’s love in the ongoing conversion of their own soul. This is the journey we all must make, of course. And in order to help guide them on that journey, monks and nuns and even members of missional orders take on a particular form or way of life called a “Rule of Life.” But at the very root of the whole tradition, a man named John Cassian, a student of the desert fathers of the east, recognized that at the center of the whole project of our ongoing conversion is the love of God.
Cassian gives us a framework for the spiritual journey that emphasizes the same thing that Jude writes in his letter: the primary thing that we ought to be paying attention to is the love that God has for us.
Cassian, in Conference 11, frames our spiritual journey in parallel to the spiritual journey that the Prodigal Son makes. Like the Prodigal, Cassian says we must all make the journey from slave, to hired hand, and then finally to son (or daughter), resting in the unique love that God has for us.
The story of the Prodigal (Luke 15:11-32) really picks up when the son realizes that he is more or less living like a slave. He’s squandered his inheritance in a way that demonstrates that he isn’t really “free” in any recognizable way. No one operating in any real sense of freedom ends up feeding pigs and then finding one is so hungry that the pig’s food becomes enticing. There is something in the soul of the son at work that got him here. Cassian says that the disposition of the son that has him acting like a slave is one of fear. We often begin the spiritual journey with an unnamed fear of being punished, and this fear of being punished lingers for a while, distorting our view of God. We think of God as master, and we strive to please him (we serve, we try to form virtue, we try to do the right thing), but the fear at work deep inside of us means that we can never really trust God.
We often begin the spiritual journey with an unnamed fear of being punished, and this fear of being punished lingers for a while, distorting our view of God. (1/2) Click To Tweet We think of God as master, and we strive to please him (we serve, we try to form virtue, we try to do the right thing), but the fear at work deep inside of us means that we can never really trust God. (2/2) Click To Tweet
As the story unfolds, the Prodigal realizes that he could just as easily go back to his father’s estate and ask to be brought on as a hired hand (Luke 15:17-19). The son imagines getting a job and working for his father, and so he begins to scheme towards this end. He imagines coming to his father to ask for a job in exchange for food and shelter. And this too, Cassian says, is what we do. We disposition ourselves toward God as a hired hand. We “go to work” for God with the desire for some reward enfolded into the arrangement. Perhaps if I serve in this way or read this or that book or “do good” in the world, God will give me all that I need. But this makes God out to be a “manager” or a “foreman,” and there’s a subtle trap in all of this for the simple fact that a hired hand is a wager-earner, which means that our relationship with God in this stage is entirely transactional.
Many of us live in this place for a very long time. We live in a transactional way with God. We fervently pray to be “used” by God. We toil and serve. And while we aren’t necessarily present in any conscious way expecting a reward for our service — there are so many ways that this idea is implicitly reinforced within the ecosystem we’ve constructed. We become like the leaders that Jude is speaking about or the some of kings or priests before them. We become people who use our spiritual life for worldly gain thinking that perhaps the success we have in ministry, or the “favor” we are experiencing, or the fruit of our labor, or the growth of our church, is somehow dependent on the hours we have prayed, or studied, or served. We clock in and out, and our lives become divided into “service for God” and “the rest of our lives” as though these two things can be divided.
But God is not a manager.
And we are not hired servants.
What finally happens to us is the same thing that happened to the Prodigal. We are finally able to let all the fear dissipate. And this happens when we settle into and experience the reality of the depth of God’s love for us. It is when we allow the perfect love that is the love of God to drive out the fear (1 John 4:18), moving us out of the fear of being punished, or the seeking of the reward of the affirmation of others, or the security that we long for, or the power that we seek.
We come to realize that God’s very self is the reward. And we are converted again.
We come to know that God is not a master.
And God is not a manager.
We come to know God as Father.
“Everything I have has always been yours,” he says.
We come to know, as did the Prodigal, that we are God’s very own child. When we settle into and experience the reality of the depth of God's love for us, driving out all fear of punishment, we come to realize that God's very self is the reward. And we are converted again. Click To Tweet
Attending to Gifts of the Mystical Tradition
There is a line in Cassian that Thomas Merton translates from the Latin text in a 1963 lecture to the novices at the Abbey of Gethsemani:
“The mind, in the love of God, is untied and thrown back into God.”
Cassian is describing here what it’s like to be set free from that transactional relationship. We are untied — it happens to us — and we are passively thrown back into God. Cassian is really clear that this part is passive — it’s something that God does. God does it, and we watch it happen. Our work is to watch the way God loves us. And once we are untied, we are thrown back into God himself.
Merton continues: “Most familiarly, one now speaks to God as one’s very own Father with a very intimate love.”
In this lecture, Merton reflects that this image of being untied (Where we gain our freedom) and thrown back (A passive release into God’s care) means that we don’t simply recognize God as the father of everyone. God is my father. And the love that we share together is a unique love. It’s the kind of love that two people have when they belong to one another.
Cassian describes the process of learning how to “keep oneself in the love of God” as a journey of discovering that there are things that we do to keep ourselves in the strange circularity of the fire that is the love of God. We have a role to participate in that orients our lives toward learning how to see the love that God has for us. And yet, there are things that are done to us that only God can initiate within us.
The whole formational tradition (or the mystical tradition as it’s historically been known) centers on this participation in the love of God — with active engagement and passive receptivity — as the one thing that we simply must keep paying attention to.
Whatever parts of the world that we are currently fixated on or concerned about or spinning up with anxiety about — Jude’s instruction to us is to learn to keep ourselves in the love of God. The whole formational tradition (historically known as the mystical tradition) centers on participation in the love of God — with active engagement and passive receptivity — as the one thing that we must keep paying attention to. Click To Tweet
Jared Patrick Boyd is a pastor (Vineyard USA), spiritual director, and founding director of the Order of the Common Life, a missional monastic order reimagining religious vocations for the 21st century. In local pastoral ministry, he works to bring together the contemplative, charismatic, and sacramental streams of the church. Jared and his wife have four daughters and live in the west-side neighborhood of Franklinton in Columbus, Ohio. He is the author of Imaginative Prayer: A Yearlong Guide for your Child’s Spiritual Formation (2017) and his newest book, Finding Freedom in Constraint: Reimagining Spiritual Disciplines as a Communal Way of Life (2023). Follow him @jaredpatrickboyd.
*Editorial Note: Jared Patrick Boyd will be one of our guest practitioners for our upcoming autumn online Learning Community, “Formation, Justice, & Mission: The Pillars of Our Witness.” More information on this opportunity can be found here. ~CK