Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. — Proverbs 3,3.
I’ve never been a fan of ritual and repetition – too many memories of formulaic church prayers, clergy with odd dressing habits and the garbled ‘grace’ we recited collectively before every primary school lunch. The metaphor in this proverb, both the words and the images, stick in my mind though, silently questioning my confident dismissal of any notion that God’s love and faithfulness require to be held so tenaciously.
I re-read this verse, in fact, the whole chapter of this ancient book, partly in self-imposed penance for my lack of appreciation, partly searching for any context which may have alluded me at first screening. The Old Testament book of Proverbs delivers new punches in quick succession, however, so I retreat to the now familiar verse with some resignation.
I write out the words LOVE and FAITHFULNESS in block capitals on scraps of paper and stick them on a pinboard near my desk. This may be as close as I’ll get to binding them around my neck, for today at least, I tell myself.
Lunchtime comes and I stare at my handiwork with amusement. No scrap of paper normally makes it onto this carefully curated pinboard display. The words look more than a little out of place among my artistically arranged junk.
As a former child psychiatrist, I remember telling some young patients to post positive messages to themselves on their bedroom mirror. A respected colleague and CBT therapist had suggested this was a good strategy for raising self-esteem and promoting positive self-talk in depressed young people. No one ever reported that they had tried it – I may even have found it a little surprising if they had done. As if staring at random words on a piece of paper made it any more likely that one would believe them?
Love and faithfulness had, quite literally, deserted quite a few of the young people I saw as a psychiatrist. A desperate need for parental love and faithfulness took some teenagers to hard places in life. My scraps of paper would have been ripped and thrown in the faces of well-meaning foster carers, teachers, social workers or mental health staff. For these youngsters, love and faithfulness were observed or imagined only in the lives of others.
Later that day I remove the scrap papers from my pinboard, remembering a ‘street evangelist’ outside Kings Cross station several weeks ago holding similar words in his hands on a makeshift cardboard placard. A young woman stopped to talk with him but her feigned interest soon turned into an angry rant about these words in her space. At the time I had simply felt awkward and embarrassed for both.
Human love is fickle. John Bowlby recognised this when he wrote about attachment theory in infants. That by some miracle of divine intervention all we as parents have to do is love enough, just sufficient to trigger the development of healthy ‘internal working models’ of human interaction which will enable our children to survive in a hostile world. Astonishingly, only 60% of children in the UK receive enough parental love and faithfulness (The Sutton Trust 2018). The rest suffer cognitively, emotionally and behaviourally to varying degrees throughout their lives. Love and faithfulness are indeed embedded deep in our DNA, even if not worn around our necks.
Likewise, divine love is not merely about words, not even the beautifully crafted or carefully argued ones. Neither is it simply about symbols etched into keepsakes to be worn around the neck. God’s love is relational and it runs deep in our souls.
God’s love is also personal. We alone decide what we will wear around our necks or etch on our hearts. In Old Testament times, the choice for the ancient Israelite peoples was a little simpler, a dichotomy of life or death, blessing or curse. It’s no wonder they bound God’s love to them with more energy than we could ever imagine we would need to.
Today, God’s love is ‘poured’ into the hearts of believers in Jesus through the Holy Spirit. (Romans 5,5). Peace, forgiveness and hope for each recipient.
So that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
Ephesians 3, 17-19
Yet some days, divine love seems far away, hidden beneath both the joy and the misery of our human relationships. God is still there and His love is constant but somehow we have stopped reaching out for this love. God’s forgiveness seems infinitely less important today than being forgiven by a husband/wife/child/ friend/work colleague. Eternity seems far off and we are quite happy to ‘bank’ salvation for use as needed at a later date. Even if God hasn’t provided everything on our wish lists, it’s ‘close enough’ for us to offer cool acceptance.
If we still need God’s love and many would say that we do, especially in those critical and clear thinking moments in life when purpose and destiny, guilt and despair break into our consciousness, how then is God’s love experienced?
Experiencing the love of God is perhaps more about discipline and ritual than we care to admit, a ‘taking up of one’s cross daily‘ to follow Jesus (Luke 9,23); the careful binding of words and life and heart.
God love meets us every ordinary morning when a cup of tea in one hand and scriptures in the other, we begin our day with God.
God’s love meets us in our evening prayers, however traditionally or randomly these are presented.
In these simple rituals, we grow simultaneously in our understanding of God and His love. Here is a sacred place of relationship with Jesus Christ where we recognise God’s love in unexpected and occasionally miraculous ways.