Roses Grow on Briers: Unsentimental Love in a Sentimental World

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At present, I’m enjoying a slow walk through Middle-earth. We first toured some of this terrain together almost six years ago, as I read aloud The Hobbit to our twin boys. Now, they’re almost twelve. Harry Potter is behind us. The boys are almost teens, more grown-up, with maturing palates ready for richer fare — and the patience that Tolkien requires. At long last, we journey to Mordor.

The Lord of the Rings is striking for its contrasts. Suffocating darkness, then stunning bursts of light. Brooding evil, and resilient good. Yes, this tale has its greys — perhaps the most common color named in the trilogy. Yet beneath its cloaks is a marked world of stark contrasts. From the beginning, this is not a journey Frodo started from some deep urge for adventure. He doesn’t choose to go; he signs no contract. Pursued by Black Riders who have breached the Shire, he is forced to run, with life and death — and the whole world — in the balance.

When all the world is so quickly at stake, diverse races soon divide between Mordor and the West. Even Elves and Dwarves join together in the Fellowship. The horror of the White Wizard’s change in allegiance is that the chasm between Evil, and those who would resist it, is so stark. And in the meantime, one who is Grey is shown to be White.

This is one reason Lord of the Rings is a welcomed influence in many Christian homes. We teach our children first and foremost from Scripture that the real world is one of stark contrasts, with many voices vying to paint it all in shades of grey. Cloaked as it may be for now, ours is a world of darkness and light, of evil and good, of wrong and right. We need eyes for biblical reality — what God himself says about our world through the apostles and prophets and climactically in his Son — and we are happy to be helped along by some great stories, and wise voices, that echo the contrasts of Scripture.

God Put Roses on Briers

One such wise voice is Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758). No, I am not yet reading him aloud to my children, but I dream of the day. At least I hope some of his spine will come to them through their father.

Edwards, says biographer George Marsden, “saw all created reality as bittersweet contrasts, dazzling beauty set against appalling horrors, ephemeral glories pointing to divine perfections” (Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 136). And what is at the center of that contrast-filled reality and beauty?

At the core of Edwards’ outlook is a rigorously unsentimental view of love. . . . Edwards’ universe was similar to that of many of our own moral tales, from Star Wars and Lord of the Rings to countless lesser entertainments. (137)

Star Wars may be a stretch, but the point is well-taken in terms of contrasts between light and dark. Often we need to go back — to Tolkien and Lewis seventy years ago, to Edwards in the early 1700s, and most of all to the Scriptures — to escape the gently disorienting breezes of our own day, feel the great directional gusts of reality, and remember that life and death are at stake. The atmosphere of secularism rests so heavy on us that we are prone to take eternity so lightly. But the real world is one of briers and worms, of snakes and sharks, of death and hell.

“The atmosphere of secularism rests so heavy on us that we are prone to take eternity so lightly.”

In Scripture, God shows us the glory of his light against the backdrop of darkness. Slavery in Egypt accents the glory of his deliverance. His people regularly falling under foreign powers accents his rescues under the judges. The destruction of Jerusalem, and the horrors of exile, accent the glory of return and restoration. The death of his own Son precedes the glorious rush of resurrection life; and our own sin, the stark contrast of grace and the gift of new life. In it all, we learn our need for God, and learn to marvel in his light.

As Edwards wrote in one of his earliest entries in his journal,

Roses grow upon briers, which is to signify that all temporal sweets are mixed with bitter. But what seems more especially to be meant by it, is that true happiness, the crown of glory, is to be come at in no other way than by bearing Christ’s cross by a life of mortification, self-denial and labor, and bearing all things for Christ. (The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 11:52)

Our Trouble with ‘Love’

Another voice unafraid of God’s stark contrasts and God’s unsentimental love — and this one from our own day — is Don Carson.

In the opening chapter of his Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, Carson five times uses the words “sentimental” or “sentimentalized” to characterize the prevailing notions of love in our age — in contrast to the rich, multi-dimensional portrait of God’s love in the Scriptures. Which means that when biblically-shaped Christians speak about the love of God today, we “mean something very different from what is meant in the surrounding culture” (10). What is more, writes Carson:

I do not think that what the Bible says about the love of God can long survive at the forefront of our thinking if it is abstracted from the sovereignty of God, the holiness of God, the wrath of God, the providence of God, or the personhood of God — to mention only a few nonnegotiable elements of basic Christianity. (11)

“When we listen to God’s own words, we do not find a portrait of his love that is simple or tame.”

Some today flinch at divine sovereignty — and divine wrath all the more. And set against these suspicions are shallow and sentimental notions of his love. Of course God will forgive me, it’s assumed, That’s his job. But when we listen to God’s own words, we do not find a portrait of his love that is so simple, one-dimensional, tame, or boring.

Unsentimental Love

How, then, is God’s love “rigorously unsentimental”?

God’s love toward sinners comes on quite different terms than his love for his Son. Carson points first to God’s intra-Trinitarian love with which he loves his worthy Son. But we are mere creatures, and fallen, and undeserving. God loves us not because of our worth, but despite it. Our sin deserves the justice of eternal separation. His love toward sinners shines out for what it is against the backdrop of our rebellion, and the hell we deserve. His love for us demonstrates, at bottom, his value and worth, against the common assumption that it preeminently echoes how valuable we are.

And divine justice and wrath are satisfied in the death of God’s Son. His is bloody, deadly, unsparing love — the kind that makes people squirm and some utter horrible phrases like “cosmic child abuse.” The hubris is staggering. Still, he tells us that he loved the world in this way: “he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). How does God show his love for us? “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). How do we know that he is for us, and no one, Satan included, can be successfully against us? God “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Romans 8:32).

Carson also observes God’s providential love — he makes his sun rise on the just and unjust — and his yearning love, holding out open hands to any sinner who will bow and received Jesus as his treasured Lord. But sinners, on their own, do not repent without God’s elective love — his special love for his people, his sheep, his bride. And just as unnerving as election, if not more so for some, is God’s provisional love, which is conditioned on obedience.

Twenty-first-century, Christ-haunted Westerners have their sentimental slogans, that God’s love is unconditional, or that he loves everyone the same. It is true that his elective love is unconditional, but certainly not his provisional love. And he does love everyone, in some respect, with regard to his providential love and yearning love, but certainly not in his elective love. As Carson writes, “What the Bible says about the love of God is more complex and nuanced than what is allowed by mere sloganeering” (24).

News Worth Sharing

In such biblical tensions, we find the deep and complex love of our God — his unsentimental love — a love which is not weaker than the world’s version, but stronger. The edges and hard-to-stomach truths do not dilute divine love; they distill it.

God does not promise his people temporal comforts and ease. Nor did he promise, and give, such to his own Son in the days of his flesh. Divine love, in this age, is not simple, sentimental, or predictable. Owning this now, before the next time this world roughs us up, will help us be ready to suffer well, for the joy set before us.

So, we relish contemporary voices with backbone. And we go back a century for Tolkien and Lewis, or back three centuries for Edwards, and four for the Puritans. And best of all, by far, we build our lives daily in this modern world in the firm words and stark contrasts of the Scriptures, as faithful Christians have for two millennia. Then we watch with compassion as our world tries to satisfy itself with a cheap, thin, sentimental counterfeit.

And we stand ready with such good news to share about the love of our God.

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