Romanticizing Jesus – a Post by The InternetMonk

Posted on November 17, 2013 by


This is a post a reader shared with me as a comment on my post “Jesus Is My Husband”.  It is a long article – you may read it in its entirety here – but I believe it is really important for us to read this and look at the kind of Christianity we are embracing and to purify our faith from any worldly influences.  This post has been eye-opening for me and helped me to see the origins and flaws in some of the ideals that Christians are embracing today.  I want to be much more careful not to allow romanticism and emotionalism to invade my theology and my faith.

The InternetMonk was a Southern Baptist preacher who had one of the top 20 Christian sites on the internet.  He died in 2010, but his predecessor continues his work on his site.

In Love With Jesus?

Come follow me, and I will make you all mushy

by Michael Spencer

Romanticism has become a major aspect of all evangelical spirituality. People are now in a “love relationship” with God. The Bible is a “love letter” from God. The question before every Christian is “Have you fallen in love with Jesus?” Passion, intimacy, desire- these ambiguous terms are everywhere in evangelicalism. Sermons, books, retreats and the general tone of much evangelical Christianity have combined to present Jesus as lover as much as, if not more than, Lord. Our generation believes that romance is the secret to a happy life. Is it any wonder that Christianity is now packaged as romance? 

So, millions of people are “in love” with Jesus. Is that a bad thing? Aren’t there a lot worse things that could be going on among American Christians? What’s the problem?

I’ll admit that initially there seem to be few reasons to be more than mildly amused at this romanticizing of Christianity. Scores of people have found the love of Jesus, rather than the love of self or sin, to be the greatest love of all. Much in the Christian life is a matter of love and not right thinking or right theology. If we wanted to be pragmatists, we could say that there is no reason to complain when someone falls in love with Jesus and the results are positive. Jesus will certainly never disappoint them. I don’t have any criticism of a life that honors and follows Jesus Christ.

If we were talking about Jesus, I would never be writing this essay. Instead, we are talking about Christians and how they approach the Christian life. The advocates of romanticism are convinced that the experience of “being in love” captures exactly what the Christian life is to be about. In this, I am sure they are very, very wrong. The proliferation of romanticism as the dominant way of thinking about the Christian life undermines many of the most important Biblical teachings about Christian experience, and as a result, I think we should be more than mildly concerned that we have millions “in love” with Jesus.

Let’s approach this issue under the following questions.

1. What does the Bible teach?

2. What does romanticism imply about Christian experience?

3. What does it do to our conception of God?

4. Finally, what difference does it make?

1. The Bible certainly does provide the advocates of romanticism with some reason to say they are presenting the truth of the scriptures. 

There are three main ways that the Bible contributes to this. First, in the Old Testament, God frequently compares His relationship with His covenant people to a marriage, although a less than happy one. In the prophets, this is expressed in books like Hosea, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, where God’s love for His people is described through the pictures of marriage and adultery.

The problem with romanticism at this point is the nature of marriage in the Biblical world. The Bible’s emphasis is always on the faithful love of a husband, both in selecting a wife, and in staying faithful to an unfaithful spouse. In using this imagery, the Bible is showing us the covenant love of God and is saying that God chose His people and remained faithful to them despite their unfaithfulness. (These same Old Testament passages use the illustration of a parent’s love for a child to illustrate the covenant relationship.)  Hosea and Gomer were not Romeo and Juliet.

The second Biblical source is, obviously, the Song of Solomon. Historically, most Christians have followed their Jewish predecessors in believing the Song to be best understood as an allegory of the love of God for His people. The intensely romantic and sexual imagery of the Song was made to apply to the relationship of God and Israel, or Christ and the church. This led to some interesting and obtuse interpretations! John Gill, the great Calvinistic Baptist exegete, wrote massive volumes on the Song using this method. They reveal much about Gill’s theology, and little about what the book really means. I believe it was the wrong road, and is largely to blame for the church’s approval of romanticism today… The Song of Solomon is best read as an expression of human experience, and not a template for worship or theology.

The last Biblical source for romanticism seems to be in the New Testament teaching that the church is the “Bride of Christ.” This image is clearly meant to use intense, marital love as a model for understanding how Christ relates to us, and how we relate to Him. The church, corporately, is the bride of Christ, and Paul does not hesitate to remind the Corinthians of this repeatedly. The Book of Revelation uses this image as part of the culmination of all of history, as the City of God descends to earth as a bride adorned for her husband.

Yet, even with the clarity of this image, it does not result in romantic language on the part of Christians as they express their faith in prayer and worship in Acts and the Epistles. Without being a wise guy, I cannot imagine the Christians in Acts saying “Jesus, we are so in love with you.” The level of reverence and the appreciation of Jesus as Lord, King, Redeemer and Judge makes such expressions inappropriate. The prayers and expressions of worship in the New Testament are free of romanticism, even while there is great appreciation for the idea of Christ as the bridegroom.

(It is significant, I think, in the Biblical material, that the early Christians return again and again to the idea of God as Father. Could it be that this is why they did not easily speak of being romantically related to God? Did they have a basic appreciation of the difference between loving a Father and loving a lover or spouse that modern Christians are lacking? Do moderns understand that in the Biblical world, none of these relationships were romanticized, but were centered around the character and actions of the Father or Bridegroom?)

2. Let’s move on to our next question: What about romanticism in Christian experience? 

The most obvious answer here is that there is a two-fold possibility. The first is that the focus is placed on the person of Christ, and the various dimensions of His person, work and character. This is what older writers meant when they said Jesus was “altogether lovely.” If this is the emphasis in romanticism, then we would have reason to be encouraged. To magnify Christ is to increase in amazement at His love, as Charles Welsey wrote:

                       “Amazing love! How can it be, That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?”

Unfortunately, this is not the direction of the current romantic trend among evangelicals, though there certainly are many who can appreciate Wesley’s emphasis on the love of God seen in all that Christ has done for us, and have written in ways that show that appreciation. 

The current romantic emphasis is centered, however, not on Christ, but on the Christian. It is not new.

I love Thee, I love Thee, I love Thee, my Lord;
I love Thee, my Savior, I love Thee, my God;
I love Thee, I love Thee, and that Thou dost know;
But how much I love Thee my actions will show
.

The unfortunate movement away from magnifying the love of Christ to repeatedly focusing on the love of the Christian for Christ is an inevitable characteristic of romanticism. It is the nature of the romantic to expend most of his or her effort magnifying his or her own love for the beloved. It is in these repeated demonstrations of devotion, intensity and sincerity that the lover experiences the thrills of romance. In these times when the sovereignty of God in salvation is neglected, the love of the disciple for Christ easily becomes the focus. This is the romanticism that is at work in evangelicalism today.

Expressions of intense feelings of being “in love” with Jesus are the constant and repeated theme of contemporary praise music. A few critics have pointed out that instead of actually worshipping, contemporary Christians repeatedly declare that they will worship. In the same way, instead of celebrating the love of Christ, the contemporary Christian is more likely to be declaring their own love for Christ in ways not dissimilar to a high school student writing a love note.

What does this do to Christian experience? It places it entirely in the wrong light. Any honest measurement of our love for Jesus is going to be humbling. Jesus told the church in Ephesus that they had abandoned the love they had at first, and every Christian understands that the emotions of love are fickle, with romance being the most changeable feeling of all. Feelings change from circumstance to circumstance. Looking at my own love, devotion or obedience is certainly part of the Christian life, but it must be significantly secondary to looking at the love of Christ for me, the obedience of Jesus for me, and the righteousness of Christ offered to me in the Gospel. In worship particularly, focusing on my devotion to Christ is the very last thing that should occupy my mind and heart. What will feed my obedience and service is the constant confidence that Christ is faithful, Christ is sufficient and Christ is all in all. In his covenant love for me is my hope.

No genuine Christian is surprised that the Old Testament is not overflowing with declarations of Israel’s love for Yahweh, but instead is dominated by confession and celebration of Yahweh’s covenant love and faithfulness to the people He has loved with an everlasting love, all while they have been unfaithful to their Lord and God.

For millions of young Christians, the current wave of romanticism will lead them to discouragement, despair and eventually abandonment of Christianity. When the Gospel is about what Christ has done for us, and what is offered to us freely in the Gospel, it is good news. When, however, Christianity becomes a subjective journey to produce feelings and maintain intensity, it is no surprise that so many judge it a burden they cannot carry.

3. What does romanticism do to our perception of God? 

Here is real reason for immediate concern. Evangelicals are itching to remake the classical, Biblical, orthodox doctrine of God into their own image. “The God I believe in” is much more interesting to evangelicals than the God of scripture. The impulse to remake God into an image more accessible and understandable to “Boomer” and “X-er” Christians is strongly at work in the advocacy of Openness theology and in the embracing of romanticism in our thinking about God and how we relate to Him.

Evangelicals seem largely undisturbed that the Bible is so unambiguous about how we are to think about and approach God. It is clear that no matter what illustration, metaphor or picture God might use to describe some aspect of Himself, He still is always the God of Creation, Redemption and Judgment. Evangelicals seem unable to get over the idea that, if God describes Himself as a Father, then He IS a father in every way any one of us might choose to think and describe a father. Our extrapolations on the theme quickly take on the authority of scripture, and before long they appear in worship and preaching.

(Evangelicals ought to remember that Jesus described God in many ways that ought not be carried very far, such as an unjust judge and as a King who threw servants into prison for not making enough money in his absence. These images contain truth, but only in context. This is just as true of the Father of the prodigal son and of the good shepherd, but evangelicals can’t seem to draw the line.)

If God describes Himself as a husband, bridegroom or warrior, evangelicals feel that the entire train of Biblical revelation must be halted and everything be changed to accommodate this image, along with our comments and anecdotes. The multiplicity of Biblical descriptions of God allows the creative evangelical to think about God in almost any way he or she chooses, without limitation. The fact that all these descriptions are secondary and descriptive does not stop the current evangelical crowd from writing book after book, mining a Biblical metaphor to the point of absurdity. No matter how many times scripture says the fear of the Lord is the beginning of relating to God, or how many times scripture shows encounter with God as a traumatic shock for sinful human beings, God will always be a cuddly father who wants us to play in His lap, because that is the way we like to think of “Daddy.”

Is God big enough to accommodate all these images? Certainly, but God himself sets the boundaries. The Israelites only wanted the Golden Calf to represent God for them. They saw no harm in a familiar visual focus. “We like to think of Yahweh this way.” God wasn’t impressed. The law is clear that we are not free to think of God in any way we choose, and that applies to our extrapolations on Biblical imagery. To be the bride of Christ does NOT give us permission to make God into the husband/lover we’ve always wanted. A few sentences in scripture do not make the volumes we write necessarily true because they proclaim the same starting point.

John Piper frequently says that the Biblical mandate to “glorify” God is best understood as “magnification.” Not the magnification of a microscope, where we make a small God large, but the magnification of a telescope, where a majestic and awesome God can be seen in the lens of our lives. Evangelicals are now turning the telescope around, and are making a majestic God small. Romanticism is an effective tool for turning The God of Isaiah into the divine boyfriend.

Jonathan Edwards put it this way:

God is glorified not only by His glory’s being seen, but by its being rejoiced in. When those that see it delight in it, God is more glorified than if they only see it. His glory is then received by the whole soul, both by the understanding and by the heart. God made the world that He might communicate, and the creature receive, His glory; and that it might [be] received both by the mind and heart. He that testifies his idea of God’s glory [doesn’t] glorify God so much as he that testifies also his approbation of it and his delight in it.

The God we delight in must be- absolutely must be- the God who has revealed Himself in scripture and in Jesus Christ. Simply delighting in God as we choose to picture Him will not do. It is idolatry. If it is idolatry that makes for great worship music and best-selling books, it is still idolatry. Calvin said that human beings are an idol factory. Evangelicals trust the human mind and imagination more than it should be trusted, and the romanticized God of the current crisis is the result. We should trust our imaginations less, and sanctify the God of the Bible in the words of scripture.

(At this point it should be said that churches that have thrown out the hymnody of the church for a significant dependence on modern worship music are making a critical error. One could never calculate how much sound theology has been carried through the ages by the words of the great hymns. To choose, for the sake of seeker sensitivity and generational preference, to deny children, young people and new Christians that heritage is an error with vast consequence. Shame on those church leaders who are ordering up the abandonment of the Biblical messages of the hymns for “Jesus, I am so in love with you.”)

When evangelicals are done, they will have presided over “The Incredible Shrinking God.” It is no wonder that Islam is growing worldwide next to this gutting of the God of the Bible, and no wonder Christianity is increasingly trivial and ineffective after bringing the God of Abraham down to the size of the God of “Unchurched Harry and Mary.”

4. We now head towards the finish line with the question “What does it matter?” 

I have obviously already suggested several things along this line. Now I want to look at romanticism itself, and whether it contains for us a worthy response to God and the Gospel.

Romantic sentiment is a multi-dimensional, pan-historical phenomenon. It is a topic so large that its advocates might respond to any criticism by saying it misses the point. I think we must admit that there can be little certain correlation between a scholarly discussion of romanticism and a theological discussion of the same. What can be considered is what does romanticism mean today, in the culture in which worship and theology is being effected by romanticism? What do we mean by saying we are “in love”? And is such an experience a good paradigm for Christianity?

I would suggest that romanticism in modern culture is, for many people, a religious experience. It is luminous, traumatic and arresting. It brings focus. It inspires sacrifice, loyalty and change. To be “in love” is to have a reworking of priorities, a rediscovery of the self, and a heightened commitment to the personal over the material. The lover is both miserable and happy, beyond words and full of words. Most of all, the romantic is certain that in the one loved is the meaning of their life. “I’ve found my soul mate,” is a common announcement.

We should also say that romanticism today is highly irrational. A person in love has automatic justification for all of his/her actions and thoughts. Mature individuals often joke that a person should never get married when they are “in love” because their judgment is impaired. That humor is based on objective evidence! Further, there is no doubt that romantic experience is temporary and shallow, as romantics tend to find their soul mate repeatedly. So while romanticism has many positive characteristics that can be celebrated, there is an admission that being “in love” is a flawed state. It lacks the substance and permanence to be true love.

The fundamental flaw, it seems to me, is a kind of selfishness. A heightened, arrogant selfishness that focuses on the experience of being in love much like a drug user focuses on the experience of being high. It is not hard to picture two romantics competing to see who can convince the other that they are more “in love” than the other, all the while being basically selfish, rather than loving, in their orientation. The question emerges: Do romantics love another person in the highest sense of love, or do they love the feeling they receive from getting attention from the object of their affection? Do I love you, or do I love how I feel when I am with you?

In the Turner movie “Samson,” there is a character named Naomi. Naomi has known Samson since childhood, and loves him. But her love is expressed in urging Samson to follow God’s call for his life and to be the person God destined him to be. She sacrifices and suffers, and lives without Samson, but she loves him. She is no romantic, but one who truly loves in the highest sense. Delilah and Samson, on the other hand, engage in a highly sexual and romantic affair where both are intensely selfish, and Samson is stupid to the point of losing his freedom and his sight. It is a good contrast between the heights and frivolities of romantic love, and the realities of real love.

It is because we acknowledge this flaw in romanticism that we warn those we care about to not marry until they have passed through this level of romantic experience to something more mature. While we may admire some aspects of the behavior of those who are “in love,” we all realize that life-long commitments, like marriage and parenting, MUST move beyond this to a kind of love that finds joy in loving the beloved without the emphasis on the emotional, romantic experience. Can those who are “in love,” love as well as those who choose to love with mind and heart and intention of commitment?

This explains, in my opinion, why scripture makes it plain that loving God is not an experience best described by romanticism or being “in love.” What it means to love God is a major theme of scripture, but the romantic element is not in those descriptions. And certainly, romanticism is not present enough in the Bible’s teaching on loving God to be significantly represented in our expressions of prayer, praise and proclamation.

To love God is to delight in God, but is that delight best expressed in the words of romanticism as experienced in our culture? My answer is no. Scripture is a feast of verbal and emotional delight in God. The Psalms are written to direct our prayer and praise. Romanticism is not the chosen language of scriptural praise. Instead, scripture directs us to obedience, faithfulness, worship, service and sacrifice, not to romanticism and emotionalism.

I think it is important to say that the presence of “romantic” expressions in worship need not mean a complete lack of appreciation for what I am saying. Notice the Charlie Hall lyric at the beginning of this essay. While he says that “I am madly in love with you,” he also says that worship should result in service and obedience in the world, and he says that Christ is our righteousness. I have some hope that younger Christians who have chosen the language of romanticism will discover that it is not the language of scripture, and will recover the language of the Bible is expressing worship.

The effects of romanticism? There are the effects on our conception of God and Christian experience, but there is also the effect of making a flawed, and fundamentally shallow, human experience the primary way we think of relating to God. When we think of God as the one desiring our expressions of love, we are thinking of a “needy” God. When we think that our relationship with God is best expressed by intense, emotional and romantic praise sessions, we have seriously misconstrued the life of faith. There is something serious happening when the mental image of Christianity changes from Christ on the cross, to an entranced Christian swaying to worship music.

Romanticism cannot express the essence of the Christian life accurately or Biblically. It’s usefulness as a way of describing the Christian life has been greatly exaggerated, and based mostly on a wrong reading of the Song of Solomon. The theme of the Bride of Christ is important in the New Testament, but it never resulted in expressions of romanticism in the life and worship of the church. Instead, images like the bride resulted in higher esteem for the church as a redeemed community, not a more personalized and emotional individual experience for the believer. Romanticism is not a significant Biblical expression of praise, certainly not worthy of becoming a regular part of our worship, prayer and communication of the Gospel. As understood and experienced today, romanticism is a flawed metaphor for delighting in and loving God. It is vastly inferior to scripture’s own description of love for God as seeking our joy in obedience to the Lord. “Come fall in love with Jesus,” is not an invitation to faith that we should endorse or repeat.

Some of my friends, when seeing young people raise their hands in worship, will say “they are falling in love with Jesus.” I wish I could say, “Yes, and now they will begin to love and obey Jesus.” But this has not been my experience. My experience is that those young Christians want that feeling, repeated again and again. Jesus is really secondary. My experience is we can expect little serious concern with discipleship and no interest in scripture from most of those young people. The romantic experience of crying, singing, and saying “I love you Jesus” under the influence of emotionally powerful music does not usually result in a holy life, a passion for God or a delight in the law of the Lord. I am thankful for the exceptions to my observation, but they are few.

Yet, I have no doubt that some of these young people are experiencing strong emotions and, quite possibly, affection for what they know of Jesus Christ. But what I learn is that such emotions are not necessarily a true evidence of a deep work of grace in the soul by the Holy Spirit. The continuing fruit of the Spirit and the marks of the work of the Spirit are not present in romanticism, even when it is called being “in love with Jesus.”. Instead, there is a fascination with feeling, and a desire for more emotional experiences. It is not a hunger for, a passion for or a delight in the person of God or the Gospel of Jesus. It is a fascination with experience, and as such, it is far from what happens in the heart of a sinner saved by grace, where love moves us towards God and away from sin, emptiness and a life lived apart from God.

Michael@internetmonk.com                                            

 

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