Westmont Magazine Where Is the Love?

by Steve L. Porter, Senior Research Fellow and Executive Director Martin Institute of Christianity and Culture

Alongside a God-shaped vacuum in every human heart exists a love-shaped deficiency in every human interaction. In fact, the Christian tradition says the love-shaped deficiencies emerge from the God-shaped vacuum. We humans fail to consistently love others well because we consistently fail to let the love of God fill us. We not only love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19) — we fail to love when we remove ourselves from his first love. As St. Augustine of Hippo famously put it, “You have formed us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in you.”1

Steve Porter Gardener

A curious phrase occurs in Paul’s culminating petition in his prayer for the Ephesians (Ephesians 3:14-19). He prays that the Ephesian Christians would be “filled up with all the fullness of God” (verse 19). Filled up with God? Does God come in ounces or liters? What amount of God does it take to top-off the human tank? How empty are we?

The context makes clear that the “fullness of God” encompasses the entirety of God’s unlimited, active, agape love for humans — the kind of love that won’t let us go. Agape love pursues the best for us even when we desire or are caught up in what’s worst. Paul prays that the saints in Ephesus would be “rooted and grounded” in God’s agape love (verse 17), that they would grasp its “breadth and length and height and depth” (verse 18), that they would “know the agape of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (verse 19), that they would be “filled up with all the fullness of God” (verse 19). Notice that each prayerful request refers to the Ephesians’ ongoing receptivity to the abundant provision — the fullness — of God’s relentless and personal pursuit of their good. It’s as though the Ephesians have a depleted love tank, and Paul knows that God is available to pour out his life-giving presence into them. Elsewhere Paul uses the language that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:5). What would happen — in our lives, in our world — if God’s agape love filled Christians to the brim?

Spraying House Plants

In one sense, the answer is straightforward. God designed the human heart to function properly when rooted and grounded in his infinite, loving care. Not rooted and grounded in the idea that God loves us, but rooted and grounded in the experiential reality of his love pouring into us by his indwelling Spirit. Without the fullness of God’s divine life in our lives, our hearts become restless, and we try to soothe ourselves on our own, apart from him. As the old hymn says, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; Prone to leave the God I love.” The God-shaped vacuum afflicts the Christian as well as the non-Christian. Like the Ephesians, every Christian has an ongoing need to be “filled up with all the fullness of God.” Without the fullness of God’s love flowing through our veins, we manipulate, lie, steal, lash out, lust, deny, avoid, hide, demean and enter into all sorts of other futile and hurtful strategies to manage our lives apart from God. Our struggle to receive love leads to our inability to consistently love well. This human predicament shows up daily in our homes and in the headlines. To the degree a God-shaped emptiness exists in every human heart, a love-shaped deficiency occurs in every human interaction.

A recent article in The Atlantic summarized the results of the longest-running study of human happiness.2 Since 1938, the Harvard Study of Adult Development has tracked 724 original participants, their spouses and more than 1,300 of their descendants to understand what makes up a good life. Is it wealth, success, job satisfaction, adventure, power, possessions, beauty, sex? The study’s directors state, “It’s the longest in-depth longitudinal study on human life ever done, and it’s brought us to a simple and profound conclusion: Good relationships lead to health and happiness.” St. Augustine would not be surprised. Humans were made in God’s image to enter into the Godhead’s Trinitarian, inexhaustible, never-ending love. When we find even a bit of it in relationship with fellow image-bearers, we discover a little of the deep rest we long for.

The phrase “the God-shaped vacuum in every human heart” paraphrases the 17th century philosopher, physicist and mathematician Blaise Pascal. He writes something far less tweetable but much more profound. Echoing St. Paul and St. Augustine, Pascal states:

What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.3

How deeply habituated — addicted — we are to filling the “infinite abyss” with “things that are not there” — illusory things that lack the substance to satisfy our restless longings. Yet we return to them time and time again. As Henri Nouwen once wrote, “It seems easier to be God than to love God.”4 Or, as Jesus put it, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42). We too feel anxious and troubled about many things, and, like Martha, we find it easier to try to manage those things apart from God than to learn with Mary how to sit at the feet of Jesus with our troubles and anxieties.

Our schemes to fix, control and escape our problems keep us from being filled with the fullness of God. Not only are we prone to wander, but we have indeed wandered. And those wanderings become habituated ways of being in the world. Some of those paths are clearly idolatrous and destructive. Other idols appear more acceptable, even applauded and affirmed in our social settings. It’s tremendously difficult to abandon these entrenched schemes and instead draw near to God. St. Augustine laments with us, “Oh! How shall I find rest in you? Who will send you into my heart to inebriate it, so that I may forget my woes, and embrace you, my only good?”

Of course, there is a way, and he has a name. “Come unto me, all who weary and heavy laden,” Jesus says. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me … and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28, 29). Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. He has sent his Spirit into our hearts, crying out “Abba, Father!” (Galatians 4:6). The overall way of life with Jesus in his Father’s kingdom occurs through the indwelling Holy Spirit as we learn to be gradually filled with the fullness of God’s loving reality. This is the Jesus way, the Jesus truth, and the Jesus life. We come to him continually, take up his way of life, and learn from him how to be like him.

I deeply appreciate that people can come to the Westmont community to learn how to be filled up with all the fullness of God. How many other four-year, residential “internships” exist in discipleship to Jesus and his way of love? Christ-followers find few places where they stay focused for long enough to make progress in learning from Jesus and his people down through the ages how to live and love like he did. Emerging adults — at a crucial period in human development — find this especially difficult. A liberal arts curriculum that takes following and learning from Jesus seriously helps Westmont students receive the kind of saturation in Jesus’ way of love needed for a lifelong trajectory of substantial spiritual and moral formation. The college’s faculty, staff, leadership and student body intently foster a Christ-centered, formational environment for the Westmont community.

Music has a way of coming back around. The Black Eyed Peas 2003 song “Where Is the Love?” originally written in response to 9/11, has repeatedly found its way back into circulation. It popped up on one of my teenager’s playlists, and after I got over the nostalgia of the beat, I started listening to the words.

North American culture as well as many other societies around the world understandably cry out, “Where is the love?” Not just any love, but that sturdy, unlimited, agape love found in Jesus. Of course, the world needs this love now — and has always needed it. Excising the God of love from human lives and culture creates a vacuum of caring, life-giving, healing engagement with one another throughout the world. Followers of Jesus need to be ready for such a time as this. As culture asks for guidance from above, we must model and hold forth the Jesus way, truth, and life as a reliable pathway of becoming persons pervaded by love. Dallas Willard writes, “[Christianity] needs to clarify and exemplify realistic methods of human transformation. It must show how the ordinary individuals who make up the human race today can become, through the grace of Christ, a love-filled, effective, and powerful community.”5

When Jesus sent his disciples to go into all the world and make followers of him, teaching them to do all that he commanded, he promised, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Apprentices of Jesus and his way know where the love is. His love is with us always. Like the Ephesians, we learn from Jesus how to be filled up with all the fullness of God so that Christ’s agape love will move in us and through us to meet the desperate needs of those around us.