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By Gregory Love

I am reading Under The Mercy, (1988), Sheldon Vanauken’s sequel to his 1977 award-winning book A Severe Mercy.

In A Severe Mercy, Vanauken (1914-1996) described the love of his life, his relationship with Jean, whom everyone called “Davy”: Their relationship and marriage, how they both came to Christ, and his loss of her to an illness when they were both in their early forties. He was an atheist before his conversion: Davy was first in his life, his true love; not God.

What I learned in the sequel is that Vanauken had a relapse, not to atheism, but to indifference. Perhaps it began with Davy’s death in 1955. Certainly it was there by 1961, and it lasted through the sixties and up to 1975. Vanauken would have described himself as a believer; he had not renounced his faith. Yet he was not speaking to God. “I was impatient with God and anything but close to Him; I didn’t want to be bothered. I was neither the servant of God nor his friend.” Vanauken drew away from God, almost without knowing it.

And who can blame him? Davy was the love of his life, and they had a bond that was unique, powerful. Intimate. They were married seventeen years, but she left too quickly.

Vanauken did not drift off to earthly pleasures, or damagingly sinful pursuits. In fact, he says, God was replaced in his life originally by “his neighbor,” those who were suffering; and then, by the causes to which he devoted himself to alleviate their pain and stop injustices. Hardly a bad thing.

Yet Vanauken realized, in 1975, that his faith was in mortal peril. For the drift meant he might at some point walk away from God forever. “God ceased to be first—and He must be first or nowhere.”

The Jewish and Christian faiths have always seen this. The first four commandments of the Old Testament, and the Great Commandment of the New Testament, put this principle first. God must be first, or there is no point in bothering. This was also the centering point of every Reformed thinker, from Calvin to Barth.

It is one thing to say it. It is not as easy to live. God seems distant, absent, in significant moments of our lives when we need God most present. Crimes against humanity or against creation climb one upon the other. Or someone is ill, like Davy was, and God just seems to sit on God’s hands. No word. At least people, or the joys of this life, or even causes, are tangible: We can touch them, feel them, see them.

The Scriptures do not have easy answers for why horrific things happen to people we love. But the Scriptures and the Reformed thinkers do give a response for why God must be first in our lives. God is our first and our true love. Before we were born, God loved us. The triune God makes us and out of love, and for love. God desires a relationship of give-and-take, of companionship. And that companionship is what will feed our soul, and make us whole and happy.

It is the message of the gospel. It is what we are meant as preachers, and as Christians, to proclaim.

Getting someone to believe it, whether it is Davy or Sheldon Vanauken, or you or I, is more difficult.

It is the work of the Spirit, and of the Word that lives.

Gregory Love

Gregory Love teaches Systematic Theology at San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo, California. A Presbyterian pastor, Greg’s most recent book, on the meaning of Jesus’ death, is Love, Violence, and the Cross: How the Nonviolent God Saves Us through the Cross of Christ.


  • Marty Wondaal says:

    This is true and beautiful.

  • RLG says:

    Well, Gregory, it seems that you along with all Christians, can’t get away from putting your own spin (a Christian twist) on the relationship that God has to people, especially Christians. Yes, God does reveal himself in creation and the created order. It’s hard to miss his self revelation, even in this day and age. Even the apostle Paul talks about God’s revelation (apart from Christ) in the created order in Romans 1:18,19. And such revelation deserves and attitude of awe, respect, and honor in our thinking and living.

    But then you seem to bring God down to a personal level, as though he is involved in our personal lives, as though we can blame him (Vanauken) or credit him with every detail of our daily activities. But he’s not so involved. Even as you said, — “God seems distant, absent, in significant moments of our lives when we need God most present. Crimes against humanity or against creation climb one upon the other. Or someone is ill, like Davy was, and God just seems to sit on God’s hands. No word.” — That’s the God of creation and the God we experience in our daily lives. And if we think differently, it’s because we psychologically and emotionally interpret him differently. But experience, reason and creation demonstrate that God’s laws of nature affect us all the same, regardless of what you may or may not believe.

    As you suggest, Gregory, Christians feel compelled to reinterpret and proclaim a different message about God, a message that conflicts with creation’s God. It’s a message, for most, that is difficult to believe, as you suggest. It doesn’t stack up to experience (Vanauken) or reason. Thanks for the article. I wouldn’t expect you to present anything different from what I read in your article. That is the Christian view, or at least one of them, as taken from the Bible. Thanks again.

    • Gregory Love says:

      RLG, I love what you wrote. I’ve been thinking about it for nine days.

      Your thoughts make me think of Annie Dillard’s work throughout her career, but especially in “Holy the Firm” (1977) and “For The Time Being” (1999). She wonders how to put two pieces together: The belief . . . supported by the Jewish and Christian scriptures . . . that God cares for each of us personally, individually, as Calvin himself urged; and the brutal facts of natural and human history, which seem to reveal the opposite. Neither the Universe nor many humans care one whit about human beings, certainly not as individuals.

      i love what you write about what we can know of God’s relation toward us from creation, from our own reason, and from experience. Following Luther and Calvin, I find those sources helpful when guided by the light of faith and the Word; otherwise, they cannot tell us who God is or how God relates to us.

      It is why my main source, and my norm, for understanding who God is, is Jesus. God in the flesh. I know how God feels about the details of my life from watching Jesus, how he responds in every instance of suffering with compassion and an act to overcome its source.

      Yes, I agree with you that the laws of nature are indifferent to us, and act the same for us all. We do experience God’s absence (whether or not God is actually absent). Our subjective lenses for seeing our experiences affect how we see God and interpret God’s actions in our lives.

      And the personal God, seen in Jesus, is interested in the little and big things of our lives, and is involved, even if, and as, God is not the cause or will behind every single thing that happens in life.

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