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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.