Oh, make me thine forever!
And should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never
Outlive my love for thee.
Have you ever thought about the possibility of outliving your love for Jesus? Growing old, but having left Jesus behind in middle age? What would that be like?
I was out running this afternoon, a chilled reflective run, and the lyrics above popped into my head. I have to admit I love this old hymn, Oh Sacred Head, Sore Wounded, the iterations of which stem all the way back to the 13th century, and are believed to be the work of one, Arnulf of Leuven.
The traditional form was called a salve mundi salutare: a cycle of seven cantos each addressed to a part of Jesus’s crucified body. And it was traditionally used on Good Friday.
The version that was in my head was less salubrious than the baroque tones JS Bach brought to it. Mine was the middle brow cultural moment of Christian chanteuse, Amy Grant, from the 80s.
But leaving that cultural shame aside, the lyric has stuck with me. And particularly today. Particularly as we have mulled over the rejection of Jesus by yet another high profile Christian leader. Much has been written about Josh Harris and his announcement that he no longer trusts in Jesus, and I’ve written about it myself.
Leaving aside all of the cultural and sociological observations, it’s just incredibly sad and sobering. It’s sobering because without some intervention by God, there’s a chance that Josh Harris is going to outlive his love for Jesus.
Just as without some intervention by God, there’s a chance the great British triple-jumper athlete and current BBC present, Jonathan Edwards, will outlive his love for Jesus.
Edwards never competed on Sundays because of his faith, but shortly after retirement publicly threw Jesus away. Here what he said some time later:
“Seven years on I don’t feel a gap in my life and I suppose that’s the proof of the pudding isn’t it? Had I suddenly thought that life doesn’t quite feel right, maybe I’d re-examine that – re-examine my faith. In fact, more than ever, I feel comfortable with where I am in life.”
It sounds a lot like Harris, doesn’t it? We just hope against hope that the void remains, but as Jesus said, the cares of this world and the lure of its pleasures will fill that hole quite adequately.
And it’s the same for that older man I know who once was a doyen of the church and who was involved in Christian publishing. I met him in the street one day out of the blue, having not seen him in years. For some strange reason I was convicted by the Holy Spirit to ask him a seemingly weird question: “Do you still love Jesus?”
Why would I ask him that? Of course he would, wouldn’t he? Why wouldn’t he still love Jesus? His “Not anymore” reply was as shocking to my ears as my original question was. I still don’t know why I asked it, but it gave us the chance for a coffee that very hour to talk it through. “I’ve read too much,” was the essence of his reply, as we sat over a latte in the middle of the busy Perth CBD.
And, painfully – most painfully -, the same for my twin brother, the man who shares my DNA, and who walked away from Jesus some years ago, and who even now is hostile to any gospel thought. It’s almost beyond comprehension to me that we, who have been so close all our lives, might be separate for eternity. He is outliving his love for Jesus. So far.
And I am sure you know people: distant Christian icons, casual acquaintances, loved ones who are, even as you read this, outliving their love for Jesus, and could indeed, if time continues with no chance, complete that sorrowful task.
It seems the older I get the more I meet people that do “outlive their love for Thee“. There’s a body count going on. And it hurts. And it hurts more if they’re the type of person who doesn’t seem hurt at all by the decision. Who, like Harris and Edwards, seem completely at peace – liberated even – by this decision.
Of course there’s the sweet, though painful, return to Jesus in later life by those who you had feared might just outlive their love for him. My own father being a prime example. I conducted his funeral in the knowledge his love for Jesus had been rekindled in his final years, less to do with my woefully inadequate – and infrequent – prayer for him and more to do with God’s grace. Yes he died loving Jesus, but walking away was not without cost.
It’s a moment therefore to be sobered by the Scriptural reminders that outliving love for Jesus does happen – often. And that it’s not a new invention peculiar to the late modern West, where there is so much to walk away from Jesus to.
As John 6 tells us, many of Jesus’ disciples, offended by his words, walked away from him back then. They saw that sacred face in the flesh, but were blind to its beauty.
Hebrews reminds us too. Many Jewish converts were in danger of giving up on Jesus because the Judaism of their past life was an easier path to follow in a hostile Roman Empire that did not allow this new faith any state protection.
And the Demas who sends greetings to the Colossian church is the same Demas in 2Timothy who leaves Paul because he is “in love with this present world.”
I’ve seen a number of comments about Harris that give the impression he is only getting himself sorted after a weird, intense Christian life, and that this could be the making of him as an honest man, but I wonder how the Apostle Paul would write about it? Perhaps Demas too had written an alternate salvation story that would have been Instagram worthy.
So many who love Jesus. So many who outlive their love for him. It’s sobering. And the older I get, the more I see it and the more sobered I am by it. And much of that is because I can see how it could happen – to me. Hebrews 3:12-14 is a stark reminder what it takes for us to never outlive our love for him:
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.
How does sin’s deceitfulness harden us? I would say slowly and surely. To take a line from the sport that made Jonathan Edwards famous: a hop here, a step there, and a jump at the end, which surprises everyone else, but not oneself. If our sin deceives us, you can bet your bottom dollar our sin – hidden from sight – can deceive a lot of other people too for a lot longer until, of course, the big reveal, whereupon everyone throws up their hands in shock.
So how do we ensure we do not outlive our love for Jesus? Begin by not letting sin deceive you. That’s a start. It’s not enough of course. The way for sin not to deceive us is to bring it into both the light of the grace of God and of the people of God. That’s why we’re called to confess our sins to one another.
We’re also called to hold onto our original confidence. And that can take a beating in a culture that is hostile to a faith that rejects the world.
And above all, as the first part of the stanza of that old Latin hymn tells us, let our lives be filled with innumerable expressions of thankfulness to God for what he has done for us in Jesus. The command to be thankful is littered throughout the New Testament. When thankfulness drops off the radar in the Christian life, that’s the time the risk is highest that you could outlive your love for Jesus:
What language shall I borrow
to thank thee, dearest Friend,
for this, thy dying sorrow,
thy pity without end?
What language indeed? Let’s never outlive our love for our dearest Friend, whose will not – can not – ever outlive his love for us.