How do we know if we have lost the love we initially had for God, as Jesus so strikingly accused one of the early churches of?
The portrayal of screen romance is fraught with difficulty. The medium of film restricts the space to develop a relationship meaningfully, giving the impression of superficiality; television allows for more, but to sustain viewing figures, dramas – especially soap operas – concoct ever more incredible scenarios for a couple to live through. The result is that human romances are not expressed on the screen the way they are experienced in reality. Art does not imitate life and most of us are grateful that life does not imitate art.
The trilogy of films, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight makes a valiant attempt to disrupt this pattern. The three films trace a relationship between two young lovers begun by chance on a train in Europe. The nine years between each film means we see Jesse and Celine (played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) age properly and confront the issues relevant to each time. The third film, Before Midnight, released in 2013, is a masterpiece, acclaimed by all critics as an honest and painful portrayal of the messy compromises and frustrated aspirations of early middle age. Their historic familiarity and affection is allied to a growing contempt and resentment which those who have endured relationship breakdown in middle age may recognise.
The early phase of an enduring romance, especially one begun young, is intoxicating; the mere mention of the lover’s name or their arrival on a doorstep provoking a pleasant shock to the sternum. Like a plane taking off, these months are vertiginous and, experts suggest, of vital importance to its longer term success; the memory of early passion becomes a cornerstone of a lasting relationship. The nature of love changes over the years as a couple adapts to new environments, of which the emergence of a family is paramount. In a lasting relationship, these changes are negotiated fruitfully and disputes are not left unresolved. Love becomes more secure, grounded in the experience of covenant and mutual submission. The first exhilarating phase of love could only be re-created if memory were to be erased, but each stage on the journey layers the existing relationship with joy and fulfilment.
All this explains why many Christians feel uneasy reading the words of the risen Jesus to the Church in Ephesus in Revelation 2:4: ‘I have this against you: you have abandoned the love you had at first.’ They view this through the prism of romantic love and feel judged. The early stages of a relationship with God – or at certain other points along the way – can be marked with deep spiritual passion, as people feel the love of God for them personally for the first time or in an entirely new way. Like the building blocks of a romance, this memory should infuse discipleship for years to come; instead, people interpret Jesus’ words about the loss of first love as a judgment on a relationship which does not feel the way it did at the start.
Though there are undoubtedly times when these words of scripture might wake us up to something that has been incrementally lost, this should be tested against the reality of how love – both spiritual and romantic – evolves. Those who feel guilty they are unable to muster the early stages of faith often colour it with a hue it did not possess at the time. Like an enduring human romance, the passage of years affords stability and the assurance of promises made and kept on both sides. The mature experience of God is usually a less vulnerable place than at first, when the seed has yet to spring lasting roots.
Nevertheless, these sobering words of Jesus leave us with a challenge. Our love for him may feel different to how it did at first, but it should be increasingly strong-willed. One reason we may experience guilt that we have lost our first love for Jesus is because our understanding of love in today’s culture is all about how we feel. Jesus, by contrast, always spoke of how love is an act of will (if you love me you will keep my commandments: John 14:15). It is an intentional commitment to show our love for him by what we do, rather than what we say or indeed how we feel at any particular moment. Feelings are a component of an authentic relationship with God but they do not determine, as of right, whether we have lost our first love or not. The test is whether we obey God more faithfully than we used to. The answer to this tells us all we need to know. For better or for worse.
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