I’ll be returning Siri Mitchell’s Love’s Pursuit to the library tomorrow. I may write about it more in the future. In this post, I want to quote my favorite passage. The book is set in American Puritan times. Nathaniel, the brother of the protagonist Susannah Phillips, says the following, as he likens his spirituality to canes:
“We all live in a state of sin. And sometimes we plunge ourselves into it and hide from the love of God. But if we do, have we not only to raise our heads once more toward heaven to be rescued from our filth?…We try so hard to bury our sin. But if we look back on what we have done, we realize that God can create something from the whole of us. And that we cannot hide ourselves from him.” (Page 22)
Nathaniel wonders if this could count as his conversion experience—-the sort that people have to present to the Puritan church if they want to become members—-but Susannah has her doubts that this would count. She says that what Nathaniel is describing is his own knowledge, which is external to himself. It’s not something that God is working in his heart, an “inward work of grace”, or a sign or some change that indicates that God is at work within him. It is simply an idea that Nathaniel is accepting, and, if being a true Christian were based merely on accepting propositions, anyone could claim to be a Christian.
This is a theme that recurs throughout the book, even to the end, when Susannah is submitting her own conversion experience to the church. By the end of the book, Susannah has a different perspective. She testifies to the church: “God saved me. I am certain of God’s saving grace. I stand convinced of His love. And it has nothing to do with my faithfulness, for I have none. I am faithless. But He pursued me because He loved me. He wanted me.” (Page 325) Susannah had arrived at this insight through her conversations with Daniel, a representative of the king of England who was Susannah’s love interest, and also by Daniel’s sacrifice of his own life for her.
After hearing her testimony, someone from the church asks Susannah if her experience has changed her on the inside, if there is a change in her heart, if there is internal evidence that she has experienced God’s grace. Susannah replies: “Aside from recognizing the depth of God’s love? Nay…I am the same wretched soul I always was.” Susannah then realizes that the church will not accept her as a member.
This theme in the book resonated with me. There are days—-maybe even seasons in my life—-when I look at my heart, and it does not look changed, or renewed, or loving, or whatever many Christians say is a sign that one has been truly saved. I have selfishness. I have resentment. I have a lack of love. Maybe I can find some love there in these seasons, but I wonder how exactly I differ from non-Christians whose hearts supposedly have not been regenerated by God—-they, too, are mixtures of good and bad. Is there any sign that God is at work in my heart, anything I can point to and say, “That’s God”?
All I really can do in those seasons is be like Nathaniel: turn to the sunlight of God so that I can be rescued from my filth. Trust in God that he can make something wonderful out of me, flawed as I may be.
If I continually look at my heart to see if God is at work there, I may be disappointed. But I can still turn to God, I believe (or so I do, even if I struggle to believe). Incidentally, even some of the Christian writers who make a big deal about God changing people’s hearts say that, if you find that you lack love or that you fall short, turn to God. Humble yourself before God. I would add what Nathaniel says: open yourself up to the sunlight of God’s love.