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Nothing Can Separate       

I’ve been thinking often over the last few days and weeks about the last three verses of the magnificent eight chapter of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome:

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

So much of life is a gradual (or painfully, wrenchingly abrupt) process of being separated from things. We are separated from the past, from experiences and relationships that form us as people. As time marches on, the memories fade or become cloudy, and we feel them slipping away. I have a general recollection of what it was like to be the father of four-year old twins—of the delights and heartaches peculiar to that particular stage of my life and theirs, but the specifics are growing increasingly difficult to recall. My relationship with nearly fourteen year olds is of a different character and quality to that earlier stage of my life—a stage of life that I am increasingly feeling separated from.  This is true for all of us, I suspect.  We are, in many ways, products of our pasts, yet the past is always slipping away.

We are separated from the future. We don’t know what it will hold, don’t know how we will respond to the things it will contain. How will we cope with the difficulties that loom on the horizon? Will we be strong enough? Will we be the people that we want to be, the people that those around us need us to be? We see life take its toll on our friends, our families, our neighbours. We know that we are powerless to secure the things that matter most to us. We want to believe in a hopeful future, but we look around and it seems far from certain. We wonder if faith and hope will be strong and sure enough for what looms on the horizon.

We are increasingly separated from our bodies and our competencies. To grow older is to lose the ability to do things that we once did, or to do them differently than we once did. We know that our bodies will one day betray us, that our minds will one day not be as sharp as we are pleased to imagine they are now. We know that our motivations and inclinations will morph and grow and decline and fade. We know that nothing stays the same and that while there are undoubtedly gains as things change, there are also significant losses.

We are separated from those that we love. All of us know or will know what it means to have those close to us die. This is the final separation, the one that often hurts the very most. But there are smaller deaths, smaller separations along the way. Relationships die or wither away into small and selfish shells of what they once were. Illness and chronic pain steal the people we love away from us, replacing them with people we barely recognize, people we struggle to love.

And, of course, there is the threat of separation produced by the suffering and pain of those we dearly love—a separation that threatens to finally break us. We have our well-rehearsed words about the meaning of pain, of how God is present in the pain, about how God will redeem the pain, etc. And then suffering actually comes—it leaps from the sterile pages of books and articles, and takes up residence in our lives. And we stagger and groan, groping around in the dark, searching for God, clinging to hopes that seemed so sure in the light, but that now seem impotent and distant in the midst of dark valleys.

Yes, to be human is to live in the shadows of separation from the best and the deepest parts of who we are, who and how we love, and what we ultimately hope for. The things we most want fly by the window as the train speeds by. Nothing sticks, nothing lasts. Everything fades away, including us.

The powerful hope of Romans 8 is that even in the midst of all these separations, there is nothing that can finally separate us from the love of God. Nothing. Not one of the separations whose dark clouds we daily live under can pose a final threat to the love of God, in Christ Jesus our Lord.  There is a thread that weaves its way through all of our losses, all of our separations, and the thread looks like love.  This is a truly astounding hope!

It can sound really trite to say that love is bigger than all that life threatens to steal. But what if it were true? What if it were really true that the final word upon all of our stories, with all their separations, was the most powerful and determined love imaginable? What if it were true that nothing—nothing!—can separate us from the love of all loves, the light of all lights, the One who gave himself away, binding himself to us and us to him, and ensuring that the final word for those whose hope is in this One is not separation but unity and embrace?

If it were true—and if those of us who live with this conviction and hope internalized this into the very core of our beings—then we might just be “more than conquerors” (Rom. 8:37).  Not because we are particularly strong or stoic, not because separations don’t hurt like hell, not because doubts don’t arise, and certainly not because our beliefs allow us to skate cheerily across the surface of pain, but because—and only because—the one who loved us has already conquered, and because he holds out his wounded hands to welcome us, to guide us, to prop us up when failing, and to carry us, if necessary, into the future he has prepared.

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Samantha #

    Thank you, this was very much what I needed to read today. Strangely, it was not the hopeful ending, but the description of the persistent descent into separation and death which connected with me. I have been grappling with depression and wondering whether I should keep fending it off, or to try to enter it in an attempt to understand what it is really about so that I can address the root. My fear has been that if I enter it, I will be sucked in, but this post has provided a way to enter the darkness and get everything on the table – the meaninglessness of death and our powerlessness against separation. The phrase that stuck out to me was this: “We know that we are powerless to secure the things that matter most to us.” In my recent reading in Henri Nouwen’s “The Inner Voice of Love”, Nouwen writes that “you have to say yes fully to your powerlessness in order to let God heal you,” and naming it as you have seems to be a step in the direction of saying yes fully to powerlessness. It seems that there is freedom just around the corner once we stop trying to deny death and stop trying to pretend that we have control over our lives. God is coaxing me there, I think, and the depression is a symptom of living in the time between denial and renunciation. Thanks for your post, which in addition to many other things I have been reading, is God’s voice extending a grand invitation to me.

    April 16, 2015
    • It’s very gratifying to hear that these words connected with your experience, Samantha. I resonated with how you put it here:

      It seems that there is freedom just around the corner once we stop trying to deny death and stop trying to pretend that we have control over our lives.

      Yes. So much of life is a steady relinquishing of illusions and the things we cling to for an imagined security. It is an invitation that doesn’t always seem “grand,” but one that I am convinced is the path to life.

      April 17, 2015
  2. mike #

    A very powerful Post, Ryan. I can easily relate to this. Top Ten!

    April 18, 2015
  3. This touched my heart and spoke to my condition today. Thank you. You are a gifted, graceful writer.

    Earlier today I was reading the fiery furnace story from Daniel 3. I thought of fire as an image of death, like the fires that consume a body that is cremated. Yet somehow, the fire does not touch the essence of the person. The person lives, miraculously, like Daniel, accompanied by the loving presence of God. Nothing can separate from love, not even fire.

    Peace to you.

    April 18, 2015
    • Thank you, Chris. This is very kind.

      (I will undoubtedly read the story of Daniel differently next time. What a great image of the indestructibility of God’s love.)

      April 18, 2015
    • mike #

      @Chris: Great analogy!

      April 20, 2015
  4. Paul Johnston #

    It is a rather pessimistic optimism you offer here, Ryan. Cannot that indissoluble love you speak of break through in the here and now? I’m no advocate of a material, “Prosperity Gospel” but what of a spiritual one?

    I believe that if anyone takes the time to invest in relationship with Christ through prayer, the Kingdom is now. Mental anguish from suffering (not necessarily the suffering itself) ends now.

    To think less, to my mind, is to think less of the power of Our God.

    April 20, 2015
    • Well, at least it’s still optimism :). Better than optimistic pessimism, no?

      In all seriousness, though, I think you may well be right to push against this a bit. I absolutely do think that the “indissoluble love” references here can and does “break through in the here and now.” I have seen it and I have experienced it. It is glorious to behold.

      I do worry, though, about the implication that the presence of “mental anguish from suffering” necessarily and always indicates a failure to invest properly in one’s relationship with God or pray sufficiently, to “think less of the power of our God.” I wonder how well people like Job or some of the Psalmists or Jeremiah would fare on this calculus?

      April 20, 2015
  5. Paul Johnston #

    Sorry, Ryan I in no way mean to imply that suffering is related to a failure to invest in prayer but rather that when suffering comes…and it will for us all….prayer and relationship with Jesus is the best and only lasting remedy. We are purified and made holy by the way in which we handle our suffering. God is not the author of suffering, though it is true he allows it to happen…so that we may be made perfect as He is perfect….God, in Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit, is the only antidote! It bears repeating. God is not author, He is antidote….In God’s economy suffering is ALWAYS, redemptive. He allows it’s existence for no other reason.

    Christ was fully glorified through the cross, not by going around it. We too shall be made perfect going through our suffering guided by God, never straying from relationship. We saw this outcome in Jesus. He will do no less for us. 🙂

    As for the prophets of old I am no expert and offer only an opinion. I believe that until Jesus came they did not fully comprehend God’s majesty and love. They believed that suffering was a consequence of sin. They accounted the way men account….an eye for an eye…Jesus teaches us that suffering is a condition of the material world, a fate we are destined, given the forces of nature and mankind’s freedom and brokenness. In the end, only in trusting our fate to Him, can we triumph.

    Praise and glory to our Lord and Savior. Jesus Christ forever, Amen.

    April 21, 2015
  6. Kevin K #

    Thanks for your post! The use of repetition was particularly poignant. I appreciated each building paragraph, and the angles into the idea of separation that were explored at each step. It was an honest post as well. I’ve come to appreciate your ability to name the difficult realities of life while still leaving room for a redemptive response. I feel like that is a very pastoral thing to be good at.

    As I thought about your post, it occurred to me that though there is pain in being separated from the good things in life, part of the hope is that the painful things are also ultimately fleeting. We will, one day, be separated from the pain of loneliness, fear, rejection, hostility, violence, sin, etc. Though, of course, in the moment it doesn’t feel much like those things are going anywhere, but as you put it: “Nothing sticks. Nothing lasts. Everything fades away…” Which would ultimately be just as true of the painful realities, even if they feel very much like they aren’t going anywhere for the time being. Perhaps the response of faith is to give God a piece of our mind about the bad and yet give thanks to Him for the good things we have been given as well.

    I suppose that would be the optimist’s way of looking at it (and having skimmed the comments above it seems like perhaps this has been touched on a little bit already). Though either way of looking at it, whether from the pain of losing what we love or the hope of losing what pains us, the part of life that ultimately sustains is indeed the love of God from which we will never be separated. Hope can also be found in the fact that whatever there is of Christ in our love has a sort of eternal staying power as well.

    Thanks again for food for thought!

    April 22, 2015
    • Thanks, Kevin. I appreciate you pushing the “separation” metaphor a bit further to include the things that we will one day be grateful to be separated from! An important reminder that “this, too, shall pass” even (or especially!) when “this” is painful.

      I like how you summarize it here:

      Though either way of looking at it, whether from the pain of losing what we love or the hope of losing what pains us, the part of life that ultimately sustains is indeed the love of God from which we will never be separated. Hope can also be found in the fact that whatever there is of Christ in our love has a sort of eternal staying power as well.

      Amen.

      April 22, 2015
      • Kevin K #

        Thanks Ryan. I appreciate the reply!

        April 22, 2015

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