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What God Has Joined Together


Mark 12:28-34    Ephesians 3:7-10, 20, 21   James 1:22-25


“What God has joined together, let no one put asunder”, the marriage service reads. Our Lord’s pronouncement here reflects God’s intention concerning marriage: two become one, indissolubly one, inextricably one. In a Christian understanding of marriage two people are joined together so that their lives are fused; their lives interpenetrate. It’s not the case that marriage joins two people the way two blocks of wood are glued together, side-by-side. Two blocks of wood that are glued together can be unglued with the application of glue-dissolving solvent. Once separated again, the two blocks are intact, exactly as they were before they were glued, simply because gluing them together never changed them in the first place. It’s entirely different with a tree graft. When one kind of fruit tree is grafted to another kind of fruit tree, the two trees thereafter grow into each other. They grow together so as to become a single organism. Any attempt now at separating one tree from the other doesn’t leave both trees intact; any attempt at separating one tree from the other doesn’t leave even one tree intact. Any attempt at separating them destroys both. What God has joined together, no one should put asunder — or even try.

In the Christian life there is much that God has joined together. And in the Christian life to separate what God has joined together entails destruction. Then as is the case with marriage, we must strive to keep it together. Exactly what has God joined?


I: — God has joined MIND AND HEART. The mind apprehends truth, the truth of God, the truth about ourselves. The heart is where we live, what we experience, meeting someone in an encounter so profound and so intimate as to leave us altered ever after. Mind and heart, truth and life, “knowledge about” and “acquaintance with”, understanding and experience, information and intimacy — all of these are to be grafted into each other and interpenetrate each other.

If they are separated, destruction results. Mind separated from heart leaves the truth of God cold and sterile. Mind separated from heart turns the gospel into an abstract philosophy that just happens to use an old-fashioned vocabulary. Mind separated from heart turns the gospel (Jesus Christ himself in his power to make us his) into an idea, a notion that may elicit after-dinner discussion but will never forge throbbing faith in anyone.

We can come at the matter from another angle. To speak of the mind is to speak of reason. To speak of the heart is to speak of faith. Reason and faith should always be joined. If they are separated, destruction results. When reason is separated from faith (that is, separated from its anchor in God), then reason is little more than rationalization. When reason is separated from faith, reason is little more than a mental cleverness that always justifies whatever we want justified in us or our group or our nation. When reason is separated from faith, reason is little more than a debating tool that can defeat others in a verbal joust and leave them humiliated and frustrated and vengeful — even as such reason cannot effect any genuine human good or forge any human bond.

Faith, we know, anchors our entire being in God. And therefore when faith is joined to reason, reason profits from our anchorage in God. When faith is joined to reason, reason is delivered from its proclivity to rationalization; when faith is joined to reason, reason serves the nobler purpose of edifying and helping. In other words, when faith and reason are joined, faith frees reason for reason’s integrity and reason’s role as a servant of the human good.

On the other hand, when faith is separated from reason, then faith is corrupted as surely as reason is corrupted when reason is separated from faith. When faith is separated from reason, God is no longer loved with the mind. When faith is separated from reason, then the human heart runs after superstition. When faith is separated from reason, all concern for truth is abandoned as people splash around in sentimentality like 5-year olds in a wading pool. When faith is separated from reason, the ability to think is no longer cherished, truth is no longer pursued, superstition is prized, and confusion reigns everywhere, in private life and public life equally.

Without reason, faith degenerates into sentimentality and superstition. Without faith, we saw a minute ago, reason degenerates into rationalization and a tool for humiliation. Reason and faith must always be joined together.


There is yet another way of approaching mind and heart, reason and faith. Think about the doctrines that Christians uphold. Doctrine, of course, is a reasoned statement of Christian truth. As a reasoned statement doctrine is abstract by definition. Faith, on the other hand, is where we live, what we know in our experience. As heart-experience faith is concrete by definition. Abstract truth and concrete experience, mind and heart, should always be joined.

Think about the foundational Christian doctrine, the doctrine of the Incarnation. Incarnation is the truth that the eternally transcendent God has identified himself with the Jew from Nazareth so that what the Nazarene says, God says; what the Nazarene does, God does; what the Nazarene undergoes, God undergoes.

God undergoes? The eternally transcendent one undergoes? Yes! All of this means that there is nothing befalling us in life that God himself hasn’t experienced as man. Does God know my pain? In what sense does he know it? Does God know pain in the sense that a neurologist like Oliver Sacks knows about Parkinson’s disease and can write learned books about it even though Oliver Sacks has never had Parkinson’s disease himself? Or does God know pain in the sense that he has been in pain himself, been in a divine pain that we humans know nothing about inasmuch as we aren’t divine? (God does know a uniquely divine pain; of this I am sure.) Or — more profoundly still — does the eternally transcendent God know human pain just because he has been human himself and therefore has himself lived, lived out, lived through our pain and sorrow and temptation?

The doctrine of the incarnation upholds the lattermost: the truth of the incarnation is that God himself has identified himself with our humanity in Jesus of Nazareth. This is the truth of the mind. What does it all mean for the heart? It means that when I look to God I am looking to someone who has tasted everything life throws in my face. It means that I can trust him and cast myself upon him without reservation or hesitation. Even though God is holy and not a sinner, it means that even the severest penalties for our sin, even the worst consequences of our sin, God has endured himself and absorbed into himself in his Son’s dereliction — and therefore not even our sin or any aspect of it need separate us irretrievably from him. Therefore I shall never cower from him in terror but will always count on him for forgiveness.

It’s obvious that doctrine has everything to do with life, mind with heart, information with intimacy, reason with faith. What God has joined together we must never put asunder.


II: — In the second place God has joined PIETY AND PRACTICE. The psalmist writes, “I have hid God’s word in my heart, that I might not sin against him.” James writes, “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, lest you deceive yourselves.” These two truths are complementary and must always be kept joined together.

“I have hid God’s word in my heart.” This sounds like a privatized piety that shuts out the big bad world so that the person who hides God’s word in her heart may remain unstained. It sounds so very exclusive as to be little more than narrow self-interest, albeit religious self-interest. On the other hand “I must be a doer of God’s word” sounds so very inclusive as to suggest that the doer is naive about the treachery of the human heart, naive even about the world’s resistance. It sounds so very inclusive as to be shallow and simplistic. Actually, both are needed, and needed together, if both are to retain their integrity.   Hiding God’s word only in one’s heart is a religious indulgence. Doing God’s word only is presumptuous, and presumptuous just because we have assumed we can do God’s word without first hiding his word in our heart.

John Calvin used the word “piety” more than any Christian thinker I know. Calvin, to be sure, had something precise in mind whenever he used the word: Calvin defined piety as “love for God and reverence for God induced by a knowledge of God’s benefits to us.” We must love God and reverence God. At the same time, Calvin tells us, that word of God now rooted in us must also yield “tangible fruit” from us. Piety and practice must always be joined.

Cardinal Cushing of Boston used to say, “We must pray as if it all depended on God and work as if it all depended on us.” Cushing has it almost right. I say “almost” because I’m unhappy with “as if.” We don’t pray as if it all depended on God; our praying means it all does depend on God. We don’t work as if it all depended on us; our working means it all does depend on us. Piety and practice must be fused.

Whenever I read Mark’s gospel two features of Jesus’s life leap out at me. One feature is the amount of time Jesus spent praying, even spent praying by himself. Again and again we are told that Jesus went away by himself to a lonely place or a solitary place or a secluded place, and there he prayed. The second feature of Mark’s depiction of a day in the life of Jesus that leaps out at me is the little word EUTHUS: “immediately.” Jesus ministers to an epileptic boy whose convulsions leave him flailing and frothing. “Immediately” Jesus hikes to the next town where he finds hostile people with venom in their hearts whom he rebukes and reduces to silence as only he can. Then “immediately” he gets into a boat (storm and all) and straightens out his disciples who have managed to misunderstand him wholly — again. Then “immediately” he comes upon a sick child whose parents are distraught and a psychotic man whose violence has left him isolated. We get indigestion reading about one day in the life of Jesus. At the same time, we know that Jesus arose a long while before dawn, when it was still dark, went off by himself, and prayed.

In the same vein we read of the apostle Paul and his ceaseless comings and goings (ceaseless, that is, until he was imprisoned). Three missionary journeys in and out of Jerusalem throughout his part of the Mediterranean weren’t enough for him; he wanted above all to get into Spain and announce the gospel where it had never been heard before. Did he do the word? Yes; just think of his efforts on behalf of the starving Christians in Jerusalem during the famine. Did hide the word in his heart? Yes; just think of his being caught up in the Spirit only to hear what may not be uttered and see what may not be described.

It is only as we hide the word in our heart that we can keep on doing the word in the face of setback and disappointment and opposition and inappreciation and even ridicule. The Corinthian congregation had glaring needs and Paul worked very hard among those people. Did they appreciate all that he did for them? On the contrary they laughed at him; they told him he was a poor speaker with a comic physique. What then did Paul do in the face of this outrageous contempt? He did the word all the more zealously among them even as he refused to cool his ardour for them or his affection for them; and he was able to keep on doing the word just because he kept on hiding the word.

Piety and practice must be joined together. Once separated, piety alone becomes a religious indulgence, a privatized “trip” for religious self-stimulators; once separated, practice alone becomes a compulsive “do-goodism” that soon leaves the do-gooder herself sour and sarcastic. What God has joined together, let no one put asunder.


III: — In the third place God has joined CHURCH AND INDIVIDUAL. Church and individual can be discussed (although not discussed fruitfully) in terms of “chicken and egg”. Which comes first: the church or the individual? Some say the church, since the church has preserved the substance of Christian truth for centuries and the church is the custodian of the gospel and the church is that which God has preserved despite assaults from without it and sabotage from within it. Others would say that the individual comes first, since individuals make up the church and the church is always one generation only from extinction. But such a discussion bears no fruit at all. Instead we must resolutely keep together what God has joined together.

C.S. Lewis used to say that when Christians look at the church as a whole they see divisiveness everywhere, and not merely divisiveness but even a history of nasty divisiveness. On the other hand, said Lewis, when atheists look at the church (especially atheists who lack assurance of the truth of atheism) they see a unity, a oneness in truth that has perdured for millennia, a solidity that threatens the atheist and the agnostic. When Christians view the church from the inside they see the disagreement between Roman Catholic worship with its liturgical movement and music, and Quaker worship where everyone sits in silence for a much of the service (if not most) and where the only liturgical act is a handshake between two elders signifying the conclusion of the service. But when non-Christians view the church from the outside, says Lewis, they see enormous commonality: a doctrine of the Incarnation, whose particular historicity embarrasses atheists with a philosophical turn of mind; a conviction concerning original sin that contradicts any and all assumptions about the perfectibility of humankind and progress in the world; an insistence on sacrifice (both Christ’s and the Christian’s) that flies in the face of the notion that happiness is the meaning of life. To an outsider, says Lewis, the church is solid, coherent, stable, durable. It will outlast any assault upon it; its greatest thinkers are the equal of (if not superior to) the thinkers its detractors put forward. And it is this church that guards the truth and hands it on from generation to generation. Any individual who thinks she can do without the church is a fool, for she thinks her wisdom is greater than that of any of her foreparents; she thinks she can do without the communion of saints, that body of believers who will carry her when she is weary or wayward; she thinks she can do without the “great cloud of witnesses”, those Christians who have finished the race ahead of her and urge her never to quit. Any individual who sunders herself from the church commits spiritual suicide.

At the same time, the church must never forget that the church consists of believers, and only individuals can ever believe. The church consists of disciples, and only individuals can ever become disciples.     I am moved whenever I notice again how much of our Lord’s earthly ministry was private. Yes, he certainly addressed multitudes. He addressed them; but he called individuals. He came upon Matthew and said, “I have something else for you to do; come with me.” It didn’t matter that crowds were pressing and multitudes were confused and many were needy; at that moment all that mattered was, “Matthew, come; yes you; come right now.” One day there was a “Bread and Honey Festival” parade through Streetsville; Jesus stopped at the foot of one tree out of thousands and said, “Zacchaeus, birds perch in trees; I have something better than bird-life for you; come with me.” In front of several critical men Jesus allowed a grateful woman to wipe his feet with her hair. A psychiatrist-friend of mine tells me that a woman wiping a man’s feet with her tresses is a highly erotic act. Yet amidst the suspicion and contempt of hostile men Jesus let her do it. And to her alone — alone — he said, “Your sins are forgiven.” And then of course there are our Lord’s numerous conversations, protracted conversations, with individuals: Nicodemus, the woman at the well, plus so many others.

Martin Luther said, “Just as we must each do our own dying, so we must each do our own believing.” Of course we must do our own believing. From page one on of the older testament it’s evident that while God loves the entire creation and while God deals with a people collectively, God speaks only to individuals. Any church which forgets this truth is a church that is nothing more than a social club or a bureaucracy.

It is no wonder, then that the apostle Paul insists, “Now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation.”


                                                                                                 Victor Shepherd                               

June 1997