Church, Faith, God, Love

Responding to God’s Love

The Word of God can be read as a love story between God and His people. God has shown His love for us through His son, our Lord Jesus Christ (cf. John 3:16; Romans 8:37-39). The imagery and symbolism of marriage is applied to Christ and the body of believers known as the church. In the New Testament, Christ, the Bridegroom, has sacrificially and lovingly chosen the church to be His bride (cf. Ephesians 5:25-27).

Just as there was a betrothal period in biblical times during which the bride and groom were separated until the wedding, so is the bride of Christ separate from her Bridegroom during the church age. Her responsibility during the betrothal period is to be faithful to Him (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 5:24). At the Second Coming of Christ, the church will be united with the Bridegroom, the official “wedding ceremony” will take place and, with it, the eternal union of Christ and His bride will be actualized (cf. Revelation 19:7-9; 21:1-2).

At that time, all believers will inhabit the heavenly city known as New Jerusalem, also called “the holy city” in Revelation 21:2 and 10. The New Jerusalem is not the church, but it takes on the church’s characteristics. In his vision of the end of the age, the Apostle John sees the city coming down from heaven adorned “as a bride,” meaning that the inhabitants of the city, the redeemed of the Lord, will be holy and pure, wearing white garments of holiness and righteousness. Some have misinterpreted verse 9 to mean the holy city is the bride of Christ, but that cannot be because Christ died for His people, not for a city. The city is called the bride because it encompasses all who are the bride, just as all the students of a school are sometimes called “the school.”

In my opinion, no other novel explores the proper basis for a happy marriage better than Thomas Hardy’s fourth novel, Far From the Madding Crowd (1874). A literary analysis could shed some light on the kinds of relationship we should cultivate, and those we should avoid at all costs. It is said: “The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it.” (Proverbs 22:3; 27:12)

It is the story of independent, beautiful and headstrong Bathsheba Everdene who is never satisfied with anything less than a man’s complete and helpless adoration. She captures the lives and loves of three very different men: Gabriel Oak, a sheep farmer who is captivated by her beauty and proposes marriage; William Boldwood, a prosperous man in his early forties and a confirmed bachelor; and Sergeant Frank Troy, a handsome, reckless swordsman given to sudden fits of violence. This timeless story of Bathsheba’s choices and passions explores the nature of relationships and love, and teaches one how to recognise and respond to true and unfaltering love.

Bathsheba’s physical attraction to the broadsword-wielding Troy leads to a disastrous marriage that might have ended in financial ruin. A marriage to the wealthy, strait-laced Boldwood, to whom she is bound only by feelings of guilt and obligation, would have meant emotional suffocation. Gabriel Oak is her colleague, friend, and advocate. He offers her true comradeship and sound farming skills; and, although she initially spurns him, telling him she doesn’t love him, he turns out to be the right man to make her happy.

Troy is like a thief who comes only to steal and kill and destroy (John 10:10). Bathsheba soon discovers that her new husband is an improvident gambler with little interest in farming. Worse, she begins to suspect that he does not love her. In fact, Troy’s heart belongs to his former servant, Fanny Robin. Before meeting Bathsheba, Troy had promised to marry Fanny; on the wedding day, however, the luckless girl went to the wrong church. She explained her mistake, but Troy, humiliated at being left waiting at the altar, angrily called off the wedding. When they parted, unbeknownst to Troy, Fanny was pregnant with his child.

Boldwood is a prosperous farmer of about 40, whose ardour Bathsheba unwittingly awakens when – her curiosity piqued because he has never bestowed on her the customary admiring glance – she playfully sends him a valentine sealed with red wax on which she has embossed the words, “Marry me”. Boldwood, not realising the valentine was a jest, becomes obsessed with Bathsheba and soon proposes marriage. Although she does not love him, she toys with the idea of accepting his offer; he is, after all, the most eligible bachelor in the district. It is said: “Those who love money will never have enough. How meaningless to think that wealth brings true happiness!” (Ecclesiastes 5:10)

Gabriel Oak is a young shepherd. With the savings of a frugal life, and a loan, he has leased and stocked a sheep farm. He falls in love with Bathsheba. Bathsheba comes to like Gabriel well enough, and even saves his life once, but when he makes her an unadorned offer of marriage, she refuses; she values her independence too much and him too little.

Throughout her tribulations, Bathsheba comes to rely increasingly on her oldest and (as she admits to herself) only real friend, Gabriel. When he gives notice that he is leaving her employ for California, she finally realises how important he has become to her well-being. That night, she goes alone to visit him in his cottage, to find out why he is (in her eyes) deserting her. Pressed, he reluctantly reveals that it is because people have been injuring her good name by gossiping that he wants to marry her. She exclaims that it is “…too absurd – too soon – to think of, by far!” He bitterly agrees that it is absurd, but when she corrects him, saying that it is only “too soon”, he is emboldened to ask once again for her hand in marriage. She accepts, and the two are quietly wed.

Like Bathsheba, we are sometimes too proud and willful to recognise what true love is. The same applies to our relationship with Christ, the Bridegroom. As Christians, do we know that we are the bride of Christ? Do we respond to His deep and abiding love for us? Do we wait with great anticipation for the day when we will be united with our Bridegroom?

Let the hymn “Only A Shadow” remind us that our love for God is only a shadow of His love for us:

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