Gifts of Love

The Gospel reading for this second Sunday in Lent is the story of Nicodemus, a religious leader who is curious about Jesus and comes to him looking for understanding. It ends with some of the most famous words of the New Testament: “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that all who believe in him would not perish, but have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3.16-17). It speaks to the gratuitous gift of God’s grace that is offered to those who trust in what God has accomplished in and through Jesus. In many ways, Julian of Norwich’s writings are all about this theme of God’s loving generosity in Christ and his passion. Today I’d like to look at two examples of this in her writings: three gifts that God gives to whose who seek God; and three types of knowledge we should pursue.

In the midst of her reflection on how as far as God is concerned seeking God is just as good as seeing God, she talks about three gifts that God gives to seekers: diligent joy in seeking, patience, and trust. In her words:

It is God’s will that we receive three things from him as gifts as we seek: The first is that we seek willingly and diligently without sloth, as that may be with his grace, joyfully and happily, without unreasonable depression and useless sorrow. The second is that we wait for him steadfastly, out of love for him, without grumbling and contending against him, to the end of our lives, for that will last only for a time. The third is that we have great trust in him, out of complete and true faith, for it is his will that we know that he will appear, suddenly and blessedly, to all his lovers. (Ch 10)*

Anyone who has been in the position of waiting for God or trying to understand what God is doing in their life (that is, pretty much everyone who has ever tried to live in faith) can relate to the importance of these three things. The first is really a protection against bitterness and cynicism. It’s about the capacity to stay hopeful and joyous as we seek and long for God or to see God’s hand at work in our lives. The second is about the patience and perseverance required to seek God for the long-haul, to keep our attempts at faithfulness from being a passing fad or dilettantism. And the third is the stubborn trust that, even if we don’t understand what God is doing, that God is doing something — and that something is for our good.

On a personal note, these three gifts (particularly as gifts) resonate strongly with me. Joy, perseverance, and trust are not particular areas of strength for me. Left to my down devices, with all the setbacks, disappointments, and sharp left turns my life has taken, I know I’d have given up on God a long time ago. And I’m certainly not unique in that, for those frustrations are to some extent simply normal life. The life of faith is a marathon, not a sprint, for even the most fortunate among us. (I wish I’d figured that out when I was seventeen, but just how long life is is not something the young are capable of understanding!) And so the fact that I’m still here, praying, seeking God, reading the Scriptures, searching for a community of fellow-disciples, is testament to these gifts of God’s grace that Julian is talking about.

The marathon of the life of faith provides us many things itself: wisdom, perspective, and understanding to name but three. The second trio of gifts I’d like to look at today from Julian speak to this: three types of knowledge that are important for the life of faith: “The first is that we know our Lord God. The second is that we know ourselves, what we are through him in nature and in grace. The third is that we know humbly that our self is opposed to our sin and to our weakness” (Ch 72). (Further to yesterday’s post, notice how none of these involve knowing God’s plans for the future or knowing about our neighbour’s sins!)

Knowing God is a very big topic (as I learned the hard way when an intended six-part series here on the blog on the subject in 2019 grew into a thirty-eight-part series that still barely scratched the surface!). It’s not simply about Peak Religious Experiences, whether mysterious and theophanous or mystical and prayerful. Such experiences can help to be sure, but you don’t ever leave them with full knowledge of God or as a sinless, spotless creature. Rather they are moments which punctuate and reveal the difficult and discouraging seasons in between. When God appeared to Abraham promising he’d be the father of many nations, that wasn’t the end of Abraham’s journey of faith, it was the beginning. It was decades before it actually came to pass, and even that was challenged and fraught. Or when Moses saw God in the Burning Bush, that was his moment of calling to a seemingly impossible vocation: standing up against the most powerful force in the known world to free his people. Or, more to the point, Julian did not leave her sixteen visions knowing everything there was to know about them — far less did she know God completely. It took her decades of study and reflection and prayer for her to digest what she’d seen.

Similarly, knowing ourselves is the work of a life time. As we’ll see later in this series, Julian even says that it is easier to know God than to know one’s own heart (Ch 56). Many of us don’t have much of an interior life at all (Taylor Swift summarized much of humanity well in her song “Anti-Hero” when she sings, “I’ll stare directly at the sun but never in the mirror”), and even the most thoughtful and introspective among us are constantly discovering new, long-hidden, aspects of our personality. And what is even more difficult is the third kind of knowledge Julian mentions: “that our self is opposed to our sin and our weakness.” This is the fundamental question of identity raised by simultaneously wanting what we don’t want and wanting what we don’t want. It’s actually a fascinating comment from Julian, as this understanding of the true self as that which is unencumbered by what Christians call ‘sin’ was a core concept for C.G. Jung’s psychology. And, Christians over the centuries have touched on this through the idea of our creation in the image and likeness of God, an image which is restored fully in the person of Christ. But again, as Paul knew well, this struggle between the true self and false self is unending (Romans 7.15-20).

So then, all of these gracious gifts of knowledge are the work of a life time, and a substantial part of the life of faith. But we are not left on our own in all this. And that’s the point Julian is making. All this is a gift from God, who renews us ‘from above’, as Jesus puts it to Nicodemus. “God so loved the world…” and this loving God offers us gifts of joy, perseverance, and trust in our times of seeking, and the truest wisdom of the knowledge of God, knowledge of self, and knowledge that our truest self is aligned fully with God’s purposes.

May we all receive these gifts with thankfulness and love.


* Unless noted, all quotes are taken from the long text of Julian or Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love as translated and set in Julian of Norwich, Showings, translated by Edmund Colledge and James Walsh. The Classics of Western Spirituality. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978.

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