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How the theology of union freed me from my exhausting relationship with Jesus

The word “relationship” always had a certain heaviness attached to it. Especially when referring to romantic relationships.

I’m not the best at them, historically speaking. They are sometimes exhausting and they usually involve lots of work. Whenever there is something “off” in a relationship, in my experience, it usually has to do with proximity—there’s something that I’m not doing, or something that I could be doing more of, that is contributing to that sense of “feeling distant.”

One relationship that I know I'm “good” at is the one that I have with my dog. Maybe I’m bad at that, too, but my dog cannot tell me that she feels distant from me because my dog cannot talk. Plus, I know that she feels very close to me because I’m spooning her right now as I write this. It helps me to overcome my self-doubt, I think—to spoon with my dog. Never mind, she got sick of spooning with me and now she’s curling up at the foot of the bed next to my feet. I will probably tell her tomorrow that I feel distant from her, since she rejected me in such a humiliating fashion, since her overall demeanor is marked by such obvious apathy. She will not understand what I tell her. But it is less complicated this way.

Anyway, much like my romantic relationships, when it came to my relationship with God throughout my twenties, I always felt like there was something that I was not doing, or something that I could be doing more of, that was contributing to how distant He felt from me. Of course, I felt that the distance was always my fault. If only I read my Bible consistently or prayed with more intention or actually enjoyed church or read another Francis Chan book or didn’t listen to Green Day all damn day or didn’t curse all the darn-diggity time, then maybe me and Jesus could be close again, just like we were in high school at some of those church conferences or in college at some of those praise and worship concerts. (By the way, in my experience, western Protestantism was more works-based and binding than Catholicism ever was for me. I was always told that the solution to my proximity issues with God was to pray more and read my Bible more. Works.)

A few years ago, I thought about giving it all up.

Not only was I struggling with all those spiritual disciplines, as I always have, but I was also making mistakes in my personal life that I never imagined I would make. Combine all of this with my perfectionistic tendencies, ultra-critical self and performance-based spirituality, and you end up with a cocktail of shame and worthlessness. I drank a lot of those cocktails.

I was miserable. Anxious. Probably depressed. Was following Jesus even healthy? Didn’t seem like it, especially if God was just going to shake his finger at me and make me feel like shit—dung-diggity—all the time.

Would I ever be enough for Him?

One day, around this time, I was at a Starbucks in Charlotte’s South End district. I don't even know why I was there, since I lived 20 minutes away and can think of at least seven Starbucks that would’ve been closer to my apartment. As I was walking back to my seat from the counter, I made eye-contact with a bearded man in the corner. We gravitated toward one another, and before we knew it we were sitting down and having a conversation.

The bearded man’s name was Dave Hickman.

He says that he felt drawn to me because he saw me walking around with a hefty binder full of paper and wondered if I was a writer. Also, by my disheveled and disoriented (and sad) look, I think he could tell that I was. I recognized him because I had heard him preach a few times at CharlotteONE, a weekly gathering of twenty- and thirty-somethings in uptown Charlotte. I always enjoyed his preaching. At the time, he was writing a book himself called Closer Than Close (which was released last week, by the way, which is why I am writing this blog), and he needed some advice and encouragement as he wrote. I agreed to help him, and we met regularly for the next several months to map out the storyline and framework of the book. Dave said that he needed me, but the truth was that I needed him.

Through sharing his story with me—over a candle that was always burning, representing God’s presence, and drinking lots of IPAs—Dave helped me to deconstruct my previous performance-based spiritual paradigm, which had somehow become ingrained in me over the years, possibly because of my perfectionism. He helped me realize that the Christian life was not about doing all these things to maintain a relationship with God—it was about awakening more and more to how united I already was with the divine. At the crux of my humanity was not original sin. It was original blessing. Before Adam sinned, the poem in Genesis tells us that God breathed into Adam, and that's what brought Adam to life. At the core of who I was—my true self—was God’s breath, His ruach, His spirit. Dave writes in Closer Than Close: But not only was Adam designed to be an image bearer of the triune God, Adam was created as an embodied agent—uniquely designed to be filled with and participate in the loving community and intimate communion shared between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Thanks to Dave introducing me to the theology of union, I began to awaken to my inherent fullness and wholeness in my identity as God’s Beloved. It is the truest thing about me: that I am loved by that which is Love. In Dave’s book, after profoundly comparing our union with God to his son Cole’s growing and maturing in the womb of his wife Monica—“abiding in the darkness of the womb of the one with whom he is united”—he continues: Being the beloved of God is not something you do. It’s an internal posture of being. It’s having the faith that somehow, someway, despite what you (and others) think of yourself, you are the utter delight of God the Father. It’s believing that God gets more glory out of your simple presence in life than your steadfast performance. Thanks to Dave introducing me to the theology of union, I began to believe, for perhaps the first time in my life, two gospel truths: that God always loved me and that He was always with me. Emmanuel. I began to reclaim my self-worth. And after years of deconstructing and reconstructing my spiritual paradigm, which was basically cognitive therapy, I began to believe that I really was…enough. Dave continues: The majority of Christians I’ve met over the years believe (either consciously or unconsciously) that God’s delight for them is subject to change day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment—and yes, sin by sin. They may be confident to a degree that God loves and accepts them, but they are less confident that God consistently delights in them no matter what.

Thanks to Dave introducing me to the theology of union, I began to, for perhaps the first time in my life, truly rest in God instead of exhausting myself trying to please Him on my spiritual treadmill, where I ran and ran and ran but never really went anywhere. I actually began to read and pray and meditate more because it helped me to become aware of who I already was in Christ, instead of feeling pressured to prove something or get somewhere. In my favorite section of Closer Than Close, after writing about the spiritual discipline of “doing nothing,” which usually isn’t taught in church, by the way, Dave writes: …the Christian life is less about trying to “press into” a God who is outside of you and more about delving deeper into the reality of the perfect union you already have with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In this way, according to Richard Rohr, the starting point of the spiritual disciplines is one of being “already there.” …It’s a complete paradigm shift. Instead of practicing the spiritual disciplines as an attempt to “draw close” to God or earn his affection, we are free to rest in and savor the perfect union we already have with God. In this way, the Christian life is the ongoing deepening of our awareness, appreciation, and enjoyment of the perfect union we already have with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This deepening is on God’s time and is solely God’s work. Therefore, in the words of my friend and mentor Fil Anderson, “growing spiritually” is like “working on your tan.” There is a work for us to do, but that work is to simply position ourselves so that Christ might do what he natural does—transform us into the likeness of himself. Dave, I’m glad our paths crossed that day in Starbucks. And I’m glad that others have the opportunity to experience, through Closer Than Close, what you have taught me over the years. I recommend your book to all, especially Christians who feel spiritually exhausted or burnt out, or to spiritual seekers who have never been exposed to the theology of union, something that has unfortunately, and tragically, mostly remained in the halls of academia and orthodox theology. You sent me on a mystical journey of discovering what is already true, and I have never felt more free.

By Stephen Copeland

This essay and book review was first published on Closer Than Close can be ordered on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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