My prayer partners and I begin each year picking a word we want to learn more about and experience at a deeper level. Last year my word was “gratitude” and boy did it deliver! Knowing myself to be a “glass half-empty” person, I knew I needed to be reminded often that the glass isn’t just half empty … it’s half full! This shift in focus throughout the year enabled me to recognize the many blessings I already had because of God’s love and faithfulness.
My word for 2022, however, isn’t quite as straightforward as gratitude was. This year I’m exploring intimacy. Yes, I know. This word can mean all kinds of things in our culture, some of which are kind of embarrassing and uncomfortable to talk about. Yet this is the word the Holy Spirit gave me, and I’m excited to see what I discover as the year unfolds. Here are just a couple of the questions I’ll be asking: What does it mean to be intimate with others? Why is it important in our day-to-day lives?
In the ’60s we did our best to challenge every institution, assumed value, and virtually anything we’d inherited from our parents’ generation. It was a time of great upheaval, of course, and not everything we explored was helpful in the long run. But one good thing that came out of it was a healthy skepticism. We weren’t afraid to ask the hard questions and explore what really matters in the long run.
Before most of us moved to the city with all its conveniences and options, we produced our food and raised our children on family farms. We shopped at “mom and pop” stores in small towns nearby. We knew nearly all our neighbors and they knew us. We volunteered at our local schools, sports events, and local elections because we cared about the outcomes. And instead of being annoyed when a friend or neighbor dropped by unexpectedly, we were thrilled to be interrupted because back then we weren’t in the middle of watching a series on Netflix.
I’m not saying all this to lament about our lives today (which in many ways are far more convenient and interesting) or to wish that we could return to “the good old days.” I just want us to start asking some hard questions again. Have our lives really improved in ways that matter? In our world of social media, superficial contacts, and rushing from one event to another, are we happier or more fulfilled than in years past? What have we lost in our quest for “more” of everything? How important is it to cultivate and invest in relationships that go deeper than “How are you?” and “Fine. You?”
When we look at our mental health statistics after two years of Covid lockdown, with our kids being unable to attend school, we know we’ve paid a heavy price for our isolation. People of all ages need shared experiences with others that are up close and personal.
At the very beginning, as He was creating the world, God decreed “It is not good for the man to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18) So He placed us in families, communities, and other groups where we can explore together our shared humanity. To know and be known by others requires an investment of our time and energy. It means setting aside some “me” time to include others in our lives. In loving relationships, we feel emotionally connected and supported. We remember that we’re not alone on this planet. We have a purpose beyond being entertained, indulging in our own hobbies and pursuits, and receiving accolades.
God designed us to look after one another. This year I think the Lord is asking me to look for ways to come alongside someone and invest the time to get to know them better, to minister to their needs, and to open myself up to being known by them as well. It’s only through such intentional sharing that we’ll build the kind of intimate connections that truly make a difference for good. It will likely mean fewer contacts that are personal (not through social media)—contacts not focused on any kind of benefit other than just enjoying each other’s company and bearing each other’s burdens.
Learning to connect with other people in a more intimate way, though, begins by building intimacy with the Lord. It is only through His Spirit that we will have the discernment to see the people we need to connect with and only He can supply the love that will enable us to invest in others with the right heart.
Jesus took on flesh so we could know Him–who He is–intimately. And He invites us now to freely share our thoughts, feelings, and challenges with Him. As our great High Priest, He can “sympathize with our weaknesses.” He wants to offer us mercy and grace “to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16)
Unlike with other people, in His presence we can disrobe (be intimate) without fear of rejection or embarrassment. With Him we can cast aside the flimsy coverings we’ve wrapped around ourselves to try to appear independent, strong, wise, and virtuous. We can drop the pretense because He sees through all that and—wonder of wonders—He loves us still! Hebrews 10:22 invites us to “draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings.”
The encounter that Jesus had with Peter following the resurrection shows us just how far Jesus is willing to go to connect with us in an up-close and personal way. While in almost all cases we don’t need to consult the original Greek to understand a biblical passage, this one in John 21 is a rare exception because in English we have only one word for the different kinds of love. Without understanding which Greek words for love are used, we’ll miss the significance of their exchange in John 21:15-17.
The first two times Jesus asks the question, “Do you love me, Peter?” He uses agape, a love that’s unconditional and unlimited. When Peter answers His question, saying, “Yes, I dearly love you, Lord” he uses another word: philo, which describes a human, limited, though genuine, kind of love between close friends. Peter is being brutally honest here. Yes, you know that I love you, Jesus, even if it’s not the kind of love you have towards me. Jesus, out of His tender mercy towards Peter (and all the rest of us), then shifts the word for love in His final question to match the one Peter used (philo). In doing this Jesus is acknowledging the great gulf between our paltry understanding of love and intimacy and His unlimited capacity for it. He’s willing to take what He can get from us, even if it falls far short of His love for us.
Knowing this, I’m going to pursue a more intimate relationship with the Lord Jesus this year, and hopefully learn from Him how to love others better as well. Will you join me in this challenging but rewarding adventure of being up close and personal?
Lord, help me discover what you already know about love and intimacy. Take away my fear of being known and help me to really connect with you and others in a new and better way. In “full assurance of faith” I draw close to you, knowing the infinite love you have for me. Amen.