I have never experienced greater pain than hearing “no” from someone I loved. Friends have heard “no” from spouses and that “no” never changed. Remarriage made reconciliation impossible, forever impossible, and these friends had to go on with life.
The hardest “no” I ever heard plunged me into depression and pain. There was no happy ending to that particular story; there could be no happy ending to that particular story. Love, however, found a way to heal me. The particular pain left scars, but the scars attracted the pity. Pity gave me hope and hope led me to a new love.
Old loves have to die in the face of a “no” so that new loves can be born.
We only have analogies to understand the love of God. In his new book dealing with the after life, Rob Bell suggests that the best story of love is one that never gives up . . . that never takes “no” as “no”– but this is quite wrong. The best lover allows the beloved to go and knows that sometimes “no” is forever.
It is no accident that the possibility of hell fell out of favour in the Victorian church. The notion of love in that time was cloying and endless. It was the Mother’s prayers that did not just follow you, but beat you into submission with their demands. It was the long-suffering wife who would take beatings and cheating and still not hear the “no.”
Love that will not take “no” for an answer, that never gives up, is not love, but an attempt at tyranny. Sometimes “no” just means “no” and time cannot heal certain wounds, because the beloved marries someone else and ends the possibility of reconciliation.
The woman whose husband leaves, emotionally or physically or both, may long for love, but he has said “no.” If she persists, then she is not showing her love for her husband, but an unwillingness to love him enough to accept his choice for evil. God hates divorce, but was willing to get one when His Chosen people found “better” divine lovers.
Power, even omnipotence, is useless to the lover in the face of intransigence. In the novel Jane Eyre, Jane is unwilling to break the laws of God despite her passion for Rochester. Rochester knows he could take her body–Jane is unable to stand against him–but he wants her voluntary love. He longs for her soul and the soul can only be given freely.
Jane can make him bleed inside and all his wealth and power are nothing. In the same way, humanity can wound God, horrible thought, not because we have any power in ourselves, but because God loves us. God’s love is not a power we have over God so much as a possibility of pain that God has embraced.
Humanity knows it can scar God, because we will see the scars we gave Him at the End of All Things. A God who will take nails in His hands is also willing to have His heart scarred and we see that permanent pain given Him every day. We see it in every injustice we do to His children. We see it every time we love things more than Him.
We cannot change the past. Omnipotence cannot change the past. What was will always be and so the Lover is scarred, but those scars become the marks of new birth. God transforms our rejection into glory and His suffering, His Cross, into greater love.
He accepts our “no” and if we persist in it allows it to stand and uses that “no” to turn to the greatest love of all: the love within the Triune Persons of the Trinity. He did not love us because we deserved it or because He had no other person to love. Our rejection only directs Him down the best path to the greatest love of all: the love of each person of the Trinity for each other. The pain of the Son glorifies Him to the Father and our rejection of the Spirit grants the Spirit greater glory in the eternal procession from the Father.
“No” meaning “no” can lead to greater romance even if the scars remain.
Trollope, the greatest of Victorian novelists, understood true romance. Rare is the book where he fails to show that this is the best of all possible worlds and that happy endings, however unlikely, are almost always possible. Almost always. But Trollope does not always give the reader what he wants, because Trollope loves his reader enough to say “no” even if only once to our desires.
His best character was a woman named Lilly Dale. Miss Dale was badly hurt by a young man and she was never able to let go of her pain. We are introduced to another man she should have married, could have married, if she had not been changed by life. Through book after book, Miss Dale never marries him and in the end Trollope kills any hope they will get together.
Miss Dale has chosen happiness without marriage and there is no going back after a certain point. She has become the sort of woman who should not marry. There is no hope, because she has no capacity left for that kind of love. If her choice was bad, it was her choice and she became as happy as she could be within that choice.
Her lover accepted that and accepted that this meant he too would live a different life. He was strong enough to know that her “no” really did mean “no.” The lover, no matter how powerful, cannot control his own destiny, but in loving has given his plans over to the will of another.
It is not a sign of God’s weakness that we can hurt Him, but of His love for us.
I would never wish any particular person to be damned forever. Reason, revelation, and romance tell me that sometimes “no” means “no” and we are changed by that answer forever. When does this happen? That is for wiser heads than mine to say, but happen it must.
Sometimes “no” means “no.”
John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute, and Professor of Philosophy at Biola University. In 1996 he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Rochester. John Mark Reynolds can be found blogging regularly at Scriptorium Daily.
Publication date: March 25, 2011