This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.
We Were Made to Be Close
In this episode of The Crossway Podcast, Ed Welch, author of Created to Draw Near: Our Life as God’s Royal Priests, discusses the human need for relationship, both with God and with other people. He reflects on the epidemic of loneliness in our world today, what the Bible teaches us about our identity as priests unto God, and offers advice for the person who feels God is distant or even frustrated with them.
Topics Addressed in This Interview
- The Loneliness Epidemic
- The Internet’s Role
- Scripture and the Significance of Relationship
- Old Testament Priests
- The Priesthood Culminating in Jesus
- Intimacy and Our Relationship to God
- Closeness to God Despite Sin
- Advice for When God Feels Distant
The Loneliness Epidemic
There have been a lot of studies over the last few years, and even in the last year or so, related to increasing rates of loneliness and depression among people in the US. Some have connected that to things like social media and other factors about our busy digital, connected lives that could exacerbate that. s a counselor meeting with people on a regular basis, talking with them, teaching other people how to counsel others in their lives—have you seen this increase in loneliness, feelings of isolation, and depression in terms of the conversations you've been having?
I don't think we need studies to point us in that direction. We can know those things from our own experience and from our own conversations. For example, conversations I've had with neighbors over the years who say they've moved into the area, they know no one in the area, and they are frantically trying to find some way to connect. There are websites that can connect you if you want to date, but if you have a family or you're alone there are no websites that connect you to like-minded families or larger organizations. So we can talk to our neighbors and we have that experience. I can look at my own life. I'm married and have been married for a number of years and I enjoy my wife. One of the features of our relationship is that my wife cannot leave me for longer than 10 days, or I leave her for longer than 10 days, because I start to get physically sick if that happens. And what is it? I have a community—I have a church community—that is such a rich community, but when there's that loss of that primary person in my life I experience it emotionally as a loss. But not only do I experience it emotionally, my body rebels and says, "I reject this particular isolation and she must come back."
it seems like some of the things I've been reading recently indicate that this “loneliness epidemic”, as it's often phrased, is really worse—maybe more pronounced—among men, and young men in particular. What do you think is behind that? Why are men struggling in this regard, maybe more acutely, than most women would be?
Certainly when you listen to women speak with one another there does tend to be a fairly natural sharing of lives. And oftentimes there's a natural compassion where someone speaks and they share something difficult and there's a response of care and compassion. When you hear male conversations, they are of a different quality. A man is not going to be speaking of something especially difficult in his life, and if he happens to venture just a little something of the troubles of his life it will rarely be met with compassion. So the question you're asking is Why might that be? I don't know why that is. But certainly it seems to be an observation that goes through cultures, not simply our particular culture. But you go to other cultures and you find the same phenomena. Perhaps there's something about weakness in sharing things that are hard and we are unskilled in speaking about weakness. For those of us in the church, perhaps we think we're not authorized to speak of our weakness.
The Internet’s Role
How much of this issue would you say is related to the rise of the internet, and social media in particular? It seems like there was an early day when we were all naive about social media and kind of believed the promise that it would connect us more deeply to people that we, in our normal everyday lives face-to-face, wouldn't really have a chance to interact with as much, and kind of keep us closer to our relatives and friends living far away. But it seems like there's a growing awareness that it might actually be doing the opposite: exacerbating our loneliness. Do you think there's any truth to that? Have you noticed that in your own life or in the lives of those you’re counseling?
That's a great question. Are there possibilities in social media or digital technologies for meaningful connection? I think it's possible but it doesn't seem like it's happening yet. So what you're identifying, Matt, is we have a problem. It's not a new one. It seems more palpable. We're more aware of it than we were before. We’re not always sure what to do with it. And one of the things that Scripture does is it stands ready to say, "Well, let me tell you a story about that." And if loneliness is something that we experience, then we are primed to be able to hear some of the greatest stories of Scripture. Scripture is just waiting and enveloping us and inviting us in.
Scripture and the Significance of Relationship
Speak to that a little bit more because I think we see—whether it's from psychological perspectives, or biological perspectives, social perspectives, but also from Scripture itself and from a distinctly Christian theological perspective—we seem to be wired for relationship with other people and ultimately with God. Speak to where we see that in Scripture and what the real significance of relationship is for human life and human flourishing.
The creation story has us on the edge of our seat. It's a very short account and so everything is important. And then you hear the Lord saying, "It's good. That's good. That's good. That's good." And I think the first "it's not good" is when it identifies a human as being alone. So the fact that that's identified so early in Scripture is important. Scripture is saying, "Watch this theme unfold. This is the nature of humanity." So that's the overt place where we can move into Scripture. That's a clear door. The less clear door, but in some ways even richer and more primary, is when the Lord introduces the Garden to us and he walked with his people in the garden. The picture there is heaven and earth have met, and this is the house of God on earth, and this is what God does. This is his created intent: that we would be with him. And what's evoked in Genesis is that idea of God walking in the Garden. And that might not be evocative of close relationships for all of us, but I'll speak personally for me when I think of intimacy with my wifeother than sexual intimacy—I think of two locations. One would be a meal together where you're not doing anything else. You're not preoccupied. You're occupied with the person you're speaking with. No other distractions. There's something very personal and intimate about a good meal with someone you love. The other would be going for a walk. And certainly in my relationship with my wife, it does have those Edenic overtones where we are knowing each other, we are focused on one another, but then we have that added feature where in the meal it's food that adds a certain beauty to what you're doing, and in a walk creation adds that beauty. It's just this ideal background for intimacy. So those are the places where we see it unfold and they're the introductions. They're the doors into the fact that we are not alone. But what I like about the Garden is the Lord is saying to us, "Here's your design. Your design is that you would be close to me, and that will be your primary relationship, and in this being the primary prototypical relationship, this is going to have its analogies in your other human relationships."
Old Testament Priests
It seems like the story culminates in the gospel—in Christ bringing us back to God through himself and in this marriage—this ultimate picture of intimacy that we have with Christ. Can you explain how that fits into the broader theme of intimacy with God?
Let me offer the slow version in answering your question. One of the things I really have appreciated over the last few years is how the role that God gives us as priest—which sounds a little bit boring on the surface of it—is a prominent one in Scripture. If indeed the Garden was a tabernacle then we are children-priests unto the Lord. And so then as we follow this story, the Lord is committed to bringing his house to the earth, and it's evidenced in the tabernacle, in the wilderness, and then in the Jerusalem temple. And he's saying to us that I want to teach you and make my house available to you. I want to show you how you can come into my house.
And so what do we do? We see his house, we see the tabernacle, we the walls and the skins, and we come to the entrance and we can make out the structure that looks very much like our own tents, but we have to go through the altar. You have to pass the altar to be able to come closer. We see that our sins have separated us from him and when he invites you to his house, he will be the one to be the priest who deals with our sins. And so then you move farther in and you have the laver, which is evoked in John 13 with Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. It's this act of freshening up before we move into God's house and then we're invited further and further in. And the role of a priest was to come further and further and further in. And on the one hand you have only one priest who can go further in once a year into the holy of holies. On the other hand you have the books of Moses say you are a treasured possession, you are a nation of priests.
So is it a nation that has priests in it or is the entire nation a nation of priests? And I think as you get the gist of the Old Testament clearly it's not just the priests, because Moses wasn't an Aaronic priest and he obviously met with the Lord. And the Passover, which preceded the priestly roles in the Old Testament wilderness, was done in your home. You were priests who essentially presented the sacrifice, and the Lord would hover over you, which is another way of saying he would he would pause and bring life to that home. So it's very much a priestly setting.
So the the tradition in the Old Testament that gets brought into the New Testament is that we are priests unto the Lord. And the priestly task is funneled into a particular Aaron group for a period because it's ultimately going to be culminated in the person of Christ. And then when it gets to Christ it becomes redistributed to us all and we are all invited into the holy of holies. We are even stones that make up the holy of holies.
Now to move into the bridal imagery that you speak of—it’s Exodus 28 where, as you read along, the words “dignity” and “honor” are, for the first time, applied to human beings. And it says, “Make these garments for the priests and it will give dignity and honor to the person who wears it.” And the Lord himself is the designer of these garments. And they are exquisite. They are these beautiful garments. And so this clothing motif is now begun in Scripture in earnest. And as you follow this theme throughout the Old Testament, it goes through a few different alterations. In Isaiah, they have a warrior look to them. As we move on through Scripture, these garments ultimately morph into bridal garments, which continue the priestly tradition. When you wear priestly garments, you are invited close to the Lord. And now the picture is being fulfilled in perhaps the most profound intimacy that we’re aware of—the intimacy of a husband of a wife. But what I’m suggesting is that the priestly dressing of Exodus 28 is actually the precursor.
Old Testament Priests
The whole idea of a priest can feel a little bit foreign to us. I think that can conjure in our minds Roman Catholicism and some of the things that the Reformers perhaps were rebelling against saying, "No, all Christians are priests". But even as we think about the Old Testament, I think there is something cultural and related to our moment today in how we generally think about God. We think of God as someone that we can very easily approach and he's just going to forgive us. He's kind and loving and that's just kind of the broader cultural view of God. And so I think the idea of a priest being a necessary intermediary almost can feel like we're set apart from God, we're divided from God. But you're saying that when you take a perspective from the Old Testament—a perspective of what the Bible actually tells us about ourselves—priests were there to help bring us to God, to draw us closer to God, and let us enter in his house.
They were mediators in a sense, but they were also representatives where when the priest went into the holy of holies, the priests were us. We were represented in at least two different ways in the priestly robes. So in that sense he's not so much a mediator, he is standing for us all looking forward to the day when there wouldn't be just jewels on his ephod that represented us. We would actually be in there with him. I think what you're raising is a question, If indeed one of the most prominent roles that we as human beings live out is the role of the priest, if that's true, then why does it seem to disappear from the New Testament era? And I think there are various reasons for that. The priests as a whole seem to be a fairly antagonistic group to Jesus. So you only have a handful of references to priests in the New Testament. Peter seems to like them: "We are a royal priesthood", and "We are priests unto the Lord." So you see those references to priests from Peter, but what the New Testament does is, rather than use the the name "priest", with its more gender-exclusive implications, we are now called “saints” which is really the essence of being a priest. A saint is a “holy one”. And a holy one is—in the Jewish way of making distinctions—you are unclean, or you are clean, or you are holy. And they're all distances from the Lord. The unclean were the farthest away. The clean could come closer. But the holy was the group that uniquely belonged to the Lord. They were the ones who said "my God." And so what the New Testament does is it replaces the word "priest" with the real essence of being a priest which is that we are "holy ones". That's what "saint" means. And that seems to be our predominant role that goes throughout the Epistles. I think 60 or more times we are identified as saints.
The Priesthood Culminating in Jesus
I'm struck by what the author of Hebrews says in chapter six about Christ being our high priest and having gone into the holy of holies in the inner place behind the curtain and having offered a sacrifice once for all. So it is interesting to see the priest idea culminate in Jesus and then we, in connection to him, are, as you mentioned Peter saying, a nation of priests.
And so what does that mean? Primarily it means that we follow the high priest. We follow him beyond the veil into the very inner apartment of his house. And we have fellowship with him. But you're also, Matt, sort of hinting that one of the perks of the priestly role was the priests were the ones who were given direction to bless the people. I'm thinking of Numbers 6 where it says, "The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord turn his face to you and be gracious to you. The Lord turn his face to you and give you peace." That is one of the premiere features of the priestly job description. So what do we do? We move in. We nestle in close. We have a meal with our God. We know intimacy that extends beyond what we can imagine. We are now in Christ and we are drawn into the very triune God himself. So we are drawn in closer than we can imagine. And obviously in that closeness it's not just us individually in Christ. It's us in Christ individually and corporately. We are united with each other. We're drawn in. But at the same time, the priestly role is now sending us out into the world and in the word "blessing" we speak life. That's our job. And so what do we do? We speak the good news. The gospel is good news. It's life. And so we have this privilege of being able to, as those who have gone into the holy of holies, speak life to those who know of it and we can invite them to come further in. We can speak life to those who never dreamed that life was possible and invite them in.
Intimacy and Our Relationship to God
Yeah. That's so beautiful. You've used the word "intimacy" a number of times in reference to our relationship with God and what we were created to do. And I think for many of us that word might carry certain connotations to it. It seems like, as you already referenced, one of the dominant contexts for talking about intimacy is sexual intimacy between a husband and a wife. And that's the primary way that we think about it. Why do you think that word is important and what do you mean by that word when it comes to talking about our relationship to God?
You're catching me. I didn't know I used "intimacy" that often. And if I use it it probably for me is a marital analogy because—I was married when I was 26—the personal experience of intimacy was foreign to me until I had a growing relationship with my wife. So I probably am relying on a marital image when I say "intimacy". But since this is so important, it doesn't depend on any particular word. People talk about fellowship, or people talk about communion. And probably the imagery that I think of more self-consciously is distance. The distance imagery where God is the one who says to us, "Come closer. Come closer. Come closer. No, closer yet. Come closer." Those who are far away are brought near, and nearer than we could possibly imagine. And there are other ways we describe it, but that is an image that is reflected throughout Scripture. And it's an image that has captured me.
Let me put it this way: that he calls us to be close. He says, "Draw near." As he draws near to us, he invites us to draw near to him. And then when we get this larger story of how this is all his initiative, we realize that he does not reluctantly invite us to draw near, nor does he reluctantly come near to us. This is his very desire. This is his inclination. This is what he wants to do. And of course we can be belligerent and incorrigible children who want to go our own way. Yet the desire of God is to be close to his people. That has been the heart of this larger study for me that has been so encouraging: that the Lord wants me close. He delights in us being close to him and he being close to us. It is his very will. It's his intention.
Closeness to God Despite Sin
Are there moments from your life when you think you've had to relearn that or that you've struggled to believe that—that God does want you close personally despite all of your flaws and sins?
I'm trying to think, is there a day I don't need that? I'm probably fairly normal on this where my weaknesses, my failures, my sins, my lukewarmness cause me to doubt that God wants to be near to me. I was reading 1 Peter chapter one and that wonderful—it's almost poetic—introduction that he has: "Though you have not seen him, you love him." And he talks about us being filled with exceeding joy as we are receiving the very goal that we had—the rescue of our souls, being rescued and drawn into the Lord. I can read that and ask, “Does my love measure up to Peter's?” I don't know all my faults and sins by any means, but I don't have to know many of them to get a pretty keen sense that why would even a human being want to be close to me? So why would the holy God want to be close? So I would say for me this is a refreshing daily reminder.
Advice for When God Feels Distant
So what advice would you offer to the Christian listening right now who, if he or she was being totally honest, would have to admit that God feels pretty distant right now? Maybe they may even think that he's probably perpetually frustrated with them, if not downright angry with them. They believe the gospel, but they feel distant. What would you say to that person?
Some of the Psalms come immediately to mind. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" I would say, “Welcome to the human experience that we can feel very far from the Lord.” Jesus Christ can feel far from his Father. He cites that particular Psalm (Psalm 22:2). So speak to him. Speak to him about it and just tell him what is on your heart. But don't stop there. At some point move into the very Psalm itself—whether it's Psalm 22, or a more forgotten Psalm—here are two or three of them that are easy to move into. As we follow the Psalmists, they move us to a knowledge of the God who has made promises, the God who is faithful even when we're faithless, and the God who comes close. So speak your own words to the Lord and then if you're stuck at that point and you don't know where to go, then ride the coattails of the Psalmists and let them move you to speaking about your God. And then simply pray, "Lord, if this is all true, if this is indeed our design, if you've created me to come close and you draw near, then teach me. Teach me. Show me. Open my eyes so I can see these things." What do we do? We start talking to the Lord. That's the way to begin.
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