Julian Hardyman, Jesus, Lover of my Soul: Fresh Pathways to Spiritual Passion (IVP, 2020)
‘So why do you insist that sex should be reserved for a marriage relationship between a man and a woman?’ It’s a question we get asked lots. We could accurately reply, ‘Because the Bible says so.’ But increasingly our answer has been that sex is designed to be a picture of something bigger – a trailer pointing to the ultimate, eternal, union-in-difference relationship of Christ and the Church.
That can’t simply be an answer to a question, though. Nor can it just be about the future. If it is to help us to live in line with Jesus’ teaching on sexuality now, it needs to be a conscious and glorious experience in the present. We need to live with a sense of being engaged to Jesus. That’s why Julian Hardyman’s book is so valuable.
We need to live with a sense of being engaged to Jesus.
The theme of same-sex attraction doesn’t appear at all in Jesus, Lover of My Soul. But, drawing on the Song of Songs, it gives ‘extended treatment to the idea that Jesus loves us with the passion of a man for a woman’ (p.xiii) and encourages us to pursue intimacy with Christ. The opening chapter explains the purpose of the book: ‘I have written this book because Jesus as the Lover of our souls is one of the greatest pictures God has given us for his love, because many Christians hardly understand it, and because it has great power to take us deeper in our relationship with him’ (p.9). The book has depth as it draws on theologians from across the centuries but is also delightfully warm and readable.
Julian spends part of his time justifying his reading of Song of Songs. He points to the way in which the images of the song are used elsewhere of Christ – the Shepherd/Bridegroom/King. He offers an overview of the Bible showing how marriage is employed as a picture of God and his people. And he notes how the title of the book speaks of this as the ultimate song, and for that to be limited to human romantic love would be idolatrous. The greatest love in the universe must come from God.
Much of that was relatively familiar to me – it is my standard Living Out talk! But there are ways in which this book feels fresh. I love the way in which Julian shows how employing the bridegroom imagery enlivens our spiritual lives. For instance, he takes some of the man’s words to the woman in Song of Songs 2:15, ‘Show me your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet and your face is lovely’, and applies it to our practice of reading the Bible and praying. Jesus wants to meet with us. Julian writes an imaginary conversation where we reply that we are too busy to spend time with Jesus and he keeps saying to us ‘Show me your face’ (p.5). It is powerful, joyful and far removed from a dead discipline. Elsewhere, we are encouraged to make the most of the image of the lovers in a beautiful garden and to apply that to our union with Jesus. These images fire the imagination – helpful if a walk with Christ has become cold.
Whilst not talking about same-sex attraction, the book does have plenty of encouragements for those who are single (which isn’t necessarily guaranteed in a book on the Song of Songs): ‘If you have Christ’s love and don’t have the relationships of intimacy, married or otherwise, in this life, you are still infinitely more than someone who is happily married with children and lots of friends’ (p.18). And, though this isn’t easy, there is a helpful reminder that ‘Christ changes loneliness into solitude with him’ (p.131).
The book is realistic. Love doesn’t always run smoothly in Song of Songs – at times distance creeps in between the lovers. The same is true of our relationship with Jesus. Like the woman in the song, there are times when Jesus comes knocking on our door and we refuse to give him access. Picking up this theme there are a couple of chapters in the book about pornography and how it impacts the relationship with our ultimate lover. One of the reasons to avoid porn is because it gets in the way of the intimacy we can have with Jesus. Julian helpfully quotes one person’s testimony as they realised this: ‘God made me realise that my choice was not simply between looking at porn and not. It was between desiring Jesus who would satisfy and desiring something else which wouldn’t’ (p.127).
Throughout, the point is made that so often our longings in this world are disappointed. That should encourage us to seek fulfilment of them in Christ. And this is particularly the case when we think about the end of life. ‘Love is as strong as death,’ says Song of Songs 8:6. Julian ends the book by pointing to the superiority of Jesus’ love over any human love, for it is only Jesus’ love that breaks the power of death.
I spend much of my life arguing that marriage must be male-female because of the picture of Christ and the Church. But Song of Songs and this very helpful accompaniment enable me to enjoy that reality, to believe that the Bible’s teaching is good and to find intimacy with the Lover of my Soul. There aren’t many better commendations than that.