Is there a difference between “union with God” and “intimacy with God”?
Unpack the etymology of intimacy and you’ll find that it has to do with speaking, announcing, making known. Intimacy means self-disclosure. I tell you who I am. I listen as you tell me who you are. So there seems to be a relationship between intimacy and language. Sure, in human terms we speak of “being intimate” as a code-word for sexual intercourse, but isn’t sexual intimacy a physical expression of words such as “I love you,” “I desire you,” “I want you,” “I give myself to you”?
As we relate to God who is bigger than any material thing, obviously there is no physical expression of intimacy, but this does not mean there is no erotic dimension to intimacy with God. On the contrary. Intimacy with God is not only profoundly erotic, but is indeed the foundation and form of all human eros — the experience of making love, even illicitly, can happen only because of humanity’s essential participation in the eros that emerges from the Divine. God is love, and this means all forms of love. God is desire, God is friendship, God is compassion, God is charity, God is over-flowing self-donation. And God is eager to tell us all about it. And then God waits in silence, eager to hear us tell God all about who we are, and the choices we make, and the dreams we hold dear, and the shames we bury or the fears we try to ignore. And out of this conversation, by this conversation, through this conversation, intimacy happens.
Back to my initial question: is intimacy with God the same thing as union with God? I think union is the summit and completion of intimacy. But even there, language fails us, for intimacy with God is never complete, never perfected, never reaches the final mountaintop. Always there is a higher, more majestic, more splendid peak to scale. Does this mean we never attain union with God? Some have said as much, suggesting that final union with God is attained only after death. I’m not sure I buy that, in that I suspect that eternity will unfold and expand just as surely as space and time do. So perhaps union with God is not merely a telos, but rather, paradoxically, is as much a present reality as a future hope. We are already in union with God, by virtue of being God’s beloved creation and bearing God’s image and likeness and existing in the universe of God’s making. We are so fully immersed in the ocean of Divine Love that we go through most of our days blissfully unaware of this blissful fact. Back to intimacy: God is just waiting for us to slow down and listen long enough so that his Word can get through to us. “Pay attention, or you’ll miss it!” We’ll miss the fact that we are creatures of love. We’ll miss the fact that God’s love for us is bigger than our sin — our resistance and rejection of that love. We’ll miss the fact that we are called to have the Mind of Christ and to partake in the Divine Nature. We’ll miss the fact that we are already in union with God.
We are already in Union with God, and yet, intimacy with God is the glorious, falling-in-love process of rediscovering that union and realizing it in our lives. It is a scary and heady and exhilarating thing. God asks of us nothing less than our entire lives, asking us to surrender to love so that love might transfigure and transform us. How this plays out in each person’s life is as unique as their DNA and life story. Some of us are called to be contemplatives, others mighty activists for justice and peace, others prophets, others artists, others ordinary husbands and wives and mothers and fathers, living quiet lives but lives filled with dignity and hope and joy. The point is, when we become intimate with God — truly listening to God’s word for us, and truly sharing our “word” with God — then things will change. The point behind being transfigured and transformed is that we become more than what we were before. This is somewhat frightening, for it is out of our sphere of control. But if we trust God, let down our armor and let God in, and breathe through our resistance, then the Holy Spirit will take charge and miracles will ensue.
So the experience of intimacy with God is the process by which we realize union with God. It’s a process that never ends, so we never experience final (perfected) union. But the truth is that union has been our birthright all along. We are falling in love for the first time with our lover who has been passionately present with us for all eternity.