We’re on the leading edge of a long weekend here (Monday is Memorial Day in the United States). I’m the last to leave my office today; the boss gave us all the afternoon off, but I decided to stay a while, to read and write in the quiet. It’s not, I’m sad to say, as quiet within me as it is around me. So much to do! So much to catch up on! And why?
Misunderstanding Why God Loves Us
Christianity’s chief heresy down through the ages has been legalism: seeking to earn favor with God by what we do. It’s a Christian fault because it’s a very human fault. What confusion surrounds this whole matter! We don’t understand unconditional love as God offers it. We want to earn his love; we want to be the sort of thing that could earn his love. We want to show that we deserve his love, that he owes it to us, for the special things we do in particular. We are, in fact worthy, but not by our own works or goodness. We are worthy because he has deemed us so.
There is — though this is dangerous to say — something of a paradoxical insult in the way God loves us.
If we could stand before him and say “thank you very much, God, for your love, and of course everyone can certainly see what I’ve done to earn it”—if we could say that, then that would be something to be proud of. That’s not the way it is. One might almost say it’s regrettable that’s not the way it is, except for this: for us to be able to face him that way, God would have to be shrunk down to our size. He would no longer be the object of our worship but the subject of our manipulation.
Legalism As Manipulation
And I think to a great extent that’s actually what legalism is about. It’s about manipulating God, trying to get on his good side, so that we can get good things from him or feel good and special about ourselves. It’s about controlling God, or at least our relationship with him. Even a teenager can sense manipulation a mile away, though. How much more do you suppose God will see it and resist it?
But here’s the astonishing thing: though we try to shrink God to our size so we can impress him — and how God must laugh at that! — yet he emptied himself, and in a sense shrunk himself down to our size. He was born a babe in a stable, grew up in a craftsman’s home, wandered for a few years and taught a small band of followers. In the course of all this he met two kinds of responses: those who insisted on being impressive before him, he defeated by argument and by his works. Those who saw the grandeur of God in him, he set on a course toward a Kingdom.
The Humility of Being Loved
He still says that those who humble themselves before him will be lifted up. For many of us, the hardest part of that is knowing it is because of his own goodness, not ours, that he gives us his love. We need not earn it; we could never earn it. But for those who want real love, it’s there in abundance, without measure and with only the condition that we accept it on his terms and not on our own.
Yes, of course there is an answer to the “why” question I opened with. Understanding God’s love, and that we cannot earn it by our work we still work because it is good to do so, to be fruitful and productive, to serve, and obviously to make a living. God worked for six days and rested on the seventh; we work to follow God’s own example.
But our work is not a way of scrabbling toward the light of God’s love. It is a way of basking in that light.