Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.
If God loves us so much, so much that God will forgive anything that we do, then we can do anything we want, right?
In the early Church, this line of thinking had become popular in some circles. The rationale was that if God’s grace is what cancels sin in our lives, then the more we sin, the more we experience God’s grace. And since God’s grace is a good thing, a lot of sin must surely be good too! And so Paul writes, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? …count yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus… For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace” (Romans 6:1-2, 11 & 14).
Law, of course, refers to the Old Testament patterns of sin and righteousness. In those days God had spelled out, in the Ten Commandments, clear standards for right living. Most of them are pretty obvious: don’t worship idols, don’t murder, don’t steal and so on. But of course, there are all kinds of subtle situations where something may or may not be acceptable, so over time these Ten Commandments grew into several hundred – detailed, specific and neatly defined standards for righteous living. If you kept all of these, you were okay with God. If not, you had to make amends.
These laws were hard to keep, because there were so many and they were so detailed. But if you knew them, then keeping the law was not that difficult – you just had to avoid those specific behaviours and, no matter what else you did, you were righteous. By emphasising the letter of the law, the defined behavioural standards, it was quite possible to be rotten in the heart but outwardly righteous. There were people like this.
Jesus called such men whitewashed tombs. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matthew 23:27-28).
Strong words indeed! And perhaps true of you and me. It is much easier to focus on the specifics of external behaviour, like not swearing at church or coming to church drunk, than on the heart, like not thinking greedy or angry thoughts, or forgiving someone who has hurt us.
Jesus proceeded to raise the standards even higher, by emphasising not only outward righteousness, but also inward righteousness. “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgement.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgement” (Matthew 5:21-22a). It is one thing – quite easy for most of us – to not murder someone. I myself have never murdered anyone! But it is quite another to not be angry with my brother or neighbour. Gosh, I’ve been angry countless times! This is an impossibly high standard!
And Jesus continues raising the bar higher and yet higher, on matters of lustful thoughts and desires, divorce, making oaths, seeking revenge and loving your enemies. This last is also a real challenge for us in daily life. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45a).
And to cap it all, Jesus calls us to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Impossible! Perfection is reserved for God and God alone.
God may love us, but the expectations God has for us are frighteningly demanding. Honestly, we cannot do it.
How does this demandingness tally with God’s love for us? It does not feel very loving to set impossibly high standards that we are sure to fall short of, does it? Good teachers and loving parents don’t do that to their students and children. We know that self-esteem is crushed when we expect more than someone is capable of. Repeatedly not meeting up to expectations is more likely to result in giving up than greater reaching for the standard.
To be sure, living under grace through Christ is a most peculiar place, full of apparent contradictions. But when we can step back and see the whole picture, we realise that they are not contradictions at all, but results of God’s extravagant love for us.
God created humanity with great vision and optimism, to be the crown of creation, the most beautiful, radiant and wonderful thing to emerge from the hand of God. And indeed we once were.
But since the Fall we are not quite what we once were. The remains of the spectacular beings that we once were are still evident, but rather fallen into ruin. We are, as Francis Schaeffer has famously said, ‘glorious ruins’. Our fallenness is the gap between the God’s vision and our reality.
What we think of as God’s standards is in fact God’s vision of us. God retains a picture of us as the magnificent castle, even though we are now glorious ruins. God still desires and expects us to be everything that we were created to be. Those are certainly high standards.
Jesus’ anger at the religious leaders of his day was not because they had abandoned God’s standards. Rather, it was because they had watered down God’s vision to a handful of petty rules, which made a mockery of God’s vision. They had trivialised God’s vision, turning the glorious human into a scarecrow. And so Jesus’ raising of the standards was part of an attempt to turn us back to that glorious vision, to remind us that God made us for so much more than just following some rules. That God’s vision concerned the fabric of our being, the innermost core of our existence. He was cautioning us not to settle for the scarecrow. The raised standard was not intended to cause us to give up; rather it was to inspire us to recognise afresh the wonderful beings that we once were and will one day be again.
In the meantime, as we strive towards becoming that vision, grace is made available to us. Because no matter how much we try, we cannot quite reach God’s standards. Rather than suffering under guilt and damnation, God generously forgives and pardons, so that we can continue the journey of being transformed into the image of the Son. It is as if God smiles at us as we fall down, and says, “Never mind, precious one. You are trying. Let’s try again. Here let me help you.”
We will not reach the destination of a glorious self in this lifetime, but this is no ‘never-ending story’. This story will, for sure, end on that great and glorious Day of the Lord, when we will be restored to our former magnificence. Grace, then, is not given for us to use as an excuse for living a sinful life. Rather, it is given to help us pick ourselves up after failure and continue the upward journey.
God’s love permeates all of this, from start to end, so that we are never bereft. While God has these exceptionally high standards and desires for us to attain them, we are never forced, because love does not force. God creates freedom for us to choose whether we follow or turn away. We are never coerced. God sets before us, particularly in the person of Jesus, a model of what we could be and invites us to strive towards that. But God does not insist on it. There is freedom to choose.
God does not desire puppets or robots. If God had desired such, God could easily have created them. Instead, God desired creatures that would freely choose fellowship with God. And that meant creating us with the freedom to choose alienation from God. That freedom has created problems for us, in the form of sin and its ramifications. But freedom is important for us and the gift of freedom is an expression of God’s love. Love that is not freely given is no love at all.
Sometimes we may reflect on the demands of Christian living and feel a little tired and constrained, wishing that we could just relax and have fun. It is a bit like being on a diet – you want to lose weight and be healthy, but a slice of chocolate cake would be so yummy! When faced with such temptations, it does not help much to hold before us the image of a judge-God, wagging his finger and frowning in disapproval at us, thin lips pursed. That does not inspire us to choose the righteous path.
Rather, let us hold before us the image of our lover-God, who desires the best for us, who believes in us, who is optimistic about who we can be, who we know will love us regardless of how much we succeed or fail, who has promised to never abandon us. The alternative is not attractive – a long descending path leading into darkness. We know what is best for us – into the arms of Love.
Meditation for the Day
Where are you on the continuum of sin-righteousness? Select one area of your life that you have not adequately surrendered to God’s Spirit. Now, imagining the God of love, ask God to help you invest in working out your salvation in that area.
Prayer for the Day
Creator God, I thank you for creating me in your image and for having a wonderful vision for who I can be. Please give me the energy, discipline and passion to journey ever closer to that vision.