The default assumption I bring to my relationship with God is that he loves me for what I do. I bet you assume the same thing, too. But where did this idea come from? I have three sons and each one of them was lovely in my eyes from the moment I knew they existed. As soon as the news came that my wife was pregnant, I loved a person that had not yet done anything good or bad. I loved a boy who would grow into a man with the love of a father—deep, unconditional, proud. I loved them before they could smile, before they could hug me, before I could even hug them!
But when I think about God, I assume that he loves me based on what I do, not merely for who I am. And that assumption is a lie.
That assumption makes sense to me. I’ve grown up in the world where nearly every relationship is transactional. I scratch your back, you scratch mine. I like your Instagram picture, you like mine. I retweet your tweet, you retweet mine. I buy your product, you buy mine. On and on it goes. We know it’s empty but it’s the way the world works. And when we come to God, we bring the same credit card system. I use you and gain points. You provide a benefit I wouldn’t otherwise have, and at the end of the year, I pay it all off and we’re even steven.
That’s not Christianity.
Of course, this isn’t the theology I ascribe to verbally. It’s not what I’d tell you I believe. I’d tell you I believe that I’m saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, apart from all my works. And that is what I believe. But what I believe as truth isn’t always what I live as truth, and that’s why grace is what it is. Grace is a covering for me even when I’m unable to understand how God saves me.
You can see how this is problematic, can’t you? If I believe God loves me for what I do, what happens when I fail to do what I should? Where is God's love then? What happens when I should have known what to do and I didn’t? Now time has passed and I can’t travel back to the place of my ignorance. What happens then, when the failures of yesterday come calling at my door today? What happens when the failures of years ago come calling at my door in a year from now? If I am loved based on my doing, I’m unloved based on my not doing. I have a big problem. I’m stuck in a place of constant turmoil and deep unrest. I’m tossing and turning like the sea headed for the shore, only to crash and be swept back out. I never find home. I never settle. I never stop moving. And in the end, no matter how hard I try, I’m one storm away from doing it all over again.
But that’s not Christianity.
Christianity is not about my doing. It’s not about my perfection. It’s about Christ’s doing. It’s about his perfection.
When I’m focused on my doing rather than Christ’s doing, I don’t have a problem with God, I have a problem with me. God is not against me. I’m against myself. When I begin believing that God can’t love me because I’ve failed to live as I should, I’m living in the wrong kind of fear. I’m living in the fear of condemnation when Jesus has already taken it for me. I’m living in the fear of damnation when Jesus already descended to hell on my behalf. I’m living in the fear of abandonment when Christ has already reconciled me to God. What I should be doing is living in the fear of the Lord—an awe-filled wonder and reverence for him. But I’m doing the opposite.
So what is my path forward?
Tish Harrison Warren writes in her book Liturgy of the Ordinary, “Christ didn’t redeem my life theoretically or abstractly—the life I dreamed of living or the life I think I ideally should be living. He knew I’d be in today as it is, in my home where it stands, in my relationships with their specific beauty and brokenness, in my particular sins and struggles.”
The salvation of God is not theoretical or abstract any more than it is merit-based. God’s love isn’t contingent on my doing any more than my love for my sons is contingent on their doing. God’s love is true love—boundless love.
My four-year-old son understands this. He came home the other day and told my wife that he heard about Luke (his namesake) in the Jesus Storybook Bible at school. My wife asked what he did in the story. Luke said, “Nothing. Just sit around.” My wife replied, “Did Jesus love Luke?” Luke answered, “Yes.”
Jesus loved a man named Luke who, according to my son Luke, just sat around. Isn’t that amazing? My son’s understanding of the love of God is not based on action. Why is mine? I know more theology than he does! Ah, but he's a child, with the faith of a child.
Of course, the biblical Luke did lots of things. One of those things was writing two major books of the Bible. He traveled with Paul. He was a good historian. He was a good physician. He was a good storyteller. But none of that made him lovable in God’s eyes. In fact, Luke—like my Luke, like me, like you—was lovable (perhaps most lovable) when he was sitting around listening to the gospel and believing. He was lovable when he wasn’t doing anything because the only doing that matters, in the end, is the doing that Jesus did and does.
God loves his children just as I love my children. Actually, no. It’s not quite the same. His love is deeper, wider, and bigger than mine. Why do I doubt it? Because, like my glasses after my two-year-old gets a hold of them, my lenses are smudged. I need some Holy Spirit cleansing.
That’s Christianity—God cleansing us, removing our doing and not-doing with his doing and done, replacing our failure with his success. And my path forward is a return backward to the love of God seen in the cross of Christ, which pushes me forward to the sustaining love of God in the resurrection of Christ. I'm covered in grace from front to back. If you're in Christ, so are you.