What if the underlying narrative, or the unspoken message that some of us have learned from our church upbringing, or our connection with Christianity, is that God ultimately wants us to be ‘better’ people — that God wants us to be more generous, more patient, more kind, more loving, more gentle, more faithful, and so on? That would seem to be a fair assumption, right? Therefore, if and when we attend a church worship, we expect there to be a confession, some kind of commitment through song or creed, and a sermon that will challenge us and exhort us to sin less, read our Bibles more, pray more, and ‘do’ more. And to a greater or lesser extent the church seems to encourage this pretty well.
But…what if the narrative or message of the gospel is not that at all? What if becoming ‘better’ people is not the ultimate goal, but being ‘loved’ is what God wants for us? What if there is nothing we need to do for God to love us more, and nothing we need to do for God to love us less? What if God loves us, because he loves us, because he loves us? What if God loves us even if we reject or are unchanged by that love? To suggest such a thing almost feels offensive or, at the very least, foolish. Surely there must be something we should be doing to deserve God’s love? Yet, if it is true that God’s love does not need to be earned, how come this has not always been the central message of the church, at least not explicitly?
All of us, including me, crave unconditional love and acceptance. It is that for which our soul yearns. Yet, for many of us, love has always felt conditional, and, as children and young adults, we learned patterns of behaviour that we carried into adulthood. For example, perhaps we never felt good enough for our parents, and we learned, as children, to get good grades and to be obedient, to please them and gain their approval? Perhaps we learned that being black was somehow inferior, and that we had to be deferential to white people, expecting not to have access to the same education, opportunities, or jobs? Perhaps we learned that to be a woman was to be the ‘weaker’ sex and that husbands should be in control of our time, money, and choices? Perhaps we learned that to be gay or transgender was to feel ashamed and marginalised by society, and that we were not worthy to be allowed to be married or even hold hands in public without being tutted at by passing strangers? Perhaps we did shameful deeds, even convicted and sentenced for crimes we committed, carrying with us a criminal record that proves to the world that we are less worthy to be employed or to have the same rights as others?
You see, in a nutshell, we learned that to be loved and accepted is conditional, and perhaps we carried these learned experiences over into our churches and into our relationship with our heavenly parent, where God became the absent father, the demanding mother, the epitome of white privilege, the overbearing husband, the unaccepting stranger, the unrelenting judge, cold jury, or ruthless prison guard. What if, because of our broken earthly experiences and relationships, our perception of God became skewed, distorted, and misinformed. Certainly, I have known churches where exterminating immorality seemed to be the focus; where the exhortation not to sin and work harder at the faith appeared to be the central message, as if it somehow guaranteed God’s favour and secured a one-way ticket to a disembodied, heavenly home. The most broken, hurt, and marginalised of my friends, when I ask them why they do not connect with church, look at me incredulously, and say, “Why would I want to feel even worse about myself? Church is the last place I want to be!” Yet, if Jesus was here today, they would find themselves welcomed with open arms and at complete ease in his company. I am convinced of it.
Despite our souls longing for God’s love, acceptance, and approval, to try and earn it is like climbing a stepladder and trying to reach the moon. It will leave us frustrated and exhausted, and ultimately no closer to our pursuit than when we started. Friends, the prevailing message of the church to sin less, read your Bible more, pray more, and ‘do’ more, will not, by itself, get us any closer to God. We do not become ‘better’ people by trying harder. We become the people God created us to be by accepting God’s grace and allowing ourselves to be recipients of his unconditional love. This is the message of the gospel and should be the message of the church. And here is a wonderful and exciting thing. God’s grace has the power to transform us and change us; like water quenching a thirst, it has a restorative effect on our souls. God’s grace has the power to change who we are, from the inside out, because it does not depend on us or our efforts, but entirely on God.
This Christmas season, as you bridge into a new year, perhaps you can make it your new year’s resolution to turn to God and receive his free gift of grace, because there is nothing you can do to make God to love you more, and nothing you can do to make God love you less. God loves you, because he loves you, because he loves you.