Love: The Fine Print

The “perfect storm” of thinking hit this afternoon, thanks to Blue Like Jazz, Coart’s Sunday School lesson on doing good works, and just some random stuff that’s been simmering on the back burner for a while….

Getting a grip on the concept that God loves us unconditionally seems to mystify a lot of Christians (including me). Once gripped, the idea undermines a lot of the theology I grew up with, shoving me uncomfortably into a pile of ramifications I’d rather not face.

Don Miller describes his experience as a counselor at the Wilds of the Rockies one summer. (He doesn’t name the camp in his book, but I’m assuming there can only be one fundamentalist Christian camp in Colorado where a sheltered, homeschooled female counselor would be headed to BJU in the fall.) After living for several months as part of a hippie commune in the aspen forests in the Catskills, he marched into the Wilds sporting long hair, a beard, a mere backpack of personal belongings, a pipe, and bad personal hygiene.

Quickly he realized that while the Wilds folks were kind and willing to put up with his oddness (as long as he hid the pipe, cut his hair, and shaved off the beard), they used “unconditional” love like a commodity:  If you met community standards, you were accepted. If you violated those standards, acceptance was withheld until you came back in line. [He’s sure it was well-intentioned.]

That got me thinking: 
Why do we Christians so often “love” people with strings attached? 
Why do we use love as “a means to an end”? 

Christians always feel like we have to point sin out to people. We take that command to “rebuke, exhort” given to Timothy and make it the singular hallmark of Christian ministry, instead of love (cf John 15; I Jn 4).

It seems that within “churchianity” love must always come with stipulations and a higher purpose.  We “love” homeless people or outcasts or “sinners” or “worldly” people so that they will come to Jesus, start living right, realize their sin, etc. We do not love them as they are, without condemnation… and thus our love is manipulation.

And they know it.

Consider this:
The Scripture clearly identifies the Holy Spirit as the source of Jesus’ power for earthly ministry (see Acts 17) as well as the spiritual force behind the good works that Christians do. He and His people tap into the same source. [If you want to quibble with my theology here, talk to Coart. I’m directly quoting what he taught in SS this morning, and he got his material straight from the WCF and the NT.]

Jesus’ earthly ministry was marked by far more compassion than condemnation. Yes, He violently hurled the money changers out of His Father’s house because they were defaming God’s very character by using His name to fleece people. He also excoriated the Pharisees for adding their own man-made rules to God’s Law. (ouch)      He did point out a few people’s sins to them rather directly (such as the woman at the well) and sometimes subtly (the rich young ruler).
But the great bulk of Jesus’ ministry was physical, earthy, patient, effective, and compassionate. He healed; He fed; He encouraged; He loved; He called people to repentance in a way that was both authoritative and gracious.

In John 14 (I think… or maybe it’s ch 16), Jesus says the Holy Spirit “will convict the world of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment.”  That’s His job — He convicts people.   He takes the Word in all of its power and smashes through our walls and self-defenses, laying bare our hearts before the searchlight that reveals our sin. And during the life of Christ on earth, the Spirit was the convicting force in Jesus’ ministry.  You can be sure the Holy Spirit had already been working in that Samaritan woman so that when she met Jesus at the well, she got into a much more life-changing encounter than she’d bargained for.

I think we Christians believe that the convicting work of the Spirit is our rsponsibility– that unless we lay it all on the line and make sure people understand what we don’t approve of in their lifestyle, we are muddying the Gospel.  That somehow, loving a person as they are right now isn’t going to work unless we lay out the contract details in advance:

“To whom love is given, much will be required.”

For unsaved people, our contract demands refusing to drink, smoke, or cuss with them.  Usually if said unsaved one “rejects” our offer of the Gospel, church attendance, or other indicators of spiritual life, we give up. At the least, our humanitarianism is always tinged with the mystical purpose of “drawing them to Christ.”
Unrepentant sinners need not apply–why waste love on someone who doesn’t have any intentions to return it? (If there were hope for them, God would make that person stop sinning… right?)
And definitely no homosexuals. Good God, no. Of course, there’s not much chance of that happening anyway – I can’t even get my raised-in-church Christian school students to read literature written by gays without condemning the author and refusing to listen to anything he’s written. *whew* [I’m glad there’s enough good literature written by “straight” people that I can still get some decent educating done.]
If it’s a homeless shelter we’re talking about, then the people who want a bed & a meal tonight need to sit through a Gospel sermon first. We can’t let them take advantage of us, you know.      And all medical missions clinics had better hire a minister on staff to preach to those needy folks sitting out in the courtyard waiting for their long shot to see the Western miracle-workers.

…..we’re so good at making sure people understand they’re sinners before they feel the love.


Seems like we’ve gotten our job description mixed up with the Holy Spirit’s, doesn’t it?

Now, I hate to be misunderstood, so read carefully:   
Some of you (if you’ve read this far) think I’m saying “all we need is love” (like the Beatles song) and then all the sin in the world will just go away.  I’m not saying that.

Our God never leaves us in our sinful, broken condition (Isaiah 59). His love is all-encompassing, given freely without strings and without our earning it. But it is also efficacious. The kindness of God leads us to repentance (Rom 2) and we are changed.

If I love someone, I won’t let him/her drive off a cliff or beat their head against a wall until its bloody (metaphorically speaking). By nature, sin destroys and damages. It shatters lives, wounds relationships, and costs an incredible amount of effort to “fix.” So I’m not suggesting that the Bible passages about exhortation should be ignored. If I love someone, I’ll probably end up confronting them … and getting rebuked myself when I’m the one doing the sinning.

I’m just saying that the conservative Church has earned itself the (well-deserved and harmful) reputation for judging first and asking questions later … when (according to our Head) we ought to be known by our love.

It’s the love, not the guilt-trip, that changes lives.

Blue. Jazz. Grace.

Been reading Blue Like Jazz these past few days. Picked it up because a couple friends recommended it to me, other people say it’s the devil incarnate, and someone who doesn’t like it told me we can have a discussion about it once I read it. Since I happen to think highly of said friend, I’m working my way through.

I really appreciate Donald Miller’s honest evaluations of what Christianity looks like to “the outsiders.” His stories about Reed college in Portland, the most anti-God college in America (according to the people who study that kind of thing), struck me deeply. One girl told him she figured that if Christianity were all wrapped up in a single person, it would dislike her and condemn her.  Thus, she viewed God with the same attitude and wanted nothing to do with Christianity (later she came to know Christ).

God wooed His bride with grace, love, patience, and forgiveness … not condemnation.  To call Christians to love people instead of instantly pushing them toward some kind of change is not to deny that sin is real and must be addressed. But it seems like most of us judge first and love later (if ever).

I know people have criticized Miller’s book for a number of reasons, including its lack of theological “depth” and bent toward an Arminian view of salvation. The first criticism seems off-target to me — Miller isn’t setting out to write a theological treatise, so people shouldn’t criticize him for what he “leaves out.” If you want to read a systematic theology, go buy Reymond or Grudem.

Miller’s stories with their punches of truth wrapped in layers of rich humanity struck a chord with me. Over the past few years, I’ve sensed a growing desire to connect with the “outsiders”: the marginalized … the hopeless …. those who still think they cannot be saved (to quote the Smashing Pumpkins) …  the people who think God is irrelevant because evangelical Christianity seems to be wholly populated by Republican, judgmental, white soccer moms and their husbands and children.

I think Mike the Cussing Pastor was my favorite character.  You’ll just have to read the book yourself to figure him out.

I’m not done yet with Miller’s book, so I suppose he could spring some shocking horror on me in a late chapter. But at this point (3/4 through the book), I think we ought to give Miller a hearing and downright revel in his idea of Grace.

“I love to give charity, but I don’t want to be charity. That’s why I have such a problem with grace.”

Either way, we’re screwed.

Been thinking again. You’d better duck. 

Unconditional love is striking for a number of reasons (not the least of which is its divine origin, for I am convinced that the selfish human heart is incapable of truly loving apart from an infusion of Grace, common or otherwise).

But this particular aspect of “agape” (unconditional) love has been on my mind recently:

“Normal” human love — even well-intentioned — is always a power play. We often choose to love people because they please us, or we realize that loving someone else puts that person in our debt, so to speak. If I do something for you out of love, I feel entitled to demand certain things in return, like gratitude, appreciation, favors, or love itself.

As usual, God’s paradigm turns our natural understanding on its head.

Most of us realize that being the ‘lover’ in an unconditional sense requires giving up one’s claim to the “return benefits.” If I love someone else because of what I can get out of them, my motives are mixed and my love is not pure.
To quote Jack’s favorite Friends episode where Phoebe tries in vain to commit a truly altruistic act, all of our human love is tainted by the power-play. We see the “prize” at the end — acceptance, self-interest, or just a chance to feel better about ourselves.

Let me clarify that I’m not implying that love ought to be merely a one-way street. I John says that we love Godbecause He first loved us. His love creates in us the ability to return love, and the Great Commandment (“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength”) makes it clear that He does expect that love to be returned … but He doesn’t want it from us as an obligation.
We are God’s images, and we learn to love via His example. A godly relationship follows the pattern of sweet fellowship that we see among the  members of the Trinity: love flowing both ways so that both people are richly blessed.   God’s sacrifice of Himself so that humans could experience that kind of love is deep and mysterious and utterly humiliating for me to consider.

That humiliation of being the recipient of a totally self-sacrificial love leads me to a more surprising realization about agape love:

It’s harder to be the beloved than the lover. 

Receiving unconditional love strips away my pride and image of self-worth. Whether received from God or a human, I am powerless to affect the lover’s choice. He/she chose freely to love. It’s not based on my merit. I can’t make it stop by becoming unworthy.

That realization is both an incredible comfort (security) as well as an almost frustrating reminder that — as in most things– I am not the master of this aspect of my life either.

Heh. Ironic.
Perfect love is the ultimate example of my lack of control.