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.
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.