Remember the first time you heard the gospel and took it to heart? You had to hear the bad news first: I’m a sinner. I’ve rebelled against God. There’s no way for me to worm my way into heaven. It doesn’t matter how good I think I am compared to other people and no amount of religious behavior will do. But admitting to the bad news opened the way for the good: God loves me, and made a way for me through the cross of Jesus. All I need to do is believe, and be saved!
It can be a revelatory, life-changing moment. We see the truth about God’s love. We see grace for the gift it is, and are amazed and grateful. We see the two-part truth about ourselves: yes, we are sinners, but we are also cherished by a loving Father. We have been accepted when we should have been rejected; we are beloved children instead of outcasts.
And then, unfortunately, we go right back to a grace-less form of religion.
Even though we preach a gospel of grace, even though we say that this is what we believe, we feel and we act as if we have to do “Christian” things to be loved and accepted by God. We create communities in which we implicitly — and sometimes quite explicitly! — grade each other’s behavior, creating a pecking order of status and worth, a distinction between the real saints and everyone else.
Does that sound familiar? The problem isn’t new. Look back to the churches of the New Testament. In Corinth, the question was who had the “real” spiritual gifts. In Galatia and Philippi, as we’ve seen, it was a question of circumcision: could you be saved without going through the rite? Could you be a full member of the community? The underlying theological problem still haunts the church today. Do we really believe the gospel or not? Do we really believe in grace? And if we did, how would our communities change?
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The problem is a very human one. Think of it from a psychological point of view. We all have an intrinsic need to be loved, valued, and accepted. As we grow from childhood through adolescence to adulthood, we internalize values and social rules. We learn from our families, our peers, our culture that our worth is contingent on something: how we behave, how we dress, what we do for a living, where we live, how we look, our gender, our skin color. We divide into Us and Them, and there’s a pecking order even within the Us.
Not all of us grew up with a sense of being valued or cherished just for who we are. Children, moreover, can’t make the distinction between not being valued and not being valuable. And the more doubts we have about our intrinsic value, the more vulnerabilities we bring with us into the life of the church, affecting how we relate to our brothers and sisters. We fear failure and may be anxious to prove ourselves. We are sensitive to the words and behaviors of others that seem to threaten our status or sense of belonging.
Do a little thought experiment with me. As quickly and spontaneously as you can, complete this sentence: “In the eyes of others, I would be more valued or have more approval if I _____.” Or this one: “I would feel better about myself if I _____.”
Or perhaps most crucially of all, this one: “God would like me more if I _____.”
You get the idea.
Whatever words you used to fill in those blanks, they may point you toward the functional equivalent of what Paul was addressing with the issue of circumcision in Philippi and Galatia. And again, the question is whether we truly believe in grace and build communities to match.
How is it that we preach and celebrate grace but have such a hard time applying it to ourselves and others? Salvation, we are told, is a free and unearned gift. Hallelujah: who doesn’t love a free gift? But here’s the rub: not only is the gift free and unearned, it can’t be earned in the first place, no matter what you do.
Yes, yes, yes, we know that already. But do we? Do we know it in a way that transforms our self-concept and our communities?
Nobody has a problem with unearned grace. But un-earnable grace is another matter. The more we have learned the habits of thinking, believing, and feeling that our worth is contingent, the harder it is to accept that grace is unearnable. The more we work (even without knowing it!) to earn the approval and acceptance of others, the harder it is to receive unearnable grace in a way that takes deep root in our souls.
So hear this word of grace clearly: right here, right now, there is nothing you can do to make God love you more. Not circumcision, of course. But not tithing either. Nor church attendance. Nor prayer. Nor reading your Bible. Nor volunteering. Add to the list whatever marks of being a “good Christian” you like: none of it will make God love you more.
But we also have to say it from the other side: no failure or inconsistency with respect to anything on the list will make God love you less.
Don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that what we do doesn’t matter. We are clearly called to holiness and Christ-likeness in all we do and say. But it’s one thing to be motivated by gratitude and freedom, and another to feel like we have to do more in order to compensate for feeling less: less than adequate, less worthy than others, less lovable.
We may work hard to curate an image of success and competence, letting people see only the things about us that will win the approval we want and need — a never-ending and anxious game. But God sees us in all our sin and brokenness, all our shortcomings, all the things we hide from others. There is nothing about us that God doesn’t know.
And God loves us anyway. Wholly and completely.
What would change if we really believed that? What would change in our attitudes toward God? Toward others? Toward ourselves?
Believe — truly believe — the gospel. Believe in the fullness, the wonder, the ongoing gift of God’s grace.
And see what happens.