I love to get a new trade paperback comic. I'll sit for hours at night, reading the story over and over again. Each time I read it, I see new details that eluded me on the first reading — clues that foreshadowed the twist ending, intimations about relationships between characters, and clever little tidbits in the background art. I love the way the creator weaves the strands of his story together, and when the story is told well, I can enjoy the structure and telling of the story as much as I enjoy the story itself.
That's what I'm doing now with the notion of God's love. What God's love is about and what it means to be loved by him are questions I have puzzled over for years. Part of the problem is that we often have a fatally flawed understanding of grace. We see divine grace as something that kicks in after we've made our best efforts and tried our hardest. That's not it at all -- that would mean we have to earn grace, and grace that can be earned isn't really grace.
(I'm not referring just to saving grace, although I can think of plenty of evangelicals or born-again types who have walked through my life with all the grace of a hippo and talked about who "really was saved" and "really isn't." I've fallen into that snare myself, to my shame.)
The grace I'm talking about is God's sanctifying grace, the divine blessing that we believe completes our efforts to do the right thing. You could call it "the law of consequences." I'm sure you know how this goes. "If I do X, then by God's grace, Y will happen." The only problem is, that's not grace. It's law, and law never heals, it only kills.
Ask a divorcee. Chances are, they'll be able to tell you about the times they fell into this trap. "If I had only been a better wife, he wouldn't have left me for his secretary" or "If I had been a more attentive husband, she wouldn't have felt neglected and wanted to start over with someone else." If I hadn't spent so many hours at work, if I hadn't been home so much, if I hadn't forgotten to fix the roof. Parents'll do the same thing. "If I had been a better parent, my child wouldn't be gay." "If I hadn't been so strict, he would love me more." If, if, if.
You'll also see the flip side. "Oh, it's all by the grace of God it worked out this way. We just followed the scriptural principles on how to raise our children, on how to keep our marriage vibrant, and on how to balance work and home life. Without the Lord, it would have been a disaster." (Notice the statement of pride? Although they're claiming to give God credit, they're also stressing how much they did to earn God's favor.)
The truth is, you can do your best job and still fail, or do a rotten job and have everything work out just fine. Influence still exists, but Christ died to free us from the law of consequence. The law of consequence, if we were under it, would result in utter failure for all of us, since none of us is capable of following the law and to break the least part is to be guilty of breaking it all. But by living under the law of consequence, we subject ourselves to an immense, unbearable burden that steals our joy, keeps us from experiencing Christ's love, and leaves us miserable and alone.
Experiencing the joy of Christ's love often means letting go of our self-imposed performance expectations and allowing ourselves to act out of love rather than obligation. When James tells us that faith without works is dead, he means not that we do things because God still expects us to perform good deeds, but that our faith will express itself in tangible ways as we love those around us. Being involved in a soup kitchen because "Christians care about the poor" is the first kind of act; it's law. Being involved in a soup kitchen because I want to help the people there springs from a different source, and is an act of love. Same action, different heart.
Another part of the question has to do with what God's love is and how he expresses it. It's only been in the last few years, as I've mourned the loss of my foster son, that I've really started to gain a mature understanding of God's love. I can't speak for anyone else, but for the longest time, I don't think I loved God as much as I was just in love with him. An example from my own marriage: When my wife and I first started dating, and when we first married, we had periods marked by a giddy, heady feeling of euphoria. She was sensitive, charming, well-mannered, considerate; she enjoyed my jokes, shared my interests, and held the same deep convictions as me. All I could think about was how much I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. That's being in love.
Since we married six years ago, although my prior assessment of her remains good, there have been times I've wanted to scream. She's nagged me, criticized the way I fold the laundry, delivered withering critiques of projects I was proud of, and blown up at me for not being able to read her mind. Once, when I had got up early and done a number of things just for her, she left me in tears within an hour by complaining about how I had done each of those things without once stopping to thank me for doing them in the first place. The sun and the moon still set on her, and the stars above still circle her, and I'm still amazed that she wants to spend the rest of her life with me, but our relationship has matured. There have been times for each of us when it would have been easier to walk out, but we stayed. That's not being "in love" -- that is love, and it's much more satisfying.
God's love is the same way, but infinitely moreso. It's so wild and difficult to explain, I think it's easy to understand why people might complain that he's either indifferent to our suffering, or just downright cruel.
Why do I say that? Let's take it from an example Paul provides us in Scripture. In his letter to the Roman church, Paul says that God demonstrates his mercy and compassion in sending rain to both the just and the unjust. Men as evil as Hitler knew what it was like to be in love; men as full of hate as Osama bin Laden know the joy of holding their own newborn babies; and even a serial killer like Ted Bundy knew a thousand little delights every day, even after he denied those same delights to his victims. It's easy to see that God's mercy and compassion abound to even the most wicked.
That's a great sentiment, but it's hardly the best example Paul could use, in some senses. It's one thing if God shows great kindness to undserving people, but he also allows really nice people to suffer hideously, such as the victims of men like Hitler, bin Laden and Bundy. Elie Wiesel suffered horribly at Auschwitz and saw the desecration of everything he had believed about God and the struggle between good and evil. In California in 2002, there was a 5-year-old girl who was abducted, kicking and screaming, from her front yard where she had been playing, and was raped and brutally murdered. In New Jersey, we had the horrifying case of Faheem and Raheem Williams, who were under state care yet still were locked inside a basement by their caretaker to starve. (Their DYFS caseworker had closed the case when she was unable to find the boys, rather than keep the case open and have to deal with the thorny problem of losing two abused children.) Bruce Jackson, 18, weighed about 60 pounds when police found him rummaging for food through garbage cans. His foster parents, a churchgoing couple, were in the process of formally adopting him and other foster children. As far as their case records indicated, they were in a great home -- never mind the starvation, severe medical neglect, and what else.
Kick it this way, kick it that. God showers the wicked with great compassion while he sometimes seems to piss on the righteous and the innocent. Is he cruel, or merely capricious? Paul asserts he's good.
Paul's basis for that claim is the Cross, the lynchpin of human existence. This is where Christ became all the sin of the world, and took on himself all the suffering and torment that goes hand in hand with being human. Everything before the Cross pointed to its coming; everything after it points back to it. If we rejoice and draw near to God, it is because Christ made it possible. If we suffer, whether for sin, for righteouness or just because, we find solidarity with Christ, who also suffered for each of those three reasons. If we have any righteousness before God, it is because he looks at us and sees his son instead, all because of the Cross.
So if the Cross is the fullest expression of God's love, and if it suffuses all human history with meaning, what does that mean? It means that the whole of human history, from the day God breathed life into Adam down to the advent of the New Jerusalem (and far, far beyond that) is also an expression of God's love. It's not like any other form of love we've ever known as humans. It's wild, and uncontainable, and it moves with the irresistible force of a river coursing down the rapids toward a waterfall, where it will dash us against the rocks if we let it carry us. We'll be buffeted and bruised, cold and unable to grip anything but water, and it'll toss us about and leave us gasping, but it'll never kill us -- at least, not in an important way. Instead, it makes us alive in indescribable ways.
I shared this with someone once, and her question was, but how do I experience it? First, we let ourselves live free of the demands of law. There's a joy in knowing that it doesn't all depend on your effort, and that your only obligation is to love. Secondly -- and this is the hardest thing -- we need to learn to love. Loving as Christ does means living in relationship with other people, no matter who they are, seeing people as people and not as projects or as beneficiaries of our attention. Forget this hectic pace we whip ourselves into in the U.S., and take the time to enjoy the people around you, and as you become aware of their needs, find ways that you can fill those needs. Cultivate relationships, and more than that -- cultivate relationships with other people as you work to help the world around you. It'slike the men's ministries that involve hanging out and watching football together. Some ministry. There may be male bonding, but the way to experience God's love is to embody it and carry his love to the people around you, particularly the needy. Be involved in something like Habitat for Humanity, or foster care, and make connections with the people around you.
Do that, and you'll discover God in new and amazing ways.