I know a lot of people who grew up feeling as though the love their parents offered them always came with strings attached. This love was conditional, in other words. It had to be earned.
Sometimes the conditions we place on our kids are relatively harmless. Get good grades in school. Take out the trash. Don’t beat up your little brother. We want our child to do well and we want all our children to survive their childhood without too many contusions and broken bones.
But when the message a child hears is, “I love you more when you get good grades” or “I’ll love you if you take out the trash”, the effect is very different—and is, in fact, very damaging. A child’s sense who she is and what she is worth is linked, intimately and always, to how well and how freely she is loved.
Conditional love will leave a child uncertain where she stands with mom and dad. If love is suddenly withheld when a child does something wrong or fails to do something right, she will walk through life on eggshells, trying, and usually failing, to be good. In the worst case, she will give up trying at all, concluding she is worth nothing and deserves nothing.
Conditional love, you see, is not really love at all.
Something like this happens in the spiritual life, too.
Over the centuries and in most of its forms, the church has acted like a parent toward the people who sit in the pews. The church, and by that I mean her pastors and priests and theologians, has played the role of mother and father to her church children—teaching, guiding, chiding, controlling; sometimes trying really, really hard to get it right, but often getting it very wrong. We want you all to grow up to be happy, healthy, loving Christians, you know. But on that “love” part, I’m sad to say, we haven’t always done such a good job.
What we have done—and this is understandable because we are human just like our parents and like everybody else we got our first ideas of what God is like from watching them—what we have done over all these centuries, is to paint a picture of a God whose love comes with strings attached; a God whose love is always conditional, whose judgment is unavoidable and whose punishments are, in many cases, truly horrendous.
We have laid down the law—from the Ten Commandments to whatever doctrine is orthodox in our particular tribe, and we have said to our people, “God loves you—but—if you don’t follow the rules you just might lose that love. God loves you—but—God would love you more if you believed and behaved in this certain way”.
Not every pastor and priest has taught this, of course. But enough have that their voices have pretty much carried the day.
Now to be fair, they did get this idea of God, at least in part, from the Bible. There is, you see, a strong tradition in Scripture that pictures God as a demanding parent who lays down the law and withholds love from those who disobey.
Moses, for instance, said this in Deuteronomy 28: “If you will not obey the Lord your God by diligently observing all his commandments and decrees…then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you: Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field… Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your ground, the increase of your cattle… The Lord will send upon you disaster, panic, and frustration in everything you attempt to do, until you are destroyed…on account of the evil of your deeds”.
If you were here 2 weeks ago you might remember we talked about the two parallel traditions in Scripture regarding the violence of God. There is, on the one hand, the tradition of Joshua that says God hates all enemies and wants them dead; and there is, on the other hand, the tradition of Jesus that says God has no enemies and has already made peace with the entire universe.
In the same way, there are two competing traditions on the question of God’s love—one, the Moses tradition, says God’s love is conditional. A contrasting tradition, that we will get to in a moment, proclaims God’s love to be eternal and constant, that it does not need be deserved and, in fact, cannot be lost.
But here’s the thing—as I said a moment ago, those who proclaim that God’s love must be earned and can be lost have held the field throughout the history of the church. There have been important exceptions, of course, but they have been minority opinions. This is less the case than it used to be, fortunately, but in many places—and in many of us, the problem persists.
For example, if you travel around a bit you might have seen something like this: This is the church sign for the Mt Zion Fellowship. I don’t know where Mt Zion is, but I sure hope it’s far away from here. “God’s love is unconditional, as long as you are obeying Christ” it says.
The sentiment on that sign would be just plain silly if it wasn’t so damaging to people who take it seriously. If God’s love is unconditional only “as long as”—anything—then, don’t you see, it is not unconditional at all. And if God’s love is conditioned on us meeting some impossible standard, like perfect obedience, then we are truly lost. If God’s love is conditioned on our deserving it or earning it, then we might as well turn around and cross the street over to Our Savior’s Church where we will be greeted by this sign: “You may party in Hell, but you will be the barbecue!”
This is not the church at its best. In my opinion, for what it’s worth, the only things God will burn in hell are these two appalling, blasphemous signs!
Which brings us to the question I was given for today: Do we—can we, ever deserve the grace and love of God?
The answer, of course, is no.
Would God love us more if we were deserving?
The answer again, is no.
Does God love us any less because we are undeserving?
What do you think?
I say no, and I’ll tell you why.
Let’s look at the counter-tradition that says God’s love is not conditional. And to show you this is not an Old Testament harsh God against a New Testament gentle God, I’m staying in the Old Testament—specifically, the book of Hosea.
Hosea was a prophet in Israel around the same time as Isaiah—a little while before the exile to Babylon. His book is a collection of heart-wrenching, sometimes gut-wrenching and often very graphic poetry in which God pleads with Israel to come home, to be faithful again. She has not been faithful, you see. Hosea pictures Israel as an adulterous wife who actually sells herself into prostitution—a metaphor for worshipping the gods of other nations. She forgets the God of Israel.
Through the course of Hosea’s book, God vacillates between hot anger with threats of horrendous destruction and moments of gentle pleading, urging God’s people to see the light, to turn from their waywardness, to come back.
“Plead with (her) (God begins), plead…
that she put away her whoring from her face…
or I will strip her naked
and expose her as in the day she was born,
and make her like a wilderness,
and turn her into a parched land,
and kill her with thirst…
But then God relents; thinks better of these plans and changes his tone:
I will now persuade her,
and bring her into the wilderness,
and speak tenderly to her.
From there I will give her her vineyards,
and make (in) the Valley… a door of hope.
There she shall respond as in the days of her youth…
And I will take (her) for my wife for ever; … in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will take (her) for my wife in faithfulness; and (she) shall know the Lord.
But Israel doesn’t respond. She remains unfaithful. God’s pained anger returns:
Hear the word of the Lord, O people of Israel;
for the Lord has an indictment against the inhabitants of the land.
There is no faithfulness or loyalty,
and no knowledge of God in the land.
Swearing, lying, and murder,
and stealing and adultery break out;
bloodshed follows bloodshed.
Therefore the land mourns…
And for the next 8 chapters God’s anger burns white hot.
“They sow the wind” God says. “They shall reap the whirlwind”.
But Divine anger and destruction is not Hosea’s message. He builds the case that Israel deserves destruction. They deserve to be turned away.
But in the end, Hosea is saying, God is not like that. When all is said and done, there is a surprise waiting for these undeserving ones. In spite of Israel’s sin; in spite of her unwillingness to do the right thing; in spite of her weakness, her waywardness, her flaws—God remains faithful to her.
In spite of everything Israel is, and isn’t, this is the truth about God:
When Israel was a child (God says), I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
the more they went from me…
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them.
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.
So let’s go back to the question I was given for today, because I want to change one of my answers:
Would God love us more if we were deserving?
Listen to Hosea. The answer is still no. What love could be greater than Hosea describes.
Does God love us any less because we are not deserving?
Listen again to Hosea. Who could be less deserving or more loved than his people?
Do we—can we, ever deserve the grace and love of God?
This is the end of the story, and surprisingly now, the answer must be yes.
Because God says the answer is yes.
God is free, Hosea is telling us, to love anyone God chooses to love, in any way God chooses and to any extent God chooses.
If Hosea is telling the truth, and I believe he is, and if God loves our miserable souls, then something deserving must have been put in here.
Here’s the way it is: Before we’ve done anything right; after we’ve done everything wrong; at the very moment we are lost and alone, the Creator God is looking on us with kindness; observing us without judgment, and calling:
How can I give you up…
my compassion grows warm and tender…
I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come to you in wrath.