Everyone knows the value of love and freedom. We desire and pursue them all our life and feel they are what we were made for and how we were made to function.
A person who loves is happy, eager, observant and generous. A person who is free does not get caught on the miserableness of other people; he or she lives according to their own nature. Desirable indeed! People like this would make vibrant families, strong economies and generous communities, and pick up the slack of those who fell behind, perhaps even getting them back into the flow of life.
So much for the altruism! In fact, ‘love’ and ‘freedom’ may already have become ‘weasel words’. The weasel was thought to suck eggs and leave them empty. This may not be what the weasel does but the idea is understandable. How many have heard the words ‘I love you’ and then been discarded, or been offered freedom only to be enslaved? Is there anything inside the word ‘love’ or the word ‘freedom’ when they are spoken to us? Freedom and love are more often talked about than achieved or even understood.
Love and freedom have very specific meanings and potency for those who follow Christ. They have met God in his free act of love towards them, and because of this are free to love. This is worth looking at again.
God doesn’t need to be constrained to love by anyone or anything because he is love. He chooses to bestow his love for reasons we can’t trace or secure by our efforts. Our love needs to be motivated by something or someone, and this is powerful and delightful while the stimulus remains. However, God sends his Son to seek and save people who don’t want to know him or who are openly hostile to him. He always acts according to his own nature and our heartlessness doesn’t frustrate him but gives him his opportunity. ‘God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8).
All this can be quite disarming. In fact, it may be one of the things we don’t like about God. Here are a couple of ways this may be so—one that is found among people generally, and the other that is particularly found among Christians.
One of the words often used in our modern vocabulary is ‘deserve’. When someone gets sick or is attacked or misunderstood, others will say, ‘They don’t deserve this’. On the surface, this sounds right enough: the person may have done nothing to warrant what seems like a pay back or punishment, but here they are, suffering. The trouble with this view is that it assumes the person should get what they deserve. Would we like this to be always true? Would we like to have an accident every time we are silly, or lose a friend every time we are mean? The truth is that, for most of the time, most of us get far better than we deserve. However, the idea survives, and secular humanism perpetuates the idea, that we are good and only deserve for good things to happen to us.
The worst part of this view is not the disillusionment it leads to but the fact that God’s nature is hidden from those who hold to it. God’s love is free! He doesn’t give us what we deserve; he gives us himself—extraordinarily and freely. We don’t deserve the creation God’s given us, or the providence we live in, and certainly not a message of forgiveness. On the other hand, to know God’s free act of love in sending his Son is the basis of our own freedom, and our freedom to love and be loved.
Truth is always an action of course. Love needs to be established, not as an idea or example but as a new freedom to love. Our problem is not the miserableness of enemies or neighbours or family but the lostness of not knowing the love of the Father. God’s Son knew this love. He was sent among us, loved us, embraced us and answered to God for everything wrong done by us, so we would know the Father’s love in the same way he did. Remarkable! It undoes us, or perhaps I should say, it undoes all the huff we have about ourselves, and brings us out into the light and the fresh air of what is actually true—that God is love, and that his love comes to us freely.
Through the Father’s love revealed in Jesus Christ, the illusion that we deserve anything dissolves. Jesus bears what we deserve on his cross. He wants the world to know that the Father loves believers in the same way the Father loves him.
Now for a second way we may avoid, or even dislike, the freedom of God’s loving. I refer to a ‘discipleship mentality’ that focusses on performance. I’m not referring to discipleship or being devoted to learning from Christ. That would have to be the best idea possible. Rather, I’m referring to a discipleship mentality that can only look at God through the lens of its own conscience. Will God hear my prayers? Have I met all the conditions? Can I enjoy life or should I always be checking my performance to see if God might be happy with me? People who live this way have the same problem as the secular humanist. They think favours only come to those who deserve them.
One of my recurring prayers is that God will release us all from the heresy of thinking that God gives his favours out according to our performance. Such a view has reversed the order of the good news of Jesus Christ. He died and rose and released us from our guilt and revealed the Father’s love, precisely, to change the way we live, not because we try to change.
Paul says, in paraphrase, ‘God sent his own Son among us, and condemned sin his his flesh, so that what he requires would be fulfilled in us who walk according to this good news revealed by the Spirit’ (Romans 8:1-4). If you turn that around and say we must change the way we live to receive the Father’s love, we are back in the driver’s seat, God’s love is hidden from our consciousness and we are far from free.
Walking according to the Spirit must mean that we rely on the love of God being poured into us (Romans 5:5). God’s love for us now flows in us. The Spirit reveals Christ—God’s love for us sinners—and this empowers us to change the way we live and to put to death the deeds that arise from our sinfulness (Romans 8:13). If this foundational truth is lost, there is no power to set us free or to send us out as lovers of God and of others. We will remain caught in the web of our own passions.
What is at stake here is not the well being of Christians but the honour of God. If the word we have heard is that we have to perform to be loved by God, he has been dishonoured and misrepresented. The truth is that he has freely chosen to love us and this is the sole fountain from which our life flows. To know this God and walk according to his Spirit is life and peace (Romans. 8:6). It is to have freedom and to love.
‘Oh, how abundant is your goodness, which you have stored up for those who fear you and worked for those who take refuge in you…’ (Psalm 31:19). This is the confidence and delight we can have in God our Father. Those who trust in his goodness, even while discovering more in themselves to regret and reject, will be free, and will love both God and man.
I, and other readers, would love to hear what you have discovered about the goodness of God our Saviour and the power of this to produce freedom and love.