I didn’t intend to sound preemptively sour for the Fourth of July. I will amend that next Sunday.
Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62
Nothing seems more obvious to us than the belief that God loves us. Judging by my two days at the Annual Meeting of the UCC Massachusetts Conference, proclaiming the love of God is fundamental to our identity. And this is right. But do we ever stop to ponder what it means that God loves us? And are there some senses of our word “love” that are more appropriate than others to apply to God?
The Bible rarely talks about God’s love for us directly. The Gospel of John talks about the Father’s love for us and for the world, and the letter of John contains perhaps the most wonderful sentence in the Bible: “God is love.” But in the other gospels and the letters of Paul, when the word love is used, it is most often about our love for God and neighbor, our duties to love. Not God’s love for us. But then some of Jesus’ parables speak of God’s love almost directly, especially the wonderful parable of the prodigal son, welcomed back joyously and without hesitation by his father.
The passing of Mohammed Ali, a remarkable figure in many ways, reminded me of that beautiful but curious song written for him: “The Greatest Love of All.” The song sets out its position very clearly: “Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.” Now I’ve heard other preachers lash out at the song. It’s not all bad; it’s a beautiful and stirring song, whether in the original version by George Benson for the Ali biographical movie, or the tour de force by Whitney Houston. It soars with some grace about self-affirmation that resonates with the black pride movement. But it also works like an anthem to self-love, to the idea that the goal and purpose of love is self-affirmation.
I’m not sure where this understanding of love came from; I wish I had time to research it. But the idea that we need love in order to develop a positive self-esteem, so that we can be successful and happy, has strongly shaped our psychology, our child-rearing, and our theology. We look to our parents to provide a strong base of self-esteem, and to God also, as our heavenly parent. The basic idea is probably pretty sound and backed up by studies, but a former colleague of mine in psychology blames the idea in part for an increase in narcissism; that’s a personality disorder in which people crave admiration and have an exaggerated sense of their own talents and worth.
We, as children, are typically encouraged to have faith in ourselves. To believe that we can be whatever we want to be. We tell kids: You can be the president! (Now I don’t know why we say that. We don’t seem to admire any of our presidents, nor the current candidates. Maybe someone should have said to a young Clinton and Trump, you could be president some day, but it’s ok if you want to step aside and give someone else a chance.) Eventually we find that we really can’t be anything we want to be. I’d make a terrible president. OR movie star, or concert pianist. I did have to believe in myself to get through grad school; because almost everyone getting a doctorate finds himself in the storm of self-doubt—‘am I smart enough to be here?’
But that wrestling with doubt in my capability and worth is pretty much a recent phenomenon, something people in the Bible didn’t worry about. To be sure, some of the prophets wrestled with self-doubt, like Jeremiah, even Moses. But most people before modern times knew who they were and what they were supposed to do. Back then, you were often born into your profession and life work, learning it from your parents.
All of that changed when our capitalist economy figured out that this way of passing down a trade is not only personally oppressive, but also a very inefficient use of human resources. You might not be skilled in the same way your parent was skilled. And our economy might not need as many tailors, or whatever, as it did when your father was working—once, say, someone invents the sewing machine.
So nowadays, we have to divine what we will do with our life, and it’s often painful, even though the rewards can be great. I am glad I didn’t have to become a patent draftsman like my father, but becoming a theologian was a real test. And we’re all in the same boat: Faced with much uncertainty about who we are, what we are to do with ourselves, and how we will make a living. Now people have always faced uncertainty about being able to survive and thrive, probably even more in the past; but we weren’t so uncertain about who we are. That’s why the steadfastness of personal relationships is so important today. I might not succeed in my job as I want, I might get laid off, but I can depend on my spouse’s love; or I can still be a good mother and receive back my children’s affection.
And so we come to rely so much on our parents and spouses for self-affirmation, for a steady source of esteem amid all the uncertainties of finding ourselves (remember as well that marriages used to be largely arranged, and so there again we have a tremendous source of modern freedom that brings us anxiety.)
And so it’s natural that we also look to God as our parent to be that source of self-esteem. But that’s not what people in the Bible were looking for. They sought for God as a loyal protector—more like a king—and one who would deliver on the promises God made to Abraham, that his offspring would be a mighty nation. That’s hesed—usually translated “steadfast love.” They had a trust that God’s hand was behind historical events that we sometimes have difficulty sharing.
So I think it’s reasonable for us to look to God to uphold us in our quest for self-identity and self esteem. We want to be assured that we are somebody, and that we are good at what we do and that we have value, have worth. So I might approach God seeking a love that will assure me that I am valuable, that my path has meaning, that even the accidents that befall me were perhaps ordained by God so that my individual path in life, my personal quest for a rewarding and meaningful life, will be fulfilled. It was all part of God’s plan for me, I might say.
I believe God does grant us this, and provides for us in this need. Because God is gracious and merciful and a good provider. But I’m not convinced that we are looking for the best thing from God when we look for self-assurance, as from a supportive parent. What is at the root of our need? Well, our modern state of freedom. When we say “you are free,” that means that you are expected and required to find your own profession, your own employment, and your own spouse. Such freedom can be exhilarating, but also produce great anxiety. We don’t always find a perfect fit in our career or in our spouse. And then it feels like we have no one to blame but ourselves. So modern freedom is what it is: it’s both good and bad.
But maybe God has other gifts for us than self-assurance amid the stresses and doubts along the way of the path of modern freedom. Because the problem with modern freedom is that it is very individualistic. My life is all on me; and it’s all about me and my path, my career and my quest for romance. It’s all about how I make a name for myself. And everything else becomes an escape from the pressures of trying to do this. So when I’m not working hard and overcoming heart break, I work on hobbies that will relax me, or I lose myself in escapist entertainment, or I take refuge in my home, where I can just be myself. Historians tell us that what Americans think of as the “traditional family” with its family values came about in the early 19th century, what we sometimes call the Victorian age. Back then, men were charged with this then new task of making a name for themselves in the world of commerce; the idea of figuring out a lucrative and rewarding trade or career was still pretty new then, with the industrial revolution kicking into high gear, making our economy much more dynamic and fluid. In the face of the pressures of this new way of life, the home and family became redefined as a domestic refuge from the pressures of making it in the world. Women and children were supposed to be an oasis for the hard-working man. And that put a particular kind of pressure on women and children, too, curtailing who they could be. But of course now things are different, and that old vision of home as a refuge from the pressures of proving yourself can hardly stand. Our economy figured out that it could produce a whole lot more if half of the adult work force (the women, and for a time even the children) were not stuck at home, and so many women were able to discover their talents, beside just keeping house and raising children. And today even our children are under much pressure at an earlier age to compete, to prove themselves, to start building a resume. Home feels a lot busier today than it once did. Because now women and even children are “free:” yes, they can do whatever they want, but they are also under intense pressure to make themselves into something valuable, or face failure.
God can still be our refuge from these pressures, even if the Victorian home and its family values cannot. But maybe instead of looking to God just to be our refuge, we ought to look to God for an alternative life to the one of self-making. Maybe we ought to ask God for an alternative freedom to the freedom that leaves everything on me and for me. Maybe we shouldn’t look to Sunday to provide a moment of pick-me up and refreshment from the mad rush of the work week—although we do need that, and Sunday can still be that for us. But maybe Sunday ought to be the one sacred day that belongs to our other life, our different life, the life that belongs to God, and not to our economy. A life where God defines who we are, instead of the life where we try to prove ourselves to the satisfaction of companies, schools, organizations, governments, and potential mates. To use Paul’s terms: A life where the Spirit reigns, not the law. A life where we do not focus on works of the flesh, works that will accrue a good name, positive reputation, and excellent earning potential to this, my particular body; such a life tends to bring in its train strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, “and things like these” (Paul leaves us room to fill in as appropriate); but instead a life like what Paul describes when he tells the Galatians to “Live by the Spirit” and to bear the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These aren’t interior dispositions that we have in our individual hearts; Paul wants the Galatians to be a community where these fruits of the Spirit are their way of life. Bearing these fruits won’t necessarily make us much money, and they might not impress that hot girl or guy you met at the gym. (…) But these are the fruits of a truly humane and good life, where people love one another, just because. And because Jesus loved his disciples in this way, and commanded us to love one another. And because the world needs this alternative way of life; we need this alternative way of life. We need a way of life in which we love each other like we love our own children, as God loves us like God’s own child. If we don’t cultivate and nurture and prayerfully seek God’s power to establish this way of life, this way of love called church, then everything good will eventually be swallowed up by the pressures of maintaining our powerhouse economy at ever-higher levels of production, and its “freedom” will be the only one we have.
We need to be freed from that freedom. Church needs to be a place where we are liberated from the freedom of our economy, the freedom that puts everything on us to make ourselves worthy, make ourselves valuable, make ourselves sexy. I think that’s what Paul’s words mean for us today: “For freedom Christ has set us free.” And he obviously doesn’t mean that you are free to be whatever you want to be, free to be the president. “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters,” so Paul continues, “only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence (literally in the Greek, “for the flesh,” for making something of yourself, we might say), but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
So in this alternative way of life called church, love isn’t the domestic refuge we seek from the struggles of freedom and self-proving. Love is freedom; and freedom is love. And even more puzzling: freedom leads us to become “slaves to one another” in love.
So what then, is this love of God? If God’s love isn’t just a parental-like support of us as we strive to make our life, even though it can be that, what (else) is God’s love? If it doesn’t mean that God is there to assure us that we are valuable and good individuals, even when others fail to recognize us as such, what is God’s love?
I think the answer may be as simple as translating the phrase, “God loves us,” as, “God has claimed us as God’s own.” It’s not that God thinks highly of us or really appreciates us, faults and all—although there’s some truth to that. But God is also our best source of being honest with ourselves, when we, unlike the narcissist, are good and ready to take stock of our faults and hopefully to do something about them. So God’s love doesn’t mean that God thinks we are great even when we are not at our best. God takes us beyond self-esteem and the quest to affirm myself as an employee and a romantic partner. God takes us beyond the freedom to make something of myself. Because God’s love means that I belong to God. I am not my own. I am God’s, God’s child, God’s partner, God’s friend. And that is true regardless of whether I prove myself to be a worthy partner or not. (Probably not—it’s pretty hard to match God’s standard as a partner of God’s.) God’s love means God claims us as his own, flawed though we are. And that love is one and the same with the freedom God gives us: freedom from the lonely and limited existence in which I try to live my life for me and to own for myself good things and a good reputation for myself.
For freedom Christ has set us free. Let us be the church of this alternative love, this alternative freedom, and love one another, not keeping that love to ourselves, but opening it up as far as the bounds of God’s good earth.