The following post is from Kevin Harris, Director of Community Relations at The Marin Foundation.
When I went to the doctor as a child for a physical check-up, I remember the doctor tapping my knee with a little tool and my leg would automatically kick out. As a child it was little more than an amusing interaction, but I later learned that this reflex told the doctor information about my internal state of being (physically speaking) since it functioned as one way of checking my nervous system.
In the same way, our non-physical reactions and knee-jerk responses are connected to our spiritual and mental state of being. They tell us about the theological ideas and worldviews that have become deeply ingrained in our psyche and being. One common reaction that I have been noticing in Christian circles, particularly of the evangelical stripe, is an aversion to or an uneasiness with the idea that others are loved by God as they are when it is expressed in some capacity. When this sentiment is expressed in the context of talking about homosexuality or gender identity that is not normative, the chances of encountering a resistant reaction increases exponentially.
We have all heard this uneasiness expressed in a number of ways from something like, “Well yes that’s true, but you need to……” to tired clichés like “God loves you as you are, but He loves you too much to leave you that way.”
While I would agree that there is some truth in the latter statement, I primarily find it to be indicative of a larger issue that has infiltrated our collective consciousness: We are not comfortable with simply stating and having people understand that God loves them without any qualifiers and we lack trust in the redemptive impact that a deeper understanding of God’s unconditional love can bring about. The inability or refusal to communicate and allow others to understand that God loves them as they are without any qualifiers or following statements inadvertently implies that God’s love is not enough. Rather than functioning as an invitation to more deeply contemplate the incomprehensible love of God (where the sole focus should be), it shifts the focus back onto the ever-present need for growth.
I don’t think that those concerns are unmerited. What may be at the base of some of our fears on this topic is what Dietrick Bonhoeffer has defined as ‘cheap grace’. He believed that the secularization of Christianity can lead us to become culturally Christian and forego discipleship in the name of grace. Essentially, it is a cheap covering for sins where no contrition is required and grace replaces the sacrificial obedience that Jesus demonstrated and called us into on the cross. This idea coupled with the amplified individualism so prevalent in the West that influences our faith communities by emphasizing our feelings and subjective experiences of well-being over serious discipline and discipleship does not help to appease our concerns. As Mark Sayers stated in his new book The Road Trip that Changed the World, ”We judge our careers, marriages, and faith by whether it makes us feel good. Thus we prefer a form of faith that does not ask us to encounter our pain, to deny ourselves, to grow in areas which may be uncomfortable.”
But in our discontentment with allowing others to give priority to and ruminate upon God’s love for them, we lead them away from (in my opinion) a point that is integral: “Our obedience comes out of God’s love for us. (John Perkins)” Perkins goes on to say, “Then it is our gift to understand and move into our freedom in His Lordship. It is the understanding of God’s love for us that sets us free.”
If only we would encourage others to stop fixating on some future version of who they think God wants them to be and instead urge them to be still and know that God is God (Psalm 46:10) and to intimately know that we love, because God first loved us (1 John 4:19). To allow others to just be without the emphasis on the need for growth where they understand that there is nothing that they can do to make God love them any more or any less and they do not need to change anything to be a recipient of that love. To grasp that the Creator of the universe who placed the stars in the sky and knows their innermost being desperately longs for intimacy with them. The God who has granted us access into the ‘Most Holy Place’ (that was at a point in time just accessible once a year only by the high priest Hebrews 9:7) by Jesus’ sacrifice that tore the curtain (Matthew 27:51) allowing us the tremendous privilege of being able to go boldly into God’s presence. It is when we are reminded of these things rather than being instructed that this reality will start to root itself in our mind and heart.
Like Brennan Manning stated, “Only when God’s love for us goes from information in our head to a deep understanding in our heart, does lasting transformation come about.” Christianity is not about trying harder to be good people, but recognizing and becoming empowered by the gift, beauty, and love in the person of Jesus that leads us in gratitude to seek to emulate His self-giving posture in the process of renewing and restoring creation and submitting to God in all things. Henri Nouwen continues in the same vein when he said “Our deepest truth must be that we are God’s beloved. What reserve do we have to love, to give out of ourselves, if we first do not know that we are deeply and intimately loved. We can desire to become the beloved when we already know that we are the beloved.”
To my understanding, this love is not set in motion by any quality or function of its object. God simply loves because it’s God’s nature as scripture says, “God is love (1 John 4:8).” This love is in no way whatsoever contingent upon if others in the broader church or society think you are good, worthy, or acceptable of love as you are. As our understanding of God’s love for us as we are increases, so will our gratitude and our desire to live gladly into the life of the beloved that God has called us into.
God dearly loves you as you are. Period.