God Doesn’t Care What You Think!
By Kristian Bonde-Nielson
Partnering with God following the rule of love rather than the rules of life.
What if God doesn’t really care about our ethical positions? What if our ethical codes are merely abstract pieces of dogma with potentially little relevance in our lives? What if God is not concerned about whether we can configure the correct ethical stance on all things? Perhaps there are more pressing things for us to be doing.
There’s an old story dating back to the seventh century where the Roman Catholic Church sent missionaries from Rome to Ireland, to where the early Celtic Christians were settling. A big theological debate ensued. The deeply puzzled Celts went to a hermit living in the forest and asked, “How can we discern if these Roman Catholics are truly Christian?” In response, the hermit answered with the simplest and perhaps also truest of questions, “Are they hospitable?”
To discern whether a group of people were Christians, these Celts had adopted a simple measure—Hospitality! If you are welcoming strangers into your life and home, then that might be the most Christian way to measure anything. Sharing your possessions and being kind to other people are some of the most traditional Christian values you can find. So simple. And yet with the potential to change the world.
But can the Christian life really be this simple? We tend to complicate ideas such as Christianity, God, faith, and life by our endless discussions back and forth. Don’t get me wrong. I love theology. And I especially love discussing theology. In fact, my favorite topic to discuss has always been Christian ethics. Applying faith to the ordinary life of ordinary people seems to be one of the most important things to do as both a believer and a pastor. However, the more I think about it, the more I get a sense that perhaps I’ve been going about this the wrong way.
A common prejudice in almost every religion, including Christianity, is the belief that the religion constitutes a set of strict religious rules that followers are expected to obey. This creates boundaries both within and around religious groups, which serves to disconnect people on both an individual and a communal level. We have all indulged in these kinds of conversations because they felt like really important conversations. It has almost felt as if we could get those questions right then we would partner with God almost automatically. If we could just figure it out, we would somehow be on the right path.
But what if true Christianity was never about our ethical positions but our human actions? What does my theoretical position matter if I don’t show hospitality? What good is solid Christian dogma if there is no mercy or grace?
Every bit of the Jesus-story forces us to get our heads out of the books and correctness, and into the messy business of doing something together with God. “The kingdom is here,” Jesus repeats over and over and over. It’s here, it is “at hand”! What if Jesus was saying that the kingdom is here but we also have a responsibility to bring about it? The kingdom is available. The kingdom is possible.
We see Jesus breaking rules when he heals the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath. According to the ethical rulebook of the Pharisees, this was considered “work” and work was prohibited on the Sabbath. Jesus also knew that some religious people would consider him unclean for touching the sick man, but he nevertheless acted with pure love and compassion. I am sure he does so because he knows the rule of love is far superior to the love of rules. And the rule of love is central to bringing in the kingdom of God. It is not surprising therefore that Jesus has a permanent beef with the Pharisees. So much so that they begin plotting against him to kill him. I suspect the beef is about the love of rules. They love the rules. The static, dogmatic ethical positions. The do’s and don’ts. The boundaries. The setting themselves apart from the rest of the world. Yet, for them, the rule of rules triumphs the rule of love.
Christian ethics cannot remain a static cognitive set of rules. It needs to result in action, not just remain an attitude produced by thinking through a set of beliefs. Ethical positions alone will not change the world because there are just that—positions! Static statements about what we think. A way of knowing if we are on the right track. The problem is, that a track is for movement. To be on the right track is to be heading somewhere. Being on the right track with no movement is to be heading nowhere.
Being a pastor, people often think I have all the answers. One young girl made a lasting impression on me one year whilst on a church camp. I’d known her a few years; she was someone always in the process of questioning things and trying to figure stuff out. During this week I am convinced she asked me around fifty questions about my position on various matters. I never gave her clear, black and white answers because her questions demanded more ambiguous responses. Towards the end of the camp, she asked what I thought was the million-dollar question—what was my view on tattoos? As a pastor, and a Christian, what was my theological response to tattoos? I remember desperately trying to find the right thing to say, but in fact, I had nothing to say. I had no view on tattoos. The only thing I could say was that I was probably not going to get one myself because I genuinely hate things that are painful and hurt.
I have always admired this young girl’s curiosity. A lot of her questions led to deeply meaningful conversations. But I always felt like the questions were aimed at the wrong person. Or perhaps her questions were searching for the wrong answers.
What if we began asking different questions altogether? What if we went from wondering what God thinks about something and started imagining how God feels about it? What if our questions led us to explore what God is up to and how we could join in? I truly believe answering these sorts of questions would lead to partnering with God in a way that more effectively brings in his kingdom.
One of the most difficult topics in recent history has been the topic of abortion. As a European it seems like one of the most divisive topics for Americans. In a religious context it has certainly proven almost impossible to even agree to disagree. But here’s my suggestion: What if we stopped discussing altogether trying to be right and began asking where God needs partners? Surely God needs partners caring for the poor, the orphans, the fatherless and the widows. God needs partners welcoming the broken families into communities. God needs partners bringing hope and help to all the single parents in our neighborhood. God needs our cooperation much more than our doctrines and right answers. God needs our hands to reach into this world with love and compassion. God needs our hands to show hospitality to the homeless and the lonely.
What if God’s focus is not on our ethical positions but on inviting us into the messy business of creating His kingdom on earth? Maybe that’s what it looks like following the rule of love rather than just loving the rules of life.
Question: Can you identify areas in your life where your ethical stance has become too fixed, causing you to judge people rather than love them?
Kristian Bonde-Nielsen is a pastor in Vanløse Frikirke (Free Church) in Copenhagen, Denmark. He studied theology and leadership at Scandinavian Academy for Leadership and Theology. He is involved with a (mainly) Danish podcast called “Spadestik” and likes to play golf.
To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.