To Live for God is to Miss the Point
By Roland Hearn
To say we live for God as an expression of our Christian walk is not an unfamiliar statement. The problem is the idea deflects attention from the truth. That which is seen as living for God would be better understood as living with God.
It was Sunday morning. Like most Sunday mornings, I was attending a worship service. My role in denominational leadership means I see a wide variety of such events. As normal, the worship service followed the script. Eventually it arrived at the time that makes me cringe with its capacity to secularize the sacred—the announcements! I have a great deal of personal objection to announcements. They usually end up in a prominent place in the service; they take a time dedicated to drawing us into the presence of God and force us to focus on the mundane. I have learned across the years, of course, how to navigate my frustration. On this morning, however, I was confronted by something that was, and is, significantly discouraging to me in terms of the way we think of church life and programming. The pastor moved through his list of events to place before the congregation’s focus and eventually arrived at an emphasis on Sunday school. He underscored the need for those gathered to attend by suggesting that such practice “makes Jesus happy,” and absence “makes him sad.” It was all I could do to stop myself fleeing the building.
The idea that our attendance to church events affects God’s emotional state is bizarre at best. Our willingness to manipulate people by appeals to their shame is distressing. While recognizing both issues, there is still a much greater problem revealed by this comment. We persistently hold to this idea that spiritual discipline is something we “do” for God. We are often led to perform that which is perceived as appropriate duty to either appease God’s demands or to gain God’s favor.
A sense of duty or compulsion motivates many to Christian service. Leaders often berate fatigue in that process by appealing to Scriptures, like Galatians 6:9, which suggest we should not grow tired in doing good because there is a reward attached if we don’t give up. This specific passage rests in a discourse on the qualities of life lived in union with the Spirit. It is built upon the idea of freedom from human struggle that accompanies the life of faith expressed in love. It is not suggesting the motivation for doing good is the reward that will follow. It is reinforcing the concept that the life well-lived consequentially ushers in reward. It is about the flow of life, not the motivation.
The idea of reciprocity is one for which most people are familiar. “You do something for me, and I will do something for you,” is not at all an uncommon theme of relationships. Such ideas are societal norms across a wide variety of cultures. It’s probably true that most people feel a sense of dis-ease when they are recipients of a gift, or a loving gesture, for which there is no opportunity to respond. Relationships rest on this idea of give-and-take, or so it seems.
In direct contrast is the idea of grace. Most Christians with whom I have the joy of associating would proudly hold to the notion that salvation is a gift from God. We can do nothing to gain God’s favor or to lose it. We must simply receive God’s love. And yet the whole Christian journey seems dominated by this construct that now, having received grace, we must somehow live in a way that reflects our gratitude. That certainly seems like it would be the right way of constructing things. The idea that—having received grace—we act without appreciation is anathema.
However, there is indeed a far more wonder-filled way of constructing the life of faith. It has to do with a central principle of love, which is often missed in the way we understand relationships. The clue is found in the centrality of honor and blessing as represented in Scripture. Matthew 15 tells the story of Jesus being confronted by various religious leaders. The charge is made that Jesus’ disciples do not follow the established traditions. Jesus’ response is to quote Isaiah’s prophetic condemnation that the people of God honor God with words but not with their hearts. Their actions follow an established form, but their hearts do not reflect the focus of that form. Genuine faith is the exact opposite, says Jesus.
To really get at what is taking place, it becomes essential to recognize one simple truth. This truth can transform our very lives and the way we conceive of faith and relationships. The truth is the communication of honor always accompanies love. Honor is, by definition, “the attributing of worth.” To love another is to value them. It is not possible to conceive of an adequate expression of love that devalues or dishonors another.
Our existence is fraught with experiences and constructs which are perceived as devaluing. It’s simply the reality of life. There are few who could say they do not know what it feels like to struggle with worthlessness. It is the struggle reflected in the eyes of Adam and Eve as they looked at the forbidden fruit. There, in that moment, they sensed their gaze was locked upon a road that would offer great significance. The broken relationship that followed was filled with shame and dishonor, however. It has been a feature of our struggle ever since. God’s words and actions portrayed in that story are not those of one arbitrarily deciding punishment for irrational constraints. They shed the light of love upon the hollow reality of broken relationships.
Our lives are indeed plagued by the condition of humanity reflected in that origin story. We live in a reality dominated by a worldview cast in the context of diminished love. It’s not that God’s love is diminished or inadequate. It’s that our appropriation of such love is significantly challenged by a distortion of our own worth. That distortion is the product of sin’s general impact upon humanity, the subsequent cultural expressions of that impact, and, in turn, upon individuals’ perceptions of reality.
But here is the good news: God’s love issues forth with unrestrained expressions of our worth to God. We are more valuable to God than our minds can grasp. The idea that it is impossible to do anything to gain God’s love is more than simply a measure of the magnitude of God’s love. It is descriptive of the very nature of love. Love cannot be earned in any circumstance—human or divine. Love rests in the one’s heart who loves. The one views the other with unmitigated worth. Love declares boldly and without restraint—you are valuable to me.
The salvation of humanity by the grace of God is not an expression of whimsical fondness. It is not even a product of divine empathy. God’s offer of grace is not a deliberated course of action designed by one that will triumph over evil in a cosmic conflict. It is the only thing that love can do. God cannot not love us. As a result, God cannot not value us. It is God’s very nature.
This has one, at least, extremely significant implication for us. As God offers us love, in which is contained the inestimable value with which God holds us, God invites us to walk and work alongside God’s very being. When we talk about God’s plan for humanity, we consider with awe the privilege of having the opportunity to give expression to the love we have received. We then marvel at such grace. Indeed, we should. It is foreign to our experience. To work with God in pursuit of the glory of God is not, however, a strange thing. It is the nature of love. Our unwritten futures must come about as the product of our journey with God, not for God. We may believe that we are living for God, and there is something almost poetic in that concept. Such ideas, however, must be subordinate to the paradigm that the very character of God is one of embrace and enrichment through shared experience.
God cannot not love us. As that is true, it is equally true that God cannot not value us. The highest expression of the worth of the other is the sharing of life together. When one shares life and love, one is transformed by that very process. We gain a new perspective of our worth by becoming vulnerable to the love of another. God’s love transforms us as we journey with God’s love through the life we create in concert with God’s loving preoccupation—the valuing of humanity. It is entirely inadequate to say we live for God. We live with God, or we have not yet begun to understand God!
Question: Much of our discipleship journey is dominated by our desire to adequately reflect our gratitude for God’s grace. In what ways might this be a potentially destructive focus?
Roland Hearn is a denominational leader in the Church of the Nazarene with responsibility for the work in Australia and New Zealand. Roland has been in pastoral ministry thirty-five years, married thirty-seven, and has four adult children. His focus on God’s love healing human brokenness is featured in a weekly YouTube vlog called: A Walk in the Garden.
Towards a Theology of Shame and Love:
To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.