I fear that too often Christianity is the product of social compliance rather than the fruit of Christ’s love in us. Wherever this is true the church loses her impact on the world. The solution? We need more stubborn lovers who are ready to dismiss a life of safe compliance in favor of a risky passion for Christ.
Compliance comes when we focus on training in the doctrines of the faith and treat an affective love for Christ as optional. The assumption is that sound training will ensure a proper orthodoxy. And if we have enough trained people we can then fix the world. More training, more well informed people, more fixing: and then Christ will at last have a world he can be proud to call his own.
There are of course proof texts to support this venture in fixing, especially if we extend childhood training into the sphere of training adults. Moses, for instance, called on the Israelites to “teach [God’s commandments] diligently to your children . . .” (Deuteronomy 6:7); and in Proverbs 22:6 we read “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”
These are, of course, key truths for parents to heed in getting children to the front porch of adulthood with a solid orientation to God and his ways . . . but they do not by themselves ensure a love relationship with God. And love is what God desires from us.
Jesus, we recall, offered his own love by disclosing his bond with the Father. His mission was to call us to the Father with whom he lives in the unity of eternal selfless love. His coming also revealed the Father’s heart to share that love, even at the expense of the Son’s crucifixion. It was the overflow of God’s communing heart.
So in John 5 Jesus spoke of his equal standing with the Father and told his audience that “the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing” (verse 20). But the theologians of the day—Bible scholars who could match wits with the best teachers of our own day—rejected Jesus.
Was it because they lacked evidence? Or that Jesus was less than credible in his claims to be able to forgive sin—even when he supported that claim by lifting a lame man out of his paralysis? Or unconvincing when he gave sight to a man born blind? Or impossible to take seriously when he raised Lazarus from the dead?
No. It was that Jesus refused to conform to a faith that had no appetite for God’s love. They were all about compliance; and the underlying love that moves a compliant person is approval: to be told, “good, you’re one of us”. The horizon of such training is much too low—one that fails to keep God himself in view. Truths about God are enough.
Jesus exposed the problem in John 5. He reviewed a variety of testimonies in support of his deity with the hostile audience, but without expecting the compliant theologians to respond. Instead he highlighted the real issue: “I do not receive glory from people. But I know that you do not have the love of God within you. . . . How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the one and only God?” (John 5:41-42, 44).
The problem is still alive. I can think, for instance, of a bright but pre-packaged student I once worked with. He came with a heritage of creedal correctness, spiritual duties, and with God’s love reconfigured as an “enabling grace”—that is, as a newly created human capacity given by God so that we can become more and more godly with God’s help.
It sounded good but it didn’t take too long for me to realize that his focus was on his system of faith rather than on Christ himself; and that to him my call for a response to Christ’s love as the starting point of any proper theology was just so much chatter. In his final paper he ignored the course survey of Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and others who all spoke of God’s love in Christ as central. It was as if he had never attended the class: God’s love was never mentioned in his term paper. He came with the approval offered in his prior training and that was enough.
I can also think of a church I once visited that offers pristine doctrine and has a great training program, yet when I spoke to a pair of long-time members about God’s compelling and captivating love in Christ it was as if I was speaking a foreign language. Their silent response was clear: “from what you’re saying we know you aren’t one of us”. My thought in turn: their nicely packaged but disaffected faith will only reach a local pool of compliant personalities in search of social acceptance.
Love is what God really wants of us. God’s heart is that we respond to his love and then overflow with it to others who are starved for something greater than the sawdust of a human-focused-faith. So if we find our churches don’t grasp the point, please feel free to import some of God’s stubborn love. You may get crucified for it, but never mind. It’s happened before.