Thursday, August 18, 2011


At summer camp last week, I had a conversation with a group of high schoolers that I thought as rich and deep as any I’ve had recently. You’ll appreciate the simplicity and struggle their questions relate, and presumably, find them familiar.

It began with me asking what they thought about Communion and Jesus’ invitation to all at the Table. They wondered, “Just who does deserve to come to the Table? Have I earned a place? Do I deserve that honor?” The conversation then turned more general, and I asked if they’d ever received a gift for no reason. That really got them going. “I was taught you’re supposed to earn what you get,” they said. “So I feel bad when someone just gives me something. I always try to make up for it, to give them something in return. Otherwise, I feel guilty.” And then, they turned that experience on God, guessing that, “If I feel this strongly about my own moral behavior, God must too. God wouldn’t throw fairness out the window when it comes to judging our actions and choices, right?” Is God all about fairness, about making sure we get what we deserve?

Sounds familiar, amen?! Not only did such questioning spark the Protestant Revolution, but they reside still in the hearts of many Christians, committed as we are to being as good as possible. It’s not always easy to be decent to others, to treat people “as we want done unto us”, especially when we’re not getting the same kindness in return. So, we may figure, the reward for it all is that at least God smiles upon us, counts us more worthy, invites us to deeper communion when we do things right.

Then I asked the students, “So does what you’re saying mean that God loves you more than God loves those who don’t act as ‘good’ as you?” Suddenly, their commitment to fairness hesitated. “Uhh, I mean, God loves everybody…God just wants us to be good.” Sure, I countered, but if you are good, do you increase in God’s sight, deserve extra helpings of divine love. “I don’t think so…God loves everybody…I think…” A tough conundrum we faced.

So I asked, “Have you ever given a gift for no reason?” And that fired them up too, although this time they weren’t so concerned about whether it was ‘fair’ or not, or if they received anything in return. In fact, the gifts they described giving felt even cooler because they were received graciously, with no expectation to ‘return the favor,’ simply a recognition this gift came from the heart. The students said, “I gave the gift simply because I loved my (friend/parent/sibling/etc.), whatever their faults. And I wanted them to know that, to feel better just because.” I found that experience also quite familiar.

And I suspect you do too. In which case, I’ll ask you the same question I asked them, “Is it possible, or even likely, that’s how God feels about us?” Put differently, why would we transfer the human experience of guilt and fairness onto God’s feelings toward humanity, rather than our joy and pleasure at giving gifts unfairly to those we love?

In case it isn’t immediately obvious, I believe the second of those options- that God thinks grace, forgiveness and overwhelming love are more important than ‘fairness’- is more likely to be correct. 1 John claims, “God is love,” and so everything else we understand about God derives from what we understand about love. Do those we love always deserve the love we shower upon them? No, but that doesn’t matter. Can we be supremely angry at someone we love without ceasing to love that person? Yes, although surely none of us would prefer that! When those we love already shower love upon us, is our response to that motivated by ‘being fair’ or simply by the love that flows between us? I suspect it’s mostly the latter.

In which case, maybe fairness isn’t so important after all. Maybe Christian life is founded on something more-than-fair, what the reformer’s called Grace, but I prefer, simply, Love. May that infiltrate your lives anew this week.

Grace and Peace,
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