Abundant Life: Behind the Post
This week I wrote a column on preaching that I don’t think should be particularly risky but that I know is. It’s about when Jesus says that he comes that we might have not just life, but abundant life. Why should it not be risky? Because it’s about God’s love. So how controversial can that be, right? I mean, Christians are supposed to be all about God’s love.
But here’s why it is risky, why I suspect it may annoy or frustrate or even offend some readers. Because in it I say that Jesus comes to tell us that we are loved, that we are worthy, that we are enough. And a huge part of the theology of a lot of Christians is precisely that we are unworthy and definitely not enough; in fact, for these Christians it is precisely our unworthiness that is our defining characteristic. After all, that’s what makes the whole system work. We are, the theory goes, not just undeserving of God’s love but because of human sin we deserve only God’s wrath and punishment. And so Jesus comes to endure that punishment in our place. And if we believe in him – and usually that means believing in him in a certain way – then we can be forgiven and thereby receive God’s love.
But I just don’t get that theology anymore. I say “anymore” because at one time, a fairly long time ago, the logic of that system made some sense to me. It all added up like a nice, neat math problem. But now I can’t quite figure out why, if God loves us, God has to punish us, punish Jesus in our place, or, for that matter, punish anyone. The typical answer is “justice.” “If someone broke into your house,” the argument runs, “you’d want justice.” Maybe, but why is justice only achieved through punishment? Why can’t justice be achieved by the person apologizing, or by the person making amends, or by any number of ways that don’t involve punishment? “Ah,” the questioner counters, “but what if it wasn’t just breaking in to your house, what if it were murder? How can someone amend for that?” Fair enough. But I still don’t understand why the scales of justice must be balanced through violence? Does taking one life really replace another? What kind of justice is that? And, finally, do I, as the offended, still not have the prerogative to forgive someone who has done something wrong to me, even something terrible? Does justice preclude forgiveness? And can you call it forgiveness if someone – anyone – had to be punished for it?
Well, these are some of the questions that swirl in my head about life and love and justice and forgiveness. I have a hunch that eventually we have to make a choice. Either Jesus comes in order to make it possible for God to love us – the justice-punishment scenario – or because God loves us – which is what I believe. If that’s true, then we are already beloved. We are already enough.
Notice I said “enough,” not perfect. Sometimes I’ve heard that people that who emphasize God’s love a lot – like me – don’t take sin seriously enough. But I don’t think that’s true. You can be enough without being perfect. By “enough” I mean worthy of love, dignity, and respect. For those with kids, which of them is perfect? None of them. But which is worthy of our love, care, concern, and respect? Exactly – all of them.
Which is why I think it’s a huge mistake to start your theology with a sense of our unworthiness and lack. Are we perfect? No, definitely not. But are we enough – enough, that is, to deserve love? Absolutely. Again, I think you need to make a choice. Either God sends Jesus to make us worthy of love or because God already loves us. I think the very fact that God sends Jesus demonstrates God’s profound love – in fact, conveys a kind of “worthiness” on each and every human being on the planet, regardless of whether they recognize, understand, or accept God’s love. Again I’ll go to an analogy from parenting. Even if your child doesn’t recognize, misunderstands, or even runs away from or rejects your love, does that change just how much you love him or her? Of course not.
I think that behind Jesus’ promise of abundant life stands God’s promise of abundant love. You can’t have one, I’d argue, without the other. So maybe what’s at the heart of all this is a simple question: when you think of God, do you think about God primarily as a kind of cosmic king that demands absolute and perfect obedience, or do you think of God more like a loving parent who will do just about anything to let God’s children know how much they are loved?
So what kind of God do you believe in? On that question, I think, just about everything else hangs.