I read an article recently (ish, a couple of weeks ago) which wound up with the claim that Christianity was a religion where you can be loved and wanted simply for who you are, not for what you achieve.
This was one of Giles Fraser’s columns in the Guardian, and it made some very worthwhile points. It was helpful in particular where he targeted the misguidedness of a perennially shallow view of religion, which sees failure in anything that doesn’t meet materialistic and grandiose metrics of worldly success (‘… a successful priest ought to be hated rather than feted’). This is as much a necessary rebuke to Christians besotted with big visions and seduced by what Luther diagnosed as a ‘theology of glory’ instead of the ‘theology of the cross’ as a it is a courageous defence against misdirected criticisms from outwith Christianity.
But although it’s right to lift the burden of the pressure to do something or achieve something to earn favour and acceptance, I couldn’t help feeling that the point is being missed somewhat by shifting the burden onto ‘who you are’ or ‘who I am’ as the alternative basis of acceptance.
Of course, there is a lot to be said for the ‘who you are’ principle as a principle for how we should treat each other. None of us has the right to despise anyone for being unsuccessful, or a failure. No matter how weak, needy, disadvantaged, uncool, underwhelming, and unimpressive a person may be, they have intrinsic worth and dignity as a human being – certainly made in God’s image and sometimes also new-made in Christ’s – which means they should be accepted and valued just for being. It’s not what my neighbour does or what they have or what they’ve done or what they’ve failed to do that conditions the love I owe to them, but simply the fact that they are my neighbour, my fellow human being. This principle cuts across age, gender, race, class, disability, nationality, violations of the first commandment, violations of the seventh commandment, and any other way or combination of ways we have of classifying ourselves as human beings.
But that’s a principle for us as we relate to each other, all on a par as we are as the fallen sons and daughters of Adam, needing to subdue the worst excesses of our fallenness to make life on the earth we share bearable. It isn’t something that binds God.
How could God, in fact, love us for who we are? What are we, after all? if not guilty, unkind, self-indulgent, gossiping, grudge bearing, grasping sinners. And that’s just for starters – before you even mention godless, unrepentant, disbelieving, and disobedient. So if that’s what we are, unreconstructed walking exhibits of instinctive selfishness and innate hypocrisy, we’re thoroughly unlovely, including in the eyes of the God of love.
The secret of Christianity, its unique and counterintuitive core, is Christ for us. It’s not that God loves us for who we are, but that he loves us for who Christ is. Christ deserves all the love God has to give. It’s totally obvious and right and proper that God would love Christ, at the same time and for the same reason as he is angry with sinners and opposed to their sins. This is why it matters to be a Christian – a follower of Christ – to be identified with Christ, one with Christ, devoted to Christ – to renounce our selves in repentance and to commit ourselves to him in faith.
As far as God is concerned, we stand or fall entirely on our relationship to Christ. Haven’t we ever prayed, ‘For Jesus’ sake, amen’? This is why we have to. It has to be for Christ’s sake. If we won’t have anything to do with Christ, God will certainly never love us savingly for who we are. But if he finds us in Christ, he loves us and accepts us and values us as completely as he does Christ, who is altogether lovely.