"The reason you don't deserve God's love has nothing to do with you. And it's not because you're unworthy or because you're in some state of fallenness. No, love isn't concerned with those things. Good grief, love doesn't even see those things. The reason you don't deserve God's love is because love can't be earned, therefore… love can't be deserved."
I loved the way this sounded. The wild and beautiful logic of love. But when my friend responded I saw he was in a different place. "I knew it," he said. "I knew I deserved God's wrath." (I instantly recognized he was a religious person. Who else in our society uses the word, "wrath?")
"Wrath? No. What...? Why do you default to this position so quickly?"
"Well, if I don't deserve love, then I must deserve the opposite: God's punishment."
"No, you don't deserve punishment. Who told you that?"
I took a big breath, and let it out slowly. He was right. That is what the preacher said.
"Look," he said, "what else is there? If it's not love then it's pain. What do I deserve?"
I thought about this. It was a good question. What do we deserve? Where do we stand? I looked out at the window, closed my eyes, and immediately imagined standing in an open field. There were two formless entities at my left and right: punishment and love. And then with only a thought, I simply dismissed them. Just like that. They were gone with the breeze. It was just me and the open field. In the feel of that spaciousness, I said, "Maybe you deserve what everyone deserves, which is the freedom to decide how you're going to live." I opened my eyes, and looked back at him, "You deserve the chance to choose."
His shoulders relaxed for a bit, "It sounds good, but I'm not sure I deserve that kind of freedom." He looked away, squinting. Then the truth came out, "I don't deserve anything good to happen to me."
"Why would you say that?"
"I don't know. I guess it feels arrogant to assume anything other than punishment."
"Maybe it's arrogant to assume punishment? Why is punishment the humble approach? Is it really humility, or is it just an unhealthy sense of self-worth?" I thought some more. "You know, if you heard your child say, 'I don't deserve good,' you would come to his defense, wouldn't you?" I knew he wouldn't hesitate in his response.
He nodded yes.
"Yes. Yes, you would. I know you. You wouldn't let your child go down that path. Why do assume it to be different between you and God? Why would you assign a lesser love to God? God doesn't think you're worthless. He doesn't need you to think you're unlovable, or deserve anything less than something really good."
Then the whole thing took a turn. He said slowly, blandly, almost as quoting a nursery rhyme, "I know, I know, Jesus died for me so God can love me."
I stood up a bit straighter, "Wait, do you think the death of Jesus is the reason God loves you?"
His head nodded yes, but his face said, "I don't know. What do I think?"
I said, "Oh, I understand this now. This is where this is all coming from." I leaned over and lowered my voice. I knew what I was about to say was going to deconstruct a lot of years of thinking so I wanted to be as gentle as possible. "Look, Jesus didn't have to die to get God to love you. God has always loved you."
He thought a while. The question again, "But why did he have to die then?"
"Cuz we killed him."
I really didn't want to say anything else. I always felt like that kind of summed the whole thing up as neatly and as absurdly as possible. But, I couldn't help myself. I went on, "You're probably confusing the fact that we killed him, with God killing him. God didn't kill him. God didn't need for him to die to forgive us. How would that work anyhow? Are you saying there was something hanging over the head of God? Something forcing him to kill his son? Are you suggesting that something like justice was bigger than God and demanded God punish Jesus?"
I waited for his thinking to catch up.
"If that were the case that would make justice stronger than love. That would make love report to punishment. That's not right."
I noticed a look of relief, then fear ripple across his face, his countenance wrestling with implications. Before the fear could gain a foothold again I said softly, smiling, "No, no, no. God is love. Love drives out fear."
He leaned back dumbfounded, for the first time open to a new thought. I felt like I was on holy ground. "You have a choice to make, bud. You can religion out of fear, or love. It's your choice. I think that's what you deserve. You don't deserve love, because then you could earn it. And you don't deserve punishment, because, well, then life would be hell now wouldn't it? I think you deserve the space to choose, and since you have it, you should just choose love."
I put the mirror down softly. For some reason, I placed it straight, and parallel with the toothbrush. Both sat neatly perpendicular to the hand towel. The counter looked like it made sense. I flipped the lights off, peeled back the sheets, resting down into my bed, into my theology, into my new year.