I run risk at this point in our series on Christian Spirituality of repeating myself. But since it is the New Year — and I have also interrupted our discussion with my most recent piece on divorce — allow me to recap.
The year 2017 (as far as our discussion is concerned) was about tearing down. We closed out 2017 laying waste to the notion of Christian obligation. Before that, we had laid waste to the notion of Christian freedom (that is, that Jesus died that we might do as we please).
We also discussed that the Christian soul is composed of three parts: The outer courts, the outer sanctuary, and the inner sanctuary. The first two represent what Scripture calls the flesh, and in the Christian life, unlike the Old Testament, they are established by us, for both represent the desire to keep our distance from God, one by self-will, the other by attempting to keep the Law (which today amounts to a Law of our own making).
The Year 2017 was about tearing down . . . we laid waste to the notion of Christian obligation. 2018 shall be about building up.
“Christian Freedom” and Christian Obligation are in fact related to these areas of the soul, for it is in the name of Christian freedom we occupy the outer courts, and it is in the name of Christian obligation that we occupy the outer sanctuary. But it is only by occupying the inner sanctuary that we can engage in true Christian spirituality and progress in the Christian life.
And this is what we shall discuss in 2018. 2018 (as far as this series is concerned) will be about building up. We shall discuss what builds up and nourishes the Christian soul.
To begin, let’s talk about motivation. Let’s begin with Christian obligation. What motivates us when we are motivated by obligation? Now we might say obligation is itself our motivation, but what is underneath it? What hides under its surface? What do we hope to achieve by doing what we ought to do? The answer is righteousness. Our motivation in Christian obligation is to become, or at least be perceived — by God, by others — as righteousness.
Now what about “Christian Freedom”? What motivates us when we do whatever we please? We might say anything at all, but I would like to propose that whenever we do as we please, ultimately our goal is to meet our own needs. Whether we are out at the bars to have a good time or climbing up the corporate ladder to achieve worldly success, we are attempting to meet our own spiritual, emotional and physical needs by doing so, by our own ability and effort.
It will be helpful to keep this in mind as we now leave the outer courts and outer sanctuary and venture forth into the inner sanctuary of the Christian Soul. What motivates us here? At first, that may be hard for us to answer. After all, if we are not doing as we wish, nor are we doing as we should, what is left?
The answer is love. Think back to your first encounter with Jesus. What was it that characterized that experience? Was it an overwhelming sense of obligation? Was it an overwhelming sense of being able to do as you please? I sure hope not!
No, it was love. And hopefully for all of us, an overwhelming sense of love. It was love that characterized our first encounter with God. And it is love now, I would argue, that characterizes it, still. Our presently imperfect lives may be cluttered with obligation and self-will, but our true self, found in Christ, is led by, drawn by, and motivated by love.
In practice, love flows in two directions. First, God loves us. The goal of the Christian life is God loving us. Obligation can often be a refusal of that love. Someone comes to us telling us what we ought to do or be in order to be pleasing to God, and so we refuse to receive God’s love until and unless we do or become that thing. But God is already pleased with us, not on the basis of our actions, but His.
Obligation can often be a refusal of God’s love. We refuse to receive God’s love until and unless we do or become the thing we ought to become.
Second, we love God. Now, I must be careful here what I mean when I say “We love God.” I do not mean we should love God. I mean that we do love God, because God first loved us. Obligation does not and cannot occupy this part of the soul.
But obligation tries to mimic this love. It says, “since we love God, we should.” Or, “if we really loved God, we would.” Or “because we love God, we must.” But just as God already loves us, so we already love God. It is an established fact. And it is this love that perfectly govern our actions.
Allow me to illustrate. Suppose you are in love. Because you are in love, you naturally do what someone in love does: You want to spend every waking moment with the one you love. You want to do things for the one you love. You gladly sacrifice yourself for love.
Then one day, the one you love turns to you and says, “Since you love me, you must . . . ” How would you feel? I will guess that whatever love you had would quickly disappear. Or at the very least, it would be in great jeopardy of being lost forever.
Love for God is like this. From the inner sanctuary, we do what we do because we are genuinely in love with God. We desire to please Him. We earnestly want to be where He is. It is this love that forms our language of the Spirit by which we are both led and motivated by Him.
And this love cannot tolerate the imposition of obligation, because love cannot be forced — nor, I would add, can it be manipulated. The moment it senses tyranny in the relationship, it shuts down.
Many of us are secretly resentful toward God because our relationship with God is like this illustration. It is characterized by God constantly saying to us, “since you love me, you must . . .”, or “if you really loved me, you would . . . ” As a result, there is not much love left in the relationship.
The antidote to this condition is two-fold, I believe. The first is to cut away from your life all areas of your relationship with God not built upon the genuine love you have for Him. If you are doing anything for God not out of a genuine love for God, it is because someone else has cut in on your relationship with God. That someone must be cut out.
Most importantly, allow yourself to be loved by God. And loved deeply. Return to your first love. This does not mean try to find a way to love God more, but be loved by God more. This, after all, was your first love. “We love God, because He first loved us.”
To love more, we must be loved more. Allow God to take you deeper into His true, perfect and unfathomable love.
Photo by Wesley Quinn on Unsplash