Christians have different forms of Christianity.
I was eating dinner with a Catholic friend over a decade ago, and he was telling me how he believes that Christianity is about God changing him. On another occasion, I had dinner with this Catholic friend and a Lutheran, and both took issue with an evangelical who called Jesus his friend. They had the impression that this evangelical believed that Jesus was cool with whatever choices he made, like a buddy. “A real friend challenges you,” the Lutheran said. “And, once you meet one challenge, he gives you another challenge,” the Catholic said. On another occasion, the Catholic said that God has given us the gift of salvation, and God wants to see what we will do with it.
That kind of treadmill Christianity did not appeal to me then, and it does not appeal to me now. I am the sort of Christian who likes to emphasize God’s unconditional love and grace. By “grace,” I mean God accepting me even though I am a flawed person. There are all sorts of definitions of grace out there, within the Bible and outside of the Bible. I do draw on other definitions in my spiritual life: “God give me the grace to endure this situation,” I can find myself saying. There, grace is not so much God’s undeserved favor as it is God strengthening a person. But I need to feel that God accepts me even when I am flawed because my flaws so often turn up.
Not long ago, I reviewed Mark Strauss’ Jesus Behaving Badly: The Puzzling Paradoxes of the Man from Galilee. (Intervarsity Press sent me a complimentary review copy.) On page 76, Strauss quoted a lady who was recovering from preacher Bill Gothard’s Advanced Training Institute. The ATI defined grace as “the desire and the power to do God’s will.” She replied:
“Over the past 15 years, I’ve gradually learned that God doesn’t dislike me. He is always present and active, gentle and loving. When I sin, there is much grace. When I succeed, there is much grace. When I’m apathetic and can’t bring myself to ‘try’ any harder, His grace is still there with me. Grace is so much more than ‘the power and desire to do God’s will.’ It’s God Himself, carrying me whether I walk or stumble. It’s completely undeserved — God’s unmerited favor.”
See here to read her full letter.
That is the kind of God I need—-one who loves me and carries me even when I have difficulty trying. Does that mean that I should not try? Am I against Jesus challenging me or changing me? No on both counts. But there are times when my spiritual life does feel like a step forward, followed by a step back. I have to feel that God loves me even then. That does not preclude effort on my part. I believe that there is a standard of what is right and what is wrong, notwithstanding the moral ambiguity that may exist in areas. Consequently, I cannot follow every desire that enters my mind. As atheist Robert M. Price said in The Reason Driven Life, however, many people find that they make spiritual progress when they stop trying so hard.
I have issues with a model of Christianity that says that I will eventually showcase myself before God, and God will like what he sees because I have done well. I guess I have problems with the Gospel statement of “Well done, good and faithful servant,” right? Not necessarily. Those who have sacrificed to serve others and to do good may need the hope of that divine pat on the back to keep them going. I have a hard time envisioning myself showcasing myself before God because, again, I have flaws. I need grace.
Some may tell me that I am trying to craft God according to my personal preferences. I would say that there is a lot of subjectivity in everyone’s conception of God. I have made that point before, as have others. What I will also say, though, is that I need a foundation on which to build a spiritual life. There are religious concepts out there that I cannot do a whole lot with. Suppose that God’s love is conditional and based on people’s spiritual and moral performance. What exactly am I supposed to do with that? All that leads to is self-condemnation on my part. I need a spiritual concept that enables me to progress. God’s love and grace form that concept for me. Even if I am not as loving or as spiritually advanced as others, I am more loving than I would be without believing in God’s unconditional love and grace.
I will also add that I try not to dismiss uncomfortable parts of Scripture. But I do not let them overthrow my concept of God’s love.