I’ve been doing regular quiet times.
I’ve been meeting for breakfast with a good friend I trust.
I finished the first two versions of my next book.
I took my kids on dates and made more time for my wife.
I lost 10 pounds and have been eating healthier.
I was mentally reviewing that list in my head the other night walking out of the office when I bumped into a tragic lie I was unaware I still believed.
As I left work, I thought to myself, “God must be really happy. He must really love me right now.” In the space of a single stride, I felt like God leveled a long held belief and asked me simply, “Did I love the prodigal son more when he was in the pigpen or in my arms?”
Ugh. Sometimes I feel like those old commercials where they say, “I’m not a doctor but I play one TV.” Only I would say, “I’m not a Christian, I just play one on a blog.”
Why? Because my thought that God loves me when I have a “good month” is so opposite of what grace is. In my version of the prodigal son story, I am covered with mud. From a long way off I can see the father’s angry face. He is enraged. He is disgusted with me. His scowl seems to radiate from miles as I walk. As I walk, I shout out promises to him:
“I’ll do better this time!”
“I’ll stop being so cocky!”
“I won’t mess up again!”
“I’ll stop gossiping!”
“I’ll be more consistent with my quiet time!”
With each step, every shout, his face shifts a little. His anger seems to dissipate the closer I get and the louder I make my promises. I walk and shout, shout and walk until at last, I cross his property line and collapse on his farm. Not in his arms, but at least in his presence.
He gives me his love, in the form of a shiny token. I clutch it close and swear to never lose sight of it again. For weeks, I hold my breath, afraid to mess up. For weeks I white knuckle my way through life convinced that living on the farm is about being perfect, not forgiven. I hold it together. For a while at least, but then the pressure of performing crushes me. Being perfect gets so heavy. I can’t do this. I can’t.
So I lean on the fence and look back over the horizon to the pigpen. I just want to relax. I can’t be perfect. This feels really hard. So late one night, when I think everyone is asleep, I use the token, the coin that is God’s love to prop open the gate. I can just barely squeeze through the gap if I’m willing to leave the father’s love propped in place.
And then I’m gone, running out into the night, the father’s love, the coin, the thing I earned left far behind. I deserved it when I was perfect, I lost it when I was not. Weeks or months later, I’ll realize the misery of the pigpen again and start to walk back home. And the cycle continues.
I’m tired of that kind of faith. I’m tired of believing in a God who gives “sometimes love.” As in sometimes he loves me, sometimes he does not. And above all, I’m tired of believing in a God who does not love sinners. Especially since there are a billion verses in the Bible that say just the opposite. One of my favorite is Matthew 9:10-13.
“While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice. For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Falling down, being broken and a sinner doesn’t prevent me from his love, it makes me perfect for his love. It makes me exactly who Christ came for, not the righteous, but sinners. And it’s not a gift he gives once, because I sacrificed and had a good January. It’s a gift he gives continually, like mercy.
Because he loves us.
In his arms.
In the pigpen.
He loves us.