As we grapple with submitting to a God who invites us to come and die, there’s another layer of fear that often scares us away from God. For generations, our definition of Christian has been overshadowed by medieval threats of eternal damnation. Many view God as an abusive parent who can never be pleased or placated. Many of us were offered good news through a disguise of horrible news: that we are so worthless God can barely tolerate us, that Jesus is somehow sneaking us into the family in an unmarked box labeled “grace.” Condemnation feels so close at hand. When we hear that God has work for us to do, we panic. What if we fail? What if we fall short? Or conversely, we shut the whole idea down: No, I’m saved by grace. God knows better than to expect anything from me.
Rarely do we ask ourselves, What is God forming this family for? Is there something God is sending us out to do? It’s a scary question, because if God expects us to live in a particular way and complete a challenging mission during our time on earth, it’s all too easy to imagine God’s displeasure nipping at our heels.
But God isn’t the abusive, punitive parent we often imagine. God’s grace is about so much more than letting Jesus sneak us into the family.
The word we translate grace is the Greek word charis. Grace, as we know, refers to the unmerited gift of God’s loving-kindness; it is through grace we are saved. Our life and breath and relationship with God are all gifts, something we could never earn. But in the Greco-Roman world of Jesus and Paul, charis was part of a complex social system. A wealthy patron would offer gifts and resources to someone far lower in society. These gifts could not be earned, and certainly never repaid. But by accepting the gift of grace, the recipient agreed to remain in an ongoing, reciprocal relationship with the wealthy patron. It was understood and accepted that they would pivot their lives toward benefiting each other.
So when Paul writes of God’s grace to us, God’s charis, he absolutely means that God gives us life, love, acceptance, and salvation out of his kindness— and there’s not a thing we could do to earn or deserve it, much less pay it back. But in Paul’s time and place, everyone also understood that, having received the offered gift, we owe our lives to God. Not because God is holding our heavy burden of debt over our heads like a mob boss— it was a gift given in love— but because we have entered into a relationship with strong ties that bind us joyfully and deeply together. Now what God wants, we want, and we work together to achieve, continuously supported by this intimate relationship called grace.
This understanding of grace is even more wonderful and compelling than we usually imagine.
We obey God and work for God not because we are afraid God cannot love us but because we have been bound together in a relationship of love.
The Bible, from Genesis to Jesus, tells of God selecting a few people and calling them to follow and serve him. But never is the calling for their own blessing or salvation; always the blessing is for the entire world, the whole community. Some are chosen, predestined, but not for their own gain: Our election is to a committee of servants called the church, the body of Christ in the world, who love our neighbors, serve the strangers, and care even for our enemies— bringing God’s redemption to all.
God doesn’t love only a few; God loves the whole world.
Jesus doesn’t guard the door to God—Jesus throws open the door. Christians are not primarily individuals who have been spared punishment from an angry deity but a community of people who have subverted the powers of fear and death by dying with Christ and rising with Christ to live and work for the Kingdom.
So let’s get this out of the way, once and for all: Are you loved by God? Does God want to be in a relationship with you? Is God present and active in your life? The answer is a resounding YES. It has always been yes. It will always be yes. This yes has nothing to do with what you’ve done or not done. In infinite, abounding love, God creates, nurtures, and sustains out of love. If the sparrows are known and accounted for, if the flowers in the field are cultivated with compassion, so are you.
So then, in this place of safety and significance, there is another question for you to consider:
Will you follow Jesus?
Following Jesus is about far more than what we think or believe— following changes what we do, how we live. Discipleship doesn’t ask us to merely convert our beliefs but to get up and move, to become and behave in a different way. To accept the gift and pledge your life to the giver. Jesus invites you to take up your cross and join a community of people who are working for the source of grace, not out of debt or fear of damnation but out of joyful, safe, loving relationship.
Where could fear possibly exist when we have been encompassed in such a life-altering love?
Every person, butterfly, lizard, and guppy is loved and cherished by God. There is more than enough of God’s presence to go around. But Christians are the group of people whose individual lives have been surrendered to a relationship and assigned to a team on mission.
Like the disciples, we must choose what path to follow: fear and hate, or love and compassion?
Will we love our neighbors as ourselves, care for the stranger, and pray for our enemies? This is not a decision to take lightly; we should not join in simply because everyone around us is going along. Discipleship is an active decision that will lead us into fire, that will burn away what we have clung to and worshiped and loved.
Fear and hate will certainly not make us safer— but a life of love may not either. Fearing God enough to follow God’s path of love might lead us directly into the jaws of danger and death.
But only one of these paths is the way of the Kingdom.