It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery…You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge your own selfish desires; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
~Galatians 5:1, 13-14
This past Sunday, Joshua Hanauer painted a picture of the difference between us treating God as a cosmic vending machine and using our obedience as money to get what we want, versus seeing God as one who loves us unconditionally and invites us to serve each other out of sacrificial love.
Part of my recent journey with healing prayer has been precisely along these lines. And what I have found is that there are often deep-rooted experiences and images of God that reinforce our tendency to want to earn things from God, rather than seeing his love as pure grace. This desire to earn has been a yoke of slavery for me.
Very early in my life, I recognized that I could earn the approval and esteem of others by doing the “right” things. I first became an approval addict in elementary school when I started getting good grades. It came pretty easy: as long as I did what I was told, I could usually pull it off. The approval from teachers and family was like candy; I was hooked.
The problem was, I easily transferred this simple cause and effect to my image of God. If I did the right things, he would be happy with me. If not, well, I knew the disapproving look of adults pretty well, too, and could imagine God with a similar look of disappointment.
And the list of right things to do for God was much longer. Getting good grades was a breeze compared to being a good person. But I endeavored to be as good as I could be. I was determined to get God’s approval. As I look back on my life, the constant burden of trying to be perfect has definitely taken a toll.
The ironic part is that what I told myself I was pursuing was right in front of me the whole time. God didn’t want my attempts to be good on my own. They would never be perfect enough anyway. No, God wanted me to step off the treadmill of my own performance and receive the freedom that comes from believing in his Son. “Come to me, all who are weary…”
Boy, am I weary. I’ve spent the better part of 30 years trying to curry God’s favor and the favor of others. Later in Galatians, Paul tells his readers not to become weary in doing good, so obviously doing good works is essential to the Christian life. But it’s the heart behind those works that makes all the difference. It’s why Paul can also say that without love, the greatest good works are vain and empty (1 Cor 13).
The Holy Spirit liberates us from the burden of being good for God in order to earn his love and instead leads us into the truth that God has loved us first, before and apart from anything we have done. We can only love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19). Instead of being captive to the law, we become captive to the Spirit and to the love that the Spirit pours into our hearts (Rom 5:5).
From this place of freedom, we then live out the law in the way Jesus did, through a willing life of sacrificial love. Not trying to earn anything, but simply pouring out what God has poured in. May the Spirit free us all from a life of striving that is devoid of the Spirit and not motivated by the love of God. And may the Spirit’s streams of living water nourish the parched soil of our souls that have lived in drought for so long.