Rector's Blog: When God Is Toxic
I want to start today with a hypothetical scenario: Imagine you have a friend that has gotten into a relationship with a man and things are starting to get serious. You ask them what he’s like, and they say something like, “First of all, I have to tell you that he’s just way better than me. He is perfect, and I am such a mess. But he loves me anyway. He tells me this a lot – that I’m not good enough for him but he loves me anyway, and he’s right! I’m just so grateful that he puts up with me and is willing to stay with me. It’s pretty great, because he has actually told me all the ways I can improve in order to be worthy of this relationship – so now I have some clear goals to make this work. Honestly? I sort of feel like the things he wants me to be are impossible, but I’d be nothing without him, so it’s worth trying.”
Are you sick to your stomach yet?
If a friend of yours spoke about their partner this way, you would tell them to run away as fast as they could. You’d tell them their boyfriend is a sociopath and that what they’re describing is abusive and, in the parlance of our times, toxic. Right? Get out of this unhealthy relationship. Right now.
And yet, this is exactly how so many of us Christians have been programmed to think of our relationship with God.
We are told we are unworthy of God’s love – that we are no good. We are told that God loves us even though we are no good, and that what God really wants for us is to become better people. And, lucky for us, if we do exactly what God asks us to do – which is impossible – we can actually become better people. We are even told it is impossible! But if we just believe the right things about Jesus, we can basically trick God into liking us just enough until we actually become good enough to love.
This is garbage theology and many of us accept it as Christian doctrine without batting an eye.
These traits we attribute to God, we recognize them as abusive in human relationships. We know it in our bones. And the idea of our loved ones thinking they are unworthy of love is horrific to us, yet we often believe this to be true about ourselves.
Some of you, as you read/hear this, are ready to fight me on it.
Maybe you think, “Well of course it’s abusive if a human acts like that, but God actually is perfect, so it’s different.” And I do believe God is perfect. But it’s still not different. Because of Jesus. Jesus is God showing up. And when God shows up in Jesus, what we see is compassion, healing, solidarity, and sacrificial love. Jesus gets angry, sure – but not because we’re imperfect or don’t live into some impossible standard of humanity. Jesus gets angry when people in power who use their power to harm others for their own benefit. He gets angry with hypocritical religious leaders and people who horde their resources. Jesus isn’t trying to love you into being a better person. He’s too busy loving you as you are.
Jesus isn’t the person who tricks God into liking us: Jesus is God. And Jesus loves us as we are. Jesus approaches us with humility and a desire to serve. That means God loves us as we are. God approaches us with humility and a desire to serve. Does that sound unbelievably beautiful and liberating? Good. Now we’re starting to see the scandal of God’s grace.
“So, Phil,” I hear you asking, “you think that we’re all just good people who deserve God’s love?”
Good question. And honestly? No. I don’t really think that.
Because of Jesus, what I actually believe is that deserving has nothing to do with love. There is literally no such thing as being deserving of love. There is also no such thing as being undeserving of love. That’s not how love works. And again, you already know this. Your love for others is not rooted in a system of credits and debits. And neither is their love for you. I know that we want to believe that people who love us love us because of something good we did – that we earned their love. But you have never earned anyone’s love – not because you’re a terrible person, because love isn’t something you can earn.
And God’s love isn’t about making you a better person. This is another pernicious misunderstanding of how love works. Our obsession with self-improvement is well documented, but let’s not blame that on God. God is not your gaslighting love interest or your disappointed dad. God is the love by whom, through whom, and for whom you were made. You exist because God loves you. And God loves you because you exist. God isn’t interested in making you something you aren’t. God is interested in being in relationship with you.
Sin isn’t something that makes you unworthy of love. Sin is the thing that sneaks into your mind and convinces you that there’s such a thing as being unworthy of love.
Spiritual maturity is not found in a life lived feebly feigning unworthiness or desperately defending worthiness. Our growth into the love for which we were made invites us to let go of the false dichotomy and dismantle our notion of the toxic “God” whose love looks an awful lot like abuse. Our relationship with Jesus liberates us from the unhealthy cycle of proving, and allows us simply to be loved for what we are.
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